Put a rat in a cage. Give him a food pellet every time he presses a lever. Soon, he will be pressing the lever more and more. Wire an electrode to a rat’s pleasure center and give him a zap of happy every time he pushes the lever, he’ll keep pressing the lever until he collapses. Even rats can OD. Despite thousands of years of evolution and hundreds of years of philosophical maunderings, B.F. Skinner’s work says human beings are simple organisms that operate on the same basic principle: Administer a pleasurable stimulus as reinforcement for a behavior when it is performed, and that behavior will occur more and more often.
Games operate on the same way: Stimulate the pleasure center and reinforce the behavior. Though, in this case, it’s more “keep playing” and less “here is a food pellet that may enable your survival.” MMOGs are the icons of this school of design, relying on years of obsessive players pressing the lever to increase numbers in a database, while paying $14.95 a month for the honor. Give the rat a jolt of pure pleasure every 20 lever presses, and eventually he’ll press the lever 20 more times for another jolt. It’s called a reinforcement schedule. Rats might call it “grinding for the happy.” Give a gamer a jolt of pure pleasure – be it “ding!” or a cool loot drop – at certain intervals and he’ll spend three years chasing the big six-oh for that final shock of pleasure.
Operant conditioning works long after the pleasurable stimulus is removed, and though the behavior may decrease, it is devilishly hard to drive into extinction. Ever wonder why that masochistic friend is playing Star Wars Galaxies long after he stopped having fun? It’s because science is more powerful than he is.
Despite all our games, we’re still just rats in a cage, mashing levers and taking pellets or mashing the space bar and gaining levels. On its own, this isn’t particularly harmful, but some grow to enjoy the pleasure surge of accomplishment more than they enjoy anything else. Studies have shown, if every press of the lever gives the rat a jolt of pleasure, he’ll keep mashing the lever until he’s completely exhausted. Some gamers get caught in a Skinner box of their own design, and keep leaping on the lever until their only friends have guild tags after their name and the whole house smells funny. Games are addictive for the same reason anything pleasurable is addictive: Our brains give us little pats of wonderful chemicals when we do enjoyable things. Sometimes the wiring wins.
Games also pack a more powerful punch: escapism, as in negative reinforcement, the removal of aversive or unpleasant stimuli. The outside world itself can be an aversive and unpleasant place, especially compared with the gaming world. Games offer a feeling of power that’s just about unmatched in the entertainment world. I can command minions, dispatch gods, meet Sephiroth in his creepy evolved firm and pummel him into oblivion. In the real world, I get winded trying to run a mile. Gaming can be a tag-team superslam on the psyche, offering a wide-open world full of positive reinforcements with none of the pain of the real world. I might toil away in the game store under a guy who got promoted because he knows the boss, but by Grabthar’s hammer, I have avenged Aeris and that’s got to count for something.
The chemicals in your brain reward you for pleasurable activity. The thought processes you actually control whisper seductive siren songs about a world where you’re judged entirely by your skills and the number over your head, rather than arbitrary distinctions of looks, race, class or creed. It’s about a perfect world, one better than our own, where that pleasure-lever is mashed down all the time and your brain never comes down and never has to cope with a world of bills and physical aches and pains.
The quest for utopia, the search for that mystical Shambhala where life is perfect, has plagued mankind since the dawn of storytelling, and still plagues gamers. The next sequel will be ten times better. The next expansion will solve all our current problems and finally make the game perfect. The next patch will fix all the bugs, pay all the bills and give me new reasons to mash the lever. Be it biopsychology or a lost city in the Himalayas, utopia is a powerful thing. It’s no wonder some get pulled in too deep.
Millionaire playboy Shannon Drake lives a life on the run surrounded by Japanese schoolgirls and videogames. He also writes about anime and games for WarCry.