Is it the constant grinding, the social aspects or the magical worlds that lure thousands of gamers across the globe into MMOs on a daily basis? That's something I've been asking myself since the launch of Guild Wars 2 after noticing that a number of my thoughts when logged out of the game were about logging into and playing the game some more.
Why am I drawn towards the type of game that never ends? Why am I fighting the urge to spend every waking moment I have glued to the magical world of Tyria. Is it because GW2 is the greatest game ever made, or could something a little more scientific be at play?
I want to share a scenario with you, one that I'm sure each and every reader has experienced first hand. You can't remember the name of the actor that was in that movie with what's his face, so you head onto Google of an answer. You receive the answer you want, but something else catches your eye so you delve a little further on another topic, then another, and before you know it you're reading something completely unrelated and you've wasted an hour of your night. How does this happen so damn easily every time we get in front of a computer screen?
Dopamine, a chemical reaction in the brain which powers our need to seek reward is to blame. The never ending seek is fulfilled every time we find a new piece of information (the reward) and as a result we are more than willing to waste our time searching for new rewards.
According to scientific research, our internal sense of time is believed to be controlled by the dopamine system. Those with hyperactivity disorder actually have a shortage of dopamine in their brains, and as a result even small stretches of time seem to drag on for hours. However as our new reward is found, our dopamine levels increase meaning that an hour can easily feel like a ten minute window for the user.
James Olds, a psychologist in the 1950's was conducting a study on how rats learned. They would stock an electrode in the rat's brain, and whenever the rat went to a particular corner of its cage, they would give it a small shock and noted down the reaction. One day the team accidentally put the probe in the wrong corner and noted that the rats still continued to go back to the corner where it initially received the shock. This is when they discovered that if they set the probe and the rats were allowed to press a lever and stimulate their own electrodes, they would continue to do so until they collapsed.
Further study on humans confirmed that most people will neglect almost everything - their personal hygiene, their family commitments, food and sex in order to keep the buzz going.
When we break down an MMO such as Guild Wars 2, ultimately the game is about constant reward. You slay beasts and your reward in more XP. Your reward for more XP is levelling up. Rewards for levelling up are new areas, new weapons and new quests. New weapons and new quests yield even more rewards and the world keeps going and going.
However the brain eventually catches on if the rewards are too frequent and predictable. If you are rewarded for the same action in the same way four or five times, you will still get a hit of dopamine, but it will be less effective than it was during those first few experiences. This is where random loot drops come into effect. That's why so many people are happy to grind away at enemies, simply because they are seeking that random and special reward.
These same trends don't just apply to Guild Wars 2, but other MMOs such as World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic. It would also go a long way to explaining my unhealthy fixation on Diablo 3 earlier this year.
The same principle also applies to Facebook and Twitter usage - the same instantly gratifying rewards of constant streams of new information keep people glued to their laptops, computers, tablets and phones every waking moment of their lives.
Do the developers make their games knowing this? I don't know, but hopefully by sharing this article with you will at least explain why these titles are so appealing and addictive at times.
By Stephen Heller