Looter shooter games like Warframe, Destiny and Anthem are extremely popular, and keep hundreds of thousands of gamers invested on a daily basis. Players seem unable to put the games down, despite the fact that they are always the same – rather simple – gameplay loops in the same – yet beautifully crafted – environments. Ultimately, this kind of gameplay boils down to shooting stuff to maybe get a random reward. This gameplay loop can be viewed as a stay-at-home version of casino slot machines.
Operant conditioning, Skinner box and dopamine
Do you ever wonder why so many people enjoy doing the same thing in the same setting for hundreds or even thousands of hours? If so, psychology can help to explain this. Looter shooter games use a psychological manipulation technique known as operant conditioning. This will keep people playing long after they would have normally become bored or annoyed. It is the same technique used to ensure that gambling addicts spend endless hours in front of the same slot machines.
The idea of operant conditioning goes back to a famous experiment commonly known as the Skinner box. This experiment, carried out in the 1960s, showed that getting a reward randomly in a series of button presses makes your brain release more of the happiness hormone dopamine than getting a reward every time you press a button.
In Warframe, Destiny and Anthem, there are multiple layers of those Skinner boxes in any given mission. Shooting regular grunts has comes with the chance of a random reward – one Skinner box. Missions may spawn higher level enemies at random -another Skinner box, which in turn offers the chance of even better rewards – another Skinner box. Missions themselves have random loot drops that may be rewarded with sought-after, ultra-rare items – another Skinner box. Multiple layers of Skinner boxes make sure that a constant stream of dopamine floods your brain.
If you now add audio and visual rewards, as slot machines in casinos have been doing for ages, it becomes even more addictive:
With the click of a mouse, you hear your enemies splashing. If you hit them in the head, you will get an even more rewarding sound. To add to this, special item drops are always accompanied by a pleasing “ding” sound. All this is part of the conditioning that makes sure you are subconsciously excited, even by the sound alone. It will also link the dopamine rush to the sound.
On the visual side, turning enemies into loot pinatas or having body parts defying gravity are examples of visual stimulation. The use of golden or purple colors for rarer drops makes sure your dopamine levels rise before you even know what is behind those colors.
Combine all those carefully crafted audiovisual rewards inside multilayered Skinner boxes and you have built yourself the perfect environment for operant conditioning. Each mouse click is designed to reinforce addictive behavior.
By the way, this whole concept of manipulation with operant conditioning works so well that it has been used to train dogs and dolphins for decades. Giving your dog random rewards for repeatedly doing the same things is the perfect way to train them. The counterpart of a pleasing “ding” sound in video games is known as the clicker device. Clickers are still commonly used in dog or dolphin training. There is a famous dog training book from 1984 called “Don’t Shoot the Dog”. You would be surprised how much of its content fits how gamers are trained in video games.
Addiction it is
With what was established above, you could say that the current generation of looter shooter games turn players into obedient puppies, addicted to a steady stream of dopamine. Playing these games for long enough makes you want more of the same gameplay loop, and you will crave for those games when you cannot play them. The ominous end game of every looter shooter is a daily dose of dopamine for your inner addict.
Many looter shooter games have avid gamers that want more or more meaningful loot. What this actually means is that the addict wants more potency from the game because his brain has already built a tolerance to the current level of dopamine being supplied.
On top of performing a repetitive task, such as shooting the same enemies in the same environment daily, you now also need higher dopamine doses to keep you satisfied. If you add to this the inability to relax after a long day at work or school without playing a looter shooter, you have a clear pattern of addiction, which is similar to a “classic” gambling addiction.
Looter shooter games like Destiny, Warframe and Anthem are not exclusive in the use of operant conditioning. Many more games and other genres also make use of it. However, these three games serve as a perfect example because they do a magnificent job of hiding their core of addictive stimulation behind walls of beautiful visuals, sounds and lore.
Publishers profit of addicts
Just like any other addiction, not everybody is susceptible to it. There are of course many people that will put a looter shooter down early on because they will get bored by the constant repetition. However, those who are susceptible to addiction will be hooked by this endless repetition and its simple dopamine reward system. They will only put the game down if they find another more potent dopamine source – a new game.
Also, what about the companies creating these games and making large profits? Addiction makes great business. Think about casinos, alcohol or cigarettes. Why not take money from those that want an easy way to relieve stress? There is a reason why Warframe has made more profit than it had operating costs for the past 3 years and why its Chinese owner invests massively in F2P looter games. There is a reason why all big publishers want games that keep players engaged on a daily basis. They are fishing for those who are susceptible to addiction and want to sell them their daily dopamine rush.
This is where we could ponder the moral implications of such a system, but building video games around these addictive gameplay loops is not illegal and that is all companies take into consideration. There is, at least to my knowledge, no internally accepted codex for video game companies that protects players with addictive tendencies. Video game companies, like any other companies, exist to make money for their investors. It is sad to say, but addicts are lucrative prey that can be exploited to achieve this goal.
In Western society, addiction has the stigma of being something that only afflicts the weak-minded. Although science says otherwise, most people refuse to see addicts as people that need help. Those gamers cannot just play once a week and then let go. They are like alcoholics that cannot just take one drink and stop.
If you are susceptible to addiction and get conditioned by these types of gameplay loops, you will not be able to stop playing. It will lead to playing daily, disconnecting from family and friends, neglecting your body and even failing exams or losing a job.
We as gamers need to be aware of these kinds of games and should lend a hand to those that struggle with addiction. We need to make video game companies aware that video game addiction is something that exists and needs to worked on more actively.