By: Nicholaus Noles, GameSpy.com
Friday, July 15, 2011
Gaming is an interactive experience. We play games -- but at the same time, games play us. In this column, psychologist Nicholaus Noles explores how video games manipulate our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, all in the name of fun.
Nose to the Grindstone
Grinding is a core component of many video games. Repetitively completing the same task or defeating the same enemies was a staple of the games of yesteryear -- especially role-playing games such as Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy -- and many games (including the current crop of massively multiplayer online role-playing games) still require players to invest their time in such activities. Some games, notably The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, eliminate grinding entirely by scaling enemies to match players' abilities, and other games do not require players to grind, but allow them to do so in order to moderate the difficulty of in-game encounters. Some games are so engaging that even repetitive activities don't actually feel onerous, but most games carry a marked disconnect between "playing" and "grinding."
Nobody likes to grind, but a game sometimes comes along that inspires you to invest your valuable time performing repetitive (and sometimes outright frustrating) tasks. Azeroth is a world full of wonder and magic, so why would a World of Warcraft player choose to ignore interesting (and some not-so-interesting) quests and spend their time killing the same enemies or crafting the same items over and over? They do it for progress, for prestige, for reputation... but mostly, they do it for the loot. They do it for epic purple drops in World of Warcraft, and they do it to see enemies explode into showers of weapons in Diablo and Borderlands.
Loot grants you certain luxuries. Rare items empower you and, in many cases, they set you apart from your fellow players because you have the uber gear that they want. It's flattering when everyone sees your cool new gear and asks where you got it (at least until it gets annoying). Most gamers set out to grind for perfectly good reasons, but grinding can be problematic because two facets of human psychology make it difficult for people to make good decisions about when to grind and when to stop grinding.
People are generally not very good at math. More specifically, even people who understand algebra and calculus often think about probabilities in ways that do not align with mathematical realities. For example, imagine that you're a World of Warcraft rogue, and you want to be outfitted with a Barman Shanker (a fancy dagger). Barman Shankers appear approximately 8% of the time when you defeat a shady character named Plugger Spazzring. So, the odds of getting a Barman Shanker are roughly 1-in-13 anytime you kill Plugger; unfortunately, people don't correctly conceptualize 1-in-13 odds. The biggest mistake that people make with respect to probabilities is that they feel that each "miss" (when the dagger doesn't drop) increases the likelihood of a "hit" (the dagger drops) on the next attempt. This effect is called the Gambler's Fallacy. People think, "If I kill Plugger 13 times, I'll definitely get the dagger," or more commonly, "I've killed Plugger 13 times, so the dagger will drop any minute now." The truth is that the independent probability that a Barman Shanker will drop is always 8%, and Plugger's prior deaths do not increase the likelihood that the dagger will drop. On a related note, people also fail to account for runs when they consider probabilities. Runs are blocks of the same result within a set of randomly generated numbers. So, the dagger might drop three times in a row (a run), or it might fail to drop after 60 kills (also a run); both of these runs are perfectly reasonable outcomes over the course of 20,000 observations, but the drop rate stays at a steady 8%, a reality that most people fail to account for when they decide to grind for items.
So yes, grinding sucks... but once you start, it's often hard to stop. You feel compelled to keep going until you hit that next level or until you get that rare item, because you can't face the reality of wasting all of the time and effort for nothing. Does this sound familiar? That's because humans as a species are more concerned with losses than gains. The outgrowth of this attitude is that we feel like we've wasted the time and effort that we've invested into a task if we quit before we reach our goal. This is called the Sunk Cost Fallacy. Sunk costs are also a dual threat because research has shown that investing in a task results in excessive optimism about the eventual outcome of the ongoing task. Thus, both fear of waste and optimism about the future lead us to conclude that we should keep grinding.
The Gambler's Fallacy is the juicy worm that starts a grinding session, but Sunk Costs are the hooks that keeps people grinding. The behaviors and misconceptions related to these two fallacies make you overly optimistic about your chances of acquiring rare items or accomplishing daunting tasks, and keep you grinding long after the all the fun has drained out of your play time. Unfortunately, knowing about these tendencies does not make you immune to irrational intuitions that creep into your mind. The important thing to remember is that the past is the past. Ask yourself: "Am I having fun right now?" If the answer is "no," then you should probably stop killing wolves.
To go deeper, read , by Jonah Lehrer. Nicholaus Noles is a dad and avid gamer. He writes about psychology, games, and the psychology of games. Nicholaus received a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Yale University, and works as a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan.