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I’ve been wanting to write about dailies for some time now. I’ve heard a bunch of people in my guild casually mention how Blizzard has changed the game by adding so many daily quests. Some people are upset because they feel forced to do them.
I dismissed those complaints as being somewhat akin to people complaining that HBO is too pricey to subscribe to, or movies are too expensive and the popcorn’s stale, and so on. HBO sets a price for their service and while every consumer would like it to be cheaper (or delivered differently), some pay that price and some don’t pay that price. Some people go out to movies and others decide they are too expensive and wait for it to come out on rental or whatever.
Dailies seemed to be the same way to me. They offered a certain reward of gold, reputation, a few valor points, a couple lesser charms, all of which were small steps toward a larger goal, typically of getting gear to heroic or more likely raid levels, but sometimes for getting a particular mount or desired vanity item. In exchange they are asked to give several minutes of their time doing tasks that are not particularly challenging for a person who has gotten to that level. Some of those tasks were more fun than others (e.g., Roll Club), but most were worthwhile because they led to a goal that in some way made the game more fun.
Apparently I’m misinformed. Dailies are unethical:
Daily quests are strictly obligatory and anti-fun & gamey by nature. Their ultimate impact is to remind players to play the game each day to get their reward for doing so. In fact, I haven’t known any gamer who blogs to deny that quests are designed based on Skinner techniques. What’s unsettling is how accepting we are of that, how we believe it’s sort of natural (I hate to use that word but the context seems fitting) that games use quests or features in this way. Whatever we may individually think of this, what’s true regardless is that Skinner techniques have become normative. We accept this because of their ubiquity in games. If that’s true, then many games violate the rules of fun and play, and thus we don’t play them necessarily for fun and leisure. We find dailies to be non-problematic ethically because behavioral and psychological manipulation is institutionalized. We play them because we feel compelled, because it’s easy to be rewarded, because maybe we’re addicted.
What necessarily follows is that games which employ these techniques are, by definition, not fun and they’re potentially not games at all. They’re something else.
If a game is based on Skinner techniques in it’s core design, it’s not a game. It’s a software device developers have created to keep you playing, often because the model is profitable. It’s like tricking the rat in the box into thinking they are winning a game. In fact, they are being controlled in an environment they’re barely aware of.
Since many people (perhaps at Doone’s behest) are coming here to lambast me for not trying to engage Doone in “serious argument”, I will here provide a series of questions that I believe Doone should specifically answer in order to frame his argument. I will then answer those questions as I believe Doone has done in his article, with the proviso that I could very well be wrong.
- What constitutes “psychological manipulation” as opposed to a legitimate effort to try to get a player to enjoy and continue to play your game?
- How does Blizzard (or some other developer of MMORPGs) specifically profit from offering daily quests that are not fun to do?
- What specific quests are players forced to do despite those quests not being fun?
- Does a piano teacher rewarding a student for practicing scales constitute “psychological manipulation”?
- What evidence is there that players actually do things they don’t find fun?
- What right does Doone have to act to prevent a player from playing a game he or she claims to be fun, but Doone thinks is psychologically damaging?
- Everything constitutes psychological manipulation.
- Blizzard profits by forcing people to remain online to perform tasks, when they would rather be elsewhere.
- All of them.
- Because I don’t like daily quests.
- Because I believe I am right, and if I believe I am right, I not only have the right to act, but the duty to act.
Uh oh! We’ve trapped ourselves in an Orwellian universe, a grand Skinner box, where Blizzard controls us like rats to perform these daily quests! Rise up, Warcraft players! Let us march on Blizzard Headquarters in Irvine and smash the giant video screen of Mike Morhaime issuing commands to his brainwashed masses.
If that sounds overly pithy and sarcastic it’s only because Doone’s argument is so completely over the top that it truly merits it. Doone really does paint the picture of Warcraft players as hopeless mindless rats manipulated by nefarious game designers. Apparently Boone is riding in, like a White Knight, to rescue us fair maidens from this prison. (No word on whether he or she expects us to have sex with him or her afterward.)
But it gets worse:
What we do know is that lacking accountability, people feel inclined to defend the current state of affairs because they reason that devs aren’t stupid, and no one would willfully continue a harmful system; no, they would change it if it was so bad. Therefore, it must not be so bad and the consequences are being exaggerated.
In other words (and this sentiment is echoed several other places in the piece), if someone defends against this argument, it’s because we’ve made decisions to participate in this system and we are deluding ourselves. I’ve been brainwashed to say this.
