Gaming Ethics: Can it ever be fun to do things that aren’t fun?

Towards the end of last year, I read several carefully argued (or passionately argued) blog posts about the ethics of daily quests.  In particular:

Doone had concerns about ethics of game design. He starts by discussing dailies but he has wider concerns.

We’ve got a lot of unethical game design going on. It’s bad. It’s contributing to bad ideas and promoting unhealthy communities of gamers. It’s making otherwise immoral acts normative and therefore acceptable to gamers.

If a game is based on Skinner techniques in it’s core design, it’s not a game. It’s a software device developers have created to keep you playing, often because the model is profitable. It’s like tricking the rat in the box into thinking they are winning a game. In fact, they are being controlled in an environment they’re barely aware of.

Saxsy has a strong rebuttal to this, and particularly the idea that ‘psychological manipulation’ is always unethical. (I think she’s wrong btw to keep accusing Doone of White Knight Syndrome, that actually wasn’t something I read in his argument.)

I seriously doubt Blizzard is putting non-fun things in the game for the purpose of getting people to continue to play the game. ((…)) Having people do not fun things make them less likely to continue giving Blizzard their money. It isn’t evil. It’s just stupid.

So, I have a few points to make here. This post isn’t really an essay with an argument and conclusions, more some thoughts on the topic.

I don’t think it has to be unethical per se to create fun games that people like to play and will want to pay for, or to recognise that some people enjoy having organised habits. Or even that many MMO players enjoy the process of grinding towards progress or an achievement.  I also think Blizzard cops a lot of bad press in the blogosphere for this, where actually they seem (via designer blogposts) aware of players’ wellbeing and try to design away from things that would harm it.

I also think that the best defence against accusations of unethical design are to be really up front with how this behavioural stuff works, and empower players to make informed decisions about how often they want to play and to set their own boundaries. This is social worker-y language, but you get the jist.  Have fun, but it’s down to you to take care of yourself. Don’t say ‘I was forced to play,’ because no one stopped you logging off when you’d had enough and it makes you sound a) whiny and b) unable to manage your own time.

But some people are genuinely vulnerable – in the same way that some people are vulnerable to online gambling (which is also a form of gaming that makes heavy use of behavioural mechanisms to keep people playing and coming back.) It likely is unethical to encourage them to play MMOs, but it’s not really clear what devs can do about that, or is it? Maybe mechanisms that do encourage players to take regular breaks are more ethical, it’s food for thought at any rate.

Ethics and Behavioural Psychology

I’m not saying behaviouralism is ethically dubious, but every famous psychology experiment I can think of in that field has been criticised for being unethical. At the same time, it spawned a raft of techniques that have given real help and real hope to many people with depression, helped people to make positive changes in their lives, and in other ways helped to make people happier and healthier. It is a powerful tool, and one which has been widely co opted.

Fact is, there are lots of organisations in this world that use behavioural psychology to try to influence people’s behaviour and opinions. Pretty much all marketing and advertising, for example. Psychological torture. Also many activist campaigns, and lots of educational initiatives. There is a big overlap between gaming and learning, which Raph Koster theorises about in A Theory of Fun (his idea is that games are fun because learning things is fun, basically.)

I think that the ethical side arises from questions this raises about free will. Is it possible to make someone do something that isn’t in their best interests without holding a gun to their head? Do we assume people aren’t able to decide what their best interests are if they’re subject to psychological manipulation? Can building these types of habits into games make them more fun for players? These are big questions. But the cat is out of the bag now.

We do know that traditional MMOs use a lot of operant conditioning. It’s all about the tasks and the rewards. And what players actually do in these games has been very dependent on this balance. Or in other words, when you log into your MMO of choice, how do you decide what you are going to do that session? A lot of the time, it will be based on some goal or reward.

