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Some Assembly Required: On MMOs and loss aversion

Jef Reahard
I've been reading a book called Scorecasting lately. It's basically an academic exercise in statistics and human behavioral analysis as it relates to the decisions made in both individual and team sports. One of the chapters touches on a theory called loss aversion, which is a psychological phenomenon first attributed to Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The theory is generally understood to mean that humans fear potential losses much more than they enjoy actual gains, and thus they often act in statistically irrational fashion to avoid said losses.

We can also see principles of loss aversion at work in MMOs. In fact, I'd go so far as to posit that loss aversion is a large, if indirect, reason why many people play MMOs in the first place. It's also a major reason why sandboxes, virtual worlds, and games that feature some sort of tangible risk/reward mechanic have been in such dire straits since MMOs went mainstream. Follow me past the cut and see if you agree.

Fallen Earth - Just because
See, life is hard. It's full of loss, and whether that loss is financial, material, or familial, it's usually very permanent and often very painful. It's also constant, and most adults realize that as good as things are today, they could be gone or otherwise changed for the worse tomorrow.

Enter MMOs, which before their descent into accessibility disposability were effectively virtual worlds that gave players more autonomy and control over their virtual lives than they enjoyed over their real ones. Now, I don't have any actual evidence here and this is just a rudimentary thought experiment, but it's not hard to see why certain societal groups and individuals would gravitate toward a downtime experience that grants a convincing illusion of control if not control itself. This control can take many forms, of course, but all of them basically boil down to character immortality and the inability to lose anything of value -- or the ability to gain it back in short order.

Modern MMOs are a sort of loss aversion utopia, in other words.

Fallen Earth - Character in a doorwayLoss aversion also factors into MMO marketing. It's why MMO companies generally avoid deleting characters, even from accounts whose owners haven't logged in for years. There's always a chance that Joe Blow will come back and subscribe or buy something from the cash shop, right? Well, yes, but that chance evaporates if you delete the level five Warrior that he made just so.

Conversely, most companies aren't above using loss aversion principles to gently threaten wayward players. Come back to the city of Grindadelphia, they say, because if you don't, your character name will be given away! For some, the thought of losing a well-loved name is more important than the fact that they left a craptastic game because it was, well, craptastic. The loss of uniqueness is more important than the gain of actually playing a more fun MMO.

In broader strokes, I see loss aversion as a driving factor behind the decline of the sandbox genre. As I mentioned in the intro, the theory says that humans generally seek to avoid losses even at the expense of potential gains. This is part and parcel of modern linear MMO design, which is entirely bereft of both consequences and meaningful choice.

From my perspective, most of today's MMO gamers exist in a sort of progression-centric bubble. This bubble insulates against all loss, but it sacrifices community for self-sufficiency, and in doing so, it also sacrifices the possibility of unique in-game achievement in favor of fake -- but guaranteed -- achievements that are shared with millions of other players.

Casual-friendly designs are obviously the safest financial bet, though. The video game generation has grown up and is now too busy to play video games outside of short microbursts. It's easier for many MMO players to copy someone's character build than it is to actually build something on their own, whether it's a character or a community. But level dings, achievement systems, and the like afford time-poor players with a reasonable facsimile of that intoxicating attaboy feeling that manifests when they accomplish something actual and noteworthy in their real lives.

That fakery and faux high is a good enough reason to dabble in MMOs for many players, and when they're coupled with mainstream genre conventions that stipulate that characters can never lose anything of value, the modern MMO space is very definitely scratching both the achievement and the loss aversion itch for the largest cross-section of gamers.

These gamers are usually opposed to things like item decay, PvP, and loot that's inferior to crafted goods. They bristle at the notion that they're afraid of these mechanics; it's more like they wouldn't willingly subject themselves to such during their leisure time.

But why is that, really? Why play an MMO if you don't actually like the virtual world mechanics that separate MMOs from other types of games? These mechanics provide endless sources of conflict, which is the ultimate goal of any good game -- or any good story, for that matter -- and yet today they've been marginalized or deemed "bad design" by both armchair experts and armchair experts who've landed design jobs.

Ultimately, I think, it's because these players are deathly afraid of loss -- just like the loss aversion theory posits -- even though "loss" in this case is pixels. Whatever the reasons, the effect on the MMO industry, and more specifically its creativity, has been a net loss. The disappearance of consequence, meaningful choice, and risk/reward from our virtual worlds has effectively stripped them of their essence and reduced them to the mundane level of idle amusement that non-MMO video games have occupied since the inception of the artform.

We're seeing some pushback on the design front here lately, and even big AAA companies are getting into the act, but I think ultimately sandbox MMOs and the people who love them will always be relegated to the back of the bus. And that's OK, to be honest. We'll talk about why it's OK in my next Some Assembly Required.

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of sandboxes and player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!

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