Online Game Addiction: Your Very Own Skinner's Box

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Let’s get the obvious out of the way first, but we need to revisit a few years of history.

In the past, console games were the thing, with companies pushing out solo sale copies of games on consoles. They would create a game, then stick a price tag on it, then you would buy it, and that’s the end of that. Nothing more afterwards, the only way the company was going to get more money from you was through game guides or expansions/sequels of the game.

After a while, they realized that instead of simply selling you one thing once and getting your money once, why not do something that allowed them to have an excuse to milk you for money over time, and thus get more money? So most online games came out with this idea, and online gaming/subscription was born. But this will only work if the consumer (the player) is really into the game, but developers can only create so much at a time. Thus various psychological factors are built into almost all games that have just about every gamer stuck tight into playing those games.

For those of you right now that are like “Wait a tick, most games are free to play!”, I’ll get around to explaining THAT business model later. 

First let’s get through some things that almost all games inevitably have: an exponential leveling (ranking) system, where the first few levels are like a breeze and you feel like you accomplished something. This gives us an initial rush (akin to doing drugs for the first time), then suddenly 3 days later of gaming we’re taking hours, maybe even days to reach the next level. We stick with it because we have tasted lots of that initial rush and crave even more, so we stick around to do it. Most games also have it so that the best things can only be done after the player hits the level cap. 

This is an example of game developers sticking players within a semi Skinner’s Box, a famous experiment that proved you can get a subject to do things repetitively once they figure out they may get rewarded for it. In short, you’re being treated as a rat by developers, and their job is to figure out how get you to do what they want. It’s understandable though, they are a company and they need money. 

So how does it work? Well Skinner’s Box is where a rat figures out that if it pushes a button, food drops out. It works the other way though. Eventually the rat only pushes the button when it needs food. The same thing works for gamers; you don’t go around continuously murdering creatures in the game if you know that rare super armor you want will drop every single time you kill them. That’s not how it works. So what if, when the rat is hungry and it pushes the button, but no food comes out? What if food comes out at completely random intervals? That rat will be pushing that button many times now. 

So, games do the same exact thing. If you play games, surely you’ve realized that the game has you repeatedly doing the same Sisyphean tasks, over and over. The game COULD give you what you need instantly (not hard to create zeroes and ones), but instead, and quote for quote from a game developer, ” Each contingency is an arrangement of time, activity, and reward, and there are an infinite number of ways these elements can be combined to produce the pattern of activity you want from your players. ” 

Time: Hours upon Days upon WEEKS 

Activity: Grinding, repeatedly killing or doing a mundane task 

Reward: CHANCE of getting something you want 

This keeps gamers going at it for a long time. Even worse, game developers have projected upon that, so in order to get that super high tier armor, you actually have to create it out of materials that are difficult to get, and you need lots of those materials to boot. 

Let’s use the current online MMO king, World of Warcraft (henceforth WoW for short), as an example. The game is bought for a flat fee (for their developing the game) then you the player subscribe to play the game (and are guaranteed updates, patches, community patrol, and fixing). But after you consider it, 1 year of WoW subscription is enough money to have bought 3 separate games, and the patches they put in every year don’t even cut up to that, and you are paying for their expansions (that can be considered sequels to the game). How come people are willing to stick with this plan after they’ve hit the level cap and done most things? 

Well actually, WoW uses the same exact formula. If you know something about it, Raids are weekly runs players do after they’ve hit level cap in order to get high tier gear and items, with the small catch that you might not get it. I know a friend who between The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King never got that gear he wanted. WoW has you, the player, repeatedly doing the same thing over a long period of time, and before you know it, the next expansion is out. That friend? He ran the same Raids over and over again for 2 whole years. That’s 104 Raids, doing the same thing over and over. 

“But why would anyone want to do that?” you ask. Simple. Why would anyone want to practice shooting basketball hoops for hours on end? Same exact idea, just in a different setting. The things we spend time on the most are the things we would find the hardest to give up. You or your friend have spent hours, weeks, months, YEARS on a character, building him up, outfitting him, working on him. Would you give that up? Like telling a hobbyist to quit his hobby, it’s just really hard to do. 

Even worse, that’s not the end of Skinner’s Box. Let’s say the rat has now figured out that as long as he repeatedly pushes the button every once in a while, he’ll get his food. Rats need rest too. What if every time the button isn’t pushed for a certain interval, he gets shocked. Eventually you have that rat repeatedly pushing and pushing and pushing that button until the end of time or he drops dead. 

Commonly seen in: Animal Crossing, Facebook games, Ultima Online, etc.

Farmville is pretty famous with this one. Know why that person you know is repeatedly checking their Farmville page every hour, every minute? Crops wither and die or rot. So now gamers are being punished by game developers for not doing things. Will definitely keep gamers on their toes, and then suddenly you realize the game isn’t fun anymore. 

On the next topic, let’s look at the business models of the so-called free to play companies. There is no flat buying fee or subscription fee, but how do they make money and revenue? By way of a shop that sells things bought with real money. Very rarely are these shops selling things that don’t give an advantage. And since everyone is competitive in gaming and every single advantage is good, people will shell out the money for these advantages. 

Even worse, some games have the “mystery box” thing set up. A famous one is Nexon’s gachapons. The idea is that you buy a small box, and it contains a number of items, ranging from pants-wetting rare to useless mundane ones. I remember a friend who really wanted a dress from gachapons, and ended up buying a few hundred of them, only to never get that dress. It might be different in other games, maybe you get certain chests in the game that can only be opened by a key that you have to buy with real money, but the idea is the same. The things in there tempt you, but you never know what you’ll get. 

And the last thing, even worse, is that game developers are starting to project on that even more, because this business model has the potential to make even more money. ZT Online is the best at this, doing something that eventually I think all gambling places should put in place. They have rare items at the end of the day given to the player who opened the most mystery boxes. 

Can you imagine how far it’s going now? Not only are players addicted to the gambling element of “the very next one could be a winner!”, they are now encouraged to open as many as possible just to win the daily prize. Obsessed people will shell out any amount of money for it. This woman even narrates how she gambled all day, opening about a thousand chests, and still didn’t get it, because someone else was even more crazy about it than she was. She was well off, had a great paying job, and had spent thousands on her game, but she was repeatedly losing because other people were more willing to pay for advantages than she was. 

But why? Why do gamers play and pay for all of this? 

Games appeal to a part of human nature that’s been buried ever since civilization. Part of us like to hurt things, buy power, and dominate. You can’t do that in real life, but online, why not? Games that sell experience and power are even more alluring. You can literally buy your way up, not like in real life (well, not as easy as it is in real life). For guys, they can commit violence and killings online via shooter games, and for girls, they can be that queen that they’ve always wanted to be. You choose your fate, so why not? 

See what’s happening now? Gamers are encouraged to stick around because they want some item, but the game is making sure that item will be a time sink and even a money sink. Then, if Gamers aren’t around to do so, the game punishes them for negligence. Even after all that, the Game world is designed to entice the gamer, keep them coming, and make sure they stay for as long as possible. 

So pass this around to anyone you know, and ask them of their opinion. Because this may be the most interesting thing they’ve read about their own Skinner’s Box, since they’ve never seen it that way.


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