As an entertainment medium gaming can still be considered the cultural underdog, despite it growing into a billion dollar business and being (allegedly) more popular than the movie or music industry. Matter of fact we still get excited when our favourite form of entertainment features in the mainstream media. Sadly, games are often featured negatively. A senseless shooting occurs: blame it on the games. Obesity is on the rise: Blame it on the games. Gaming addiction also regularly features in the media, so much so that at this point most people respond with a collective ‘meh’.
Blizzard has been in the eye of the storm recently following this article on CNN’s Gaming Reality series. The write up tells the story of MarineKing a Starcraft II pro-gamer who just came second in the World Cyber Games. It depicts SCII players as ‘rows of expressionless young men sit at cubicle-like workstations tapping at a galactic military strategy game’ and explains how the game negatively affected the life of MarineKing until he understood the place gaming has in his life. Usually such articles come and go without much noise but Blizzard chose to issue a statement defending themselves on the thorny issue of gaming addiction. In essence Blizzard explained how they want people to enjoy their games but at the same time carry on living a meaningful life outside of gaming. The part which got me thinking was this:
“It’s important to note that players are able to jump into our games and accomplish appreciable and fulfilling goals, such as competing in matches, completing quests or matches, purchasing or selling equipment for their characters, hunting monsters, and socializing with friends, in a short amount of time, making our games enjoyable with minimal time commitments.”
Blizzard’s claim here rings true. The developer has gone through great lengths to make WoW more accessible to casuals who have limited playtime. With just a few hours of play time a week, players can accomplish almost anything in the game. However this is only part of the picture. For the first 4-5 years of its existence WoW was the exact opposite. Instances took time to set up and often lasted well over two hours to complete. PvP required you to play a certain amount of time every day, otherwise your ranking would start to drop. Raids necessitated a dedicated raiding guild and took all night to complete. Anyone who could not dedicate chunks of time to the game was left behind in every single facet of the game. WoW required players to play regularly and for long periods for any meaningful progress. People who were not snared by the charms of the game claimed that WoW players had no life and, while this was an exaggeration for the vast majority of players, one could not deny that WoW necessitated commitment. I do believe that this fact, combined to just how good the game was/is (and a few other factors), helped the game dominate the market for such a long time. Once players had invested so much time in the game, it was hard to move on, leaving it all behind.
“RPGs and MMOs typically have a small chance of great reward with every action. With every attack there is a chance for a crit. With every swing of the mining axe there is a chance for a gem. The random element means you don’t want to stop because each new action could be the one with something big. There’s also guaranteed rewards strategically spaced out… ….These come quick at first and then spread out, but by the end of your play cycle your brain has actually associated the boring activity of grinding with the reward at the end. To you they are one and the same!”
His claim that games should not be likened to chemical addiction, but rather to behavioural addiction such as gambling, is quite thought provoking. He quotes Jonathan Blow (developer of indie platformer game ‘Braid’) as saying that this is unethical game design since it programs the player to become dependent on the game. These are very strong accusations, but is it realistic to think that developers such as Blizzard have introduced certain elements into the game for the sole reason of hooking people?
I don’t think this is the case. The first RPGs were played with pen and paper and relied on dice rolls. Of course this had nothing to do with gambling, but dice were the most reliable and readily available way of processing the random elements needed to make the games fun and exciting. In designing WoW Blizzard took these common genre tropes and applied them to an MMO framework. Chance is an integral part of the genre and is an important element in making people play these games. One has to keep in mind that the very first RPG videogames were not subscription based MMOs at all and therefore had no real hidden agenda in getting players ‘hooked’ to the game. Once the game was purchased the developer would not make any extra money no matter how long the game was played. At a stretch Blizzard (and other MMO developers) could be accused of taking a system which intrinsically takes advantage of the player’s psychology and tying it to a money generating subscription model. However this can be attributed to good business acumen rather than some evil plot to get players hooked on their game. Is it unethical to want your audience to play your game more? I don’t really think so.
While the comparison to gambling is interesting, and one can definitely see clear parallels between the two, it can be argued that games can never be as destructive. Gambling not only tricks you into playing more and more in order to try and win big, but it can easily rob you of large sums of money in a very short period of time. The consequences of gambling addiction are much more devastating than anything brought about by gaming addiction.
As with anything that stimulates the pleasure centre of our brain (such as sex, food, drugs, sports and exercise) videogames can get some people hooked. Some individuals definitely need specialist services to help them kick the habit and start living a healthy balanced life once again. However, at the end of the day, this speaks more about human nature than the gaming industry.