I have two words for that: fuck you. I have two degrees in psychology. I know what Skinner boxes are (unlike Doone). Doone, I am not arguing against this because I’m rationalizing my behavior on behest of the grand masters at Blizzard. I am not arguing against you because I am delusional. I am arguing against it because your argument sucks. It is a really offensive tactic to suggest that any argument against you is invalid and if for no other reason, people should ignore you because you have suggested that.
With that bit of invective out of the way, let’s break down the argument quickly and then in more detail.
The gist of the argument is that dailies and other quests are evil because players are forced to do them. This argument is simply wrong on its facts. No one is forced to do dailies. I have quite happily not done dailies for nearly three weeks now. While it is true that doing dailies will enable you to do other things (e.g., raids) more quickly, that’s true for most any endeavor. Practicing scales on the piano will allow you to play Beethoven’s works sooner than you would otherwise. Running three miles a day will allow you to play basketball better. But is anyone suggesting that Beethoven and Naismith are evil overlords for imposing these Skinner boxes on people (and yes, they are Skinner boxes too)? I think that’d be an awfully hard case to make.
Doone’s flawed thinking is illustrated by an example early in the piece:
Recently on the gaming podcast Cat Context #16, Arolaide described a downloadable game she’s been playing (the name escapes me this moment). The game gives you 5 free attempts to win and thereafter you must pay to have additional attempts. Otherwise you must wait a few hours to have 1 more opportunity to win. Few of us would NOT call this manipulative, money-grabbing game design, fully malicious, brazenly Skinner.
Count me among the few, then. I am imagining, in my youth, going to the arcade with a fistful of quarters and the arcade manager coming out to me and saying, “Hey, Saxsy, there’s this new game here called Pole Position. I’ll give you five free plays on this. After that, if you want to play right away, it’ll cost you a quarter like usual. Oh, and if you’re willing to wait three hours, I’ll let you play it again for free.”
Apparently this is manipulative, money-grabbing, fully malicious, brazenly Skinner. My feeling is that I’d play it five times, and if I liked it, I might continue to pump quarters into it, just like I would have done if I hadn’t gotten the five free plays. Otherwise I’d switch to Pac-Man. The end result is that the arcade owner would get my five dollars worth of quarters that he or she would have gotten anyway, but I’d have a little more fun. And this is wrong?
Now I’m going to go into things in a little more detail, but really I think you can stop reading here. That example shows the kind of misguided labeling Doone does in the piece, yelling “Horrors!” at anything designed to grab a person’s interest in the game. I am not exaggerating to say that the premise of the article is that anything a game designer or creator does to get you to be more likely to play that game is considered unethical. Perhaps in his or her mind that is. But by that standard practically every business is unethical: Five Guys is unethical for making their burgers and fries particularly tasty, Apple Computer is unethical for making iPod Touches responsive to tactile input, and Costco is unethical for having people smile at you while you buy stuff from them. And so on.
But if you’re inclined to read on, I hope to make it interesting.
Doone bandies the terms “Skinner box” and “Skinnerian” around as if they were a great evil. They aren’t. B. F. Skinner was a psychologist interested in deconstructing the basic theory of motivation. Why is it that we do X? A Skinner box is a specific experiment designed to illustrate the principles espoused in Skinnerian theory.
A typical Skinner box would contain a hungry animal (typically a rat, but in my experience, a pigeon), a tray of food that can be exposed to or hidden from the animal, and something representing a task, such as a button to press. The general idea is that if you, an experimenter, expose the food to the hungry animal after the animal happens to press the button, the animal will then learn to press the button. If you want, you can say that the animal has become motivated to press the button but I think that imputes too much thought into an animal unnecessarily. The animal has simply been conditioned to press the button.
In practice, it’s not quite that simple. First, you have to make sure the animal is hungry. This involves withholding food generally from the animal; in my experience, we had to put the pigeon on minimal food for a couple weeks to get to the point where it was trainable. Then, because pushing a button is not a thing animals just up and do randomly, you have to provide reward for things like getting close to the button. Finally, if you get things right the animal will press the button and get food, but only so long as the animal is hungry. The animal does not continue to press the button forever. It does it for food.
Skinner believed that this was a very simple illustration for the very complex levels of motivation existing in every single reasonably intelligent animal. The reason we are inclined to do anything at all is because in our experience, it leads back to some base desire. To say something is Skinnerian is meaningless, because _everything_ is Skinnerian. Going to sleep is Skinnerian. Staying up late is Skinnerian. Drinking coffee is Skinnerian. Watching “Sex in the City” is Skinnerian. Anything and everything you do, if you believe in Skinner’s theory, is a complex version of the rat pressing the button to get food. If it weren’t, you wouldn’t do it.
