Plato’s Digital Cave


Admittedly, summer has been particularly slow in regards to blog content. Perhaps it’s the lazy days of the season that make writing out of reach for me, or possibly because I just didn’t have much going on that warranted a blog post. However, that has changed.

I’m going to talk about World of Warcraft and game addiction. More specifically, my own experiences with the game and what happened as a result.

The Songs of Girlfriends Lost

The juggernaut of the MMO genre for quite some time was World of Warcraft, and it still remains as one of the few large-scale MMOs that still remain after other publishers and developers wanted to jump onto the MMO bandwagon. Though it seems to share the spotlight with other games rather than being the monolithic force it once was, it still remains and hence still remains relevant despite feeling anachronistic to post this article.

As such, I wish to draw back the curtain on an issue that was discussed in the peak of WoW’s reign of the genre, and that’s the nature of game addiction.

While the term “game addiction” is defined without a specific game or genre in mind, in its application it tends to be MMORPGs such as EverQuest or World of Warcraft. If you look at the medical stuff, it gets complicated. But the general consensus is that this sort of thing is out there.

In my adolescence, when WoW was at its peak, I remember the steady chorus of neglected girlfriends, exasperated parents, and the cold moments of players alone and hunched behind the computers.

And I know that because I was one of them.

A Connection Unmade

My journey with the game came with wanting to connect with a friend. The nature of a multiplayer game, and especially an MMO is that it can leverage social bonds to market itself in ways that single player games can’t do as much. Quite simply, people start playing because their friends are playing.

World of Warcraft owes a lot of its success to the work of B.F. Skinner, who was a pioneer in many forms of behavioral psychology. Of particular note is operant conditioning, which modifies behavior based on rewards and punishment.

Few people make the distinction between a fun game and an addictive game, and the best description comes from an old Cracked article on the subject (which actually gives a nice overall summary of the phenomenon).

Someone on Blizzard’s development team had a keen understanding of the human brain and used that understanding to craft an elaborate weave of reward and punishment systems that are meant to enforce specific player behavior. Gamasutra has a disturbing article on the subject, which essentially functions as an instruction manual to behavioral design. This is not done by accident or carelessness, this is done with intent.

Since it runs on subscription fees, the motive is to have the player stick around forever. This is accomplished by artificially elongating quests, gradually making the leveling process longer, and making the player grind to get an unnecessarily large amount of required items.

This is done gradually through a process of shaping. You level up really fast at the beginning and watch as the time to level becomes longer and longer. You start getting good random loot drops that trigger a dopamine response.

There’s a slow, steady process of giving the game more time and devotion. It’s subtle, practically invisible to the person undergoing it.I remember pulling all-nighters to play the game, skipping meals, and devoting more time and energy to it than really any game rightfully deserves. The end outcome is that the game has taken over so much of one’s life that is has become the only way they interface with the world and other people. Everything goes through the game and the skills to interact outside of it are lost. World of Warcraft becomes the only tool left, all that one really knows.

I had voices of reason around me. I resisted quite a bit, but I was glad they were there. As I discovered, there were people who didn’t have those voices of reason. There were people who watched helplessly as their loved ones neglected their school, their work, and their lives outside of the game. Some of them dropped out of school, lost their jobs, and suffered break ups and divorces.

People don’t consider this harmful because it doesn’t leave marks or bruises. They don’t understand the behavioral techniques that inform the game’s design, they aren’t experts. It also seems like there’s always a way to get the cash to keep playing. The addicted player can go to great lengths to make sure their supply is uninterrupted.

The Sunken Cost of Time

The problem with leaving MMOs is that we become attached to our characters because of all the time and effort we invest into them. MMOs also give us access to real people and these bonds can be surprisingly strong. This is why MMOs attract a lot of people who are shy and introverted because it gives them social interaction at a safe distance, filtered through a medium so there’s less chance of being emotionally hurt.

I did not find the community particularly endearing, but for some people, it’s all they really have. You get excited when you get onto guild chat and find out details about your guildmates. But these are weak ties, ones that are quickly created and quickly erased. They can possess meaning, but they are fragile. You can see this when guildmates that you’ve spent months getting to know simply vanish. They are forgotten since new members often replace them.

