Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why do we play?

As a parent, I'm reading quite a lot of child psychology, especially Alfie Kohn for the interested. The interesting part of it is that a lot of the psychology that turns up there aren't limited to children, or can be easily ported to the rest of the population as well.

One of the most interesting topics I've come across, both with Alfie Kohn and other sources, is motivation. I'd like to take a look at motivation in WoW with the insights I've come across there.

First, some background. While I may not use the exact same words, psychologists speak of internal and external motivation. The internal motivation is the motivation to do something for the it's own sake. The classical school example is a pupil that suddenly realizes a connection in mathematics, and desires or even aches to learn more. Then there's the external motivation. That's when you have some other reason to do something, and you're not nescessarily interested in doing whatever you do for the sake itself. Classic example continued: A teacher stands behind the pupil, watching him, and telling him "Good job" when he does something good, thus the pupil wants to do more math exercises (not nescessarily learn more) to keep hearing the teacher saying "Good job".

According to the theories I've read and what I've experienced, external motivation kills internal motivation. If you do something for fun, and someone starts giving you money to do it, chances are great that you'll now view it as a job rather than an interest. That's not saying you can't have internal motivations towards a job. What matters, in my mind, is your view of the task at hand. Do you do it because you want to do it, and payment is just a nice side effect, or do you do it to get the payment? If you fall into the latter category, you'll easily find yourself hating your job, or at least looking forward to job is done or the weekend.

Now, let's take a look at WoW. Internal motivation could be doing quests because you're curious what will happen or find the story interesting. External motivation is doing quests for the rewards only, to the point where you never really read the quest text. Internal motivation could also be exploring for the sake of itself, while external could be exploring to get an achievement.

WoW has so many ways of external motivations that it's almost silly. XP/Level, reputation, gear upgrades, money, titles, various mounts and pets, and achievements. My theory is that if you focus on these things, WoW will be less entertaining for you, raiding will feel more like a job than entertainment, you're much more likely to suffer burnout and so on. I used to skip every quest text through second half of vanilla WoW. Now I read every quest text, book, readable quest item and dialogue carefully, to absorb as much as possible of the story.

That is not saying you can't have fun with achivements. But if you do an achivement just to get +10 achivement points, that's possibly a bad sign. Do it because you find it entertaining, or just have fun with a random achivement popping up now and then without intentionally hunting them.

Still, there's a big playerbase, and a lot of them *are* motivated by external motivation. What keeps them back? I've got a theory of that as well, though I didn't invent that either. The general idea is that addiction is often caused by the enviroment rather than the thing you're addicted to itself. Translated: Many people who are addicted to WoW feel that their lives are lacking in some way. Thus, the sympthom of that is that they've developed an addiction to WoW, even to the point of playing when it feels like work. The actual cause is in their actual lives. Taking away WoW doesn't solve the problem, only removes a sympthom.


  1. I really like this post. I myself have no internal or external motivation to do quests. All my motivation comes from doing group activities such as raiding or 5 man instances. That being said I think the reason I enjoy it is because of the team work required to do them. When soloing it gets pretty boring and you do the same thing over and over, when doing group activities it is never 100% the same and can be anything from entertaining to "I want to throw my computer out the window" frustrating.

  2. I have a son who is/was addicted to WOW. He is now in a theraputic boarding school after a two month stay at a wilderness program. While at home he played WOW all the time. When we put limits on his game and took it away for a period of time he became depressed, defiant, destructive, non-compliant to rules, and disrespectful. He has ADHD. His therapist talked to us about his issues in this way. The symptom is he is addicted to WOW. But the real issue is why? Why is he "checking out on reality" and what is he getting in this fantasy life that he isnt getting in real life. This is the real issue at hand. His character of choice is a healer. The therapist is guessing that he has a need to be needed, if this makes sense, among other things. If anyone understands this character and what attracts them to this character, could you post a comment. I am hoping that some insight will help me understand my son better

  3. That's a very serious question, and I hope you realize that I don't have any professional psychology background, and thus answer based only on my own experiences and ideas. You'll also have to forgive me my somewhat lacking english skills when it comes to advanced topics, as english is only my second language.

    Like most other parts in life, there are probably several underlying reasons entangled together. Most likely your son doesn't consciously know about them, but he might recognize some of it if you suggest them and ask him what he thinks of them.

