Gold Rush

The lust for gear is the com­pul­sive heart of many a game, but why do we crave lus­trous loot so?


In­ves­ti­gat­ing the psy­chol­ogy and sci­ence be­hind our in­sa­tiable crav­ing for shiny loot

Bungie’s Des­tiny sees play­ers don the heavy man­tles of Guardians. Th­ese are elite cham­pi­ons able to fo­cus the light of Earth’s mys­te­ri­ous bene­fac­tor, the Trav­eler, and pro­tect the world from en­croach­ing Dark­ness. Guardians are more or less im­mor­tal demigods, pos­sessed of amaz­ing pow­ers, golden-age tech­nol­ogy, and pierc­ing tac­ti­cal bril­liance. This is why it was kind of weird to see en­tire crowds of them just stand­ing and mind­lessly fir­ing into the mouth of a cave for hours on end.

Des­tiny’s fa­bled ‘loot cave’ says a lot about the dis­con­nect be­tween the fic­tions we’re pre­sented with in games and the men­tal­ity of many play­ers. Not long after launch, play­ers fig­ured out how to use this spe­cific pocket of the rub­ble-strewn Skywatch re­gion to ex­ploit how the game re­plen­ished the world’s sup­ply of en­e­mies. Groups of Acolytes and Thralls would spawn inside the cave ev­ery six seconds and then blithely stream out to face a fir­ing line of Guardians. Fol­low­ing a short and de­cid­edly lop­sided fire­fight, play­ers would then me­chan­i­cally reload and wait. Six seconds later, the sce­nario would hap­pen again. And then again. And again. Pre­sum­ably alien hoards were free to wreak havoc in all of the so­lar sys­tem’s less-pro­tected re­gions, but play­ers didn’t seem to care much.

The rea­son for this as­sault on a sin­gle cave in Old Rus­sia was that any downed en­emy in Des­tiny has a chance of drop­ping loot – a hexagon of light that could con­tain guns or gear that might make some of the num­bers on a player’s character sheet ratchet up by a small amount. It wasn’t long be­fore Bungie up­dated the game to break this cy­cle of cave farm­ing, play­fully re­mark­ing in patch notes that the en­emy had “re­alised the fu­til­ity of their end­less as­sault on Skywatch”. The com­mu­nity re­acted by promptly seek­ing new lo­ca­tions in which to do sim­i­lar things, even if the process was a lit­tle less ef­fi­cient. The draw of shoot­ing stuff for a tiny chance of get­ting cov­eted loot was just too strong.

Des­tiny is hardly the only game where play­ers en­gage in this kind of be­hav­iour. Farm­ing for loot and ma­te­ri­als is the en­gine that drives just about ev­ery mod­ern RPG, on­line or off. Ac­cord­ing to an infographic re­leased by Bliz­zard, Di­ablo III play­ers played a to­tal of 2.8 bil­lion hours of the game in its first year, scoop­ing up over 544 tril­lion gold pieces from the ground. Even­tu­ally, Bliz­zard even de­cided to hand over the deeds to all the game’s loot farms in Ad­ven­ture mode, which lets play­ers by­pass all story pre­tence and race through dun­geons in the search for new trea­sures. Like Des­tiny’s loot cave, such farm­ing can quickly be­come repet­i­tive, un­chal­leng­ing work oc­ca­sion­ally punc­tu­ated by the thrill of hit­ting a jack­pot. But play­ers do it.

So why do we love loot so much that we will empty mag­a­zines into a spawn point just for a chance at it? Why can the end­less grind cap­ti­vate for bil­lions of hours? Some an­swers lie in re­search on the psy­chol­ogy of loot drops, gambling, and the sur­pris­ingly ben­e­fi­cial sin of envy.

For a lot of play­ers, the mo­ti­va­tion to grind for loot comes down to what psy­chol­o­gists call op­er­ant con­di­tion­ing. This is the learn­ing tech­nique made fa­mous by Amer­i­can psy­chol­o­gist BF Skin­ner and his epony­mous boxes dur­ing the early to mid­dle part of the 20th cen­tury. Skin­ner showed that he could take an an­i­mal and teach it to per­form a cer­tain ac­tion by putting it in a box and giv­ing it some­thing en­joy­able or tak­ing away some­thing un­pleas­ant as a re­ward (tech­ni­cally, tak­ing away some­thing un­pleas­ant is termed a neg­a­tive re­in­force­ment, but we need not get hung up on

ter­mi­nol­ogy). With th­ese boxes, Skin­ner could teach a rat to press a lever when­ever it saw a light, and even teach pi­geons to play ta­ble ten­nis.

