Wait in line watching; now it’s your turn. Step up to the noisy machine and insert your quarter. Your friends are crowding and everyone has something to say, but you have to ignore them; it’s time to get in the zone. All the noise around you fades until it’s just you and the game, linked at a primal level by the joystick in one hand and the buttons under the other.
This was the gaming experience of yesteryear, a sensational interaction that was as much a performance as it was a form of entertainment. For the price of a quarter, everyone had a chance to be a superstar. A high score meant more than the respect of those gathered around, it was a legacy for anyone who would ever see that digital monument, the high-score list.
Early game publishers were excellent marketers. They knew that the spectacle of videogames could draw a crowd, but how to keep that crowd? The idea of keeping score quickly presented itself. By creating simple games with quickly increasing difficulty, and charging for each attempt, the earliest arcade games could quickly shuffle through large numbers of players, luring each of them in with the promise that every play could lead to a high score. It wasn’t a purely personal incentive, it was a social one, a reward tied directly into the way that people viewed the victor. A high score was not its own reward, it was a social commodity. The person with the highest score didn’t just feel good about themselves, they received the respect of their peers. As you can see, our desire to have a “good score” is never based on a self-contained desire to have a certain level of skill, it is based on our desire to be loved and accepted.
As technology advanced and games moved into the home, publishers tactics changed. There wasn’t yet any concept of online play, so high scores could no longer be shared and compared quite so easily. Yet people were investing far more resources into bringing a game console home and so expected their play experience to reflect this. In order to keep players’ attention, developers had to tap into another aspect of the human condition, our sense of entitlement.
Games began to move away from several-minute challenges of skill and began to present “campaigns” lasting many hours. In most cases the difficulty was dialed down, and rewards (powers, levels, loot) were handed out freely at intervals. The carrot was successfully dangled in front of the horse, and the horse slowly but surely began to plod along. The difficulty was always finding the perfect balance between challenge and incentive. Too difficult, and players might give up. Too easy, and they might see through the ruse. The best games had just the right amount of risk and reward, the two things that psychologists had already learned were key elements of a gambling addiction.
Cue Diablo. Released in 1996, Blizzard’s action role-playing game did not just help to create a new genre, it did so in a highly polished, highly addictive way. While the gameplay itself was top-notch, the game was also praised for having one of the most thoroughly engrossing and well-balanced reward-systems that had ever been seen. As you killed enemies, you were presented with a “drop” of randomized items, or “loot.” IGN’s Charles Onyett recently commented that in the first Diablo, loot “was really what kept you playing, ceaselessly tempting you to proceed further with the promise of greater rewards.” After this came 2000’s Diablo II, which featured an online element, allowing players to trade loot with each other. The stakes had just been raised, as the personal-entitlement rewards were now tied in directly to the social/relational rewards.
Everyone can intellectually affirm the belief that “more stuff does not equal happiness.” To say things like this provides a psychological benefit: it makes us feel like better, wiser people. However, games like Diablo allow us to have our cake and eat it too. We can affirm that stuff does not bring happiness, while still pursuing more stuff (even if it is only virtual). Yet consider that with the upcoming release of Diablo III and its new market system, all that virtual stuff is now tied intrinsically to our very real money. With real money at stake, no wonder Kevin Martens, lead content designer for the game, told Gamasutra “The bulk of our work goes into tuning the game’s loot drop system.” This is the case, because incentivizaton is the key to this franchise’s success. We think we play because the game is fun, but what really keeps us coming back is a system that has been finely tuned to psychologically appeal to us by giving us the chance to get more stuff. Risk and reward is our motive, because whether or not we want to admit it, we are addicted to stuff.
Yet stuff, (and its numerical value: money), just like a high score on those old arcade games, is not its own reward. It only gives us value in relationship to others. It implies social standing and purchasing power, and these, in our human condition, are simply things we use to find value and acceptance in the eyes of others.
Diablo III released today and will give us an opportunity to face our own humanity. As we play Diablo and the many games like it, let us realize that there is more going on than mere point and click action. We are all driven by certain desires, but for what? Do we want loot for the sake of loot? I think not. At the core of a desire for loot is a desire for love and acceptance.
This is not a wicked desire, it’s a natural one. Perhaps as we realize that this desire exists in everyone around us, we might learn to love people regardless of whether or not they’ve earned it. What would happen if we honored the noob as much as we honored the professional dungeon crawler? Maybe then, play could be its own reward, and videogames as a whole could begin to explore more territory than the tried and true carrot on a stick.