    To start with a part I know something about: a "need to be needed". Many adults, when loosing their jobs, enter a state of depression because they feel they are no longer doing anything useful, and end up being a dead weight on their family and perhaps community. Your son may feel something similar about his life. Many people playing healers in WoW, myself included, feel a sense of satisfaction upon healing others, a sense of being useful and needed. In fact, a group can't function without the healer. Add to that that your son probably feels (rightfully) that he's a very good healer, and have thus established a self-image of himself being very useful.

    Now, to compare that to the life he's leading outside the game: He probably feels that he is close to useless. In fact, he is the one that needs lot of help, from you (his parents), his therapists, teachers, you name it. Being assured that it's not really much bother for you will not help him. He probably wants to be useful and helpful to others like he is in the game, but he lacks a way to do that.

    If my guess is correct, giving him a channel to use his positive energy on will probably be a great help. I assume that, like many other people with ADHD, he has been picked on at school. It might seem a bit strange, but he might be a real help to others in similar positions as himself, young people with ADHD, children that are picked on and so on. Give him a purpose with his life.

    If he is anything like myself, he might also be interested in reading psychology to learn more about his own condition and others like him. It hurts knowing that you really don't know yourself.

    To jump to other reasons for his addiction, in combination with the above. Since the birth of IRC (internet relay chat) and various messenger-programs (ICQ, MSN Messenger), many people have developed an almost unhealthy relation to their second persona. The people on the net (and in WoW) can see you only when you want them to. They learn to know you on your terms, and you might even react entirely different when using your internet persona than you do in your real life. Add to that that if you've had a bad start (gotten on other people's nerves, for example), you can just create a new character/nick, and start a-new. Compare that to school or a workplace. If people have seen your bad sides, they won't forget. They'll put a label on you, and it stays. Further, in WoW or chat programs, you are free not to be bothered when you don't want to. At school, it's not so easy when you're having a bad day. Last: People are surprisingly more compassionate using their alternate personas than their real one. If you complain about your life to your online friends, they most likely agree and sympathize with you. If your son lacks friends he can do something similar to in his 'real life' (also shortened to RL), he might view only his online friends as real.

    Now, there is no easy solution for this problem. If the first suggestion works and he feels he is useful, it will boost his self-confidence and allow him to more easily mingle with others and thus get real friends. However, that may take years.

    The perhaps best solution here is to let him mingle with others like-minded, but in real life. In effect, geeks. I was a boyscout for ten years and earned many friends there, geeks like myself. Help him find a group of like-minded, and it might help. I don't how your relationship is to this, but roleplaying can be a pretty good source for friends. The risk is of course that you're just changing the addiction from WoW to roleplaying games, but there are certain advantages with roleplaying games than with WoW. First and foremost, you meet face to face. That means that the people you meet will have to be close to you, close enough that you can be with them when you're not playing as well.

    Yet another part of the problem may be that he doesn't love himself. This sounds very strange, but is more common than you might want to realize. Many people learn throughout their childhood to only love/like themselves when they do the "right thing", make the correct choice and so on. When they're doing something they shouldn't, they feel bad about it. If you think this is how it should be, you've probably forced your view on your son. The bottom line is that your son may never love himself, and his self-image is probably at sea bottom because he always succumbs to his wish to play. My own view is that playing just is a source for entertainment, a source like TV, a book, a rollercoaster or anything else. It is not negative per se, unless you're doing it excessively. It's important to let yourself relax and enjoy it, otherwise you'll never really relax and end up stressed and frustrated.

    I think it's generally a bad tactic to use external control mechanisms (in effect; force) to remove the problem. It might be nescessary for a while, but if you want to find a permanent solution, it's probably not a good idea. You risk having your son just finding a substitute for WoW, which in the worst case might be drugs and the like. Playing in itself is not bad, if he can control it.

    Most importantly, talk to him. I don't know how old he is, but I guess he's at least 12. You may even have him read this text, there's nothing here you need to hide from him. Ask him if he recognizes any of the thoughts. Work with him to find a solution, don't force him.

    In all of this, it's also important that you maintain, or perhaps even establish, a good relationship. You're immensly important to him, but it might not be easy for him to always see that.

    Ask away if you feel there's anything else I can contribute with. I'm fairly certain at least one of the three reasons above will be important. There might also be others (being competive, for example).

    If you want to share details the rest of the world might not want to know, you may email me. Replace all occurances of tax with a dot, and all occurances of wax with @ (I hate spam). mariuses wax ifi tax uio tax no. Sorry for the inconvenience.