(You don’t have to buy Skinner’s theories if you don’t want. Many psychologists did not.)
So saying a game designer is using Skinnerian techniques to get you to play the game is redundant. Obviously a game designer wants you to play the game, and if you in fact do play the game, it’s because you are motivated to do so in a Skinnerian fashion. The term “Skinner box” has a highly negative connotation because we imagine people trapped in a box pressing a button for food, but in fact the entire world and our entire existence - if you believe Skinner - is a giant complex Skinner box. To say something is Skinnerian implies nothing more than you’ve heard of Skinner. Saying that game designers use Skinnerian techniques to get you to play their game is no more nefarious than saying they are trying to make it fun for you.
Game designers want you to play their games and provide rewards for playing their games. This is not controversial. Yes, if I played Warcraft a lot in Cataclysm, I would be able to defeat this really big dragon called Deathwing in heroic mode. This was fun for me, and it took a lot to get there. But I would have to play Civilization II a lot to defeat the computer on its toughest setting, and I would have to play Monopoly a lot in order to beat really good players. This is not controversial and this is not new.
My hunch, although Doone does not say this in plain English, is that he or she is complaining about people playing games without having fun doing so. To take an example in Warcraft, let’s suppose I want to slay a dragon. But the nefarious designers at Blizzard tell me that before I slay this dragon, I will have to slay one hundred mogu that I have no interest in slaying. I do it, because I want to slay the dragon so much that I’m willing to put up with slaying the one hundred mogu to do it. Or perhaps I don’t do it, because slaying one hundred mogu would take too long and slaying the dragon isn’t worth that much to me.
Is forcing me to slay one hundred mogu unethical? I think that’s a pretty far leap.
What interest does Blizzard have in forcing someone to slay pixelated mogu? I’d be hard pressed to find any. Blizzard is primarily interested in getting me to pay them $X a month to continue to play their game, and perhaps secondarily concerned with me recommending the game to my theoretical friends. I can’t see them caring whether I slay mogu or not. It’s far more likely that they’ve decided that I might like to slay mogu in addition to slaying the dragon, or that slaying the mogu somehow makes slaying the dragon more fun (by, for instance, making it seem that slaying the dragon is a bigger accomplishment). Or maybe they’ve figured in the long run they’ll make more money by driving people who really hate killing mogu away from the game, in order to keep it more fun for people who do like killing mogu for whatever reason. But those things can backfire.
I seriously doubt Blizzard is putting non-fun things in the game for the purpose of getting people to continue to play the game. I don’t think Blizzard has any interest in people killing pixelated mogu in and of itself, which is what that would suggest. Having people do not fun things make them less likely to continue giving Blizzard their money. It isn’t evil. It’s just stupid.
Again, I feel I could stop there. But Doone then goes on to the bane of all ethical discussions: the absurd hypotheticals. And these are too absurd to not respond to. I kid you not, the article suggests some equivalence between the decision as to whether to save a drowning child with whether game designers should ever try to motivate people to play their games:
I think we know responsibility best in a practical sense as duty. As being accountable. It means something we must do because we are concerned about the outcomes or impacts of something. Do game designers have a responsibility to their players when it comes to addiction and behavior conditioning mechanics?
Let’s take them one by one (again, feel free to stop reading at this point if you aren’t interested in minutia):
Suppose there’s an invisible oil slick on a stairwell. No one can see it but you. You know that if you step on it, you’ll fall down the stair and break your neck. Do you have a duty to put a sign near the stair warning others of the invisible slick? Do you have a duty to clean it up? Cordon it off? If someone who walks there falls down the stair and breaks their neck, do you have some responsibility for the accident? After all you didn’t put the slick there and you didn’t volunteer to be the only person who could see it. All of us would likely agree that you should do something about the slick, even though you didn’t put it there.
Somehow I have been granted powers to see the invisible! I take this as a metaphor for Doone’s writing of thousands of words on a topic where he or she sees an ethical problem other people are too deluded to see. But for the record, no, I don’t think I should do something about the invisible oil slick no one else can see, because I would probably conclude that it’s more likely to be the result of a hallucinogen someone put into my drink than something that’s actually real, and I should go get help for that instead of warding people away from a danger that has never actually existed at any point in time.
Now take it a step further. Suppose $1 million dollars automatically fell down from heaven for every person that fell down the stair. You have the power to just remove it and prevent any accident from ever happening. If you instead leave it there but put a sign next to it to warn people of the oil slick, do you bear any responsibility if a person walks on it and falls to their death? All of you would likely agree that accidents happen, regardless of fore knowledge. Therefore, if you can prevent an accident by removing the obstacle, you should do so. It is immoral to do otherwise.
