How are loot-based games like World of Warcraft, Torchlight, and Borderlands related to slot machines, chemical bliss, and evolution? Read on for the answer.
During my early days with World of Warcraft (WoW) I remember tromping through Westfall killing crowds of Defias bandits when I was shocked by a loot drop: a rare pair of “blue” gloves that perfectly fit my class’s needs at the time. For those of you who don’t know, killing enemies in WoW gives you a random chance at one or more pieces armor, weapons, or other items called “loot” in WoW parlance. These are stratified according their text’s color: gray, white, green, blue, purple, and orange in order of increasing quality. For a level 20-something character to find a blue item on a random enemy was actually very rare, and I experienced a huge rush from it. But more importantly, with that came an acute desire to keep playing the game and to murder more Defias bandits.
Other games do this, too. Borderlands gives you random guns from drops or chests, which compels us to check EVERY container, vending machine, and item dropped by felled enemies. Torchlight essentially uses the WoW system, and you can bet your thumbs that the upcoming Diablo III will push it even farther. But why are gamers so susceptible to the loot hunting addiction found in these games? Why is this gameplay mechanic so incredibly effective in getting us to keep playing?
To answer that question, let’s consider slot machines and a type of brain cell called “dopamine neurons.” The latter are the bits of your gray matter responsible for monitoring levels of the pleasure-inducing chemical dopamine in order to regulate behavior and figure out how to get more of a good thing. It’s these cells that light up when something nice happens in your life (say a delicious Hot Pocket or a fuzzy puppy belly) and triggers a gush of the neurotransmitter dopamine. But what’s more, dopamine neurons play the role of trying to predict the rush from nice things, and they may fire before you actually encounter them. Given a couple of chances, they’ll learn to light up when you hear the microwave timer beep that precedes your delicious Hot Pocket. This is a pretty useful thing as far as evolutionary advantages go, since it clues you in ahead of time that something good is in the vicinity.
But this is only part of what makes loot-based games work so well. The real key is that while dopamine neurons fire once your brain has figured out how to predict an event, they really go nuts when an unexpected, unpredicted gush of dopamine shows up, giving you an even bigger rush. It’s like DUDE! UNEXPECTED HOT POCKET! Again, I’m guessing that this is an evolutionary advantage that causes us to obsess over unexpected pleasures and try to predict them so that we can get more of them.
But we can’t predict the inherently unpredictable. This is how slot machines get you. Your dopamine neurons are trying really hard to learn what precedes a jackpot in terms of what bells, you hear, pictures you see, or even which cocktail waitress last walked by. But in reality, it’s utterly random and by definition can’t be predicted. More rational parts of your brain may understand this, but not the dopamine neurons. They’re stymied, but that doesn’t stop them from flaring up and saying “HEY! THERE’S SOMETHING HERE! KEEP DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING UNTIL WE FIGURE OUT HOW TO MAKE IT HAPPEN AGAIN!” So you keep playing.1
So, getting back to World of Warcraft, just replace “slot machine jackpot” with “phat loot drop” and you should have a pretty good idea why the loot game mechanic is so successful. Like all the best motivators, it uses a core concept of psychology as a lever to keep you playing and paying. But like with the slot machines, you DO have the ability to understand what’s happening and put a stop to it.
On the other hand, those blue gloves were pretty sweet on my Hunter. Maybe if I had killed a few more Defias bandits I could have gotten the matching leggings…
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