Milady at Hypercriticism has written an article along the lines of Doone’s article I responded to a couple posts ago. It is, in my view, a well written article, far less inflammatory that Doone’s was, and more informative about her opinions. In the end, though, I think it demonstrates a certain point of view that is misguided.
The best illustration of this is in the one example she cites, which makes clear her objection to certain aspects of MMORPGs:
Some weeks ago we installed Lord of the Rings Online. We needed a change of scenery for our roleplay, and I remembered the Shire fondly. I wanted to take my partner to Tom Bombadil’s house and search the forest for Goldberry. Upon entering the game, I felt a dread that had something in common with the sight of a ringwraith. In order to explore their game, I would have to jump those “fun loops”, and I might become conditioned to keep jumping them for more numbers and pixels of pretty clothing for my prideful elf. Why must I subject myself to that addiction in order to have fun? Is that the ultimate goal of MMOs, or will they ever challenge the Skinner box techniques and provide real fun? I don’t want to become entangled in your game, I want to have fun for a while and get back to my life.
As I understand this objection, Milady thinks it’s wrong of the creators of that game to withhold from her access to the Shire and other roleplay locations until she has “jumped through fun loops”. Since I haven’t played that game, I don’t know exactly what she means by those. My suspicion, based on my experience with Warcraft, is that these are quests designed to familiarize a player with the mechanics of the game, practice those mechanics, and then and only then provide an environment appropriate for people who have learned to play the game enough to survive those challenges.
In truth, I think Milady is simply playing the wrong game. The creators of Lord of the Rings Online apparently did not intend to provide a pretty environment and pretty clothing on demand to a person who has no interest in the more traditional “kill the bad guy” approach of an MMO. There are games available to her that do; the one I know of is called Second Life; as far as I know you can enter that, create whatever character you want, go to any location in that game, and roleplay to your hearts content.
Since I haven’t played Lord of the Rings online, I’m not familiar exactly what those “fun loops” are. I can imagine a scenario where they are truly mindless tasks, completely disconnected from the game most people want to play. They could, for instance, require you to click on a button when it lights up, in homage to an actual Skinner box. I don’t know. In my experience with Warcraft, I don’t recall any tasks that I would consider truly mindless.
Quests in Warcraft typically have two purposes. One is to tell a story, in which the player participates in the story by doing various things to advance the story. The current Westfall quests tell the story introducing Vanessa Van Cleef, and provide an immersive experience for the societal problems within the human kingdom. I don’t think these are the sorts of quests Milady is objecting to, and I think it would be a very hard case for a person to object to such quests.
Other quests are of the more straightforward “kill 10 mobs for me and I’ll give you gold and experience points.” These quests serve a purpose of rewarding a player for practicing his or her class. (I’ll note that you don’t have to do a quest for this; you could simply kill mobs, but the quests are more lucrative and allow you to advance more quickly.) These are the quests I believe Milady objects to, the “fun loops” that prevent you from advancing and the tasks which supposedly condition you in a Skinnerian fashion.
I don’t see it that way. Warcraft at high levels is an incredibly complex game. Anyone who’s read my fire mage guide will appreciate that. What Blizzard is attempting with quests such as these is to introduce the complexity of the characters slowly, allowing a character to advance only when he or she has had sufficient opportunity to learn the skills. This is why skills are awarded after various levels.
I likened this to a piano teacher asking a student to play scales. Playing scales is a rudimentary task, boring, one which could very easily be called Skinnerian. But it works. Playing scales will allow you eventually to play more complex pieces. To bring it back to Warcraft, level 1 players know how to play Chopsticks. Level 90 players can play Beethoven.
Now, one may note that the first type of quests also provide the same sort of benefit without feeling repetitive. To Blizzard’s credit, I believe they have been moving away from the second type of quest ever since vanilla. But even if they hadn’t, there is a real purpose for the second type of quest, and it’s not for conditioning a player to perform repetitive things.
Milady’s objection, as I understand it, is that players shouldn’t have to go through these processes. They should be granted the ability to be level 90 immediately, with top level gear (or, alternatively, any pretty dress for roleplay), and be able to do what they want. I am not familiar with any game that offers such a thing, and with good reason: the complexity of the game at level 90 would overwhelm a new player. Further, there is a social benefit, in a game where cooperation with other players is expected, to have some sort of assurance that players who are level 90 have learned how to play their characters to succeed with them on some minimal level.