Goals are used in other games too, it’s just that the relationship between grind and reward is very up front in MMOs. I also note that players will also often learn things that the designers never intended – such as being wildly elitist in PUGs. There’s no option for players not to learn something from their games and online communities, as a human being this is how your brain works … always learning. It’s just a question of how much of that learning should be designed, and whether its ok for there to be commercial elements present.

Some history of daily quests

Any old dinos who remember when daily quests were first introduced to WoW may also remembered that the player base welcomed them fervently. This was during TBC, with the Isle of Quel’Danas. They were welcomed, in part, because they were felt to be more ethical and less demanding than previous rep grinds.

It used to be the case that rep grinds were based on killing mobs and repeatable quests. So if you were hardcore, you went off and camped in the appropriate place for ages and kept at it until you were done. The daily quests offered a natural break; once you had done your dailies, that was it for the day.

Now later on, the whole idea of daily tasks was completely co-opted by social/ facebook games as a way to encourage players to keep coming back. I’m sure that was part of the idea behind daily quests too, but mostly it was to find a way to give players longer term goals which they didn’t immediately burn out on. And lets also remember that this was a time when players liked to feel attached to their MMO of choice, so having reasons to keep coming back could have made the game more fun. Many players still do. And also, the sense of working at the game to earn an achievement or reward may be behaviouralism in action, but it can also be fun. Players were doing this anyway before daily quests.

Ted A gives an example:

Between the lore, and the gear rewards, these dailies have not felt like a grind. I’ve wanted to do them and as a bonus I’ve kept playing my main and thoroughly enjoying the class.


Being open about the design

I find that the more unethical side to this type of design is where it’s not clear what the player is being manipulated to do, or where it’s made deliberately difficult for players to set upper bounds on either their play time or spending. F2P games with complex payment models can edge close to this.

The other questionable thing to me is about design by metric, especially where game designers assume that if a lot of players do something, that means they liked that content. I understand why you’d assume that — after all, why would so many people do it if they didn’t like it. But then I remember spending a weekend in PvP during TBC to get decent weapons for my Fury Warrior and I did not like it AT ALL. I did it. For the rewards. But I had a big grudge on Blizzard for years afterwards.

So my view: it’s all good, as long as it’s clear up front what you need to do to get your reward so you can make an informed choice. I also like games that offer clear breaks to players; dailies actually do this. I really get tired of people complaining that they were forced to do XYZ in a game when they clearly weren’t – if you do feel forced, it’s a wake up call to step back and look at the psychological manipulation.

9 thoughts on “Gaming Ethics: Can it ever be fun to do things that aren’t fun?

  1. It is always a tough question, as the lines between “fake fun” and real fun become really fuzzy in retrospect. In fact, by virtue of cogitative dissonance, there may not BE any difference. And who is to say that the real fun wasn’t born of psychological tricks no one (intentionally) used? If games are fun because learning is fun, aren’t we tricking ourselves by learning ultimately useless, arbitrary things?

    I mainly agree with you though, that it’s a tough case to claim what amounts to voluntary manipulation.

  2. I can see a few people with an addictive personality disorder having an issue with MMO grinds. But I can see far more people with that disorder having problems with gambling, alcohol, or food and there is no serious discussion of removing easy access to, or advertisement for, the triggers for those addictions. Look at the joy Bloomberg had when he proposed the ban on excessively large soda containers in NYC.

    Ultimately though – it’s a game. If you aren’t enjoying it why are you playing?

  3. Tiny correction for you: WoW didn’t introduce dailies in the Isle of Quel’Danas (patch 2.4). They actually came in 2.1 in the form of the Ogri’la, Skyguard and most importantly Netherwing dailies.

    And they WERE well received. I remember, me & my guildies had been talking before the patch. Blizzard had promised the Netherwing faction would be extended and we would be able to earn the rep to get a netherdrake. We knew how popular that would be, and couldn’t imagine how this could be made to work. Visions of having to kill 4,200 Dragonmaw orcs which were camped to hell danced in our heads.

