Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The View from Inside the Skinner Box - Part 1

Time to get weird again.

This one will be a little more personal than my usual posts, so I hope that doesn't really turn anyone off. Those of you that have been with me a long time (all four or five of you) may have remembered when I talked a little about how games were becoming less about fun and more about conditioning players to keep coming back. I believe that I linked the Cracked article that talks in part about how games are starting to be developed like Skinner Boxes, in that you keep doing the same things over and over even after the reward is a moot point.

Well, you may have noticed that a couple of weeks back, I was talking about Path of Exile quite a bit, and now I'm not anymore. This in a way hasn't really been surprising, but it is, to me at least, a hell of a lot more complicated than I thought it would be.

Let me explain.

See, Path of Exile, in the same sort of way that every game that takes cues from Diablo does, is in an of itself an experience sort of tailored to present itself as a Skinner Box. The strangeness comes from the fact that in and of itself that doesn't make it a bad game. Even though I'm not playing it anymore, I'm not sure that I would say that Path of Exile is bad, quite the opposite in fact. While I was playing it I, for the most part, enjoyed it quite a bit.

Up to a point.

See, I enjoyed the combat, I enjoyed getting gear and seeing if there was anything amazing in it. I spent a good deal of time thinking about how the build was going to go and what I was going to do. When I actually was playing Path of Exile I was playing it for quite a long period of time when I actually could, I spent a good deal of the time off I had playing it. Not to the point of obsession or anything, but certainly more than I often play games at this point.

During one particularly frustrating area though, it pretty much hit me like a ton of bricks. "What am I doing?" It's a simple question. At this point I was already on the next difficulty level, so I had seen everything story wise that the game had to offer at the moment. I had already encountered the basic type of every enemy, from here on variation occurred mostly in special traits that mobs spawned with. I had a fairly good grasp of what equipment was good and what was garbage. Still, none of those things and and of themselves actually answer my initial question.

No, the answer to that question is that I was grinding. I was grinding so that I could grind so that I could grind.

Take a moment to reflect on how absolutely ridiculous that sounds. It sounds stupid, right? And yet, that's what I was happily doing. It's probably what thousands of players subscribe to World of Warcraft for, hell, these days it's even in first person shooters -- ranks and badges anyone? -- and with that realization, I stopped.

And yet, I still can't say that it wasn't enjoyable. Was it the most enjoyable thing I'd ever spent my time on? No, not really. But it was far from the worst. Perhaps that's the thing about it that I find most deeply disturbing. The second most disturbing thing is that I missed doing it for a couple of days afterwards.

Still, the entire thing got me thinking about games like this, and elements that contribute. So I'm going to continue on this track tomorrow as well, and see if I can't dig a little deeper now that I've been back from the other side, so to speak.

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