This is Your Brain on WoW

A recent article in The Age entitled Ethical Dilemmas canvassed the question of the ethical obligations of game designers to players. According to the piece, Jonathan Blow, the designer of Braid, claims that the grind of MMORPGs is unethical:

Mr Blow believes developers need to think about what their games are teaching players when they reward them for performing certain actions.

"That kind of reward system is very easily turned into a Pavlovian or Skinnerian scheme," he says. "It's considered best practice: schedule rewards for your player so that they don't get bored and give up on your game. That's actually exploitation."

...

"I think a lot of modern game design is actually unethical, especially massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, because they are predicated on player exploitation," Mr Blow says

I've never seen it expressed specifically in relation to level grinds or raid farming obligations, but the concept is familiar enough. Julian has made it a number of times, under the rubric of "ludocapitalism." (Damn, give that itinerant wordsmith from Indiana a prize).

I'm not sure that I have a great deal to say about this. Well, apart from maybe one thing. I am a long way from being libertarian, except when I read statements like:

"Developers should provide activities that interest players "rather than stringing them along with little pieces of candy so that they'll suffer through terrible game play, but keep playing because they gain levels or new items", he says."

I mean there's paternalism and there's paternalism. It's one thing to suggest that people should read more Shakespeare and less Harry Potter; but surely it's another thing to say that people are actually wrong to find the grind compelling because it's not "interesting". And then further to assert that the designers are unprincipled in implementing it. (I leave for the reader a fully worked-through articulation of the limits of gamespace autonomy under right libertarianism, left libertarianism, Marxism, your five favorite flavors of liberalism, etc etc)

Actually, there's one other thing. When did it become accepted that games were drugs? This has been a trope for a while, of course. But we seem to now be at the point that we don't even trust the player to act in their own best interest because, you know, they just can't help themselves.

Odd.

[Thanks to my dad (of all people) for spotting this article. And especial thanks to The Age for including art of a mostly nekkid nelflette in an article on ethics. Priceless.]


Comments on This is Your Brain on WoW:

Richard Bartle says:

Hmm. How can he reconcile this:

"Exploitative multiplayer worlds don't deserve to be called art"

with this:

"developers need to think about what their games are teaching players"

?

If you believe virtual worlds are art then their designers speak but they don't teach. They say things to the players through their design, which the players interpret - just as happens with any other art. A painting may make a political or emotional or philosophical point, but it doesn't teach; it's for the person who experiences it to take their own meaning from it. In other words, you can't believe that virtual worlds are art AND that they teach people something (unless what they teach is part of the artistic canvas, which isn't the case here).

If you believe virtual worlds aren't art, then criticising them for not being art is pointless. If you believe they are art, then criticising them for doing something that (being art) they don't do is also pointless.

As it happens, I agree that designers who deliberately put things into their virtual world in order to addict people, slot-machine style, is unethical. I say as much in my book.

It has nothing to do with art, though.

Richard

Posted Oct 1, 2007 9:53:05 AM | link

unwesen says:

Taken out of context, that last quote I do agree with though. I think it says a lot about how enjoyable WoW is when people prefer to grind for money than follow any of the game-given goals (i.e. grinding in instances, for xp/honour/reputation, crafting ingredients, etc).

Essentially, grinding for money is the only type of game play in WoW that provides you with near-instantaneous feedback for your actions, apart from spending huge amounts of money on raising your crafting skills.

Raids are at the other end of the spectrum. That is, every mob you kill when grinding for money gives you the reward you seek. Due to DKP systems, etc, only one in every N raids gives you an item you want.

Now I for one am not surprised when people choose the more flow-like experience over the more frustrating, but ultimately more rewarding one. That doesn't mean that they do so out of enjoyment, though.

This is of course highly reflective of how I play games *shrugs*

Posted Oct 1, 2007 10:35:54 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Hmm, are we conflating conditioning with addiction here? Humans are conditionable -- though the popular view, I think, finds that to be an affront to our individual humanity -- and a random ratio schedule (as employed by just about every MMO out there that uses some form of a 'grind' for rewards) is particularly effective.

But this isn't addiction, at least not for most of us. It may catalyze addiction in some, but I think that's a long way from being shown to be the case.

That said, I have to agree in large part with this part of the article: [Blow] believes players will naturally avoid boring tasks but developers "override that by plugging into their pleasure centres and giving them scheduled rewards and we convince them to pay us money and waste their lives in front of our game in this exploitative fashion".

This has been the topic of endless wrangling, almost as popular as the Sisyphean discussions on RMT: Is "the grind" boring? I think so. What I find enjoyable about WoW has little to do with the minute amounts of excitement, curiosity, joy, angst, etc., that I might find in completing yet another quest to kill ten of yet another variety of monster, with whom I'll use almost exactly the same key combinations I used for the past n variations on exactly the same theme.

OTOH, I know many disagree: over nine million people play WoW, and the average player spends something above 20 hours per week in WoW, so they must be doing something right, right? It must be inherently fun to press the bar for an experience point pellet delivered on a quasi-random-ratio schedule, right?

Either that, or conditioning works a lot better than most people think it does... which might explain the multi-billion-dollar advertising industry and how we learn to pair neutral or desired conditions with particular stimuli whether it's beer, coffee, cars, or the level-up animation in WoW. In this, current MMOG design would seem to be no less unethical than advertising... which may be cold comfort when you think about it.

Posted Oct 1, 2007 10:38:24 AM | link

greglas says:

I think it's okay for Mr. Blow to spot that most MMOGs operate through a trickle of tiny rewards and to analogize it to food pellets dropped for pigeons. There's something to that. And yes, it is sort of analogous to a paychecks in a consumer society.

Otoh, it is hard to think of computer games that aren't structured around some kind of gradual acquisition process (of points, levels cleared, etc.). Are there many games that aren't structured that way? And, come to think of it, there are soap operas and tv series, and all sorts of things that are designed around similar neverending incremental development systems.

Posted Oct 1, 2007 10:41:40 AM | link

unwesen says:

greglas: I suppose most games are structured that way, but I think some make an effort at breaking that structure up once in a while.

For example, some games introduces new items on a fairly regular basis, that greatly influence how you interact with the game world. A sword with +10 instead of +5 of whatever doesn't really have the same impact.

So my hunch is that by breaking, or rather updating the game structure every once in a while you can go a long way towards creating more interesting games - the trickling of rewards doesn't really get changed by that, though.

Posted Oct 1, 2007 10:54:48 AM | link

thoreau says:

If 'grind' is unethical my employer has a lot of explaining to do.

