Skinner and Obsolescence
There are several shared discussions going on right now around the blogosphere. One I’m particularly interested in is taking place between Balkoth of his eponymous Word and Rowan of I Have Touched the Sky. While their discussion is far more in depth about game design, a subject I like to tinker in but know nothing practical about, I found at the core of their disagreement a topic of much interest: the relevance of gear.
Obviously, we can all agree that from a psychological perspective, getting gear is about rewards. However, what does that mean when you don’t get a reward? In psychology, there are four basic “motivators” discussed in operant conditioning, made famous by B.F. Skinner and his various boxes. We hear all the time how MMOs are like “Skinner Boxes,” meaning that you hit a button and get a reward. The proper term for that reward, though is a positive reinforcement. The positive portion indicates that the subject is being given something. The reinforcement indicates it’s meant to increase a behavior.
The problem with viewing loot in this very outdated psychological model is that the other three types of conditioning are handled so badly.
Negative reinforcement is taking away something unwanted to increase a behavior. Cleansing debuffs is an example of this. When a player has a crippling debuff, their encouraged to remove it. The problem with this is that it’s often not on the player in the role of dps or tank to deal with this. As a result, only the healers have to increase their behavior. Standing behind a boss is another example of a negative reinforcement. Doing so removes the block and parry chance, so moving behind the monster is reinforced. Again, this only affects one of three roles. Since the “negative stimulus” is often only a problem to one-third of the roles, the responsibility for dealing with them – the behavior to be increased – is not shared equally. That ends up creating “dps,” “tank,” or “healer” fights, which, while there’s nothing the matter with asking one role to push extra hard, can still breed animosity in a raid team.
Positive punishment can easily breed the same animosity. Positive punishment is giving someone something that they don’t want (a spanking or a restriction) to reduce a behavior. Many of the game’s positive punishments come in the form of avoidable damage. Again, this does not share responsibility equally. Ideally, if you receive damage, you should want to avoid whatever caused it in the future. However, as we’ve seen in LFR, often what dps or tanks will do is simply rely on the healers to deal with it. The behavior isn’t really changing, then, as the punishment is actually affecting someone (a healer) who cannot control the behavior of the other players.
This often occurs because of the nature of negative punishments, where you take something away from the subject to reduce a behavior. An in-game example of this is interruption of cast or channeled abilities from movement. This discourages moving around a lot so that your opportunity to do more dps is more often available. By discouraging movement, they’re creating the problem of people getting tunnel vision and standing in fire because they’ve been taught that moving is somehow worse than standing still. Since the immediate outcome of standing in fire is that the healers have to do more work, the dps just reward themselves by standing still while punishing the healers.
The new loot system interacts poorly with the Skinner model of operant conditioning, as well. If you’ve taught people that killing a boss (a behavior to increase) provides a reward (a positive reinforcement), then start making killing a boss only maybe provide a reward, that sends a very confusing signal. Research tells us that this variable positive reinforcement is actually a more powerful force than always providing a reward, but to many players who’ve come to expect the other, it feels much more like a negative punishment; that something that we want – loot – has been taken away. The result, of course, may be a decrease in behavior.
All of these “bad” Skinner designs breed animosity between “team” members or confuses players’ existing expectations, both of which hurt the overall experience of playing the game. So I propose, then, that gear as a reward, while an obvious view, isn’t the intentional or, at least, isn’t the only view of gear.
Balkoth comes into this because he mentioned in the above linked comment that gear was “to nerf content.” I liked that thought immediately, though I want to take it one step further and say that it’s actually to obsolete content. While I see and understand from a design point of view why this is necessary, I don’t like it, even though I think it’s accurate.
From a design standpoint, it’s necessary to obsolete content for two reasons, both of which mostly relate to hardcore players. First, if there was no obsolete content, the competitive element of cutting-edge raiding would be lost. If everything’s fair game, then nothing’s really “cutting edge” and the competition will be too spread out among different activities (raid zones). Secondly, it allows those same hardcore raiders the chance to not play every hour of every day. If even a full expansion pack of content is “relevant,” it’s going to encourage hardcore players to do all of it all the time, which will undoubtedly burn them out more quickly.
So gear obsoletes content both as a marker – “this gear is beneath what you now need, so stop raiding here” – and as an decrease of difficulty – “This content is no longer challenging due to your gear, so it’s time to move on.”
What bothers me is that there’s an enormous amount of obsolete content that must come to years of man (and woman) power just sitting collecting dust. Blizz has finally realized this, too, and has added pets and transmogrifying to encourage people to run old content, but that’s still a small subset of players doing only a few bosses and raids.
Previously, they dealt with the obsolescence issue by updating old content into new modes, but that rightly met with a lot of resistance, and I hope they stop it, frankly.
Instead, why not use old content as part of the gear ladder? Right now, you can skip all the dungeons (or all the zones) towards the end of each content pack because the next area’s gear will be so much better with little more effort (or even less, in some cases). Instead, a rebalancing of that gear distribution where the end-of-pack gear is significantly better and the new content pack is harder would encourage people to do all the dungeon content. Old raids could be designed to act as leveling dungeons (much like they did with Upper Blackrock Spire). This encourages people to enjoy what’s already there without any incentive to skip over it while also preserving its place in the story of the game (unlike what they did to ZG and ZA).
So, I hope Blizzard starts to really consider how to deal with the problem of obsolete content, and while they’re at it, straighten out their Skinner formulas, too.
Stubborn (and thoughtful, for once)