Per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, ‘Skin­ner box’ has be­come widely used in game de­sign ter­mi­nol­ogy, em­ployed with vary­ing lev­els of dis­taste. Ev­ery dun­geon in

Di­ablo III is like a Skin­ner box, in that play­ers will roam through it look­ing for a lever to press in the form of an elite en­emy or a trea­sure chest, both of which usu­ally re­ward them with loot. Op­er­ant con­di­tion­ing cre­ates habits by cre­at­ing what psy­chol­o­gists call a com­pul­sion loop. You see a cue (a lever or an elite mon­ster), you en­gage in a be­hav­iour you know will get a re­ward (press the lever or at­tack the mon­ster), you get the re­ward (a tasty treat or an amaz­ing new sword). The re­ward then re­in­forces the search for the cue again in the en­vi­ron­ment, which starts the cy­cle over. Of course, hu­mans are pos­sessed of brains that can over­ride this kind of clas­si­cal con­di­tion­ing, but habits can be hard to break – es­pe­cially if you’re en­joy­ing them.

While know­ing that you’re guar­an­teed a loot drop of some kind from a chest or elite en­emy is a pleas­ant draw, get­ting some­thing from any ran­dom en­emy or con­tainer may feel even bet­ter. The ex­pe­ri­ence of ca­su­ally de­stroy­ing some break­able con­tainer or low-level en­emy in a game only to have re­splen­dent loot pop out is hardly un­usual, but that kind of mo­ment sticks in your head. As such, you’re likely to spend the rest of the game break­ing open ev­ery bar­rel, vase, crate, box, urn, sar­coph­a­gus, pot, rock pile, book­case, bas­ket, jug, cas­ket, bone pile, hol­low log, and loose stone you come across. Even the guar­an­teed loot in Di­ablo III from an elite en­emy or spe­cial chest has an el­e­ment of ran­dom­ness to it, be­cause you don’t know ex­actly what you’ll get. “BF Skin­ner’s clas­sic work on in­ter­mit­tent re­in­force­ment showed that re­wards given on a vari­able sched­ule yielded more of a given be­hav­iour,” says Nir Eyal, who has writ­ten about the topic in his book, Hooked: How To Build Habit-Form­ing Prod­ucts, and on his web­site, Nir & Far. “The grind for re­ward drives play­ers to keep search­ing and search­ing and search­ing for re­ward. Of course, it’s not just vari­abil­ity of the re­ward that is driv­ing this be­hav­iour, but the prin­ci­ple un­der­lies much of the other more com­plex mo­ti­va­tions of game­play.” This isn’t lost on de­vel­op­ers. Games such as

Di­ablo III and Des­tiny use ran­dom re­wards to per­form a bit of psy­cho­log­i­cal judo on a sys­tem in our brain that’s crit­i­cal for sur­vival but that makes hunt­ing for epic loot even more com­pul­sive.

To un­der­stand that sys­tem re­quires a lit­tle bi­ol­ogy. In your brain is a type of cell called a dopamine neu­ron. Th­ese are the bits of your grey mat­ter re­spon­si­ble for mon­i­tor­ing lev­els of the plea­sure-in­duc­ing chem­i­cal dopamine in or­der to reg­u­late be­hav­iour and fig­ure out how to get more of a good thing. So when some­thing good hap­pens – like sex or eat­ing de­li­cious food or get­ting a leg­endary piece of ar­mour – your brain re­leases dopamine, and you feel plea­sure. The re­li­a­bil­ity of that chain of events has been an adap­tive trait for our species dur­ing most of our his­tory, linked to sur­vival be­cause the likes of de­sir­able sweet, high­calo­rie food was of­ten both im­por­tant and rare. But what’s more, dopamine neu­rons play the role of try­ing to pre­dict the rush we get from find­ing good things, and they may fire be­fore you ac­tu­ally en­counter the re­ward. Given a cou­ple of chances, they’ll learn to light up when you hear the oven timer that pre­cedes a batch of de­li­cious cup­cakes. This is a use­ful thing as far as evo­lu­tion­ary

ad­van­tages go, since it clues you in ahead of time that some­thing good is in the vicin­ity based on what events coin­cide with it.

