What a Difference a Year Makes
by Dave Rickey
No matter where you go, there you are.
Well, I find myself preparing for another pilgrimage to San Jose, center of the universe for all things digital, to attend GDC and give a presentation for the second MUD-Dev Conference. It's been an ... interesting year. Last year this time I was working for Mythic. Since then I've left there, taken and lost a job as Lead Designer for another company, and embarked on the excercise in frustration that is trying to raise capital to do my own project from scratch in a market that is no longer "hot". Meanwhile, the industry seems to be still trying to answer the same question they've been asking for 4 years: What's next?
The industry is trapped in a cul-de-sac, repackaging the EQ gameplay model in different ways and different settings. Efforts to step out of that model have failed, one after the other. Even the great hope to break the mold and get into the mass market, Star Wars Galaxies, in the end became "just another treadmill". It's looking more and more like the treadmill is not a temporary stepping stone on our way to something better, but something core and fundamental that we are always going to have to work around. Even though I've been saying that for the last few years, I wouldn't have minded turning out to be wrong
I'm basing this statement on more than just the empirical evidence of the games we have seen. Lately I've been reading up on neuro-psychology and the related fields. There's been a lot of progress in that area in the last decade, we're starting to approach a reductionist explanation for the mind. Core to any explanation of mental processes is the means by which neural connections express behaviour and retain memory. The "science of the mind" is actually becoming worthy of the name.
At the core of this process is the way that we learn. To grossly oversimplify, mental networks that yield desirable results are reinforced, those that yield undesirable results are inhibited. We "feel" this in various ways, pleasurable ones for reinforcement, uncomfortable ones for inhibition. When we set up our games to contain behavioristic "variable reward, variable ratio" systems, we're tapping into one of the fundamental systems the brain uses to evaluate success or failure in coping with the world. Possibly, in a way similar to our collective over-indulgence in refined sugar, this repeated triggering of a fundamental reward evaluation can lead to extreme, even pathological behaviors (I'm not speaking so much of the "catass effect" here as the self-destruction of compulsive gambling, which is an even more extreme example of the same pathology).
The "perform action, receive reward" reinforcement system is to learning what sugary sweets are to eating: Pleasurable, but ultimately pointless and potentially damaging. However, we are capable of learning to appreciate more complex flavors than simple sweets, so if the analogy is to be trusted there should be more complex forms of pleasure that we can induce through gameplay. This begs the question: What are they?
Well, re-evaluated in this context, the community-formation aspects of these games takes on a new meaning; it's tying into our sense of social position, our need to know our role in society. This would seem to be qualitatively different and more subtle than the "ding" rush of the action-reward pleasure system. Another would be the exploration drive; we seem to derive pleasure from being the first to discover a new place or a new subtle property or interaction of the game systems. All of these map directly to fundamental brain-reward systems.
On the reverse, now the real issue with death penalties becomes clearer, it's not simply the lack of success, but the declaration of failure and consequent penalization that triggers the same mental processes associated with shame, frustration, and humiliation, intended to discourage behaviors that lead to undesirable consequences. These systems are intended to push us to identify the sequence of actions and desires that led to failure, and discourage us from engaging in the same actions or pursuing the same desires.
From a psychiatric viewpoint, these observations are rather obvious and pedestrian, but from a game-design viewpoint they have wider implications. Of the greatest significance are the implications for the role of the treadmill: Necessary, but not adequate, and the potential they raise for moving beyond the cumulative-character reward systems through careful study of neuro-psychiatric research. If there's a way out of this trap we've found ourselves in, it will almost certainly have to come from providing pleasures more subtle and interesting than those of a slot machine or a pinata.