When I was growing up video games were seen as something for kids, boys, and generally, the nerdy (and at the time, that was a distinctive insult). Today, the global video gaming industry makes over $66 billiion a year (2012). To put that in some perspective, the global movie business makes about $88 billion. The average gamer is 30 and 45% of gamers are women (source). Gaming is mainstream and gamers are… everyone, just about. So the psychology of gaming is the psychology of everyone.
The mystery of the MMORPG
In late 1999 I was among the first to play the first “true” graphically modern massively-multiplayer online role-playing (MMORPG) game. Namely, Everquest. It was an exciting idea for gamers at the time: journey heroically in a fantasy universe with thousands of other humans including your “real life” friends. True enough, it was great fun to adventure along in a game with people, as opposed to the more solitary off-line gaming experience. But developers also had to radically change the design to accommodate thousands of people in a single persistent game world. In an offline fantasy romp the player could be the heroic protagonist. The prophesied champion around whom the entire story revolves, and who ultimately saves the world blah blah. You cannot have thousands of world-saving protagonists. That immediately meant two things. One, that plot no longer existed in any meaningful sense and two, developers needed to give players something to do that would keep them playing and thus, paying the monthly subscription fee.
Old EQ players will tell you the graphics were stunning at the time. They were actually pretty underwhelming, even in 1999.
In the first portion of the game, Everquest mimicked, albeit quite poorly, the heroic quest of the champion type of gameplay. You completed quests that were ostensibly important to some narrative, even though so was everyone else and none of this changed anything in the game world. If the offline RPGs were like a book in which you were the protagonist and your actions effect the plot and outcomes, questing in Everquest is more like riding Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland: fun but staged and fake; commodified for the next million people in line to enjoy as well. But then your character reaches “max level” and is strong as it can intrinsically be and even the hollow, pretend narrative-relevant tasks go away. So what do the devs want you, the player, to do at this point? The answer genuinely shocked me.
EQ players could obtain the very best gear (weapons, armor, and other bric-a-brac) by visiting a special hard-mode dungeon which was so exacting, it took 40 people cooperating just to attempt it. These were called Raid dungeons, or just raids. The first such raids available took such a team 8-12 hours to complete— if they knew what they were doing. But coordinating and and mobilizing 40 people, even in a video game, took time as well. So you would be waiting 2-4 hours just for the thing to start. So, the minimum time investment was 10-16 hours (!). And success was not assured. A key player could lose internet connection resulting in a failed run. Assuming you succeeded, what was your reward? At most, a half dozen pieces of weapons or armor. Almost everyone there would get nothing at all. The rest would get what might be the best sword or whatever in the game. But then, what was the sword good for? Nothing… except… raiding. To be assured a prize (just one item) you would definitely have to attend no fewer than 6 successful raids.
And there were other insane chase-the-loot scenarios besides raids. One particular high-end robe was granted by killing a particular enemy. But the chance of it having the item was around 1%. After dispatched by a player, it would not re-appear for half an hour, and because it was the only way the item could be acquired, there were players at that enemies spot 24/7. To get just one of them required, on average, 50 hours of waiting, assuming you weren’t waiting in line behind others.
Sound totally crazy? It did to me too. I never did any of that. MMORPGs have evolved since then. They’re easier and simpler, for the most part. But raiding? Still there, still an intentional time sink. In fact, MMORPGs are so tedious and repetitive, so mind-numbingly soul-crushingly dull, that people actually pay other people to play the game for them. Why do people do this? Or for that matter, play Angry Birds, Guy Jumping on Stuff, or War Shooter with Guns Part 17: Slightly Grittier Sand Edition?
Why is gaming fun?
One answer is better articulated by the most excellent guys behind the YouTube gamer channel called The Game Theorists (gg, Matpat), so skip to the video below if you’d rather just watch their discussion. Anyway, according to game-maker and psychologist Scott Rigby gaming caters to three psychological needs that everyone has, albeit in an artificial way. It pushes our buttons the way that pornography does, even if it isn’t real. But what buttons? The needs to feel personal competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Competence being the sense of developed expertise and mastery of a task, autonomy being the feeling of control and self-determination, and relatedness being social connectedness and relevance. Every successful game caters to one or more of these elements and perhaps people who are the most emotionally dependent on games have needs their lives to not fill that gaming does:
Platformers like Mario or Sonic; Dance games, Meatboy, Flappybird.
Player-creative games like Farmville, Minecraft, and the Sim series; Open-world games like Skyrim or Fallout 3 in which the player can choose their fate, where to go and what kind of person to be.
MMORPGs, multiplayer games in general; Perhaps games with a strong narrative or character/social emotion driven like old school offline RPGs or dating simulators.
Evolutionary psychology of video games?
Other than an unpublished thesis paper by game-creator (and degree in EP-holder) Michael Astolfi, there is no such thing that I know of. But that said, the ideas above map pretty readily onto well-worn evpsych theory. Astolfi’s paper notes that video games are super-normal stimuli, enhanced or exaggerated versions of things that had Darwinian fitness relevance to our ancestors. Rigby’s “relatedness” closely approximates the need for social status and to cooperate with others to achieve goals. “Competence” in video games is not a general thing, but rather specific to the most human of skills like manual dexterity, strategic and tactical thinking vs humans or animals, and motor coordination. Astolfi wrote that the first-person shooter genre, among the most perennially popular, includes supernormal stimuli relevant to mastery of projectile weapons and hunting.
Players sometimes joked that the horrible experience I described in the opening paragraphs ought to be called “Evercrack”, in reference to its addictive qualities. Perhaps MMORPGs are addictive because they can feed all three of the needs above. There are many skills and tasks that take real effort and time to master (Competence). There is usually quite a lot of customization of a player’s character, choices about where to go and what “professions” to have (Astolfi points out that all MMORPGs also specifically include hunting, and gathering of resources)(autonomy). And ultimately, long after there is no real narrative or apparent purpose, players keep chasing the Sword of Uberleetness which will give them the chance to do .5% more damage. Not because they will get any great use out of it, but because it lets them brag to their friends. It gives them status. They also had to work together with their friends to get it, so it feels like a real bonding experience besides (relatedness). If they’re honest, just about every MMORPG player will tell you the gameplay is dull at best, but that they are there because of their friends and their enemies.
I can’t quite decide if I am fine with that, or if it’s Stockholm syndrome.
Links and further reading or watching
The Game Theorists YouTube channel. If you’re a gamer, I highly recommend it.
The evolutionary psychology of video games: The digital game as supernormal stimulus by Michael Astolfi
Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound by Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan
Everquest retrospective review by YouTube’s Vareous. Fun for nostalgia or if you never experienced EQ and are curious what it was like:
Make Love, Not Warcraft | Southpark’s MMORPG episode