Inside the Skinner Box

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Ben and I are what you might call old school gamers, by which I mean that we were rabid fans of video games, and PC gaming in particular, back when it still used to be embarrassing to admit that in mixed company. We both have fond memories of multi-user dungeons (MUDs), text-based adventures and early PC role-playing games. At least I was a kid, and had a pretty good excuse. I think Ben was a political science professor at the time.

There was no game, however, that captivated me more than a game released in 1999 called Everquest, a good decade or so after those first experiences. Everquest was (I actually think there are still active servers, so maybe “is”) a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). In other words, it was a persistent world you interacted with alongside thousands of other players. Everquest wasn’t the first game of its kind. Not counting the early MUDs, another game called Ultima Online, whose universe was the brainchild of video game pioneer Richard Garriott, is probably most deserving of the claim. But Everquest was the first game that I actively thought about even when I wasn’t playing. I was, in a word, obsessed. 

If you’ve never heard of Everquest, congratulations on being one of the cool kids. Still, you’ve probably heard of the largest genre successor to Everquest, a game called World of Warcraft. The general formula is the same. It is an entire genre built around the same need to matter that fosters so many of the social media-related behaviors and forms of political engagement and investing behaviors that we write about on Epsilon Theory. Players are drawn to these games because they offer the potential for relative greatness in an artificially confined game world. Instead of an endless sea of billions of humans with brilliance and talent on display in ways it never was before the late 1990s, you instead compete with only 10-20,000 other users. In this world, the player thinks, he may stand some chance of finding that rarest item that no one else has yet found, developing that rarest combination of skills, besting that most powerful enemy. In a word, mattering. 

It is utterly perverse.

Why? Because the most profitable, most successful games never let a player reach this point. In fact, reaching a point where too many players achieve the pinnacle at once will kill even an immensely popular game stone dead. Google “The Division Bullet King Exploit” to read about one famous example. Instead, developers must create a treadmill, in which they develop and time new expansions to unveil rarer items and artifacts, more powerful monsters and yet more advanced levels and skills to achieve. At its best, this treadmill is an irresistible, infinitely frustrating experience. The biggest argument I ever had with my best friend – the kind of best friend who you rarely talk to any more but know is still your best friend – was about who ought to enjoy the benefit of a Blackened Alloy Coif taken from the corpse of that handsome fellow whose image adorns the top of this In Brief. I know that if you’ve never played one of these games, all of this probably sounds very stupid to you. But the impulses of these games are every bit the same as the memes that guide our behavior in countless other venues in which we are influenced by how others think about and perceive us.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that these types of games are also among the greatest sandboxes to experiment on the human brain – for science, and you know, maybe a bit of profit. The ensuing two decades led to all sorts of innovations in separating mattering-influenced gamers from their money. The most profitable and influential of these developments has been the transition from simple monthly subscription models to hybrid models that permitted some exchange of money for the time it usually took to acquire relevance in these games. In other words, developers and publishers integrated the ability to simply pay to accelerate character development, loot acquisition and the like. This, too, is a balancing act between permitting paying characters to feel like they will matter in the game world after they pay money, while still making sure that time-committed characters know that they still matter more than those filthy pay-to-win folks. There is nothing unpredictable about any of this, and at this point, there is so much available data on how people will respond to various stimuli that the Skinner Box almost seems unnecessary.

And it would be, except for two things: companies DO have a lot more access to our data, and companies have far more tools to integrate that with more sophisticated behavior modeling and testing.

Enter MapleStory 2. 

A popular game in Korea for a couple of years, MapleStory 2 was released to a wider audience of English-speaking countries almost two months ago. The combination of anecdotal data and people reviewing Korea patent databases (no, seriously) has led to growth of a conspiracy theory-turned-maybe-legit. The theory? That its publisher has thrown the integrity of its game world out the window in favor of an experience that is tailored to the specific treadmill tolerance of each player. Players are specifically claiming that they believe the publisher is harvesting gameplay information (e.g. when do they play? has their playtime decreased or increased recently? are their indicators of frustration in their play habits?), chat information (e.g. are players expressing frustration, or a willingness to quit paying?) and player identification information (e.g. is this player a streamer, an influencer or a celebrity?) to adjust the odds of very good or bad things happening to a character. Are you deemed a flight risk? Well, your odds of finding that ultra-rare item may just go up. Is your subscription to paywalled content about to run out? Well, maybe we’ll just tweak the odds of success on that item crafting activity you’re going through just a bit. 