Posted Oct 1, 2007 1:05:59 PM | link

F. Randall Farmer says:

Here's a pointer to a Mud-Dev thread on this topic, circa 2000:

An excerpt from my main post in that thread. You'll have to substitute MUD with game/world. My thoughts really haven't changed on this in 7 years...


"I was saying that how we design our games constrains how they will likely be used. An obvious example is that you can build a MUD with locks, but without lockpicks. No matter what the players do, they can't pick the locks. Or if you have no unique persistent magic items at single unique locations with timed spawns, you get less camping, etc. User behavior is directly related to what a system empowers.
[...]
So, when I say I won't design systems to _encourage_ behavior that will directly harm the lives of the player and their family, I was thinking of stuff like this the following

Straw Man:

ExperiencePointAward = BaseExperiencePointAward * ( 2 ^ ( 1.00 + SessionLengthInMinutes/120 ) )

Name: "Anti-Burst 1.0"
Description: User gains exponentially more experience for longer session times.
Expected short term effects: Significantly longer user sessions. Presumably more user interaction (due to increased hours).
Expected long term effects: [subject to much debate.] More stratification. More player burnout. Late/Missing homework assignments.

I think this feature is evil. I think many people on this list may too, or it would already be in MUDs out
there, right? More time = better MUD? At least some seem to espouse that view.
[...]
I feel that it is my personal responsibility to do my best to provide experiences that entertain without willfully damaging the people participating. I can (and have) done this without assuming my customers are idiots. I will always encourage others to accept this level of personal responsibility. :-)"


No metaphors required.

Posted Oct 1, 2007 1:57:29 PM | link

Hellinar says:

Dan >But we seem to now be at the point that we don't even trust the player to act in their own best interest because, you know, they just can't help themselves.<

I don’t see that as an either/or proposition. Gameworld design does shape player behavior in some statistically predictable ways. As does advertising shape consumer behavior. World designers, like advertisers, have some moral responsibility as to how they use that power. Noting that consumers also have choices and powers of their own doesn’t entirely negate that.

MMOG designers might even end up with some legal responsibility for they choices they make here too. Not that I am a fan of the American system of suing whoever has the deepest pockets, but it could happen. WoW beta included in its beta a rest feature that soft capped the rate of experience gain pretty sharply. Someone in Blizzard clearly thought the linear time = reward system a bad idea. Someone else in Blizzard overrode that. I wonder if that will come back to haunt them one day.

Posted Oct 1, 2007 7:31:25 PM | link

Bart Stewart says:

Mike> over nine million people play WoW, and the average player spends something above 20 hours per week in WoW, so they must be doing something right, right? It must be inherently fun to press the bar for an experience point pellet delivered on a quasi-random-ratio schedule, right? Either that, or conditioning works a lot better than most people think it does...

There's an alternate explanation: there are simply a lot of people who are innately most satisfied by concrete rewards on a short schedule, and somewhat fewer people who are more motivated by abstract rewards over a longer period. Thus a game like WoW that offers a lot of polished concrete/rapid rewards (primarily loot, and money/XP to a slightly lesser degree) attracts the majority of MMORPG players. But there's also a meaningful minority of online gamers who prefer more intangible rewards that take longer to mature (knowledge, relationships with other people), and for whom the fast/concrete reward system feels like "grinding," like mindlessly pushing a lever for reward pellets.

If there's anything to that view, then there are a couple of corollaries:

1. Conditioning/advertising to try to change habits can sometimes work, but trying to alter innate motivations is generally ineffective. If a diverse universe of game worlds were available, or if gameworlds were designed to accommodate more diverse playstyles, then people would play the games that fit their worldview.

As things stand now, gamers who prefer abstract/long-term rewards play concrete/short-term games they don't entirely enjoy because those games are the only show in town. But that doesn't mean they find those games very satisfying, thus Blow's objection.

So he has a point, I think, that there aren't many games that cater to the abstract/long-term playstyle... unless you count social-reward places like Habbo Hotel and Club Penguin as "games." In which case, other than the possible cases of SL and ATITD, where are the games for those who innately prefer knowledge discovery? Will Metaplace be congenial for these gamers if it emphasizes world creation as a form of play?

2. If the goal is to maximize players, then Blow is wrong to exclude those who like the grind; "different" doesn't necessarily equal "wrong." If some people just naturally like grinding, then they like it, period. But likewise, if some people just naturally like social interaction or the discovery of knowledge for its own sake, then that's what they like and they aren't wrong to like that stuff, either, regardless of whether a majority of people are naturally geared toward the concrete/short-term reward model that WoW so effectively offers.

All other things being equal (i.e., there's plenty of polished content), a game -- especially a game world like a MMORPG -- that's consciously designed to have gameplay and content aimed at satisfying both the concrete/short-term and abstract/long-term player ought to have the best chance of being commercially successful because it's not unnecessarily excluding any of the major kinds of innate gamer playstyles.

So in other words, yes, lever-pressing to maximize pellet production is inherently fun... for some people, but not all. Others find it more pleasurable to talk with friends about pellets, while yet others enjoy getting people to press the lever for them, and still others feel satisfaction at figuring out how a particular sequence of lever-pressing drops a certain kind of pellet (even if they never actually taste the pellet).

It would be interesting to see how a content-rich and polished MMORPG would perform if it were designed by someone who sees all of these as equally valid playstyles.

Posted Oct 2, 2007 10:57:25 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Excellent points well-stated, Bart.

Posted Oct 2, 2007 12:05:11 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

Ah, hubris.

The crazy stuff *you* like to do on the weekends is an expensive, unintelligent, possibly evil, certainly deviant time-waster that deserves to be: A) taxed; B) forbidden; C) moved to Vegas. The elegant, intricate, specific and detailed stuff *I* do on the weekend is a hobby or possibly even an art. Golf is stoopid. You should be fly fishing.

I remembered reading a casual games study back in 06 (article on Gamasutra here.. One of the main a-ha's of that study was that casual gamers put in some hard-core time; 37 percent of casual games players log 9+ two-hour sessions each week. That's looking like WoW time for lots of players and (wait for it...) for many (me included), the stuff you do 100% of the time in puzzle games is worse grinding than the grind.

People I know and love play Sudoku for hours on end online. If I were stuck in a jail cell and had nothing but the "Great Big Book of Sudoku" for company, I'd rip out the pages for origami fodder. It's math. It's homework. It's filling in spreadsheets that mean nothing but finishing another one. Grind, grind, grind.

But does that mean that these players are being "strung along" with "terrible gameplay" that rewards small, incremental tasks (finishing another 2-minute gem-puzzle level)? No. They're playing games that they enjoy.

