World of Psychologycraft?

While searching for some unrelated information, I found this little gem of a forum post.
It's about the psychology of massively multiplayer online role playing games. The author views MMORPGs through the reductionist lens of B.F. Skinner.

Almost everyone who has taken an introductory psychology course in high school or college has heard of B.F. Skinner. Skinner is an important figure in Behaviorism, and developed a learning theory known as Operant Conditioning. Skinner claimed that the frequency of a given behavior is directly linked to whether it is rewarded or punished. If a behavior is rewarded, it is more likely to be repeated. If it is punished, it becomes suppressed. This deceptively simple and straight-forward theory may explain why EverQuest is so addictive.


This process of guiding an individual to perform more and more elaborate and complex tasks is known as shaping in Operant Conditioning. It is usually explained in textbooks in conjunction with Skinner Boxes. Skinner boxes are small glass or plexi-glass boxes equipped with a combination of levers, food pellets, and drinking tubes. Laboratory rats are placed into Skinner boxes and conditioned to perform elaborate tasks. At first, the rat is rewarded with a food pellet for facing the lever. Then it is rewarded if it gets closer to the lever. Eventually, the rat is shaped to press the lever. Once the rat learns that pressing the lever is rewarded, a food pellet does not need to be dropped every time and the rat will still continue pressing the lever. It is in the same way that EverQuest shapes players to pursue more and more elaborate blacksmithing or tailoring combinations. Moreover, EverQuest players continue to attempt elaborate combinations in the face of many costly failures.

He goes on to talk about various "reward ratio schedules." It seems that the most effective is the "random ratio schedule," where the subject cannot predict precisely when he will be rewarded. Not surprisingly, Everquest's reward ratio schedule seems to be closest to the random schedule. "Just because you can get a bubble of experience in half an hour today," he remarks, "doesn't mean you can do it again tomorrow."

He concludes:

The massively-multiplayer nature of the game takes the virtual construct one step beyond just an elaborate Skinner Box. The problem with many people is that you can't have one box tailored to all of their reinforcement needs. But having them all in their separate Skinner Boxes is not interesting. The internet solves this problem by allowing individually tailored Skinner Boxes interact with others. And in this way, EverQuest has created a system of inter-connected Skinner Boxes, a Skinner Network even, where each Skinner Box is tailored to its host's needs and reinforcement schedule, and where individuals can interact with each other without sacrificing the integrity of their own construct.

That's a scary vision. I wonder if Blizzard and Sony have any psychologists on the payroll?
After the original's author's lengthy and erudite post, some random guy chimes in:

I read the first to paragraphs and my alt is a skinner/herbalist lvl 58 in World of Warcraft.

Anyway, personally, I have never liked MMORPGs. Too much chat, not enough splat.
My favorite games are shoot-em-ups and real-time strategy games. I loved Starcraft and Warcraft III.

I was never a "pro"-- my record was closer to 50% wins, 50% losses-- but I liked the thrill of the hunt, and competing against actual people. Clicking on a bunch of dialog boxes, to gather 99 Elvish Toadstools (or whatever) could never compete with destroying the enemy's base in my mind. I guess we all have our own skinner boxes to press!


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