But this is only part of what makes loot-based games work so well. The real key is that while dopamine neu­rons will fire once your brain has fig­ured out how to pre­dict an event, they re­ally get ac­tive when an un­ex­pected gush of dopamine shows up, giv­ing you an even big­ger rush. Unan­tic­i­pated cup­cakes are the most won­der­ful cup­cakes of all be­cause our brains are wired to pay spe­cial at­ten­tion to er­rors in our pre­dic­tion sys­tems. We weren’t pre­dict­ing the re­ward, but it showed up. It’s like the pre­dic­tive sys­tem in our brains wants to know what we missed that time, so it urges us to pay spe­cial at­ten­tion to the sur­prise re­ward.

This is how slot ma­chines and ran­dom num­ber gen­er­a­tors in loot sys­tems hook you. Rather than ac­cept­ing the ran­dom­ness, the re­ward pre­dic­tion sys­tem in your brain tries doggedly to learn what in the en­vi­ron­ment pre­ceded a jack­pot. Was it the time of day? The type of en­emy you de­feated? But in re­al­ity the re­ward was ut­terly ran­dom. More ra­tio­nal parts of your brain may un­der­stand this, but not the dopamine neu­rons and your re­ward pre­dic­tion sys­tem. They’re stymied, but that doesn’t stop them from want­ing to fig­ure this puz­zle out. So you keep play­ing, hop­ing for more ex­pe­ri­ences to draw a pat­tern from so that you can pre­dict when it will hap­pen next.

So ran­dom loot drops are the most com­pelling, but what about once you or your friend has some sweet new gear to show off? Loot-based games typ­i­cally make sure that you can see what gear other play­ers are sport­ing, of­ten go­ing so far as let­ting you in­spect other play­ers or look them up with web­based tools out­side of the game. Some­times gear is only cos­metic in na­ture, as in fancy hats in Team

Fortress 2. Des­tiny, how­ever, awards play­ers who com­plete a par­tic­u­larly hard strike mis­sion with the Ra­di­ant Light buff, which causes their head to be wreathed in light and ad­ver­tises their feat to other play­ers. Play­ers of­ten re­act to see­ing epic loot or cos­metic touches on oth­ers with im­me­di­ate, stark envy. Psy­chol­o­gists have stud­ied envy and its role in mo­ti­va­tion to per­form tasks, and many of their find­ings are ap­pli­ca­ble to our love of loot.

In 1954, so­cial psy­chol­o­gist Leon Festinger pub­lished a pa­per de­scrib­ing what he called so­cial com­par­i­son the­ory. The idea, in part, is that our judg­ments of how sat­is­fied we are with some of our qual­i­ties, achieve­ments or pos­ses­sions de­pend on com­par­isons against other peo­ple. Do I have a good job? Good PvP gear? Ac­cord­ing to Festinger’s the­ory, the an­swers to those ques­tions re­quire con­text. We get that con­text by com­par­ing our­selves against oth­ers, and up­ward com­par­isons against peo­ple who have bet­ter sit­u­a­tions than us can lead to envy.

In other words, you ex­pe­ri­ence envy when some­one has some­thing you de­sire and you want to change that. Psy­chol­o­gists have iden­ti­fied two ver­sions of this emo­tion. Ma­li­cious envy is when you want to solve the gap by see­ing the ob­ject of envy de­stroyed, or taken away in or­der to bring them down to your level. This usu­ally hap­pens when you think oth­ers don’t de­serve what they have. Be­nign envy, on the other hand, is more aspi­ra­tional. It hap­pens when you want to build your­self up to the same level. This is more likely when you think that your point of ref­er­ence has worked to get what they have, or de­serves it.

Envy of all kinds is usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions, cre­at­ing images of some­one sulk­ing and brood­ing over in­equal­i­ties, but re­cent

re­search has shown that envy can help us to feel bet­ter about our­selves and mo­ti­vate us to im­prove per­for­mance on what­ever it is we’re try­ing to do. See­ing another Di­ablo III player com­plete a set of ul­tra-rare green items might make us green with envy, but it may also make us feel more com­pe­tent at the game and more mo­ti­vated to com­plete our own set. “Com­par­ing your­self to some­one bet­ter off can give you in­for­ma­tion on how to suc­ceed,” says

Si­mon Laham, a so­cial psy­chol­o­gist at the Univer­sity Of Mel­bourne and au­thor of The Sci­ence Of Sin: The Psy­chol­ogy Of The Seven Dead­lies And Why The Are So Good For You. “You ob­serve the se­crets of oth­ers’ suc­cesses and change your ex­pec­ta­tions of what’s pos­si­ble.”