Then there’s the gear that you spent hours farming the required items for, the shiny armor that you got in a raid, the in-game accomplishments and rewards that you’ve been working so hard to get. This is illusory, manipulated behind the scenes to make it seem more valuable than it actually is. This feeds into the sunk cost fallacy that can prolong one’s time with the game.

So why did I leave? How did I manage to get out? In my case, it was a slow process of disillusionment. The game had the effect of bringing out the worst behavior of my friend. He isn’t a bad guy by any stretch, but he adopted a persona when in-game that was off-putting. It wasn’t as if he was a completely different person, but it did manage to heighten some of his dark impulses and dull constraints that made it easier to deal with offline.

I began to look behind the curtain, seeing behavioral traps everywhere. What used to be fun new weapons now took on a sinister undertone, they were carrots dangling in front of me. I also began to question how much fun I was really having with the game, and upon careful evaluation, those small blips of enjoyment gave way to long stretches where I had gone far beyond anything that could be considered “fun”.

In truth, I felt cheated. I felt like I had wasted an enormous amount of time. Usually, when people object to playing World of Warcraft they talk about its subscription fee. However, in my experience, the subscription fee is the least worrisome aspect of all. In the end, the resource that you’re going to be spending the most of is your time.

I remember my Japanese teacher talked about how those cultural values differentiated between Japan and the United States. “Time is always flowing,” she said. As I have grown older I’ve begun to understand that time is extremely precious and a game like World of Warcraft demands far more than a single player game or even a typical multiplayer game like Splatoon, Super Smash Brothers, or even Call of Duty.

It’s hard to conceptualize opportunity costs like that from the inside. You are focused on what you are doing, not what you’re not doing. However, when I talked to people connected to the player in question it became clear that there were so many moments where opportunities were squandered and sometimes in ways that couldn’t be undone or at least not without paying a heavy price.

The most tragic part of all was the following sentiment I heard expressed constantly, “I feel like I’m competing with WoW. I feel like he’s dating it instead of me.” Time and time again, frustrated girlfriends would echo this sentiment, as if the game was the true girlfriend in the relationship. A genuine human connection was lost for the express intent of playing an online game. It’s a tradeoff made by the abdication of choice and hence it feels like it just happened on its own, even though it clearly could have been prevented.

The greatest conversation that never happened in game development, at least to my knowledge, was the concept of ethical design. A game like World of Warcraft brushes up against this in a most uncomfortable manner. I had only heard this from Jonathan Blow in a broader conversation, whose words clearly fell on deaf ears as more developers wanted a piece of the MMO pie. Many of them came and went, shuttering in a matter of months. None of them could really replicate what World of Warcraft was able to do. Perhaps that’s for the better, though.

Still, the idea of ethical design is a conversation I wish the game development community and the gaming community could have. Do we design games that could have a good chance to potentially harm the players? Do we put warnings on boxes like we do with cigarettes? What is the best way to deal with the problem?

The reality is that a company like Blizzard functions like any other corporation, it wants money. It does not care if your grades are poor, it does not care if your relationship is headed south, it does not care if you’re having problems at work. One of the most insidious parts of modern consumerism is that this transactional nature of the consumer-corporate relationship is layered over with a thin veneer of friendliness and care. Fans matter only so much as long as they put more money in the corporation’s hands. But in fan culture, the corporation takes the role of a caring parent or understanding lover.

In fact, the thing that frightens me most of all is that Blizzard is something of a golden boy in the industry. Because it’s produced games that are critical and commercial darlings, casting a critical eye on the ethics of World of Warcraft’s design is likely to be ignored because of its ensconced position of power in the gaming industry. It won’t really be taken to task for this in any meaningful way. I’m sure someone will handwave this due to the fact that Overwatch has a progressive cast as if that somehow makes up for it.

Hence, I am reluctant to believe that a sudden change of conviction in the industry is actually going to happen. This has taken on a new dimension as games are now monetizing through in-game purchases. There have been methods to curb some of these behaviors, such as changing it from “free to play” to “in-app purchases”, but I think a more comprehensive form of consumer representation is required because it’s now very open to exploitation.

From where I’m standing, there are still many people stuck in Plato’s Digital Cave.