Many of my guild friends have stated that they are waiting for a release date, not so much so that they know when they will finally be able to play -- but rather so that they can tell their bosses when they'll be booking vacation! Yes, many of us are planning to take vacation time when Guild Wars 2 comes out so that we can immerse ourselves in this spectacular world that ArenaNet is creating.
At the same that we were talking of these plans, we were also debating how best to balance your life so that you don't neglect family and friends. Some people are worried about gaming addiction. This is a large enough issue that there is even an On-Line Gamers Anonymous self-help group in the U.S. On the other hand, there are some people who think that gaming can be a force for good. Then, a few days ago I watched a documentary called Surviving the Teenage Brain. Although computer games weren't mentioned, it did go into depth about how our brains develop, and the role that the reward system of the brain and the neurotransmitter dopamine plays in this development.
This is a bit of a simplification, but when a behaviour results in an outcome that your brain judges to be "good", dopamine is released to help reinforce the neural pathways associated with this good behaviour. Addictions happen when a behaviour (e.g. winning while gambling) or other stimulus (e.g. drugs) causes your brain to release dopamine, thus rewarding your brain and reinforcing the pathways that led to the outcome. The reward system of the brain is co-opted into making you repeat the behaviour, even though it is detrimental to your well-being.
And this got me to thinking...
Among computer games, MMOs have been singled out as the worst offenders for developing "addictions". Now, the American Psychiatric Association does not include computer gaming of any sort on their updated list of disorders for 2012, but most people have heard of, or know of a friend who has spent an abnormal amount of time gaming. For instance, anyone who has played a game of Civilization knows of the "just one more turn syndrome" which can keep you at your keyboard for many hours more than you planned on playing. So, acknowledge or not, spending too long playing is a real thing that does happen.
So, how does an MMO produce addiction-like symptoms? And what do the prospects for Guild Wars 2 look like? The typical MMO has quests which ask you to perform some task. Upon completion, you return to the quest-giver and they hand you a reward in terms of some item, or XP or currency or any combination of the above. As you gain XP, you level up, becoming more powerful. All of these positive outcomes have the potential to stimulate the brain's reward center and release dopamine, thereby reinforcing the behaviour. Your brain will train itself to say "the more I play, the more rewards I get and therefore I want to play more because rewards are good!"
In your typical MMO, this is usually offset by "the grind". This is where you have to repeat some task over and over before you gain your reward. There is also often an application of the law of diminishing returns. Initially, you kill 10 rats and you get XP worth 10% of a level. But later on, you kill 100 wolves and only get XP worth 5% of a level. As you get nearer and nearer to the level cap, this disparity increases to the point where you need to kill 1000 Balrogs for 2% towards your next level. (Yes, that's an exaggeration, but it's to demonstrate a point!) These mechanics are fairly standard and make later portions of the game tedious and boring and help diminish the constant reward hits that you get as a lower-level character. In effect, the game gives you frequent rewards as a low-level character to get you hooked but then helps wean you from becoming an addict by making the rewards less meaningful and further apart as you grind through the higher levels. In the later stages of the game, it's more of an attachment to the character and a feeling of "I've come this far, might as well see it through" than it is an addition to the game.
But Guild Wars 2 isn't your typical MMO. They've looked at everything that isn't "fun" and questioned themselves on how to make it better. I don't believe it was their intention, but a lot of the changes they've made could make Guild Wars 2 the most addictive MMO ever. For instance, in a recent official blog post, ArenaNet's Eric Flannum talked about the Achievement system. There will be daily achievements which will cause a small chest to appear, rewarding the character with XP. These will reset every day, providing constant input for your brain's reward system. Additionally, they have done everything they can to reduce the "grind" of the game, because "grind" is usually boring and not fun. Unlike the traditional MMO where each level is increasingly harder to obtain; in Guild Wars 2, after the first five to ten levels the experience point curve will level out so that getting from level 24 to 25 will take roughly the same amount of time as it will to get from level 79 to 80. Last we heard, they were aiming for about an hour-and-a-half average to gain a level. That's a lot of positive stimulus for your brain to deal with. And it doesn't even touch on the rewards for completing dynamic events or checking off all of the items on a reputation vendor's to-do list. Add in the personal story and the rewards that come with that, not to mention the attachment it will help engender in your character and, much as in the Civilization case, I believe that Guild Wars 2 is going to have a similar "just one more achievement / event / level" syndrome.
ArenaNet has gone all out in making their game fun. But in so doing, they've also increased the risk that people just won't want to stop playing. I don't believe it was their intention to make the game addictive -- since they don't collect monthly fees, it's not like they need people to continue to play to pay the bills. (If anything, the opposite is true -- the more players they have, the higher their server costs, so with no monthly fees it would be economically better to have people stop playing.) They've just focused on "what's fun?" and made a game that looks like it will be non-stop fun. The wise among us will go into the game acknowledging this and we will temper our playing time so that it doesn't get out of hand. Although I don't believe that it's ArenaNet's job to police our playing time, this is one area where I feel they could apply their wit to great effect. If they keep the hourly playtime notifications that they have in Guild Wars, I'd love to see them get increasingly animated. At one hour, a simple "You have been playing for one hour". After two hours, "You have been playing for two hours, please take a break". Each hour the message could get a little more serious until ten hours when it says something like "You've been playing for TEN hours! We're happy you like our game, but please, for your own sanity, log off! We're begging you!" Of course, they'd have to cap the message after a point otherwise the completionists out there would intentionally keep playing to make sure they'd seen every possible message! But a reminder would be good, because some of us (and yes, I'm in that group!) may have a hard time logging off on our own.
While a lot of the aspects of this game will most likely be addicting, ArenaNet has also put in place a system that allows you to simply log off with no consequences: there are no monthly fees, achievements/titles are account wide, you respawn roughly in the same place where you logged off, PvP matches are hot join-able, and you don't have to play 100's of hours or collect 100's of items to enjoy the game to play with the best. All of this should make for a fun game that can be enjoyed equally well casually or more seriously. In the end though, it will be up to each of us to ensure that it remains "just a game".
(Note: I'd like to extend a special thanks to Saxon and the other Vigilant Fans for their constructive criticisms on my original draft for this article.)
How about you? Are you worried that you might find Guild Wars 2 too addicting? Have you had a previous expereince with gaming addiction? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.