Fresh from the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald comes the news that World of Warcraft, and indeed all massive multiplayer online games, is unethical.
Jonathan Blow, developer of the game Braid, recently spoke at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image's FreePlay conference. Some of the things he said about MMO's are interesting, and some of the conclusions he reached seem erroneous to me.
Developers should provide activities that interest players "rather than stringing them along with little pieces of candy so that they'll suffer through terrible game play, but keep playing because they gain levels or new items", he says.
Well, so far so good. I don't really think anyone could disagree with that statement.
Mr Blow believes developers need to think about what their games are teaching players when they reward them for performing certain actions.
"That kind of reward system is very easily turned into a Pavlovian or Skinnerian scheme," he says. "It's considered best practice: schedule rewards for your player so that they don't get bored and give up on your game. That's actually exploitation."
Somewhat hyperbolic, but essentially accurate in terms of what the system is doing to get you to keep playing. Is it exploitation? Well, clearly Jonathan thinks so. We'll come back to why I don't agree in a moment.
"I think a lot of modern game design is actually unethical, especially massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, because they are predicated on player exploitation," Mr Blow says.
He believes players will naturally avoid boring tasks but developers "override that by plugging into their pleasure centres and giving them scheduled rewards and we convince them to pay us money and waste their lives in front of our game in this exploitative fashion".
Well, we seem to be getting to the meat of things. Jonathan finds systems that reward the player with gear or levels to be exploitative, and since he finds those systems to be exploitative, he believes that games that use such systems are unethical. If you accept his basic premise, then his conclusion would be apt enough. The reason I don't accept it is because I don't believe Jonathan is looking at the entire game here, merely the part of it he doesn't like, and is acting as if the entire game is grinding.
Does it therefore follow that you are forced to grind because you've been programmed like a rat with electrodes in it's pleasure centers? Hardly. There are other rewards to be had in playing WoW which elevate it beyond mindless button mashing for the Sword of a Thousand Truths. You can spend hours in the game doing nothing at all, or even turning up all the settings and going into Deadmines just to look at all the little details on the ship and the walls (amazingly, my wife and I who have been running the Deadmines on various characters for years now just noticed the huge doors in the cavern with the ship). There are alternative reward systems in place (you can go up against other players in Arenas or Battlegrounds, you can run instances or raid, or yes, you can grind mobs for reputation or quests) but more importantly, you don't have to do any of it and the game is still a rich experience.
Quite frankly, I think Jonathan Blow is giving the artistry of the game and the immersive quality of the gameplay, the storylines one experiences, the game's stance on redemption and corruption, and much more short shrift in order to focus on a gameplay aspect he doesn't like and use it as a means to dismiss the entire genre of games as 'exploitation'. For a man who once pulled his game out of a festival to protest the festival's inability to find the artistic merit in Super Columbine Massacre RPG! I find his stance limited, either unable or unwilling to look at where WoW does succeed as art (which he clearly finds to be important in both game design and game experience) and how it transcends what he decries in its medium. Anyone who has ever experienced the Hero of the Mag'har questline knows that WoW is as much story as it is game, and for some of us, the story is just as important. When level 60 was endgame and you were in Stormwind when the Marshal Windsor event started, you know you dropped what you were doing to go watch it. It's details like these, like the swaying lamps in Darkshire, like the extended lore of dozens of questlines that unfold over gameplay that keeps people coming back to the game, and which elevate it beyond the 'Skinner Box' that Jonathan Blow sees it as.
It honestly makes me wonder if he's even played it.