Look, I’ve enjoyed enough complimentary whiskeys at blackjack tables to know that this kind of behavior isn’t unprecedented, and as long as it doesn’t get too bold, too coyoteish, we are all usually cynical enough to tolerate it. I also don’t know how much of the claims above are true, because I long since learned that my productivity and humanity fall precipitously when I allow myself to play these games. And claims of loaded dice are as old as…well…dice. Call me skeptical or naive, but I still find it hard to believe that a company this big would take that kind of risk.

Still, if you want to know how big technology will be used to nudge you into behaviors across your socially and politically engaged lives, always look first in the same two places: Vegas and Video Games. There is no firm, network, platform or brand engaged in the business of you and your data – not Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, even Apple – who is so committed to the integrity of their ecosystem that they have created that they will not constantly explore how to use your own data to nudge you into certain behaviors for commercial or other ends.

The only things in the world keeping them from doing so are the Common Knowledge and narratives about its acceptability and your willingness to provide them with that data. If you ever wanted to know why a finance website focused on identifying narratives spends this much time talking about these topics, this is why.

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Mark Kahn
Member
Mark Kahn

“I long since learned that my productivity and humanity fall precipitously when I allow myself to play these games.” Super-duper points for honesty – one of the most honest things I’ve read in a long time (and the last time I played any kind of video game – other than ten minutes at Xmas with nephews – was in the ’80s).

“Call me skeptical or naive, but I still find it hard to believe that a company this big would take that kind of risk.” Some absolutely will. Some won’t, but some either insanely greedy company or a company facing failure will. To reverse engineer a bit from your closing statement: think about how many Wall Street firms have risked ruining (and have ruined) their reputations engaging in that exact type of behavior.

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Victor K
Member
Victor K

Yet another great read! I’m old enough to have had an IBM 8086 that played ‘ping-pockey’. I was addicted to Myst thru Riven. My son to ‘Evercrack’. Judging now, I would bet the ever-innovative game/porn industry will prevail, especially if privacy actually is real (?decentralised?).

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Mike
Member
Mike

“Still, if you want to know how big technology will be used to nudge you into behaviors across your socially and politically engaged lives, always look first in the same two places: Vegas and Video Games.”

Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem…Nowadays each online game is a little virtual world and as the games keep developing those worlds turn into considerably massive worlds with everything we have in reality and huge numbers of people,” Liu said, who went on to say that one day massive virtual universes will become “no different than the real world.”

Different from traditional art forms, Liu noted that game culture is created by game developers and players together and therefore the special feature of this new art form is that each game can become a unique cultural product and story for each individual.

“We just need some key pioneers in the game industry to make it happen, just like how animation culture developed. Video games are highly likely to become a mainstream cultural art form.”

Hmmm, how do we get to the desired outcome?

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John
Member
John

Good post, Rusty. I thank you.

Video games have never pulled at me the way you describe. Still, I was lucky enough to read Gibson’s Neuromancer 25 years ago (and then everything else he wrote), and his dystopias struck me as much more prescient and believable than, say, Orwell’s or Asimov’s, for precisely the reasons you describe.

Gibson’s world is now staring us in the face: the gamification of virtual space as a tool of exploitation & control, the hegemony of an oligarchical elite, the mass idolatry of celebrity avatars (Idoru), the privatization of real-world security and so on… Gibson imagined all that a generation ago; now it reads like today’s evil twin.

I am confident 99% of us want to be good but, collectively and individually, we are always at risk of ruin by the other 1%. That struggle is basically the story of our species.

Reality is not a pulp SciFi novel, so no plucky hero(ine) will emerge from obscurity to save our ship. Rather, if history is any guide, it will take many unrelated & un-thanked acts of goodness by those humble enough to know we cannot see the way, to steer us, year by year, between the ‘bergs of those who claim they can.

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Michael
Member

Thanks Rusty. Us early gamers appreciated this one – I recommend you read Ernest Clines’s Ready Player One (avoid the movie) for the pure 80s gaming nostalgia.

My friend in Internet Security has worked for both the gaming and finance industry. The effort gaming companies put into security so they can control the who in “who is being played” is immense (the building for lawyers was the same size as the one for developers!).

Virtual damage can be greater than IRL (in real life). Stealing a game pre-launch or breaking a game’s economy can be >>game over<< for a company. Stealing from a bank is just an insurance problem…

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Eric Cheung
Member
Eric Cheung

Is a simple game that is just entertaining no longer profitable? It seems so as everything needs to be a skinner box in some way.

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