For some, golf is the game of kings; for others, it is a good walk spoiled. Hubris, I say, to suggest that someone should be dictating the morality of taste.

Posted Oct 2, 2007 1:23:52 PM | link

JuJutsu says:

"The crazy stuff *you* like to do on the weekends is an expensive, unintelligent, possibly evil, certainly deviant time-waster that deserves to be: A) taxed; B) forbidden; C) moved to Vegas. The elegant, intricate, specific and detailed stuff *I* do on the weekend is a hobby or possibly even an art."

Andy, you really should stop reading my mind ;)

Posted Oct 2, 2007 1:47:19 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Andy wrote:

Hubris, I say, to suggest that someone should be dictating the morality of taste.

Well said.

--matt

Posted Oct 2, 2007 2:16:29 PM | link

dmx says:

Ah. I knew this would come up eventually.

The guy has some interesting points, although the hyperbole might be a little bit distasteful.

I wonder sometimes if the phenomenon behind poker-machine 'addiction', and the compulsive MMO play have anything in common.

The understood mechanism behind poker machine 'addiction' seems to do with repetitive 'grinding' with the occasional tantalising reward to reinforce the behavior before conditioning 'extinction' kicks in.

Now, granted that we can all probably agree that compulsive MMO play doesn't quite have the terrible effects of compulsive gambling, I think some parallels can be drawn here.

The reward structure of both is carefully constructed so that the rewards are common enough to stop people going "Ah.. why am I doing this crap", but perhaps spaced enough to keep it meaningful, to keep people in the game. The psychological effects of pokies can be quite disintegrating. Is this happening to gamers?

The question is, if we are to say that perhaps its not healthy to let the real life slip away for endless late nights at the grind, how can games be structured to break the grind/reward cycle and keep players a bit more balanced , while respecting the imperitive of game makers to keep customers subscribed, and keep the game fun.

I kind of like EVE's system. You don't level up with grind, you just set a skill and 3 days later its finished. Of course Eve's grind is money.

How to not have grind? Beats me.

Posted Oct 2, 2007 5:02:45 PM | link

Lavant says:

How to beat the grind?

Im surprised Julian or Thomas haven't chimed in yet...But personally I think it comes down to the FREEDOM to PLAY rather than any inherent ability offered by any particular "game" itself. It comes down to FUN, varying of course, from one player to the next, or should we make a distinction between “gamers” and “players” as the act of play melts into a sea of work? I don’t think it is hubris to say that a game such as World of Warcraft that cater to a few types of players (although it happens to be the majority), have eliminated many avenues of play, instead creating a walled sandbox that easily entertains the masses in an infantile state of MMO awe. Noone who criticizes the grind should attempt to de-legitimate this fun or at the very least question the inalienable right to do so. However, it is perhaps useful to revisit Malaby’s very definition of a game in his New Approach piece to understand where play comes into the mix. He states, “a game is a semi-bounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes.” At the risk of over simplifying his definition, games’ boundaries allow for play. Unfortunately, the grind circumvents the ability for games to be playful, creating fully bounded spaces of mundane repetition with high burnout rates and even higher levels of addictive behavior. And yes I would say that these games are not only conditioning such behavior, they have lead to full fledged addicts. To say otherwise would be like saying that alcohol only “conditions” addictive behavior, downplaying its addictive qualities. And the studies have shown the psychological effects of games and their reward structures. See Turkle, Loftus....I would suggest the ability to play– expanded outlets— provide escape from addictive gaming. The more truly open-ended the better. That said perhaps advertising, subscribership and these inherently exploitative means of steady profit need rethinking rather than conceding their inevitable necessity.

And art exists regardless of exploitation I would have to agree with Richard.

Posted Oct 3, 2007 12:50:09 AM | link

Andy Havens says:

Lavant said: "I don’t think it is hubris to say that a game such as World of Warcraft that cater to a few types of players (although it happens to be the majority), have eliminated many avenues of play, instead creating a walled sandbox that easily entertains the masses in an infantile state of MMO awe."

"Easily entertains the masses in an infantile state of MMO awe."

No. That's not hubris. Not at all... Because "easy," "masses," "infantile" and "awe" don't in any way suggest that you know better than the shrieking gangs of benighted churls who wallow in their shallow joy...

When I played the Atari 2600, we would have marathon sessions of Space Invaders, Yar's Revenge, Asteroids, etc. etc. All incredibly repetitive and without redeeming issues beyond entertainment value. Which also seems a good descriptor for masturbation... which, I don't think, anyone is suggesting should be monitored and moderated.

Yes. You can become addicted to anything. And certain types of "anything-s" can be more addictive. The difference between gambling and other activities with some similar characteristics is that, for the most part, the *purpose* of gambling is to exchange money based on each iteration. Now... I know many people who think gambling is fun, and that's cool. Go nuts. But to say that similar task-based activities in a game makes it akin to a gambling addiction is, I believe, stretching it a bit.

I know people who have lost friendships and relationships over sports rivalries. I know people who can't go to bed before watching 30 minutes of TV. I myself can't kill a man before sharing coffee with him in a relaxed environment. Yes... there are all kinds of psychological issues whose results may be less than optimal from an outsider's perspective.

But I think that mostly, most people will gravitate towards those activities that they *enjoy the most*. Are the MMO's of today more attractive and interesting to more people than text-based games like Rogue? Sure. Do people play them longer because they're prettier, sound better, have more "things to do?" Sure. So... better = addictive?

If that's the case, then call me addicted to my favorite authors, shows, songs, etc. As long as you don't try to curb my addiction in order to prop up yours.

Grinding lead paint in RL kills kids. Grinding gold in an MMO is, perhaps, masturbatory... but it ain't no worse'n crossword puzzles.

Posted Oct 3, 2007 12:27:16 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

I appreciate very much your introducing my definition to the discussion, Lavant, and it might allow us to get some traction here on the issue of the grind and avoid (or at least mitigate) the dangers of a critical pedestal ("You may think you're having fun, but you're not, I assure you!"). The grind has been talked about on TN before, and often very productively, but frequently nonetheless I think we lose sight of the fact that "grind" seems to stand for two usefully distinguishable activities, and this is compounded by the differences in preferences which make even talking about what is a grind and what is not difficult.

Leaving the pejorative connotations aside for a moment, I would like to suggest that when we label something a grind in an MMO or similar we are lumping together rote activity and activity that is, well, something else. Rote activity, in my terms, would be an activity that admits of virtually no "performative contingency" whatsoever. That is, it would be an activity to which one does not have to devote attention in order to perform successfully. In fact, it would therefore be impossible to fail, unless stopping counts.