This acid trip keeps getting better and better. The most comical suggestion is that any of us “would likely agree that accidents happen,” particularly accidents concerning super-powered vision, invisible oil slicks and copious wealth raining down from the heavens. Boone claims it would be immoral to not remove the oil slick. Just for kicks I’ll say it isn’t. I can guarantee you, though, that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about this particular example because it’s never going to happen.
How about another scenario where I’m walking down the street past a swimming pool. In the pool I see a child drowning. Do I have a duty to save the child? I don’t know them and it’s not my fault they’re drowning. Suppose there are 35 children in the pool and only one is drowning. Do you have an obligation to save the sole drowning child? Or is it OK to say that the most children in the pool aren’t drowning and therefore there isn’t a problem? Most of us would conclude it’s wrong to let the child drown. This is meant to illustrate one point: We have a responsibility to act when we know something is going wrong.
Finally we are rescued from our acid trip into a hypothetical that could at least theoretically happen. Children do drown in swimming pools, perhaps even surrounded by thirty-five other children. But even here we have some problems to consider. Why is a child left unattended in a pool, without anyone else to watch for a reasonable possibility of drowning. How certain are we in fact that the child is drowning? What obstacles are in our way? Are we capable of rescuing the child ourselves, or would our attempt to rescue the child deter someone who might be better able to do it? Is it possible we will make the situation worse?
But beyond that, let’s look at Doone’s conclusion that “most of us would conclude it’s wrong to let the child drown… we have a responsibility to act when we know something is going wrong.” This is supposition on his or her part, and it is counterfactual. Society has developed standards for the responsibilities of its citizens; we call that common law. And under that common law, there is no responsibility to rescue someone provided that you did not cause the hazard, and you are not someone charged with such a duty (e.g., a lifeguard). It may be nice to rescue a drowning child. It may be noble to rescue a drowning child. But people generally do not have the responsibility to rescue drowning children. This conclusion represents the centuries of societal judgments about such things, something Doone ignores.
But what about those who do see the problems and try to help? What’s the extent of their responsibility?
Let’s assume you’re sailing on your boat fishing and as you’re coasting along the beautiful blue shark infested seas you see a swimmer out in the water drowning. You throw them a life preserver, turn around, and continue to fish. The person catches the life saver, but as stated before the waters are infested with sharks. They get eaten by the sharks as they struggled to crawl into the boat. Are you responsible? You threw them some help, after all so that they could save themselves. What is the extent of your responsibility in this scenario?
What the hell is someone doing swimming in shark infested waters, in an area deep enough for sharks to be and for me to fish in a sailboat? My feeling is that if someone has in fact survived this long in such waters it’s highly unlikely that he or she is in fact drowning. Just like the invisible oil slick and money raining down from the heavens, this Olympian swimmer suddenly drowning in shark infested waters is a hypothetical so wildly improbable that it can’t possibly have any practical implication as to what is ethical or not.
Or more to the point.
Suppose you design a bridge to allow children to cross an alligator filled bay. You get $1 for every child that crosses.
I fail to see how positing that I am both the architect and toll collector for a bridge over alligators used only by children is more to the point. If anything, it seems even more farflung than the invisible oil slick and drowning olympic shark bait swimmer hypotheticals.
In building it you can choose between two kinds of materials: one which is readily available, easy to assemble, but which has a 90% chance to break; or you can choose a much more difficult to acquire, difficult to assemble material, but which has a 89% chance to break. If the bridge fails, children trying to get to the other side will fall into the bay and get eaten by alligators. You must chose between only these 2 materials. Which one of these materials is the ethical choice? Is that 1% morally significant? Should we strive for the best possible conditions despite the difficulty or disregard progress in order to have it easy?
So let me get this straight. I am an architect for a bridge over alligators that children will use, I am limited to two materials, both of which are extremely likely to fail.
Clearly at this point the only ethical solution is to shoot yourself and hope that in the next life you get a more palatable hypothetical.
We can be responsible for things even when we didn’t cause them or create the circumstance. When we know something is wrong we have a duty to act to fix it. It’s entirely possible to bear some responsibility for bad outcomes, even if they are not of your making, even if you didn’t intend them, and even if responsibility is shared.
Finally Doone has exited the land of LSD-inspired hypotheticals, but alas, his or her conclusion is still wrong. What’s interesting here is the bait and switch of the first two sentences. ”We can be responsible” for things we didn’t cause. That’s wrong, but quite a few people will be nodding because they confuse things that would be nice, noble, and admirable to do with things we are responsible for doing. But look at the next sentence: “When we know something is wrong we have a duty to act to fix it.” We’ve moved from the possible to the certain. In the first sentence it’s possible to have a responsibility. In the second sentence it’s certain that the responsibility exists. Both sentences are wrong, but even if the first one were true it does not lead to the second.
