Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Randomness in games: Response, addiction in video games

This is a response post to

In Jeff's post, he talks about the good and the bad of randomness mechanics in video games. This article will talk about how randomness fosters addiction, encouraging the player to play again. And, how this can be a positive component in a pleasurable gaming experience.


"Freedom is just chaos, with better lighting."
ALAN DEAN FOSTER, To the Vanishing Point


A behavioral addiction is associated with an activity that occurs on a regular basis that does not require unnatural chemical assistance.  Behavioral addictions range from severe to mild, affecting small parts of a person's life, sometimes seriously and diversely affecting relationships (such as excessive gambling or thrill seeking). However, 90% of the entire populace of the world has an addiction to something (Facebook, blogging, playing video games, biting nails, drinking soda, exercising, relationships, jobs, etc.) and these addictions are often key parts to rewarding cycles in a person's life. Many addictions are not unhealthy.  

There are a number of games that rely on randomness to bring their players back. Casinos make their money primarily on return customers. There is always a set goal and a perceived best positive outcome. The static goal, combined with the uncertainty of winning, and the rush of minor victories are a part of the time honored process. World of Warcraft relies on a much less random, but still random loot table for its boss battles.


Addiction (ad·dic·tion): an abnormally strong craving

  • Behavioral addiction must be voluntary.
  • The payout, positive feedback, or reward must be understood and clearly pictured in the user's mind.
  • Solid punishment must be induced to create a downturn in mood.
  • Small payouts must be interspersed between punishments to create upswings in mood, creating a "carrot on a stick".
  • Some people are more susceptible to a chemical called dopamine that goes to the dopamine D2 receptor than others. dopamine is a neural transmitter that is released during pleasurable experiences.

To cover the above, this article will describe the mindset behind an everyday slot machine in a casino and then loot from a game called World of Warcraft.

Gambling at the slots:

  • No one starts gambling because they don't want to and if they did, if the person comes back, it is voluntary. 
  • The reward is money. If a the reels line up properly, there are clear payouts, with a clearly indicated maximum payout. 
    • Current slot machines have twenty two possible combinations of symbols per a reel, with three total reels. This makes 223 possible combinations (10,648). 
    • It is logical thinking to believe that 1/10,648 is a maximum payout, but that is incorrect. losing slots are weighted in programming heavier than winning slots, so that there will only be one 1,000,000$ payout every 16.7 million plays. 
  • Punishment: Players paid money to play. Losing means the player lost real money. It is a clear punishment with clear negative results. 
    • One large payout in 16.7 million spins is not enough to keep players coming back. 
    • Smaller payouts Money was payed out in smaller sums to the player at 82% to 98% of the money put into the machine. 
    • Each individual slot machine is gauged differently with some paying out at a higher percentage and some a lower. 
    • There are seven types of payouts; 1:1, 2:1, 5:1, 80:1, 150:1, 2,400:1, and 1,000,000:1. Each payout has a different probability of happening.

The mindset a player normally should go goes through is detailed below:
  • The player voluntarily sits down and engages the machine.
  • He/she should see in neon lights that this machine has a 1,000,000 dollar jackpot. This clearly defines the highest achievement on this machine.
  • The player puts in money, roughly 1/33 pays nets 1/7 rewards(outlined above). Higher payouts happen less.
    • Losing money/games causes negative mood shifts.
    • Winning and gaining money causes positive mood shifts.
    • Negative mood shifts happen more than positive mood shifts, but the brain weights positive mood shifts radically higher, due to the release of Dopamine that affects the D2 neural receptor. The more negative reinforcement behind a positive mood shift, the more Dopamine is released when positive reinforcement happens. Even small victories should feel like grand ones, given enough failed attempts.
  • Repetition of this cycle will create a minor chemical dependence on the feeling of "winning" from Dopamine. The player should associate the release of Dopamine to the act of gaining money through gambling.
  • When his/her money roll is empty, the player should want to return in the future to "win" again.

"Disorder, chaos, anarchy: now that's fun!"


On to World of Warcraft:

World of Warcraft's boss battles have predefined items that it will drop when killed/defeated. Below is a part of a loot table from, taken from the Lich King encounter from "Wrath of the Lich King". But unlike gambling, all a player loses is time spent and a flat 15$ a month.  Also, the mechanics discussed below are a very small part of a very big game.  The biggest selling point of World of Warcraft is its social component and that is not being covered.

On the left side, outlined in yellow, that is a list of rewards a player can strive for. On the right side, that is the percentage chance that the item will drop for the player. What it does not list is that 100% of the time, Gold (money) and emblems (another type of currency), will drop for the players as a consistent reward.

Another dynamic to consider is the win loss component. Simply defeating a boss in World of Warcraft is an achievement unto itself and losing requires setting your party back up for another try, taking as much as 30 minutes in some cases. This creates another positive/negative reinforcement dynamic. Plus, being a boss rewards the player with a permanent achievement that in some cases comes with a title for their character, a special riding mount, or pets.

Below will use the same format to illustrate similarities:
    moonkin.jpg Moonkin dance
  • A player enters any dungeon because it is fun (voluntary).
  • Each player generally has a specific goal in mind, a piece of gear, completing an achievement, etc.
  • Every time the party of players is wiped out, this causes a negative mood shift.
    • If a boss encounter is completed, sometimes the desired piece of gear does not drop or particular parts of achievements are not completed.
    • alternatively, the gear does drop, but another player gets said gear.
  • Unlike gambling, major victories occur much more often and there are a number of positive mood shift opportunities.
    • killing a boss.
    • accumulating enough emblems to buy a piece of gear
    • completing achievement/s
    • acquiring a highly sought item.
    • Seeing friends acquire better items.

"Giving up playing video games is a lot easier than you 'd think.  I'd know, I've done it hundreds of times."
Ryan G. Van Cleave

Essentially, "addiction" is a great way to get a player to come back. Used properly, it can be a positive component in a pleasurable gaming experience. There is nothing inherently wrong with addiction itself as long as it does not impact other parts of a person's life negatively.

Another thing that is not stated above is that the release of dopamine to the D2 receptor can significantly lower a person's stress level. Playing a video game is an easy way to do that. Lowered stress can increase productivity many fold and can also improve a person's health significantly. Yeah, games can be good for you and there is such a thing as a healthy addiction!


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