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  • Operant Conditioning in MMORPGs

    - Michael L. Grimes
  •  Abstract

    A thorough understanding of how operant conditioning functions within MMOPRGs will allow developers and players to further understand how a possible sensation of addiction may occur. The DSM-IV refused to include an entry for addiction to the internet as the scientific research could not back up the symptoms the players were stating they had, yet the similarities between pathological gambling and internet addiction are quite apparent as stated by Duncan (2007). As players become highly engaged within the genre of MMORPG further litigations could ensue as stated by Kravets (2010), thus developers need to mitigate design methodology by adjusting methods of conditioning within reward systems being introduced to the player. Through adjusting these conditioning methods the developers would be able to alleviate potential harmful effects of the genre, as well as to avoid a potential entry within the DSM-V.


    Understanding how operant conditioning functions within MMORPGs would help game developers and players understand how conditioning methods are used to increase a higher sense of engagement and immersion for increased gameplay. The genre systematically utilizes operant conditioning within gameplay functions, which results in players possibly feeling a sense of addiction or overeager need to play the games. Methods such as fixed and variable ratio schedules help to formulate a sense of reward for the players opting to gain armor, weapons, or items of value. Ideally this method is encouraged for game developers to fully engage their player base with the expectation of rewards from the players themselves. The negative aspects of this method of conditioning could possibly result in many players feeling as if they have become addicted to the game, and would not be able to function within society by maintaining a healthy well being, employment, or a social life.

    Over the past six years recent litigations have come about from games such as World of Warcraft, Prius, and Lineage II, in which the players have either committed suicide, or opted to sue the game developers within a court of law as a direct result of their sensation of becoming addicted to the games themselves. Game developers and players need a better understanding of the methods of reinforcement being utilized as to educate themselves on the processes of how MMORPGs function. Game developers should be responsible for their player base to help them avoid litigation as well as to maintain the popularity of their games. Game developers as well have a responsibility for the well being of their players, since they are their customers, thus a thorough education of the processes within should be a mandatory process of development and marketing. The further education of these processes would encourage a much more well-rounded and positive outcome of design methodology with these concepts within the design documentation.

    Video games have been debated as being beneficial and detrimental to players of all ages, yet according to Duncan (2007) the American Medical Association wouldn't classify video game addiction within the DSM-IV. The inherent conditioning methods being utilized within all genres of MMORPGs would deem that video game addiction does exist when compared to the DSM-IV criterion for other psychological disorders, yet due to the ongoing research being done within the genre the classification within the DSM-IV is still being determined. According to Duncan (2007) the American Medical Association would only include video game addiction if there was enough scientific research, yet currently they feel there is not. Ideally when the research has proven itself to the AMA, the game industry would vie to properly modify core content in order to mitigate conditioning methods. The modification of design methodology would allow players that were highly addicted to the genre an opportunity to alleviate symptoms through adjusted conditioned gameplay.


    According to Strong, D. R., & Kahler, C. W. (2007), the symptoms listed within the DSM-IV for pathological gambling would include the following: increased preoccupation with gambling, needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money, loss of control, irritability when reducing gambling, gambling to escape problems or relieve negative moods, chasing losses, lying to others about gambling and relying on others for money to relieve gambling related financial consequences, as well as relationship, job and legal difficulties. Seemingly the symptoms for pathological gambling could seem relatable to symptoms gained by players that felt they were becoming addicted to MMORPGs.

    An analysis of the criterion for pathological gambling would suggest that through certain criterion such as an increased preoccupation with gambling, irritability when reducing gambling, gambling to escape problems or relieve negative moods, as well as relationship and job difficulties would be highly comparable to situations that could arise from highly engaged and immersed players of the genre of MMORPG.

    Players that felt they had symptoms of the criterion within the DSM-IV of gambling could be superimposed within a classification of being addicted to online game play. The end result of this analysis would be detrimental to the gaming industry in the fact that warning labels as such would be a mandatory byproduct of any litigation scenarios. A direct result of an increased popularity of suing game developers for creating games that were of a highly addictive nature could possibly be an outcome as compared to other products within the consumer market, i.e. cigarettes and alcohol. Understanding how operant conditioning could lead to such addictive properties would help to ensure that a justifiable entry within the DSM-V would be mandatory, yet as a direct solution to avoid such a catastrophe developers and players should fully understand the literature and research behind the psychological conditioning methods within.

    Within each criterion of the DSM-IV's pathological gambling entry one could see how certain individuals could be under duress for potential addictive properties of online gaming, yet further research would be needed as such in order to properly classify certain individuals as addicted to the genre, yet within this study the information covers the conditioning methods within the genre of MMORPG, and is for educational purposes alone for the developer and gaming community. Idealizing how conditioning is utilized within the development of MMORPGs would help to manage the development process in order to avoid any entry within the DSM-V, yet players that have gone beyond the threshold should be helped if dire scenarios do occur.

    According to Hardoon and Derevensky (2002), youth with severe gambling problems have been shown to have a lower self-image, engage in multiple delinquent and criminal behaviors, have higher rates of depression, frequently indulge in other substances, have poor school performance, and experience disrupted peer, familial and social relationships. Understanding how the negative effects of highly addicted individuals to pathological gambling would propose a methodology of harm reduction prevention as a means to alleviate a potential threat to players of genres known as MMOPRGs as the addictive qualities of the genre seem to be inherently similar to the DSM-IV's criterion for pathological gambling.

    Furthermore, Gupta, R. and Derevensky, J. (1998a) state that even though pathological gamblers may not be viable candidates for a harm reduction approach and likely require more intensive therapeutic treatment, individuals toward the beginning of the gambling continuum are capable of making informed choices by weighing the perceived personal benefits of gambling against detrimental consequences. Utilizing a risk and protective factor model would be highly encouraged in such a scenario as the model promotes positive development and would prevent problem behaviors through addressing those factors that predict the problem behaviors. Utilizing a model as such within the genre of MMOPRGs, would enable the problematic behaviors as identified within the DSM-IV for pathological gambling to be identified much earlier. The model would allow developers to shape their conditioning methods based on the future research within the study of players that felt they were experiencing a higher sense of addiction while engaged within the genre.


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