Where There's a Whip

Where There's a Whip
But I Thought Games Were Supposed to Be Fun!

Peter Robinett | 4 Jul 2006 12:00
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But what about the massively online space? The unique situation of MMOGs makes it difficult to address player boredom in the same way, as developers must balance player achievement in the name of fairness and technical limitations, thus limiting the number of play-styles that can be reasonably supported. For instance, time spent playing is often the primary determinant of player level. The most striking example of player boredom in gaming must surely be the secondary markets in MMOGs, in which in-game characters, items and currencies are bought and sold for cold, hard cash. IGE, one of the main players in the field, valued the marketplace at $880 million in 2004. With the explosive growth of World of Warcraft, it's surely much larger than that, now.

The system of goals and rewards holds little interest for a large group of players. While a significant portion of this can be attributed to players buying rare in-game items, the fact that players are spending money on in-game currency suggests that there is a meta-commodity here: the time players are willing to spend in order to advance. It's fair to say that many players using these services find the time commitments required of them to be distasteful - in a word, these games are boring.

MMOGs tend to provide players with repetitive tasks - killing rats, whacking moles, etc. The nature of the genre itself is partially to blame: With limited resources (both time and money), developers are unable to provide a limitless supply of objectives for the player, despite the fact the games are marketed as infinite. It is for this reason (and to make more money) that every successful MMOG will eventually have expansion packs, often providing new content in the form of new locations and new items to acquire and an increase in level caps, keeping players occupied with more carrots to chase. All this can be seen as to prevent players from getting bored from lack of anything to do and moving on to the next game. One logical way to deal with this "late game" challenge is enable players to create their own goals. PvP and guild feuds are obvious ways, as is the object creation seen in Second Life. The latter has much potential, as this enables players to create the objects to acquire and places to explore, though obviously it runs into huge issues of balance and (in)appropriate content.

But what is the psychology behind boredom? I put this very question to Steven Kass, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of West Florida. He explained boredom as an emotional state that arises from either internal or external sources. It is a state characterized by low arousal - that is, of low activity or excitement - but also of negative mood. This combination of factors is what distinguishes boredom from relaxation (low arousal but positive mood) or anger (negative mood but high arousal). Boredom is also characterized by an inability to pay attention at the present moment. The psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel saw boredom to be the result of a situation where "we must not do what we want to do, or must do what we do not want to do." Perhaps most common in a gaming context is being asked to devote significant playing time to tasks that players don't feel are important or otherwise fun. While boredom has different causes for each person, Kass notes that "monotony will certainly lead to boredom in a majority of people."

The game designer Chris Crawford explains in his 1983 book, The Art of Computer Game Design, "The game designer simplifies deliberately in order to focus the player's attention on those factors the designer judges to be important." The classic problem, of course, is when the game designer is trying to force you to pay attention to something and you would rather pay attention to something in the game that they care less about. At this point, frustration often sets in. But how is frustration different from boredom? Often, frustration is understood to lead to aggression, but it can also lead to boredom. Presumably, this comes about when the player decides that the game is not worth becoming angry over, and thus chooses to lose interest and bypasses the high arousal associated with anger - the comment "It's just a game" in response to frustration illustrates this line of reasoning well. While constraint, or lack of desirable actions, can lead to frustration and eventually boredom, the opposite may also be true.

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