An MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game is played on the internet, set in a virtual world in which many people are playing and interacting with at the same time. Currently the largest MMO in North America, certainly the most talked about MMO, is World of Warcraft (WoW). Besides WoW, however, there are several MMO games targeted at and marketed to children; recently I started reading about these “kid-friendly” MMOs and I started to wonder what impact an MMO would have on children and their creativity.
There are several MMOs out there for kids. There are free versions (free-to-play) and subscription versions, but they’re all built around one principle: MMO games can make BIG money. How do they do this? They are experts at creating an atmosphere that gets you to open your wallet and they employ psychological tools that promote addictive behavior. Many adults have a hard time spotting this, how can you expect your kids to?
MMO games – The Financial Cost
Most MMO games have a tiered system, a free portion and a payed portion. How these two sections of the game interact depends on the financial structure of the game. There are two primary and distinct strategies a company could try to use:
One is the monthly subscription model. In this model, to enjoy the full game you have to pay a monthly fee. Often this means the free portion of the game is time-limited; you can download the game, play for the trial period and once it’s over, you’ll have to pay to keep playing. Alternately, you might be able to keep playing the free game, but to unlock better features, new experiences, and places to explore you must be a subscribing member. Basically, while using the free/trail version it will take more effort and time to reach the same goals as a subscribing member, if it’s at all possible. The game will typically remind you, as often as possible, that your life and gaming experience would be easier if you just send them some money. This latter model is the one employed by Toontown, an MMO published by Disney and marketed to kids.
The other is the Microtransaction model. In this system, the game does not have a monthly fee but they offer options to buy credits (with real money) that you can spend in the game for bonuses. The “Coins” feature on Facebook games is an example of this – sometimes, game play is not affected by these items and they are only for the people who want bragging rights, but usually they do affect the game and give great advantages to those willing to pay for them. The term Microtransaction refers to the fact that typically these purchases are small typically ranging from five dollars down to just a few cents – small enough to seem small, big enough to add up quickly.
The attitude and culture of “keeping up with the Joneses” is something that MMO games actively encourage, whether it is having the latest and greatest weapon, a special limited edition item, or giving awards to the top players. It encourages players to play longer and pay more money.
MMO games and Creativity
There is very little true creativity in MMO games. They are carefully designed to keep you playing for as long as possible, often doing the same repetitive tasks over and over again to gain money, experience, or to meet some other in-game goal. There might be some problem-solving in-game but, within the confines of the game, there is a limit to how complex a problem can be and a limit to how creative the solution might be. There are so many other more creative activities kids can be doing!
MMO games and Addictive Behavior
There are many strategies used by MMO game makers that you should be worried about. Possibly the most common task in MMOs is “farming” in which you need to collect a number of objects to turn in for a reward. You collect 20 blue stars, turn them in to receive a shiny silver button, and move on to collecting 20 red squares so you can get your shiny gold button. This strongly echoes the behavior analysis concept of reinforcement: pull on a lever and get a reward or reinforcement. In this case, you pull the lever 20 times and get an virtual reward. Much of the research in this field was pioneered by B.F. Skinner, whose studies suggested that you can control a subjects behavior simply by creating a scenario to be played out and a reward for doing so correctly. MMOs have this down to a science. You perform one repetitive task to receive your reward before moving on to the next task, a task that is often just a few shades different from the previous one.
MMO games run on a system of rewards, accomplishments, and one-upmanship. There is a whole trophy section in Toontown where players with the top scores for various accomplishments are posted for the world to see – but to get this recognition you have to play and play a lot. The human brain does not readily distinguish between virtual and real accomplishments; working for hours to obtain a special item in a game is as satisfying as creating something in the real world, as far as your brain is concerned. This is a very addictive and dangerous element to games. The mental attachment can be so strong that some countries such as Korea now recognize virtual goods as if they were real. An entire industry has sprung up around creating and selling virtual items and this industry is now worth over 6 billion dollars. “Collecting” can become addicting behavior and MMO games actively encourage it. It keeps you playing (even if these items have no direct affect on the game) and keeps you spending.
They also employ Skinner’s theory of “Variable Ratio Rewards” – which gives you items or rewards at random to keep you playing. Similar to slot machines, you keep playing because the next one might be the “big win.” Is this the type of behavior we want to encourage in our kids?
All three of these tactics can be combined to create a highly addictive environment. Take our Blue Stars, for example. We need to collect 20 to receive our Shiny Silver Button (Reinforcement). However, Blue Stars can only be found under Green Rocks, not Red or Blue Rocks, so there’s a random chance to find the right rock to look under (Variable Ratio Rewards). Furthermore, they’re only found under a quarter of all Green Rocks (more Variable Ratio Rewards). But, underneath all rocks, we have a small chance (say one percent) to find a super-rare Gold Shiny Hat (even more Variable Ratio Rewards and One-upmanship). Once we finally find all our Blue Stars, we are guaranteed to get our Shiny Silver Button but now we can try to get our Shiny Gold Button (One-upmanship) by collecting Red Squares, and the process starts again. In that simple quest, the designers have managed to fit one instance of Reinforcement, three instances of Variable Ratio Rewards, and two instances of One-upmanship. Three different addictive strategies, applied six times, have guaranteed that the player will check every single rock they come across while convincing them that it’s worth their time.
Through the use of behavior controls, you can see how such a simple quest has turned into a huge time sink. We started by just having to check Green Rocks for 20 Blue Stars, which with a single application of Reinforcement would require 20 Green Rocks, but thanks to Variable Ratio Rewards, we’ll probably have to check 80 Green Rocks to get those Blue stars. And because there’s a chance at finding a Gold Shiny Hat (which probably doesn’t even do anything besides look shiny), we’ll check the Red and Blue Rocks too. Assuming an even distribution, we’ll end up checking around 240 Rocks in total, 80 of each color. 240 rocks to find 20 Blue Stars. But at least we’ll probably get our Gold Shiny Hat, right? Too bad everybody else has one too and are now looking for a Shimmering Gold Cape instead.
This is one of the simplest examples of addictive behavior controls in an MMO, there are many many more. Now imagine that you could pay a monthly fee to unlock a Special Magnifying Glass that gives you a chance to find that Shimmering Gold Cape while looking for the Gold Shiny Hat. If you’re emotionally invested in the MMO, you might very well become financially invested too.
The Time Cost of MMO games
MMO games can very easily become a time sink, especially if you do become addicted to them. They do make a very efficient babysitter but the costs to creativity and general well-being are too high. There is a fine line between having time for hobbies and recreations – even television watching and playing regular computer games – and becoming completely engrossed. Many adults have not figured out this balance, so our kids, left undirected, would have no hope.
MMOs are more social than many other games, and often do require teamwork or some problem solving skills. There are some skills a child might learn through playing games, MMOs in particular, but practically all of these skills can be taught or learned in other environments that are free of behavior controls, hidden costs, time sinks, and virtual accomplishments.
If you set very strict guidelines such as having the computer in a public room of the house (remember most games have a chat function), have your child playing under a parent account you have full access to, and set a daily time limit, then it is possible to enjoy these games. At the very least, you can use the game as a learning tool, so you and your child can identify the marketing and psychological strategies game makers employ.
**This post was co-written by my amazing editor Darrel Ross. I did lots of research and game playing for this post but he has the experience of having played recreationally so was able to provide the detailed examples of how MMO games can be addicting and destructive.
There are lots of reasons I do not think that MMO games are a good idea for kids, but I would love to hear your arguments both for and against. If you have experiences both positive and negative with MMO games please leave a comment below.