(Cross-posted from a Nerds post circa August 2009.)
One of the most frequent cracks you’ll ever hear leveled against Massively Multiplayer Online Games (hence referred to as MMOGs) is that they’re “a job you pay someone else for the privilege of doing”. On its face, this criticism is absolutely accurate; no matter how much fun it is or how varied the developers try to make the missions, the process of playing one of these games is essentially that of creating a virtual person that must work at various tasks to achieve progress, with the process being ultimately open-ended and non-conclusive in order to create an incentive for the player to keep playing indefinitely. Grinding through levels is undoubtedly work, and once you finish that process, so is levelling various money-making crafting processions and upgrading gear in order to deal with progressively more and more difficult “end-game content”- until the next expansion comes out and the process starts all over again. And you pay someone else for it! You chump!
The thing of it is, though, ALL games are fundamentally work that you pay someone else to be allowed to do. When I was a kid I forked over around fifty bucks of my carefully saved allowance (several months’ worth, anyway) for Super Mario Brothers 3. I then dedicated the next several months of my young life to conquering the damn game, which as anyone who played the original iterations of Mario Brothers knows was a sheer grind of developing reflexes, muscle memory, and sustained concentration sufficient to keep the goddamn plumber alive through eight worlds’ worth of increasingly ludicrous platform-jumping and pipe-mazes. I resisted the urge to pitch my controller through a window countless times and frittered away God knows how many hours. Best saved allowance I’d spent yet, so far as I was concerned- and I can assure you I didn’t put in all that time and effort and banked frustration just to find out at the end that Mario rescues the Princess and then see which Japanese people were credited with, say, the Goomba sprites.
I did it because, paradoxically, the reward offered up front for doing something- whether it’s navigating a platform jumper or successfully taking down a raid boss or working a job for real money- isn’t always why we really do something. If you ask someone why they work at their job the usual answer is a “duh, you drooling idiot” stare and a “because they pay me”- and unless that person is lucky enough to be in a job they’d work at for free anyway just because they enjoy the process that much, this is surely true. But pay is really only part of why people do particular jobs; if there were a direct relationship between willingness to work and number of dollars paid in the end, people would never quit high-paying jobs or even high-paying entire careers in order to do something that offers them less stress and frustration. Even if you’re being paid enough to spend weeks in the Caribbean every year, if your boss is obtuse and abusive and your co-workers are lazy and irresponsible, it might not be worth it to you to continue showing up and doing something that offers no rewards other than the pay.
One of the best ways to utterly demotivate and undermine anyone who works at anything is to remove the connection between effort exerted and results achieved. If some poor cubicle drone finds there is no difference in outcome for him whatsoever between how hard he works and how well he is treated or even just the simple question of having his effort acknowledged, and the guy down the hall that spends all day playing Minesweeper and does the bare minimum to get along, the odds are that he will quit if he thinks he can do any better, and that he will become equally as unproductive as the Minesweeper addict if he thinks he can’t. Similarly demoralizing and work-ethic-killing are bosses that offer no clarity of expectation and give arbitrary punishments and rewards that relate more to how he’s feeling than the worker’s actual efforts and quality of results; whether you’re a laboratory rodent getting random shocks or an employee of a company that models its management practices after “Dilbert”, not knowing what to do or how to gain rewards or avoid punishment will skyrocket stress hormones and rapidly set up the afflicted individual for a case of learned helplessness.
The real appeal of a game, whether it’s based on pixels, cards, or chess pieces, is that it represents a system with explicit and easily understood rules and paths to success, even if the success represents nothing more than a completely abstract condition. Even if actually achieving that success is extremely difficult and time-consuming, as long as the player still perceives that success to be actually achievable with enough effort, the odds are that he will keep playing, providing he has nothing more rewarding to do. The conditions for victory are clear and are not changed arbitrarily, and the connection between effort and reward is ironclad; even if you fail in an attempt, all improvement is measurable; you survived longer against your opponent, or damaged your opponent more, or stumbled across new possible strategies to try. More advanced games (and old games with particularly good systems) encourage a great deal of exploration and innovation, which extends play time and ways to be rewarded in some fashion. There’s plenty of other things that go into making a game good or bad, but most of the things that make them bad stem from somehow disturbing these elements of clarity and reward-to-effort link- making the game so obtuse to control that only the most lightning reflexes can possibly produce any success, making the game so easy that there’s no challenge (no effort required) for reward, or making it so difficult and opaque that only someone who read the developer’s notes could possibly figure out what the conditions for success are.
MMOGs take this one step further by involving other people, which both increases the potential for reward and for aversion. Cooperating with or defeating other players is simply more rewarding than doing so with an artificial intelligence, if only because the flexibility of behavior is so much greater. AI will always have its limits, but other players are endlessly innovative- both in the traditional sense and in finding ways to be a better idiot. Getting approval from real people is much more rewarding than just meeting an AI’s conditions for success- and getting disapproval stings a lot worse. (No one likes being called an oozing bag of monkey cocks for no reason, which keeps a lot of people off social online environments in general.) This sets up a massive challenge for anyone who wants to develop such a game: protecting players from the worst effects of the bad behavior or incompetence of others while also building in ways to reward true cooperative efforts. That this is pretty difficult to do is reflected in the history of successes and spectacular failings in the genre in general, but since Everquest developers have found a number of sound rules to build in to give the game at least a chance of success. (Don’t require other players to make any progress at all, make global chats easy to deactivate, don’t provide campable spawns, make player-versus-player combat an opt-in system, etcetera.)
At “end-game” stages where players have maxed out the levels and loot attainable through questing, explored the entire existing game world, and exhausted crafting or other make-work economic activities, the social aspects of the game get a lot more important, especially in terms of content that involves getting together a large group of people to achieve goals. In order to protect themselves from fools and predators and maximize their chances of success, players usually form semi-permanent alliances so they can choose from a stable pool of trusted people to work at the content with. I’m only deeply familiar with Warcraft, but in that game, guilds (alliances) often have an application to join- which a lot of people complain is too much like a job application. The reason this is so is that in nearly all respects it’s functionally identical to a job application; both the potential recruit and the recruiting group need to find out if they’ll be able to work well with each other without a lot of conflict, drama, and hurt productivity. Successfully cooperating with twenty-four other people to defeat a series of encounters and gain in-game rewards is rewarding; repeatedly failing because people aren’t taking their role seriously, grandstanding, or trying to screw other people for loot is incredibly frustrating. More subtly, finding out how often the group intends to raid and what the general atmosphere is is akin to sussing out a corporate culture- there’s a lot more profanity and sex jokes in a raiding guild than at a business, but the overall question of environmental compatibility is still just as important.
The function of an MMOG’s existence, and the reason people pay the gaming company to work at it, is to be an artificial good job, one at a well-run company with good incentive plans and skillful managers. If it more closely resembles a bad job, players are LOSING money rather than getting paid- and will quit with alacrity. The degree of psychological value a good job- even one that actually costs money- represents to people is reflected in the millions of subscribers.