Sometimes, games are the stories showing us who we want to be, and how to get there. They’re like any good book, song, or movie character in that respect. At other times, we get lost in the points and places and ponies. I think that it’s best explained by Abraham Maslow’s handy graphical pyramid chart of human needs.

Sort of like the food pyramid, you’ve got foundational needs at the bottom, like breathing and eating. Maslow wrote that we wouldn’t strive for much, "if our stomachs were empty most of the time, or if we were continually dying of thirst, or if we were continually threatened by an always impending catastrophe…"After those are sorted, we’ll look for security in employment, resources, health, that sort of thing. In the rough middle of the pyramid comes friends and family. After that, Maslow suspected we’d look for achievement and self-respect. Finally, if all that’s taken care of, we’d seek to “self-actualize.” We’d look for those goals that made life really worth living. Art, understanding, learning to develop ourselves in ways that might be fairly unique to us. It might be finding our “flow experience.” It might just be figuring out why we’re around.

It’s not exactly canon for the psych research, but I’d venture that just looking for a self-actualizing behavior, having that luxury, probably puts us at or near the top of the pyramid. The Search is probably just as important as figuring out The Thing. But once we find it, well. That’s powerful. That can, legitimately, make a lack of food or safety less pressing.

Games can conveniently hand-deliver some of our uppermost needs. By giving us cognitively tangible realities, with their own culture, their own context, and other living people (embodied however they might be) they impose their own pyramids. When we move between any two worlds, one set of needs can overshadow another. Certain things in games – say, just learning to move around, learning how to keep your account from getting deactivated – these things satisfy that lowest foundation. Next, in good online games, basic competency leads pretty quickly to social engagement. We find a group, and a place to belong. Or at least, ways to bring our existing groups in. As we build up, progress, maybe even collect the occasional achievement, we build up the near-top level of the pyramid: esteem.

The capstone quests, rewards and recognitions are probably the most enjoyable, and therefore the most likely to drive grinds. They’re what I’d call game-actualizing rewards. Traditionally it’s beating the game. Often that’s augmented with achievements, for instance a Steam recognition – visible to all your friends – for beating it on the highest difficulty level. Harder in some games than others. In Sid Meyer’s Civilization V, even the games set to the easiest, fastest modes can take six to twenty hours. “Marathon” games might last seventy. About 1.2% of all players have beaten the game on the highest difficulty: “Deity.” In the World of Warcraft, players will raid endlessly for the small chances on very powerful items, or very adorable pets.

A deep self-actualization isn’t the same thing as tricking out your facebook profile, or an in-game character. It could certainly do things for friendships and your esteem in the community, and that’s not nothing. It’s just that game-actualizing rewards have the same problem as automatic flow. Everything’s been laid out for you. Legitimate self-actualization – in games or anywhere else – involves a decision. You decide for yourself what’s at the top of the pyramid.

Games helped me to find meaning in very personal ways, but usually not when I was too busy thinking about a purple glowing sword.


Scheduling Conflicts

It was probably an appropriate portent of the sustained disaster to come, that my first serious raid would piss off the ol' roommates.

That was fine. It was, after all, part and parcel to allying myself with these choicest of deviants. Collecting your garden variety games data was easy. Any ten-year-old could putter around until they miraculously arrived at level sixty. But there wasn’t much solid research on what it felt like to raid. To do it with the people who made it their lives. The Hell's Angels of the virtual world, that one prurient percent that demanded a special brand of lifestyle.

But only a handful qualify, and what self-disrespecting biker invites (unironically) the university researcher on a moped? For weeks I’d tried to get an invite to one of a few guilds with the real clout: those forty or so individuals among thousands, sometimes all the millions playing Warcraft, with the honor of being first. First to successfully destroy the nastiest, most vitriolic black dragons or molten-hammer-wielding gods. Since a new finish line for first arrived every half-year or so – from the black dragon Onyxia to Ragnaros the Firelord, from Nefarian to C’thun, and Kel’Thuzad – the first to kill them would hold that title, and respect associated with being the best, for months. A Worldwide First – or sometimes even Server First, on large enough servers – meant a new life of professional gaming, minor nerd celebrity and product endorsements for game developers and high-end consumer electronics. On smaller servers, first endowed a guild with permanent respect, an invitation to join is suddenly A Big Deal.

Piroshky, an old guildmate, could get me an invite. The quiet Russian had risen to the hallowed position of main tank in our server's number two Horde guild, the Eternity Dragoons. Despite having a guild name which evoked imagery of sparkles and ponies, they were big news. Making a run at #1, Horde-side, on one of the thirteen original World of Warcraft servers. They needed a healer, and Piroshky had some pull. He’d gotten me an invite at 9PM – for a teaser – a mini tryout-raid in a place called Zul’Gurub. But at 9:45, my roommates were still clawing to keep me.

