Addiction - How MMORPG's Turn You Into A Lab Rat

"2 years  I've been playing, for 12 hours a day. I would never inflict this game on anyone. This game is just a disease. It's horrible." - 20 Year old Leo


World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, Runescape, Elder Scrolls online.

There is one thing these games all have in common.

They are incredibly ADDICTING.

Fb thumbnail image 1.jpg

Everyone has at least heard a story of a friend of a friend who played WOW(World of Warcraft) so much that they dropped out of collage. Or stopped going to school. Or stopped seeing their friends.

Psychologists still to this day like to argue over whether video game addiction is real or not. Those of us who live in the real world and not with our face stuffed into academic theory can see that this is obviously real.

It's not unusual at all for players to play 12+ hours in a single day. 


Players consistently report the following:


  • Cravings to play the game while away from their computer

  • Feel that they can't stop playing

  • Feelings of anger when they're forcibly stopped from playing

  • A massive negative effect on their real life


The following is a post on an online addiction forum from the wife on behalf of her addicted husband:


"Every spare moment, he spends playing. He gets extremely volatile if his gaming is interrupted or if I request help with the house or kids. He gets home from work and gets on the computer and plays until 2 or 3 in the morning"

"He lives to play. I am secondary. Our two beautiful girls, and another due in January, are secondary. Housework is secondary. Romance is secondary (I have been turned down or ignored many times when wanting to have sex or date night). Our life is secondary" 


In the most extreme cases players have died from overuse of the game. Some develop mental illnesses. Some end up on the streets. Others develop physical illnesses like epilepsy. 




It's possible to become addicted to any video game but MMORPG'S (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game) seem to cause the biggest problems with addiction.

This is no coincidence. 

Because MMORPG's like World of Warcraft are addictive BY DESIGN.

With traditional games, you pay a one-off fee of $40 and the game is yours.

Traditional game developers don't really care what you do with the game after you buy it. The goal is to sell as many copies as possible. You can chuck the game into a river right after purchase for all they care. 

But MMO's are different. MMO's make their money through a subscription model. Pay $15 a month for access to the game. This difference is very important.

The goal of an MMO is to keep as many players subscribed as possible. Whatever it takes to keep them on the game.

Even if it means treating players like lab-rats and encouraging addictive behaviour in teenagers with under-developed brains. 



FB thumnail image 2.png

In the early 20th century, BF Skinner conducted his famous experiments on Operant Conditioning. 

He placed a hungry rat inside into a small box, commonly known as a Skinner Box. The box was completely empty, aside from a small lever, a light and a small food box. If the rat pulled the lever, a small food pellet would be released into the box as a reward. 

After a few minutes of sitting still, the rat would begin exploring the box. After a while the rat would accidentally pull down the lever and a food pellet would be released. After the fifth or sixth time pulling down the lever the rat would learn to pull the lever whenever it was hungry. 

Then Skinner decided to change up the experiment. Using pigeons this time he had it peck a button in the middle of the box. Instead of dropping in a food pellet every time the button was pushed, he would instead drop in a food pellet at random.  

B.F. Skinner conducting his variable ratio experiement on pigeons

B.F. Skinner conducting his variable ratio experiement on pigeons

Skinner was suprised by the results of this modified experiment. Instead of casually pulling the lever like the rat did in the previous experiment, the pigeon began pushing the button much more than before.

In fact, Skinner noted that the pigeon would continue pecking the button long after he had stopped handing out the rewards. He called this a Variable Ratio.

And Variable Ratio is a term that game developers will use behind the scenes to talk about the construction of their games. More or less ALL MMORPG's will use a variable ratio reward system in one way or another.

They're used for monster loot drops  - a monster will drop a rare item at a variable ratio of 1 in 10,000. Like trying to obtain a Draconic Visage by killing dragons in Runescape.

Players estimate the drop ratio to be around 1 in 10,000

Players estimate the drop ratio to be around 1 in 10,000

And so because the Draconic Visage has a high in-game value, players will kill dragons obsessively in their attempts to get one for themselves. 

It could be the next one..or the next one..or maybe the next one..

They're also often used in the damage system in games. When fighting monsters or other players, the amount of damage that you inflict on your opponent is calculated on a variable ratio. This means with each and every hit you don't know how much damage you will do. 

In Guild Wars 2, there is always a chance of inflicting a Critical Hit which does far more damage than usual. Again, these critical hits happen on a variable ratio. This ratio can be improved with the player's stats and gear, but it's still a random occurence.

Guild Wars 2 Critical Hit.png

MMORPG's put players inside a Skinners Box and condition them to pull the lever again and again using the variable ratio.

