As I was sitting here wondering what I would write (I know… only day two. It’s not for lack of subject matter, but for too much choice), a fairly regular and predictable email arrived: an offer to reactivate my Eve Online account.
For those who don’t know Eve, it’s a online multiuser game so massive that it defines many of the terms that we use for other multiuser games. Eve throws it’s new recruits (pilots, it calls them) into a cruel universe were almost any other pilot could be scheming to not only kill you, but also steal all your stuff. Remarkably most survive and many even thrive. Strong friendships are forged in this bleak environment.
The Universe consists of regions. There are roughly 4 “races” (with associated politics between them) that occupy 4 regions. Of that, some is secure (meaning if people kill you and steal your stuff, the police come) and some is insecure (meaning there is no penalty for killing). The “unit” of space you occupy is a Solar System (with “jump gates” between solar systems). Solar Systems are further grouped … but that’s not important: In each, you are ether somewhat safe or not.
You move from Solar System to Solar System in the game proceeding either through PvE (Player vs. Eve) quests or PvP (Player vs. Player) combat depending on your choices and somewhat on the choices of others. You can be a gatherer mining minerals from rocks; you can perform chores for select NPCs; you can build in-game things (and sell them) and you can build massive corporations (collections of pilots). In fact, you can do anything in between. But while play is very open ended, at the end of the day you need to (in some way) make money (Eve’s in-game currency is called ISK) to pay for new bigger ships and pointier guns (elsewise you’re not progressing in the game).
Roughly, this is all to say that Eve has all the trappings on an MMO (Massively Multiuser Online) Game. It has areas where PvP (Player vs. Player) combat is allowed and places where it is punished. It has people who play the game who are chasing either some goal generated by the game or their own agenda. It has a system that encourages the players to behave and form collective groups. It has a system by which it encourages players to keep playing.
That last bit is important. MMO Games feel very strongly that they need to motivate players to keep playing in many ways that in retrospect may not be entirely fair — or at least should be discussed openly such that unwitting people have a chance to make an informed decision.
To bring you all up to speed, after Pavlov’s famous experiment where a dog could be expected to salivate after certain conditioning, a man called Skinner extended this work with some rather interesting results… specifically that the reward system could be even more effective if it was somewhat unpredictable and still periodic. Basically he’s saying that a slot machine (a random payout after a random number of lever pulls) is more effective at compelling a person to pull the lever than a machine that gives a set payout for every pull of the lever. In fact, one of the things that can make casinos so dangerous is that the games they offer are carefully crafted to twitch every skinner nerve in our brains.
Where am I going with this? I’ve described Eve Online in broad strokes and I’ve described something that could be potentially used for evil gains. We put them together, of course.
From a pure RPG standpoint, I truely enjoyed Eve early on. You craft your own character, you make your own way. There is certainly plenty to discover in the enormous (almost overwhelming) universe at first. Like many RPGs, you eventually do some grind to level up, but the levels are close together at first and the new experiences are fairly engaging. PvP combat, in particular, can be both frightening and rewarding. I built a character focused on stealth and manufacturing with my combat skills focused on my races strengths and a particular type of stealth ship. It was fun.
And it was fun… for awhile. The running gag concerning Eve is “I have a job; I don’t need another.” Like many such jokes, it has grounding in reality. To really excel at the game, Eve encourages you to either join or run a “corporation.” A corporation is a collection of pilots that share some things like space stations… but like corporations in the real world, running one is real work and belonging to one often involves real work, too. To add insult to injury, corporations can bond to form alliances — which involves a level of high politic that is simply amazing to the outsider.
Even if you investigate Eve’s other activities, they too often sound like “jobs” complete with all the drudgery, politics and plain old work that a real job would have. You can be mining (or farming rocks), pirating (killing players for fun and profit), part of a corporate military defending a region of space, running cargo or missions… the list is literally endless… and to their credit CCP tirelessly works to add new jobs to the game.
A job, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Many games use a real occupation as the basis for their gameplay and story. Some of the more obvious like Farming Simulator, Demolition Company and Euro Truck Simulator try to directly translate a job into a game and have seemingly large fan bases. Less obvious examples might be Modern Warfare 2 encourage you to take the somewhat hollywood-ised job of a soldier. Regardless, these are not generally considered games that use Skinner as an inspiration and are generally regarded as good (if not great games).
Back to “It was fun, for awhile…” The most shocking thing to me, in retrospect, is that I didn’t stop playing when it became unfun. Therein lies one of the core truths of Skinner’s work on compulsion — that the compulsion lasts well beyond the fun portion of the activity. I did take several short and one longer “break” from Eve. At one point I was just busy and at other points I had other interests. Since you’re paying monthly for online games, there’s also a sense that you’re wasting your money if you’re not logging in. At certain points I was even not playing games that I did find fun to put in enough time to compulsively move my character forward.
Before we continue, lets be clear on one thing. I was not addicted. I did not spend too much time online. I did not neglect other jobs or responsibilities to play. I did not experience withdrawal when I didn’t play. I did not feel a compulsion to play per se. It really was like a job. I enjoyed the companionship of my online friends and while I was there I easily fell into (or was compelled) to keep pushing my character forward. I’ve known friends to be addicted to things and I can even imagine becoming addicted to highly addictive substances like alcohol (which does somewhat run in my family). As a safety valve, I’m cautious with alcohol — consuming it only in the presence of others. But games are not a chemical and Skinner compulsion is not about addiction chemistry — it’s about unpredictable rewards.
Regular games (by which I mean non-MMO games, really) may still use Skinner to improve the user’s perception of the game. I played through one recently. But regular games end. No matter your motivation for playing, the business model involves you paying for a copy of the game which you can play and eventually you will finish. Some games (like a good book or movie) you may play again — but there is a limit to this. Even non-MMO games that are Online (like CoD, L4D or TF2) have a cycle where the “game” ends.
Now that I’ve described my Eve Online experience, I will say that I’ve been avoiding WoW and I don’t think FarmVille would ever interest me, but I can see that they rely strongly on Skinner’s work to keep the subscribers that they’ve already attracted. FarmVille stands out for particular shame as it’s target market have little experience with games and it’s “use” of it’s subscribers is likely to lead to many people having very negative opinions of games in general. FarmVille stands out for an extra heaping of shame for the pop psychology that it uses to goad user’s friends into playing. Evil^3.
Eve Online is not entirely dishonest. There are many things I have enjoyed about the game and even in it’s use of Skinner, it would be one of the more mild offenders. There are many interesting and spectacular things about Eve Online — the sheer scale of the battles in the game, the evolving story that includes its users and the fantastic market capitalism in it’s nearly pure form. There is even good research being done into human nature and behavior using Eve as a laboratory… which speaks to the complexity of world in ways I cannot.
Lastly, I want to acknowledge Extra Credits which is a weekly video column at The Escapist where some of the ideas in today’s entry were discussed in a recent video. Their discussion on Skinner partially inspired me. I highly recommend their video column. For my readers (such as they are) following it may provide some further context to my game related posts as I highly respect their opinion and their presentation.