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MMO MMOnkey: MMOs as Conditioned Learning Engines (Part 1)

Kevin Murnane
The behaviorists were like the orcs of psychology. Limited in vision, arrogant, belligerent and intolerant, they ruled the world of scientific psychology with an iron fist from the 1920s through the 1950s. Many of them were very capable scientists, however, and much of their work, especially in their signature area of learning, has stood the test of time. The behaviorists' biggest mistake lay in insisting that the principles of learning they discovered provided a complete and thorough explanation of what people do and why they do it. They thought they had the whole story. They didn't. They only had part of the story but it was an important part. We don't want to make the same mistake the behaviorists made and think their learning theories fully explain what we see people do in MMOs. But we also don't want to ignore the very powerful effects the principles of learning they discovered are having in every successful MMO on the market because when you get right down to it, games like World of Warcraft couldn't be better conditioning engines if they had been designed by B.F. Skinner himself.

Behaviorist learning theory is commonly know as operant conditioning and it is based on the simple idea that actions that are accompanied by good, pleasant, or desirable outcomes are more likely to be repeated while actions that are accompanied by outcomes that are bad, unpleasant or undesirable are less likely to be repeated. In other words, actions that are rewarded are likely to recur and actions that are punished are not. People didn't need the behaviorists to tell them this; the behaviorists' contributions were to clearly distinguish between different kinds of rewards and punishments and to demonstrate how each had different effects on what people do and how they do it. The behaviorists called the learning procedure that has the largest effect on how we play MMOs positive reinforcement. This type of learning occurs whenever a person does something and gets something they enjoy or value as a result. When people are positively reinforced, they are more likely to repeat or continue the action they were doing when they were rewarded and MMOs shower their players with positive reinforcement.

For your own positive reinforcement on this topic, read on.

What's the main thing you do in most MMOs? Kill things and take their stuff. Every time you take their stuff, you're being positively reinforced and being reinforced makes it more likely you'll continue to play the game. Of course loot isn't the only reward you get for killing mobs, you also get experience and, in some cases, the satisfaction of the kill. All of these things, the loot, the experience and the satisfaction, are positive reinforcers. Think of all the ways you get rewarded in MMOs. You make level and are rewarded with points to spend on new skills and abilities; you get the new skills and abilities; you harvest a resource node and get useful raw materials; you put something up for sale on the Auction House or the Broker and it sells; you complete a quest and get extra experience and better loot, you gain faction or status which lets you buy cool stuff, and on and on. All of these rewards make it more likely that you will continue to play the game.

Game companies don't want you to play the game once and then forget about it, they want you to keep coming back to the game and pay to play it again and again. They want your game playing behavior to become something like a habit and they want it to be a habit that's hard to break. Is there a way to make this more likely using positive reinforcement? Yes there is. Think about the timing of rewards. The most basic question you can ask about timing is should you reward an action every time it occurs or only some of the time? One of the simplest and most powerful principles the behaviorists uncovered is that reinforcement in the form of rewards produces behavior that is much more likely to continue if the reward is given intermittently rather than every time the action occurs. Rewards that are given every time the action occurs become less powerful and behavior that is based on constant reward is much easier to eliminate. MMO game design relies very heavily on this principle. The experience you get from each kill becomes less and less important so leveling is built into the game. Every kill gives you experience but some kills also give you level and a set of special rewards. Trash loot drops almost constantly but blue, purple, Legendary, Fabled or whatever your game calls phat lewt drops rarely and thereby provides an intermittent large reward. Resource nodes produce run-of-the-mill resources every time but they drop rares every once in a while as well. You don't get the big loot drop you want every time you run an instance but you do get it sometimes. This style of intermittent reward is perfectly designed to keep you killing mobs, harvesting nodes and running instances. We're hooked by the immediate and constant small rewards, we stay hooked because of the intermittent big rewards.

It's amazing at times how the positive reinforcement can add up. In addition to the typical experience point system, EQ2 has a status point system. A variety of achievements bring status to both the character and the character's guild. Guilds rise in level as their members accrue guild status and players can spend their individual status on items like special mounts, housing, titles and more. One way to acquire status is by carrying out adventuring or crafting writs. Many of the adventuring writs are quests of the kill-X-number-of-Y-mob variety and are given out by Fighter, Scout. Mage and Priest organizations in the major cities of Norrath. You pick up the positive reinforcement of normal experience for each mob you kill doing the writ but look how the rewards shower down when the writ is finished. You get a gold reward, you get an experience reward for finishing the quest, you get an individual status reward, your guild gets a guild status reward, you gain faction with the organization that gave you the writ, and, if it's the first time you've executed the writ, you get an achievement point reward which can be spent on your class build. In addition, an announcement is broadcast over your guild chat channel that you finished the writ and earned status for your guild. In my guild these announcements are greeted with a chorus of "Gratz!" which is yet another form of reward and reinforcement. It's all good, it's all reinforcement, and it all increases the likelihood that you'll continue to play the game, come back to play it later, and execute another writ when you do. Just what SOE, Blizzard, Turbine, and your guild want you to do.

We've only scratched the surface of the ways in which reinforcement influences game play in MMOs but now would be a good time for a reminder that positive reinforcement is far from the only factor that drives us to keep playing our favorite game. It is a powerful one, however. In future columns we'll dig a little deeper.

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