Sure, it's a far more complex Skinner's box with state of the art graphics, but a Skinner's box nonetheless.

Instead of a food pellet it's an in-game reward like a high value item or a critical hit. Instead of pulling a lever you're pushing a complex series of buttons on the keyboard and mouse in the sequence the game has taught you to. And instead of a physical box, it's a virtual box for your online character and your mind. 

Because Operant Conditioning isn't just effective on rats and pigeons, but also on HUMANS.

So players will sit in front of their screens pulling that digital lever in the hope of that digital food pellet for hours upon hours.

And game developers know that using a variable ratio system in their game will dramatically increase playtime and keep players paying that monthly subscription fee.

These in-game rewards give players a hit of the brain chemical dopamine. This is the same brain chemical released when GAMBLING and also highly addictive.

These variable ratio reward mechanics are the exact same model used on slot machines.



MMORPG Slot Machine.jpg

Slot machines use the variable ratio schedule to an incredible effect. Even though the ratio is always going to be in favour of the machine, people around the world sit pulling the lever for hours at a time waiting for the jackpot.

And just like MMORPG's, addiction is a major problem. People's lives are ruined. The hit of dopamine the player receives gets them hooked on playing the slots and pushes them to seek that next dopamine hit by pulling the lever one more time.


But gambling is a PROPER addiction though right? This is real money after all. With MMORPG's it's just pixels on a screen. So it's not a REAL addiction is it?


Well, MMORPG's tend to have their own in-game currency. So these rare items you might recieve after the 2000th monster kill will have an in-game value.   

The Runescape item Draconic Visage mentioned earlier currently has an in-game value of roughly 8,152,000GP.("GP" being the in-game currency used in Runescape)

These items hold value in the amount of time it takes to get them. In-game currency is more or less the same as real-life currency in that it takes work and time to acquire and can be traded for objects or services. 

And more than that, virtual items actually have a REAL WORLD VALUE.

This is the Blade of Wizardy, a rare item in World of Warcraft with an in-game value of around 10million Gold. 

This is the Blade of Wizardy, a rare item in World of Warcraft with an in-game value of around 10million Gold and a REAL WORLD value of $78.78USD

This is the Blade of Wizardy, a rare item in World of Warcraft with an in-game value of around 10million Gold and a REAL WORLD value of $78.78USD

In fact, right now the virtual item marketplace is a $50 Billion Dollar Industry. 

So the jackpot received from a rare item monster drop is real. 

Now we have age restrictions on gambling. You must be 18 or 21 years old before being considered responsible enough to gamble.

On the other hand, MMO's are available for 13 year olds. 

On Runescape you can actually "Stake" in-game money in a 1v1 fight against your opponent. A fight that is almost entirely based on luck using the Runescape's variable ratio damage system. 

100m GP Won via in-game gambling

100m GP Won via in-game gambling

The player can sell the virtual money for $21.18USD

The player can sell the virtual money for $21.18USD



So is this underage gambling? Yes.

And it's legal.

Oh well.



Most Playtime is spent pulling one of these 4 levers

Most Playtime is spent pulling one of these 4 levers

MMORPG's use a far more advanced Skinner Box than the original experiments in 1948.

The box that MMO's put you in have multiple levers that all work on different schedules to ensure the player sticks around for as long as possible.


Fixed Ratio Reward Schedule


A fixed ratio reward schedule is simple: A certain number of actions is required to obtain a reward.

This is often the training stage, where players will gradually level up their skills and watch as the experience meter gradually moves up and up with each action.

It's a small drip of rewards on the micro scale that allows users to see consistent progress. 

Mmm.. Nice little hit of dopamine

Mmm.. Nice little hit of dopamine

Game developers know that with fixed ratio reward schedule, players tend to work slowly while the reward is far away and then work harder and harder as the reward gets closer. Once the reward is achieved, the player tends to take a short break, then start training again. 

All MMORPG's have a fixed ratio reward schedule of some kind. Generally it's repetitive and BORING. Players invented their own term for this kind of gameplay: "GRINDING".

Grinding though it may be, players will keep training hard to raise their levels higher and higher. To max out a character on any MMO takes a LONG ASS TIME. Grinding for weeks, months, years. 

Attack on monster. Kill it. Pick up the loot. Attack the next monster. Kill it. Pick up the loot. Attack the next mon.......


Fixed Interval Reward Schedule


The second lever in the box behaves different from the first. This lever only appears at certain times during the day. 

Players will head to a certain location in the game at a particular time in the day to collect their reward. This could be a monster spawn that's scheduled to appear once every 5 hours. Or a set world event for 7pm on Saturday. 