This to me lies in strong contrast to the grind of which some people sing the praises (and me too, in certain circumstances). Grind in this sense is an activity that demands attention, even if it is quite practiced attention that allows other things (conversation, etc). This grind is an activity that allows for flow -- the practiced mastery over a set of tasks in circumstances with very slightly changing (contingent) conditions. Small adjustments must be made, and -- when everything is in sync -- it is possible to lose yourself in the meeting point of your own competence and the small variances around you.

Now, of course we may also be willing to do the first sort of grind, if other (external) rewards are sufficient, but I think we need to also allow for those activities that are rewarding for their own sake, and keep in mind that sometimes the beautiful grind looks very similar to the awful grind. I think most gamers know the difference, or at least where they would each draw the line.

Posted Oct 3, 2007 2:18:31 PM | link

Lavant says:

Andy, As long as you don't try to curb my addiction in order to prop up yours.

I'm in no way trying to curb your "addiction" in the "preference" meaning of the word. The only addiction I was trying to prop up was that of democracy and the freedom to play- which vary from one player to the next. If anything I was arguing to allow more people to become addicted by catering to as many participants as possible. Is it not that freedom, amongst a larger semantic cannon, that not only make MMOs what they are today, but functions as the cornerstone of democracy? That said, as virtual worlds become host to ordinary human addictions, it would be doing society a great disservice to turn blind eye through a priori rejection of addiction. But rather than addiction and to the point of the Ethical Dilemmas piece, what does the grind and systems of exploitation teach players? Sure, gamers have the right to kill 65 million boars, but what does it teach them? To emulate Cartman?

Thomas, Now, of course we may also be willing to do the first sort of grind, if other (external) rewards are sufficient, but I think we need to also allow for those activities that are rewarding for their own sake, and keep in mind that sometimes the beautiful grind looks very similar to the awful grind. I think most gamers know the difference, or at least where they would each draw the line.

/cheer. Although gamers may know the difference Thomas, many times they are forced to partake in the awful kind to get to playful gardens that await on the other side, which interrupts flow and leads to burnout, frustration at the very least. Traditionally this is where cheat codes have come into play. What do you think is the significance of MMOs eliminating cheats which have been so crucial to games past? But back to the flow/grind issue: Why haven’t MMOs achieved balance found in such epics as Halo, one of the most flow based games around. See Wired for an interesting article on the Science of Play. Personally, I would suggest governance and game management issues have lot to do with it, but is a bit of old fashioned revolution necessary?

Like the birth of cinema when spectators flocked to Lumière theaters to see a train arriving at a station, petrified and jumping from their seats as the train approached, I see a similar fascination driving the early history of MMOS. It is a young industry, an even younger form of mass entertainment. Despite the rhetoric above, I was trying to suggest that if we were to view today's lot of MMOs as bit infantile, especially concerning governance issues rather than any inherent feature, we could encourage progress. But I will be the first to tell you that this seems a bit lofty goal. Is it possible to move beyond today's MMO paradigm? In the meantime, I will continue dreaming of the "perfect" MMO, and by perfect I am mostly referring to governance issues where developers usurp the law of the land in an attempt to emulate and create their own, hardwiring external grind protecting mechanisms into the games. The perfect MMO would be free of anti-social contracts.

Back to the cinematic parallel: If the Soviets provided intellectual montage, could we not provide a similarly engaging theory of the MMO? Is it to early to do so?

A variant of Dziga Vertov's We Manifesto:

We proclaim the old MMOs, based on the experience pellets, rote grinding, repetitive play and the like, to be leprous.
-Keep away from them!
-Keep your eyes off them!
-They're mortally dangerous!
-Contagious
We affirm the future of MMO art by denying its present.
"The Grind" must die so that the art of MMOs may live
We call for its death to be hastened.

Posted Oct 3, 2007 3:09:30 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

Lavant: "...many times they are forced to partake in the awful kind to get to playful gardens that await on the other side."

Forced?

Posted Oct 3, 2007 4:42:13 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

@Lavant: Hmmm. Well, while I'm sympathetic to your general point of view on this, there are a few points which makes things, at least in my view, pretty complicated (and this weaves back in many of Andy's concerns).

First, while we may find the distinction between the awful grind and the beautiful grind useful, the really tricky thing here is that they can *both* be leveraged by institutions (game designers, gold farming companies, topcoder) to exploit labor. This is the heart of Julian's ludocapitalism point, imho. What do we do when what looks like classic worker exploitation, when looked at more closely involves work practice that is playing a game, and one which the workers then sometimes seek to play even when they're *not* working? This does not get the company's owners off the hook, by any means, but it complicates the picture because it means that this work practice is not as easily labeled as exploitative as are many other kinds (such as illegal farm labor in the US).

Secondly, and related to this, there is a limitation to holding up a democratic ideal for what would be the measure of a good game. We know not only that suffering and exploitation happen in the world, but that people -- for whatever reason -- sometimes convince themselves that they're better off for it. Similarly, they may often conclude that such-and-such of an affordance for them will make the whole world better (one thinks of P2P teleportation in SL). Whether you call it hegemony, or false consciousness, or whatever, the important point for this discussion is that we cannot rely on what people report they find enjoyable or desirable as the last word on their condition or interests. Of course, this makes things very complicated for social analysis and public policy generally, but one further point that follows from it is important for games (and it resonates with an important public policy lesson). When players (or citizens ;) ) are asked to decide what they want for their game (society), they may very often collectively choose things that answer their individual needs, but which actually run against the quality of the game (civic) experience (for everyone who participates, or even just for them).

This is an old story, really, and connects to things like the regulatory positions of gaming commissions and copyright law, but the point is that we can't reasonably expect players democratically to choose challenging, engaging, enjoyable MMOs =on their own=. As with much public policy, a balance between fostering individual incentive and protecting public interests must be sought, and sometimes this involves some autonomy at the top. My 8 year old loves to join me to play a character together in WoW, and will at times wax rhapsodic about how cool it would be, say, to have mobs around at Level 10 that gave you so much experience that you would leap to L70, or to be able to get beyond imba weapons petty easily. "Really?" I ask, "You think that would be fun?" He usually thinks for a moment and concludes, somewhat ruefully, "I guess not." I'm not sure everyone takes enough such pauses as they consider their circumstances and weigh in with their preferences.

Posted Oct 3, 2007 4:58:20 PM | link

JuJutsu says:

"Sure, gamers have the right to kill 65 million boars, but what does it teach them? To emulate Cartman?"

What does the mass slaughter of pawns, knights, bishops, and the occaisional murder of a queen teach chess players?