Re­searchers have found that when we make up­wards com­par­isons, we tend to look for and find sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween us and our tar­get be­cause we have a bias to­wards a pos­i­tive self-im­age. This not only broad­ens our per­cep­tions of what is pos­si­ble for us, it nudges us to­ward think­ing more highly of our­selves; if they’re like you and they did it, then so can you. It also helps greatly if we can pick out (or as­sume) sim­i­lar­i­ties on at­tributes ob­vi­ously re­lated to per­for­mance on the task in ques­tion.

For ex­am­ple, Niels Van De Ven, Rik Pi­eters and Mar­cel Zee­len­berg from Til­burg Univer­sity in the Nether­lands did an ex­per­i­ment where they caused dif­fer­ent sub­jects to ex­pe­ri­ence the dif­fer­ent kinds of envy. Then they had sub­jects take the Re­mote As­so­ciates Test (RAT), which mea­sures cre­ativ­ity and in­tel­li­gence. The RAT presents three words and then asks the can­di­date to think of a word that con­nects them. As an ex­am­ple, the cor­rect an­swer to ‘dream, break, light’ is ‘day’. The RAT is used in this kind of re­search be­cause do­ing well on it is par­tially a func­tion of the mo­ti­va­tion to keep think­ing about a prob­lem un­til you fig­ure it out. What Van De Ven and his col­leagues found was that mak­ing some­one ex­pe­ri­ence be­nign envy of a suc­cess­ful per­son be­fore tak­ing the RAT caused them to per­sist longer at solv­ing the puz­zles rel­a­tive to those ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ma­li­cious, or no, envy. Mak­ing up­wards com­par­isons tends to make us feel more com­pe­tent by as­so­ci­a­tion, which mo­ti­vates us to try harder. Other re­search has found that be­ing en­vi­ous is more mo­ti­vat­ing when the tar­get is sim­i­lar to you, but not when it seems im­prac­ti­cal to do what they did to make you en­vi­ous.

It’s no stretch to think that see­ing some­one with the re­wards of com­plet­ing a dif­fi­cult in-game chal­lenge could make us as­sume that we could do the same, since they’re es­sen­tially just like us and didn’t do any­thing we couldn’t. Or, al­ter­na­tively, we may be more mo­ti­vated to make in-game pur­chases to re­duce the envy (see: ‘The envy pre­mium’).

Loot, then, is a com­plex me­chanic tied to mul­ti­ple as­pects of psy­chol­ogy. Be­nign envy can mo­ti­vate us to seek out items other play­ers have, but does so by help­ing us reeval­u­ate our­selves as more com­pe­tent. Once we get started, the ran­dom na­ture of the re­wards lever­ages the pre­dic­tion­mak­ing sys­tems in our brain to keep us go­ing in per­pet­ual loops. It sounds fu­tile, but may be no bad thing, says Nir Eyal. “We have to re­mem­ber what the al­ter­na­tives to th­ese be­hav­iours are,” he says. “Sure, it would be great if peo­ple stopped grind­ing on­line and in­stead went to vol­un­teer at a home­less shel­ter – but that’s not what would hap­pen if gaming dis­ap­peared.” In a way, work­ing to­wards that ex­otic hel­met may be a net pos­i­tive for hu­man­ity – even if it does leave parts of the vir­tual galaxy un­de­fended while you empty clips into caves.

Dota2’ s trea­sures can con­tain skins for couri­ers, equip­ment sets, and new an­i­ma­tions. De­spite be­ing cos­metic in na­ture, they are still de­sir­able and able to gen­er­ate envy

Team Fortress 2’ s hats again have no prac­ti­cal end, but are used to dis­play sta­tus and as drops. The rarer the hat, the greater the ku­dos

Di­ablo III’s plethora of loot is made all the more cap­ti­vat­ing for boost­ing stats as well as sta­tus. A full rare set tells the world you’ve been to Hell and made it back alive

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