Players will have a break from their normal fixed ratio grind to attend an events. They will complete the event and then head back to their fixed ratio grind. 

One example of this is the Farming skill in Runescape. The farming skill requires players to check on their farm patches after certain time intervals to check that their crops are growing properly. Players often log in at certain times of the day to check on their farm patches and then log off again. 

This type of reward schedule encourages players to put the game into their real life schedules.

4:00pm - Come home from School

5:00pm - Check on cabbage patch

6:00pm - Do math homework

7:00pm - Check on potato patch

Ready to be harvested again in 4 hours time

Ready to be harvested again in 4 hours time

Variable Interval Reward Schedule


This last lever in the box is the least commonly used and is really just used to add that extra bit of pice to the players experience. Many MMO's have so called "Random Events" that pop up for players to complete. 

Often players respond to this kind of reward schedule by heading to possible areas these events may occur then waiting for it to happen. This final lever is really just the icing on the cake.

The player will spend most of their time walking between these four levers and pulling them obsessively.  

But what's it all for? Why do players care so much about levelling their account like this. Why do players want these items so badly?

Here's the final piece of the puzzle.




Look at that maxed out character. Standing with his high level friends. One day I will be as good as him!



MMO's are not a solo venture. They're comprised of millions of other players.

This is a virtual world, full of humans. And so players online exhibit many of same social behaviours as people do in real life.

Higher level players have higher status. Just like in the real world, where rich people have  higher status, so do rich players online. The lower levels will look up to them as a role model of what they might one day become.

They admire them. And they're jealous of them. Because the high levels have digital pixels that they don't. So they're driven to play more and more to compete with other players.

Players will compare themselves to each other. 


"Woah nice gear!" Says the level 73

"Thanks noob.." Says the level 124




Because although there is undoubtedly skill required in Player vs Player (PVP) and Player vs Monster (PVM) activities, the overwhelming majority of the game is usually based on WHO HAS SPENT THE MOST HOURS PLAYING IT.

And so for the majority of the game each player is inside their own box pulling the levers as fast as they can, while comparing themselves with other players to see how many times they've pulled their own levers.

MMORPG Social Conparison Diagram.png

Players pull their levers for YEARS to try to place themselves at the top of the highscores table. 

A cycle that never ends because THE GAME NEVER ENDS.

Even after finally maxing out your account, an expansion will arrive. Providing more content to go through. And more food pellets to chew on.


The levers nature makes you pull

Is this place a Skinner box too?

Is this place a Skinner box too?


Short answer: Yes.

For all animals, including humans, all behaviour is molded by rewards and punishments.

You get a promotion at work: Boom. Dopamine shoots up. You feel good.

You lose your job : Boom. Cortisol spike. You feel bad. (Cortisol is the brain chemical released when you feel stress or discomfort).

You have sex with someone you like. You feel good.

You get rejected by your crush. You feel bad.

Rewards and punishments occur naturally in the real world. They're what guide your behaviour. They set the route for your path through life. 

Does that mean that MMO's are no different from the real world?


There are two important differences between MMO's and the real world:

1. In MMO's, progression happens in an unnaturally fast and extreme way. Rewards come every few seconds with XP drops. Monsters drop a new set of loot every few minutes. New damage hits appear every second. This can make in-game progression more enticing and addictive than real-world progression. 

2. People don't live inside MMO's. They live in the real world. Progression inside the game essentially amounts to nothing in the player's real life.

MMO's developers hijack your healthy craving for self improvement and turn it into money for themselves.

Instead of those hours being spent on real self-improvement, they're poured into a digital drain.

From the /StopGaming Subreddit - an online group for gaming addicts attempting to quit

From the /StopGaming Subreddit - an online group for gaming addicts attempting to quit

“But MMO’s have taught me many things! I learnt teamwork skills in my clan. I learnt problem solving skills during quests. I learnt about economics through the in-game economy”

Don’t bullshit yourself. Anything you learn inside an MMO can be learned far more effectively in the real world. You can learn something by doing anything.

And which group is it that craves self-improvement the most? Teenagers. 

Teenagers have a strong natural drive to improve themselves - a drive that is exploited by MMO's with hyper-improvement in the virtual world. 

So this is why MMORPG's are so much more deadly than a normal game. They encourage long gameplay time and addictive behaviour because they profit massively from it.

World of Warcraft reported profits of $1Billion in 2013. That's a lot of monthly subscription fees. 

Yes there is good gameplay in these games. Yes people play them because they're fun.

But that doesn't change the fact that game developers still use techniques that are KNOWN to be addictive, especially when the game is aimed at teenagers who's brains are vulnerable to these techniques.