The next paragraph is where things start to get revolting:
As for the decisions we make as gamers, many of us know when a game has crossed the line into addiction. Or when it’s feeding our bad habits. We know it to ourselves even if we don’t talk about it publicly. Is it wrong to enjoy a game for the sole reason that it feels rewarding to play? Is it OK to play games NOT for fun, but to get your daily reward in life? Suppose we live harsh lives, have mind-numbing, unrewarding jobs; are usually never recognized for who we are or for our contributions int his life. Is it wrong to get those things from a game? Arguably that’s exactly what we do. And that’s exactly why many gamers demand Skinner, are willing to look for the bright side of addiction or to defend designers who do so. We need to feel rewarded at some point in our day. We need to recognized for some kind of achievement. Usually the world just isn’t so. For the ordinary person like me, we have our triumphs but work can be unrewarding. “Work” in games is usually eager to reward us.
And here we are. For all of us pathetic fools who play games on the internet, Doone has come to rescue us. Doone is the White Knight and we are the princesses trapped in Skinner boxes by nefarious game designers who take advantage of the fact that our lives are pathetic, tricking us to do daily quests for their financial gain.
That’s the sort of paternalistic crap that makes me vomit.
I’m not saying that there aren’t pathetic people in their mom’s basements playing World of Warcraft as their only social connection to the world, living off of stale cheetos and cases of Mountain Dew. There may well be one or two. But that’s not all of us, not most of us, and for my part I am offended at the idea of Doone, in his or her shiny White Knight armor, riding in from the Internet to save me from this horrible prison.
I am not easy to offend. So congratulations on that.
Let’s skip a few paragraphs.
Daily quests aren’t the pinnacle of awesome game design fun nor is it the sulfur that fuels the fires in hell. While players may benefit from game play features such as dailies, that feature isn’t likely designed on the basis of player enjoyment, but rather on a financial need of the developer. It’s not OK to profit by manipulating other people into any behaviors.
If Doone has demonstrated or even tried to demonstrate, even with wild hypotheticals, that Blizzard profits by having people do daily quests in a way other than making the game more enjoyable for people to play, I didn’t see it. If Doone argued at any point that dailies aren’t likely designed on the basis of player enjoyment, I didn’t see it. Granted, I don’t think many people will say to their friends “Hey, you have to try World of Warcraft! You get to do lots of fun daily quests!” But I don’t think Blizzard set out to make them unenjoyable, and I certainly don’t think Blizzard thinks of them as mandatory aspects of the playing experience. They aren’t.
Psychological manipulation is not a necessary ingredient for making good, profitable games.
Of course, Doone has defined “Psychological manipulation” as making someone want to do something. I would think it’s well nigh impossible to make a good, profitable game without making someone want to play it, although I wouldn’t call that psychological manipulation.
I am not arguing that there are not some games out there that do use truly wicked ways to get people into paying to continue to play them. I haven’t experienced such games, but I am sure they exist. (It would be nice if Doone named them.)
Ultimately, though, Doone’s article may well be a classic example of the White Knight syndrome. Here we gamers are, suffering from the psychological manipulation of dastardly game developers. Doone is here to rescue us, here to pull us away from games that we think are really fun but actually aren’t, into a more meaningful existence where utopian game designers do not take any effort in trying to get you to continue to play their games. At that point, our enjoyment would be pure, and like the drowning child crossing the poorly constructed bridge covered with invisible oil, we will be grateful to Doone for his or her wisdom.
No word on the sex to follow, though.
I have shut down comments now because I think they’ve gotten absolutely ridiculous (and perhaps I am significantly to blame for that). If you are interested in discussing issues like this without tossing around loaded terms like “behavioral loop” or “Skinnerian”, I encourage you to read two of my other articles on this topic. In the first, “Ethics Again”, I described a rule for determining whether something is unethical and apply it to five specific examples I have experienced. In the second, “Getting What You Want From A Game”, I responded to what I take as Milady’s good faith, well written and reasonable effort to argue the same sort of thing Doone argued. Needless to say, I think she’s wrong, but I think her piece is far more deserving of respect than Doone’s. I welcome comments there and hope that those who are interested in a good faith discussion of these issues would comment there.
I thank those of you who commented in good faith here (and if your comment is still up, I think there’s a possibility you’re one of them), and I look forward to a more productive discussion.