Rewind to dinner at around 5PM, where conversation predictably turned to Warcraft. Curtains draw that old familiar glaze over the eye of every non-gamer in our social group. The spunky Palauan, a blonde California girl, and one of South Korea's rare non-gaming males. It was in those throes of WoW cant that self-declared “Lawful-Evil” roommate, Pat, and his soft-spoken, rotund Asian friend Kai, appraise me like famished cannibals. “So you’re totally going to help us get the three gemstones we need for the Unadorned Seal of Ascension to unlock Upper Blackrock Spire, right Neils? Should take a couple hours?” “Bro, at most. Yo, Neils, you healin’ us rite?” “Umm, I've got this tryout, at 9, so I need to be there on time. For science.” “Haha, yeah whatever won’t take but two hours. But like, that ain’t actually part of your degree rite chief?” “Actually, it is part of my degree. It is research. For science?”

It should be mentioned that sitting through LBRS – their desired night's destination – was not unlike undergoing an unanaesthetized root canal. With neither of them certified for the operation. At 8:30, not halfway done and three hours in, half a dozen healers had (understandably) declined my friendly invitation to replace me mid-procedure. At 9, Piroshky urged me not to hurry, that they were still waiting on three or four guildmates. No big.

At this point Kai types, “Yeah, good thing you’re stayin. Get to see where your loyalties lie.”

At 9:30, the Eternity Dragoons raid was forming up. No need to freak out, said Piroshky, but you should definitely wrap up with the roomies.

“Hey guys,” I type, “That tryout is starting. I've got a replacement for the dude who left (because you are both bad at games). Were any of you able to find a healer? In the last hour?”

“We ain't ask nobody. Wait the FUCK, you LEAVING?” types Kai.

In person he typically says nothing, preferring instead to stare intensely from shadowy corners. Though he did later showboat that comment, and similar choice tidbits of the night's discourse, by saying jovially, “Haha, how you like my dark leader personality?” Pat, one room away and fond of turning light conversation to interpersonal vivisection, had hardly typed or spoken once we'd logged on. Eking in on 9:45, Piroshky said that someone from The Dragoons was about to instantaneously summon me to this Zul’Gurub tryout raid.

“So that’s how it’s gonna be?” Asks dark leader Kai.

“Uhh, yep!” I type,

And vanish into a spray of light. Not classy gamer etiquette, conducive to smooth sailing at cafeteria time, or good for my spoke in the wheels of MMO karma, but fuck it. One must heed the call of rational inquiry. And mind-controlling voodoo skull piles. And aquatic Godzilla knock-off novelty bosses. And every other new and wonderful thing I saw in Zul'Gurub that night. In the tryouts I’d handily outheal the competition, but more importantly I'd impressed Piroshky’s friends, officers in Eternity Dragoons (ironically enough because of how long I'd manned a sinking ship in LBRS).

That night set me up to experience, first hand, the race to be the very best in the World of Warcraft.



The Grind

Grinds come with three assumptions: that the work is fairly menial or obvious, that we’re working towards a specific reward, and that it’s killing our time with fire. As opposed to life, where we assume a certain blandness in the daily grind and the nine-to-five grind, games which don’t want to be branded as flaccid failures are typically designed with human pleasure in mind. Add feral raiders to the mix, and you might as well strap a futuristic nuclear rocket to the grind’s back, laughing maniacally when a containment tube bursts, showering toxic levels of radiation on any and all it touches.

In games, the rewards can be anything imaginable. At any Game Developer's Conference, there are usually at least two presentations dealing with statistically-verified psychological methods for making resonant rewards. Especially for retention (read: keeping player at computer, preferably meeting your company's monetization goals). Equally important is the pacing, the scheduling of reward. We’ll get to B.F. Skinner's well-known box – where a pigeon or rat is cajoled with a food pellet every 10 lever presses, then every 100, then every 1000 or so presses – and free will seems to evaporate as the animals press that one lever at astonishing rates.

When you combine rewards designed to feel truly epic, truly meaningful, with schedules that involve a dozen buttons to press, in thousands of unique patterns, you're close. When the payoffs for those rewards come only after weeks, months, or years of investment, great job! You have a grind.

I did walk away from my years in Galaxies and Warcraft having met a lot of great people, going after swords and armor and whatever else. But I don’t remember a whole lot about the quests. Mostly they were just little puzzle pieces in the grind. And we’re talking something like five years in Warcraft. In three hours, the game Dear Esther gave me chills.

The indie game developer Jon Blow made a comment that I’ve always enjoyed, likening the length of games to abduction,

A movie can give you a satisfying experience in 2 hours. A painting or a sculpture can give you a satisfying experience in 10 minutes. A song can give you a satisfying experience in 3 minutes...Gamers seem to praise games for being addicting, but doesn’t that feel a bit like Stockholm syndrome? If you spend 20 hours playing a game, but the good parts could have been condensed into 3, then didn’t you just waste 17 hours?

The design of a beautiful experience has a lot to do with how you arrange rewards, you might even say that the two are intertwined. But in some games it's clear that art – or even fun – wasn't so high a priority on a developer's list as retention. Joseph Campbell once warned against that kind of repetition, in literature. That, "the story tradition becomes so narrowed that, like an artery that is clogged, the heart begins to starve."