"I was trying to suggest that if we were to view today's lot of MMOs as bit infantile, especially concerning governance issues rather than any inherent feature, we could encourage progress."

Without [I hope] being too picky, that's not at all what you said; infantile was applied to the 'masses' not to the game and wasn't used in a way to denote early development.

The more of this thread I read the more I appreciate the original post..."I mean there's paternalism and there's paternalism."

Posted Oct 3, 2007 5:21:53 PM | link

JuJutsu says:

@Thomas

Two different issues here, I'm sympathetic for one but [personally] vehemently opposed to the other.

"When players (or citizens ;) ) are asked to decide what they want for their game (society), they may very often collectively choose things that answer their individual needs, but which actually run against the quality of the game (civic) experience (for everyone who participates, or even just for them)."

Sure. The tragedy of the commons is well known and not something I can quibble about too much.

"Whether you call it hegemony, or false consciousness, or whatever, the important point for this discussion is that we cannot rely on what people report they find enjoyable or desirable as the last word on their condition or interests."

I might agree somewhat with self reports being problematic but 'revealed preference'? The idea that some third party has better knowledge of of my 'true' preferences than I do because I suffer from false consciousness is, imho, utter tripe. But that's just my opinion and I won't belabor the point.

Posted Oct 3, 2007 5:40:05 PM | link

Lavant says:

Thomas, ...there is a limitation to holding up a democratic ideal for what would be the measure of a good game...Whether you call it hegemony, or false consciousness, or whatever, the important point for this discussion is that we cannot rely on what people report they find enjoyable or desirable as the last word on their condition or interests.

/nods profusely. That said, when we say all bets are off: anything goes in the creation of entertainment, we risk circumventing century old democratic and constitutional practices and we should be aware and actively question when we are doing such. Yes some exploitation is beneficial to society, but for gamers who turn the tables (individual farmers, gliders, power levelers, etc) to be villainized for upholding traditional notions of property, tort, and free speech to list a few mentioned in Fairfield's document (albeit he tries hard to avoid this unconscionability issue) we disservice humanity.

Question: Would your son think the following game would be fun? What if WoW were like a video game?

GM Power, The video game.

Posted Oct 3, 2007 5:47:11 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Jujutsu wrote:

The idea that some third party has better knowledge of of my 'true' preferences than I do because I suffer from false consciousness is, imho, utter tripe.

We completely agree. I was only pointing out the enormous difficulty that follows from how reported preferences, etc, are both (of course) not to be discounted when trying to understand a situation, but also demonstrably unreliable to a certain extent. There is no privileged observer who knows the truth for all time -- we can only do the best we can to assess based on all the knowledge we can gain.

Lavant wrote:

Would your son think the following game would be fun? What if WoW were like a video game?

Hmmm, not sure how to answer. I doubt it, but then, it's not a game, it's a video, so it's hard to say.

As for your first paragraph, I agree, but we'll do better if we see these challenges of governance as less a clash of ideals and more as trying to achieve an effective balance of involvement and participation by all parties. Yes, the civic interest in enlightened regulation is something to keep in mind, so as not to fall victim to the myth of the unregulated market, but on the other hand regulation itself has its own excesses, to be sure.

And with that, I should get off Dan's thread, lol.

Posted Oct 3, 2007 7:52:17 PM | link

dmx says:

""
What does the mass slaughter of pawns, knights, bishops, and the occaisional murder of a queen teach chess players?
""

They are captured not slaughtered! Like pokemon!

Ok. I wasn't making a point, just being silly.

Posted Oct 3, 2007 9:09:02 PM | link

says:

RMT, gold farming and botting are now the weapons of freedom fighters, striking a blow against the evil, addictive publisher and the infantile masses.

"I regret that I have but infinite lives to give for my hobby."

"If we are not level with each other, we shall surely level separately."

Yeesh.

Posted Oct 3, 2007 9:39:36 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

That last anonymous was me. Mea culpa.

Posted Oct 3, 2007 9:40:21 PM | link

Hellinar says:

Jujutsu> The idea that some third party has better knowledge of of my 'true' preferences than I do because I suffer from false consciousness is, imho, utter tripe. <

Maybe, but that is not the issue. The point is, a third party can have better knowledge of some of the factors influencing your preferences than you do. And use that knowledge to influence the probability of a group of people like you choosing a particular preference. Or would you contest that assertion?

A particular MMOG design choice has population level effects and individual level effects. What any single individual is going to do at any particular time, or find fun, etc. is highly unpredictable. The effects of design decisions on large groups over long periods of time is rather more predictable. MMOG designers have I believe some responsibility for design decisions which will have predictable negative results over the whole population over time. Which is what I think Mr. Blow is arguing.

Switching to a first person view of how the grind feels, whether some people enjoy it etc. isn’t that relevant to the argument. At least as I would frame it. The question is, do some MMOG design features lead to bad outcomes for some portion of the playerbase? Are these out outcomes bad enough that designers reduce or remove these design features?

Posted Oct 4, 2007 1:20:08 AM | link

lewy says:

Does X hours spent in game really mean that players enjoy the grind? A few years back I read an article about a player addicted to EQ. He lead an isolated existence in the real world and the social ties he formed in game filled in for the social connections he was missing in the real world. He was extremely reluctant to log off because he was afraid that something fun would happen in his guild while he was offline.

Imagine a single player game that implemented the MMOG grind. How popular would it be?

Posted Oct 4, 2007 4:24:14 AM | link

Lavant says:

Hellinar, Switching to a first person view of how the grind feels, whether some people enjoy it etc. isn’t that relevant to the argument. At least as I would frame it. The question is, do some MMOG design features lead to bad outcomes for some portion of the playerbase? Are these out outcomes bad enough that designers reduce or remove these design features?

What would make them "bad enough" aside from profit motives? Moral concerns? Paternal caring? Social justice? Seems like John Staurt Mill has something to say. "On Liberty!" Dan wanted libertarian flavor so here goes...

"Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own."

-1859

As MMOs become more hegemonic, more Hollywoodian, more systematically passive (flow is has remarkably passive qualities) what avenues remain for those seeking to escape the social tyranny of mass appeal? Even if the majority of gamers impose the Azerothian Republic of the Grind, does this practice not virtually enslave MMO minorities' soul if they are unable to escape the grind through otherwise legally acceptable market freedom? If only it were so simple as to move from one world to the next. The lockin effects are strong. So perhaps the question could also be formed, what avenues should PLAYERS be given to remove poor design features from game worlds? Are we ready yet to forge some player governance on the Azerothian frontier? What will the courts have to say? Bragg, Linden, MDY, Blizzard: how will synthetic justice play out? Seems the future of the grind is on trial in the latter.