As I see it, there are two possible ways to frame Milady’s argument that MMO game design is unethical. The first is an indictment of very particular bits of MMOs, those quests that involve truly rote tasks that do not in fact advance the player’s understanding or enjoyment of the game. I can understand that it is possible such bits exist, but I don’t believe that this is the argument she is making. If it were, one requirement of the argument would seem to be to identify those bits far more particularly than she does; she has but one example and does not describe in detail the “fun loops” she mentions.
Instead, I believe that Milady is offering an indictment of all complex games. Any game where a feature is withheld until some task is completed is unethical because it is an attempt to condition a player to perform repetitive tasks. Under this standard, the Civilization games fail because they require you to learn city management skills, build roads, farms and mines, and other repetitive tasks before you can get to the end game where you can just nuke everyone. The Sims games fail for obvious reasons; getting a Sim a good job requires you to make them perform various tasks to learn skills. Dragon Age II fails; you can’t jump through the story without demonstrated a minimal level of skill with combat. Practically every single game I have played more than a month or so would fail Milady’s test.
I don’t think you can go there. My experience with Warcraft is that your player can advance in many different ways, but all of them are intended to ensure you have an adequate knowledge of your class before advancing. One of the joys of Warcraft is to be have an intimate knowledge of your character such that you have thirty different abilities and can know to use them all in less than a second. There is an art to an end game player, and that art could not be achieved without the leveling and gearing process.
But let’s suppose that isn’t true. Let’s suppose that there are quests that one is forced to do to advance and that they are rote tasks that do absolutely nothing to do with learning the “art” of an end game player. I can think of a few quests that would meet that description, but I don’t think they are forced and a lot of them are fun in their own right. Are these quests unethical? Or are they just bad game design?
To call them unethical, I think you would have to show a few things. You would have to show that Blizzard (or whatever developer produced the game) has some interest or would benefit from conditioning a player to run these quests. I think you would have to show that such conditioning is possible for more than a handful of vulnerable gamers.
Needless to say, I think these are very hard cases to make and I don’t think Milady has succeeded. Blizzard does not specifically benefit when players are online to perform daily quests; rather, they benefit when players pay them their monthly fee. I know of no one who plays the game specifically to run dailies. In my experience, it is the one aspect of the game people hate and avoid the most. I think one would have to make the case that Blizzard benefits in some way other than the monthly fee, because from what I can tell the prospect of required or highly encouraged dailies actually drives people away from paying that fee. What benefit does Blizzard derive from a player conditioned to do dailies after that person quits the game? I can’t think of a single thing.
It’s the second requirement that I find most troubling and offensive. In order to make the claim that these aspects of games are unethical, you have to claim that game players can be conditioned to perform otherwise worthless tasks within those games. My experience with pigeons way back in college demonstrated to me how difficult it was to condition a relatively simple creature to perform a task with a reward that was crucial to that creature’s survival. I had to starve the pigeon. I had to reward it for getting close to performing the task. I had to continue to provide that reinforcement, or the behavior would cease rather quickly. Finally, even then, the behavior would not last when the pigeon had sated its appetite.
Humans are far more complex creatures than pigeons, and game developers do not have anywhere near the reward available to them as food is to a hungry pigeon. To claim that gamers can be conditioned using rewards of virtual “points” that have no real tangible benefit is to claim that gamers are far more susceptible to conditioning than rats in a maze. It creates a picture of a gamer as a highly vulnerable creature, someone more easily manipulated than a simple mouse or pigeon. I think it shows a great deal of contempt for gamers to suggest that, and I don’t believe someone with respect for human intelligence would suggest that we are more susceptible to conditioning than a mouse or pigeon. (For the record: becoming addicted to a game is not the same thing at all, but I don’t want to get into that here.)
I really am tired of talking about this because that last point seems so overwhelmingly obvious to me. Doone and Milady are showing a great deal of contempt for gamers by suggesting that conditioning works. My feeling is that to the extent tasks within a game are boring, repetitive, or even possibly conditioning, they are bad design and are likely to push people away from the game (much as Milady was pushed away from LOTRO). They aren’t likely to be attempts to condition a player, because that would indicate that game developers treat their customers with such contempt as to believe they are more easily conditioned than a mouse or a pigeon. I think that’s the case Doone and Milady are trying to make and I tire of it.