Game mechanics have Things to Teach, but we can’t get those things if we only ever use one bountiful recipe. Past a certain threshold, where certain games are best described in the language of human manipulation, they threaten their players personally. In our ability balance games with life. Developers might spend years building grinds. Publishers might spend half the budget on PR, to cleverly hawk grinds. Gamers may even spend thousands of hours clicking grinds. The only magic we find in them, we find in our fellow abductees.

Even though, at raid time, they can be the lobsters pulling us back down into the boiling pot.


Back to Chapter Introduction

Next: Scheduling Conflicts >>

Raiding, and Other Acts of God

40-man raids were a bitch. You try herding a highly-skilled, unpaid work force of forty human beings onto their computers for fifty hours a week. Do it for two months straight – on the same adrenaline-incinerating, brain-draining, repetitive failures – all trying to kill the same fleshy eye-beast nobody actually cares that much about.

It was absolute, cankerous, black-hearted evil. Which ranked it among those rare pleasures that lift off from the realm of guilty, transforming themselves into something more. Rabid pleasure? Unhinged and questionably sane pleasure?

At that point, it didn’t really matter.

I would soon join a hardcore raid guild: the throbbing shaft in the World of Warcraft. Full to bursting with those lenient miscreants who grind like nobody’s watching. The vast majority of these were unemployed men. There were two women, I was told, though they seemed invariably to suffer from the harassment-mitigating “microphone problems.”

There was Ezbake, our belligerent guild leader. He directed us like the drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket. There was the near-silent Piroshky, the Russian National living in New York City on an expired student visa. He was the main tank, meaning that of the forty people in a raid, the menageries of monsters we fought would focus their swords, claws, oozes and bad breath on Piroshky. Gehenna, rated as one of the best damage-dealing rogues in North America, was a black man living with his mother in Louisiana. One of our best-outfitted healers, Nilhouse, had just defected to us from an older guild, Grisly Retribution. I quickly learned, in the Dragoons, this was the constant worry: that doling out too much loot to any one player would get them picked up by Grisly Retribution, or even The Cold, hardcore raid guilds presumably depraved as us.

Little did I suspect that this patchwork of improbable demographics would lead me down such a delightfully dark path. That alongside their sloppy racism, sexism, petty selfishness, and blunt force ignorance, we would share one pristine moment. The kind that stands out, in a life.

Right, well, first there was the Act of God. I’d been so good in HawaiĘ»i. My roommates gamed, they’d all picked up World of Warcraft the day it came out. I’d gone without a computer for months, using campus computer labs where necessary, enjoying mischievous shenanigans with my fellow studentry, in the sunshine. Then it came; Wakiki suffered its worst flooding in 80 years. That trickling little stream outside our dorm had turned into class-5 rapids, an unfordable, biologically hazardous, brown-and-white hell torrent that came within five feet of our dorm. The geriatric electrical system was the first to go, sending portions, and finally the whole of our campus into nightmarish darkness. Ancient archival maps, heirlooms of the HawaiĘ»ian islands, were being spread out and across the campus mall, floating in a hearty stew of desks, chairs, and an unknowable number of books.

Even after a long Thanksgiving holiday weekend, every campus computer lab I knew of still closed indefinitely, many of the computers washed out for good – I suddenly seemed the most backwards asshole on this island. “Not even a goddamned cellphone? Who does he think he is?”

I needed a computer. Nothing but a custom-built speed beast with blinking blue LED lights and World of Warcraft would do.


Into to Pt4: Manipulation



"An ex-drug-dealer (now a video game industry powerbrain) once told me that he doesn’t understand why people buy heroin. The heroin peddler isn’t even doing heroin. Like him or not, when you hear Cliff Bleszinski talk about Gears of War, he sounds — in a good way — like a weed dealer. He sounds like he endorses what he is selling. When you’re in a room with social games guys, the “I never touch the stuff” attitude is so thick you’ll need a box cutter to breathe properly."

-Tim Rogers, Who Killed Videogames? A Ghost Story

Raiding, and Other Acts of God
The Grind
Scheduling Conflicts
World First
Five Years
Destroyed Time
Mooncloth Boots
Nilhouse Had a Daughter, Apparently
Epic Mount



(4/17/15) I've been less busy writing about games, and more making them. Prototyping them, anyway. 

I'd written out this big theoretical model for the game experience after In Play, and someone that I respect suggested that I shelve it, then make some games. Then another person that I respect said the same thing. So that's what I've been doing, alongside actual research with actual academics at the University of Washington and some talks at Seattle Children's Hospital. Now, a few months later, Games & Culture is interested in the paper and I have some specific game prototypes that have me excitable. 

NDAs are coming due on a few other projects that I'm pretty excited to talk on, but for now I want to post about the opposite of fun. I saw on twitter that there was a blog poking at the line between engagement and manipulation. So I decided to start up posting bits of the book, specifically the stuff on human manipulation. 

There's also a half-finished piece on Sunless Sea, about Samuel Beckett and the questionable value of having behavioral dings and grinds in a game about delicious text. I'm not sure whether I'll finish it. I like Failbetter and the real estate they've claimed. I want them to build something grand on that spot. 

We'll see.