One last note for Thomas: GM Power may have been a video, but it also demonstrates the *game* GMS are enabled to play. Although CS life is not all fun and games, this aspect has incredible parallels to Chinese Gold farms and the grind. And if you take a look at the demographic of GMs you would see many similarities. They too like to be called "professional gamers." In my interviews with former GMS, a number of corruption issues have come to light, but I posted a link to that video to show what MMO play could be like for the masses. Imagine a commmunity of GMs regulating NPCs. The limits endlessly await the test of innovation.

Posted Oct 4, 2007 5:33:56 AM | link

robusticus says:

Riddle me how an avatar can be worth more than $9 thousand.

There are ratings, you know. In my house, Halo 3 is rated T, WoW is rated AO. Any game where you have capital exchange more than $100 or a few hundred to me, based on p-random rewards, ought to be AO (and is, in my house).

Addictions are only problematic when they are, well, problematic. People don't care if other people smoke crack. Just don't come borrowing money from me to pay your power bill. So there's a difference between spending 20 hours per week on things that have pause buttons, complete in 5-15 minute chunks here and there.

I find some of these posts rather a weak counter argument. We are saying this crappy design impedes the delivery of art. Yet they will say EULA violations are somehow in the same category, that such actions impede their ability to experience the art? I for one just can't get over the impression that these people are simply asking for a raise. I would like to be convinced otherwise, but nobody here has made any argument to the contrary.

Posted Oct 4, 2007 11:16:14 AM | link

Andy Havens says:

Lavant: What if, rather than asking:

"As MMOs become more hegemonic, more Hollywoodian, more systematically passive (flow is has remarkably passive qualities) what avenues remain for those seeking to escape the social tyranny of mass appeal?"

The question was changed to:

"As free-time pursuits become more systematically passive, what avenues remain for those seeking to escape the social tyranny of virtual entertainments?"

The argument you're making for the valuation of one style of play over another can be raised to the level of the genre entirely. If you can honestly make the argument that "MMO play Type A" is better than "MMO play Type B," than why can't someone (parents, schools, governments) make the argument that reading, live socializing, sports, dating, theater, music, etc. are *all* better than playing computer games for 20+ hours per week?

It seems to me that the differences between styles of MMO play are substantially less meaningful that the difference between video/computer-mediated entertainment and taking your dog for a walk.

You say, "If only it were so simple as to move from one world to the next. The lockin effects are strong." Well, the lock-in effects are strong... if you enjoy the game, part of which may be grind-y/bad for some and grind-y/good for others. If you think the game sucks--for whatever reason--way less lock-in.

You also say, "The limits endlessly await the test of innovation." On this, I agree with you. And when other games come out that present a better mix of features, they'll do better than the hits du jour.

You seem to me to be saying that more player choice is good, and that players should be able to do "more stuff" in MMOs. But then you qualify those playing the current games as, essentially, idiotic for going along with the choices they're making. Choice is at the heart of capitalism unless some kind of unfair trade practice is in play. And Blizzard doesn't, in any way I can see, employ monopolistic practices. WoW is just really popular. If you want to play an MMO with your friends and they all play WoW... well, if, as you say, your friends are "infantile" for choosing to play WoW... you have a choice to make. Play a better game or get different friends.

All kinds of choices.

Posted Oct 4, 2007 11:38:58 AM | link

robusticus says:

I guess what I'm trying to say is, riffing on the OP, is that the art gets lost in all of this about money. In more ways than just achiever capital, it is also the technical limitations too. Same motivation though, it's always always about the Benjamins.

Posted Oct 4, 2007 11:39:26 AM | link

Hellinar says:

Levant> What would make them "bad enough" aside from profit motives?

Way back, tobacco companies had some hints that smoking would lead to x% of their consumer base getting cancer. Where x is a fairly large number. They didn’t change their behavior, and most people now consider that a bad thing.

We know currently that for some small y% of WoW players, playing excessive amounts of WoW is the straw that pushes them over the edge into flunking out of college. In an alternate universe in which the original WoW rest system had stayed in place, y would likely to smaller. Is the difference in the values of y something Blizzard should take responsibility for? Beats me. I do know, in thinking about game design, I would myself avoid the linear time = reward model. Not just for potential bad outcomes from excessive play though.

As far as profit motive goes, I would note that if advocates can press the right buttons, jurors and law makers will respond to even statistically small threats by big corporations. Just look at the recent recalls of lead painted toys. As I understand it, the health effects of licking a single lead painted toy are very small. But combine the words “toxic” and “children” and rational analysis of the threat goes out the window. I wonder if such a word combination might be in MMOGs future some day.

Posted Oct 4, 2007 11:40:58 AM | link

Andy Havens says:

Hellinar said: "In an alternate universe in which the original WoW rest system had stayed in place, y would likely to smaller."

Sure. And, possibly, the total number of players would have been substantially smaller.

And if WoW had never been invented, y would have been much, much smaller. Like... zero.

Posted Oct 4, 2007 11:55:10 AM | link

lewy says:

I really have to wonder how significant the grind is in terms of addictive behavior. If it was incredibly effective I would expect to see it as a significant model in single player games, and yet as far as I know that isn't the case.

My guess is that the truly addictive aspects of online play have more to do with social interaction. How much of a grind is there in Second Life? No grind, but there are still addicts.

My guess is that MMOG designers are able to get away with crappy game models like grinding because the social aspect in MMOG's close what I would call the "fun gap". If it's grinding at least you're doing it with a bunch of other people

Posted Oct 5, 2007 6:19:33 AM | link

Dmitri Williams says:

Surely it's notable that WoW is popular and that it's not particularly heavy on the grind?

I mean I spent a year on Lineage 2 and still feel like it's a year I'll never get back. WoW may have the same DIKU basics, but it features a pretty steady stream of new endgame, small group material, new raids, new quests, and a significant dose of humor, plus an active PvP team culture, none of which seems like the grind I recall min-maxing in Cruma Tower. Flow or not, that was just masochism.

Posted Oct 5, 2007 8:20:46 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Dmitri: Surely it's notable that WoW is popular and that it's not particularly heavy on the grind?

"Not particularly heavy on the grind"?

We must have pretty different ideas of what it means to grind in a game. How many times do you have to "kill ten x" or "gather 15 y" using exactly the same set of key presses over and over and over again? There is little variation in actual gameplay, little internally driven decision-making (with single-digit exceptions, all your decisions are focused on what others -- the "quest-givers" want), little sense of actual accomplishment, flow, catharsis, or much else.