    So when the patch landed, I remember all of us thought that daily quests were an elegant and well-designed system. Some of us ripped into it and did all our dailies every day, and got a netherdrake in a couple of weeks. Others took it slower.

  4. I think that while dailies were originally perceived as a good idea, I wonder whether the current Mists setup –and 5.2’s impending drop will also add even more of them– that Blizzard is using dailies as the same gatekeeper to end game content that running heroics used to be.

    Think of it this way: if you level an alt toon from scratch to L90 and then start running dailies so that you can raid with your friends, it could conceivably take months just to catch up to them once 5.2 or 5.3 drops. So, if you decide that Death Knight just isn’t doing it for you and you decide to start over with a Warrior, you can’t just grind out some heroics and run some initial level raids just to catch up; you have to do the longer grind, one way or another.

  5. Dailies were a nice idea – they gave us soloable repeatable content rather than just grinding mobs. Up to that point the only repeatable content (i.e. the only content that offered longevity in the game) was either PvP or group-oriented (dungeons and raids). However, dailies have been over-used and turned into chores that MUST be done to keep your character competitive.

    Players will repeat game activities either because they enjoy the activity itself, because it’s the key to earning a reward that they enjoy receiving, or because they feel they must because it gates some game content they WILL enjoy. There’s nothing wrong with either of the first two, in my opinion. The third is crappy game design but not something I would deem unethical per se, that’s a label I reserve for actively duplicitous and manipulative techniques such as those used by Zynga to suck people in and then tell them to either cough up cash or help them farm marketing data in order to continue playing at all in any meaningful way.

  6. I think MMOs are unique in that they are extremely long-form games. An epic quest which takes the player literally months to complete is exciting even if the player is not explicitly entertained for that whole time. The long-form game allows for a slower burn, which can be far more satisfying in the end.

    I don’t mind grinding in order to do something cool and unique. In late Cata I was really, really into mount collecting, so spent months engaged in some of most epic grinds the game had to offer to get them. I always found this kind of gameplay interesting and satisfying, if not “fun” the whole way.

    So I’m okay with grinding if it’s something I’m choosing to pursue. When it’s mandatory, I fucking can’t stand it.

    I remember doing Molten Front dailies to get gear upgrades which were required for raiding at the time, and I hated it. When I went back there a year or so later chasing pets and achievements I enjoyed casually slashing my way through there.

    I totally reject the current batch of dailies which are mandatory to both earning and spending Valor points. They are not special or interesting or epic, they are just required. That is not the game I want to play.

    [iirc the Netherwing and Skettis/Ogri’la daily quests came well before the Quel’Danas ones]

  7. I’ve seen a few people mention the choice that players have to not play a game they don’t like or which they suspect is manipulative. But that’s not really what it’s in question at all. That is a given. Manipulation goes beyond that; it’s the very nature of what it means to be manipulative. I don’t think it’s important that players like me enjoy the mechanics; the question on the table is whether it’s ethical to use certain devices, namely the “insert coin” mechanics.

    Dailies are probably one of the more benign devices, if only because they were created for the reasons submitted here. However, I mentioned the following point to another commenter on my blog: there’s a world of difference between having a compelling experience and being compelled to have an experience. One of those maintains player choice the other takes it away, makes it compulsory in some way for whatever reasons.

    I don’t have a current MMO of choice, but I’m a gamer just like everyone else here. I existed in an MMO world for years and look forward to the next one that catches my attention. But just because I enjoy them doesn’t mean there aren’t some questionable things going on, especially in F2P. I also don’t believe that just because they are questionable then there’s something wrong with me for enjoying them. That’s a conclusion I never drew. I do think that this question of ethics has far more relevance to service based games like MMOs and phone/Facebook games.

    Thanks for this thoughtful response. It’s nice to see conversation flourish.

  8. Pingback: Links for January 9, 2013 | Andrzej's Links

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