Two unrelated things decided to coalesce recently, thus inspiring this (hopefully) inspired post. First, I have been reading about behavior economics because despite writing about the in-vogue subject of video games, I am still a true nerd. Second, the rather shoddy attempt of re-appropriating MMORPG mechanics to fuel a more addictive experience with Destiny opened my eyes to a true blight across all games: progression.
We can blame Call of Duty for starting the trend of FPS multiplayer that relies on progression – unlockables, either with gameplay value or just cosmetic – for its longevity. Progression-based gameplay for its own sake is a hallmark of the MMORPG genre, and it was only a matter of time for World of Warcraft’s success (as well as the success of non-MMORPGs such as the Final Fantasy series) to rub off their RPG elements on other genres.
I credit Destiny with the realization that a strong element of progression overpowers my want to play a particular game for its own sake. By that I mean that my reason for playing revolves a want to progress, to get new gear, to move up, etc., and not for the actual gameplay. Many of you will say that is obvious, but I feel like most ignore that truth, pretending like our enjoyment comes from a game’s intrinsic value.
Here’s where behavior economics kicks in: there’s a fun divide between social norms and market norms. The example used in the book mentions a delicious holiday dinner prepared by one’s mother-in-law. At the end of the meal, you get up and ask her how much you owe her for the meal. Given social norms, an offer of paying her for the hard work and food is rude because you are trying to apply market norms (the value of her time, work, and supplies) to what she likely did for the invaluable experience of having a proper holiday meal.
People look at things differently depending on which set of norms they are applying. One of the experiments mentioned in the book talked about asking people to do a menial task and how those who were getting paid did worse than those who were doing it as a favor. Most people will work for what they think they or the task at hand is worth, but if you can convince them that they are doing it as a favor, they will often work harder.
When it comes to grinding out progression in video games, I begin to feel like my efforts aren’t being properly recompensed. In a sense, I begin applying market norms, expecting that my work will be paid in full with sweet loot, new gameplay, or more interesting content. Instead of playing a game to enjoy the experience, I play it instead to be “paid” in a way that will result in a future, even better experience.
Leveling and progression are an exercise in delayed gratification, but rarely does the gratification pay off for long before you are progressing toward something else. Once upon a time, I played MMORPGs with progression in mind, but not as my primary motivating force. I was content experiencing an area for as long as it was new and interesting, then moving on. New gear, new abilities, or new anything else were icing on an already delicious cake. Nowadays, the only thing left to eat is the icing, and that hardly contains any nutritional value.
Despite the new ways that MMORPGs have found to make a more accessible, more entertaining experience for more people, I feel they have mostly regressed rather than progressed. There’s zero wrong with a grind, but the secret to a good grind is that the hard work you put in should be fun on its own, at least enough to justify the place you are trying to get to. Yes, MMORPGs have always been dangerously close to pleasure drip feeds and slot machines, but, more and more, they embrace those aspects with reckless abandon.
Destiny and much of the modern MMORPG genre have no substance; instead, they are a series of bars waiting to be filled by mindlessly repeating the same underdeveloped actions over and over again. Tell someone there is a reward for pushing a button every ten times, and they’ll do it until they get bored. Tell someone there is a reward given at random for every button pressed, and they will apparently do it forever.
Or at least until the button breaks.