You do get to go to well-designed and visually beautiful new areas regularly, and the quest-lines are well-structured, but you repeatedly encounter the same kinds of grinding gameplay. Most players never get to the raid or endgame material, because they grind to a halt somewhere along the way.

It may simply be the case as others have asserted, that most players like the grind at some level, just as many (most?) people who frequent Las Vegas casinos like the "grind" of the slot machines. Both fit very nicely into a powerful operant conditioning model, which can lead to a persistent set of behaviors that might be mistaken for an addictive compulsion -- behaviors perceived as satisfying at a low level and to which we the conditioned return, even if they're also seen as boring or unsatisfying at a higher cognitive level.

Posted Oct 5, 2007 9:16:17 PM | link

Dmitri Williams says:

Get thee to Lineage 2, circa 2004 (I'm told it's not as grindy anymore, but I'm never going back to Annandale). It made WoW look like Second Life.

Yes, WoW's mechanics and quests have one of four basic types and yes they are repetitive at heart, but they're at least hidden behind the right bells and whistles to distract. Players who grind aren't grouping, aren't reading the quest stories, aren't going into instances, aren't doing Battlegrounds and aren't getting the humor--which ranges from predictable riffs on Tolkien and Star Trek to political digs. Is it the same mechanic as every other MMO? No doubt, but for my money it hides it pretty well. Some bells and whistles sound better than others.

Hey, why am I drooling?

Posted Oct 5, 2007 11:03:37 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Good points Pavlo-- I mean, Dmitri. No doubt if the slots in Vegas didn't literally hide their conditioning behind bells and whistles and the like they wouldn't be perceived as enjoyable either. Still, this atmosphere takes the edge off the grind (and the operant conditioning), it doesn't remove it.

Props on the Steely Dan reference. ;-)

Posted Oct 6, 2007 9:03:22 AM | link

Dmitri Williams says:

Well, I often find I'm back in Vegas.

FWIW, I pretty much only raid when I play. There's zero grind in that experience even though there's still a repetitive algorithm to solve in each fight. It's the pleasure of solving it and nailing it with friends that makes it fun. No static at all.

Posted Oct 6, 2007 11:07:35 AM | link

Jonathan Blow says:

Hi guys. A lot of responses here, and there's no way I can address them all. I do feel I am being misinterpreted by some of them, so let me clarify.

I do draw a distinction between (a) activity that is somehow-productive or inherently-enjoyable, versus (b) activity that is a waste of time. Most MMOs are built around making you do mostly (b) between rewards.

Of course, all games have a mixture of (a) and (b). The difference is one of degree, and of the designer's intention. In answer to that chess example: chess is mostly (a), and the actual activity of killing the pawns and such is very brief. Whereas with "kill 125 rodents" quests, the player's activity is mostly (b); the actual mostly-uninteresting killing of the rodents takes up most of the time. There may be some (a) involved in figuring out where to go to find them, but that's about it.

But it's not even the a/b balance of a game design that makes it unethical; it is the designer's intention. We go to conferences and talk very specifically about how to schedule rewards in order to keep players plugged into our games. We tend not to ask questions like, are we respecting our players' time, are we giving them new and interesting experiences, what are we teaching them through these rewards we are giving? I think that's wrong. It's also a significant part of why the balance comes out so heavy on the (b) side [though attempting to cater to the maximum possible audience is another big reason].

The argument was brought up that it's pompous to criticize people for enjoying what they enjoy. I think that's true, but I am not really criticizing the players (not too much, anyway). I am criticizing the designers for building these things. But to return to the enjoyment question -- I would claim that most people do not "enjoy" long-term MMO play in the direct fashion suggested by the word "enjoy"; they play for complicated reasons. I think this is true for most kinds of games. One of my favorite games is Counter-Strike, and I have played hundreds of hours of it; but I would not tell you that it is fun (or "enjoyable") to play, except during isolated moments.

In response to Richard B's comment (it was first, so easy to pick out and reply to), I have two things to say. One is that I am not talking about "virtual worlds", I am talking about games. I use the word "game" for a reason, because it makes explicit the idea of a rule-set, and of goals that the player is trying to achieve. As the player tries to achieve the goals, his behavior is rewarded or punished according to the rules. That's just what a game is. Rewarding or punishing behavior is a primary method by which games teach. It cannot help but be teaching... thus my statement that all games teach something.

And lastly, Richard is claiming I said this: "Exploitative multiplayer worlds don't deserve to be called art" but I never said anything of the kind. I think exploitative games can definitely be art. In the lecture, I say that big publically-held companies cannot produce the kind of personal art that smaller groups or individuals can. That's a very different statement and doesn't directly dictate anything about the game design.


Posted Oct 6, 2007 10:38:42 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Dmitri, clearly you are a major dude.

Jonathan said: I do draw a distinction between (a) activity that is somehow-productive or inherently-enjoyable, versus (b) activity that is a waste of time. Most MMOs are built around making you do mostly (b) between rewards.

The first problem with this is the concept that some things are inherently enjoyable -- that the enjoyability is in them, not in the opinion of the player, and that they are enjoyable for all (or even most) people. There may be a few game mechanics that could be described as psychologically inherently enjoyable (I won't try to make the evolutionary or cognitive psychological argument here), but these are few and far between.

For the most part, games are not inherently enjoyable; a game or game mechanic that one person finds instantly and continuously enjoyable another might see as pointless and absurd. So this part of your argument reduces to you arguing against games you don't enjoy, but in this your opinion is worth no more (and no less) than anyone else's.

The difficulty with your statement above is further highlighted by the very rarely useful or productive nature of games. Almost by definition games are activities which we do not need to do; they are not expected to be productive. Yes there are 'educational games' (and many designers who think hard about this) but note that those that have succeeded in conveying knowledge or skill have been games first and educational tools second.

The result of this is that condemning game designs as unethical that are not "somehow productive" or "inherently enjoyable" and yet which invite people back again results in a grim life-is-work view of games as frivolous wastes of time that we would all be better off without.

As I said above, I personally find the "kill 10 rats" mode of gameplay largely unappealing -- but I do it anyway for complex reasons (partly social, partly related to weak operant conditioning I'm sure). I don't see anything seriously unethical in gameplay designed to bring customers back, any more than I see stores that advertise or hand out coupons or give frequent-buyer rewards to bring people back as acting unethically.

