About ten hours into any MMO, after much optimism that the game will somehow be different from others on the market, I find myself turning in a pile of items for another thousand experience points, and a sword that gives me +2 more agility than I already have. And you know what? I spent thirty minutes of my life doing a repetitive – and only slightly amusing – task just to gain an arbitrary upgrade so I can stay on the same track as the ever scaling monsters and ambitious players. That isn’t fun. Fun is getting on that roller coaster you were always scared to go on, screaming your head off, then wanting to do it again. It’s doing that stupid, silly or outrageous thing that you don’t get to do everyday. What most MMO’s provide is simply a re-creation of the rat race all too similar to the one we have in real life.
If you’re into any sort of game design, psychology or just read a lot of articles about video games, no doubt you will have heard of the Skinner box. It’s one of the main psychological principles of engagement for a lot of games, but it’s one that is relied on far too much. Skinner boxes, or operant conditioning chambers, are devices used in behavioral studies in order to achieve certain responses from differing types of stimuli. One of the major findings from some of the earliest experiments was that if food was rigged to drop every time a lever was pressed, the rat would eventually stop pressing the lever. When food was to drop randomly upon a lever press, the rat continued to press the lever for a substantially longer time, not unlike a gambler spending a weekend in Vegas.