All that said, I do think there's a serious conversation to be had about the ethics of game design regarding how designers (and the companies they work for) consider different kinds of users and different styles of play, the messages our gameplay may be sending (including but not limited to violence and sexuality, causal of follow-on behavior or not), and our respect for the player's time and interest. But a blanket statement that some kinds of design considerations are unethical seems to me to be too based on individual opinion. I don't know that we have an ethical calculus that can be applied to all games as yet. It's something worth thinking about.

Posted Oct 7, 2007 6:41:12 PM | link

Jonathan Blow says:

Mike, you misunderstand. When I say "inherently enjoyable" I do not mean "objectively enjoyable". Of course everyone has their own individual flavor of what they enjoy. I mean that the activity is found to be worthwhile by the player, without a tacked-on reward to string them along.

If you don't admit the possibility of a statement that some kinds of designs are unethical, what is the point of even considering ethics within the realm of game design?

Posted Oct 7, 2007 9:20:45 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

I see what you mean, Jonathan -- is the player doing something because it is to them inherently enjoyable, or have they in effect been bribed into doing (with the promise of phat l00ts) or conditioned into doing it? Much the same might be asked about any more typical leisure activity, from bridge to golf: if you play because it's the socially accepted thing to do or because that's how you get ahead in work, does that make the game unethical?

Also, many people apparently do find aspects of the grind enjoyable -- or at least so they report. It would seem that any strong ethical argument would rest on an activity being noisome to almost everyone, or else degrading, humiliating, socially noxious, etc.

I think you misunderstood me too: I said that I think the ethics of game design merits a serious conversation. I just don't think we're going to get very far by starting with the thesis that certain kinds of game designs are unethical. Some will want to say that all violent games are inherently unethical; others will focus on highly sexualized games, ones that depict genders or races in particular ways, ones that codify or highlight economic disparities, ones that virtualize commercially available physical toys, or ones that simulate physical sports. There's not likely to be any broad agreement on this level of design consideration. I think the conversation about ethics of game design will have to mine a little deeper, to more foundational principles, before it can move forward.

Posted Oct 7, 2007 11:38:20 PM | link

Jonathan Blow says:

Okay. And it's not even really that I am really saying certain kinds of designs are unethical. It's more that certain kinds of design intentions are unethical, and I see certain specific game designs as springing from that kind of intention. (Though in theory you could come up with those same designs given any kind of starting intention, thus not necessarily being unethical, and I guess I can already think of one that is not unethical: if someone is just not a very purposeful designer and makes a game copying the designs of games they already know and have played a bunch, because he just isn't imagining anything different.)

To me, when designers build with the intention to keep players glued to the game for as long as possible, without regard to whether they are damaging players' lives in the process, that is unethical. The actual design of the resulting game is really just a symptom of this attitude, which is the real thing I have a problem with.

Posted Oct 8, 2007 11:14:42 AM | link

pro gamer says:

I really have to disagree with game designers having an ethical duty to remove grind. Game designers can make whatever they want...they are the designers. They don't have an ethical duty to anyone. Through the centuries there have been plenty of great writers, musicians, and artists that created things that no one in the public liked, but, those cretors didn't have an ethical duty to create anything other than what was in their heads and hearts.

If you don't like "the grind," then don't play the game ! It's that simple. If you don't like the product then don't buy it. It's not the game makers fault, it is your fault for buying and playing through the grind.

If you don't like playing grind games, I suggest playing short competitive games like Halo 3 or Counterstrike....there is no grind here, it is all action. If you want reward for your time spent, then you could check out a
pro gaming site called GetGosu. If you play something like that then:
1. you don't have to grind.
and
2. you get paid cash for being good.

Posted Oct 8, 2007 1:14:17 PM | link

robusticus says:

See? This is why I so love skill gamers. That innocence is the soul of gaming. I have a theory that if you reskinned CS with instead of bullets people fired happy rays and when you got hit you would respawn in your happy place - would that be the world's perfect game (that nobody ever played)?

I saw a program on Discovery once about this couple who would raise tigers from baby cubs on their property. One segment showed the cubs playing games with each other. They do this to learn how to hunt. I wonder if adult tigers play much... or are they too busy actually hunting, rather than simulating the act? Paternalism is a strawman.

How do you like that McDonald's monopoly t-rated pavlo skinner game? I saw their TV ads during the football games yesterday and I have to wonder, were they supposed to be humorous? I wasn't laughing. Probably because I know via Wiki they shut that game down a few years back due to a multimillion dollar multiyear sentence scandal. Hmm, patch that security flaw and we're back in business, eh? Nevermind that corruption breeds corruption.

They should get "Leave Luck to Heaven" Nintendo to do their cross pollination, though I doubt Nintendo would sully their pristine E rated brand with an association to McD's. All the glittering prizes would have to be free vitamin fortified vegetables (not mushrooms).

Posted Oct 8, 2007 3:13:57 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Progamer (who sure seems to be selling something) said, If you don't like "the grind," then don't play the game ! It's that simple. If you don't like the product then don't buy it. It's not the game makers fault, it is your fault for buying and playing through the grind.

The problem with that is that we don't apply the same logic elsewhere. Games can be, and have been, designed to maximize player session time and/or likelihood of return (I find the former much more problematic than the latter - see my disclaimer below).

Gameplay based on conditioning or similar mechanics is a lot like a drug, though not as directly biochemical. Is it unethical to sell tobacco products specifically designed to maximize the probability of addiction in the user? Is it sufficient to say, "if you don't like smoking, don't buy the product; it's not the manufacturer's fault if you get addicted"? Is adding caffeine to drinks in order to increase the probability of return sales unethical? I would say it is, but clearly there are large industries that disagree.

I should probably make something of a disclaimer here: ten years ago I gave a talk at GDC entitled "The Alchemy of Addiction: Creating Games That Keep People Playing." This was just after the point when we had to argue hard for a flat-rate subscription model, since our publisher saw huge dollar signs at the many hours people would rack up playing our game, and actively supported what we glibly called "the heroin strategy" for game design.

I still support designs that bring people back -- but also ones that send them away. The last thing I want is a game that rewards someone for playing to the exclusion of having a life (or even one that just becomes a part-time or full-time job!).

I would not give that talk again.

Posted Oct 8, 2007 3:22:58 PM | link

Olivier Lejade says:

Damn, I missed an interesting thread!
Nevertheless, there's a few comments on my blog.
And lewy, if you're still around:
"I really have to wonder how significant the grind is in terms of addictive behavior. If it was incredibly effective I would expect to see it as a significant model in single player games, and yet as far as I know that isn't the case." and "Imagine a single player game that implemented the MMOG grind. How popular would it be?"

You really need to try Animal Crossing.
It's the perfect example of massively successful, single player grind!

Posted Oct 14, 2007 9:42:19 AM | link