The Soapbox: MMOs and the power of habit
I’ve been reading this book by Charles Duhigg called The Power of Habit. Actually, the full title is The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and in Business, but that was a mouthful for an opening sentence. It’s a book that draws heavily on academia as well as interviews with private sector executives to identify something called the habit loop, which is the author’s way of quantifying how the human brain sorts habits from conscious choices.
“At one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office,” Duhigg writes. “Then we stopped making a choice, and the behavior became automatic.” What does that have to do with video games or MMORPGs? Let’s find out.
The habit loop
Duhigg says that automatic behavior patterns are a natural consequence of our neurology. Without them, we’d cease to function because the concentration and the energy required to do something as simple as backing a car out of a garage would overwhelm us if our brains didn’t relegate learned behaviors to a kind of autopilot.
The habit loop, which Duhigg defines as a three-step process consisting of a cue, a routine, and a reward, is the key to understanding why we indulge in all sorts of habits from smoking to overeating to grinding our free time away in MMORPGs. It’s important to note that the negative value judgment in that previous sentence is mine and of course largely subjective. It’s probably true that MMORPGs can be played in a healthy manner by some people, though smoking and overeating isn’t ever advisable! Duhigg’s book drives home the point that our brains will make habits out of many different behaviors whether we want it to or not. It can’t distinguish between good and bad habits, either, which is where our own agency and discipline come into play.
In addition to being unable to distinguish between good habits and bad habits, our brains don’t easily forget habits, which is a little bit scary since as Duhigg says, “If you have a bad [habit], it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.” This explains why some people have such a hard time changing what they eat or sticking with exercise routines. “Once we develop a routine of sitting on the couch rather than running, or snacking whenever we pass a doughnut box, those patterns always remain inside our heads,” he writes.
Cue, routine, reward
Breaking it down, then, Duhigg’s cue is a trigger that tells the brain to go on autopilot and use a habit. A cue can be anything, depending on the individual in question. It could be the smell of coffee, or the sight of a beautiful woman, or a game trailer for the latest MMORPG expansion. If the cue is strong enough, the brain moves on to the routine: It makes a cup of coffee, or it preps a pickup line for that hot girl at the bar, or it logs into an MMORPG and starts leveling up. The routine is followed by the reward for that particular routine, and Duhigg posits that the reward helps the brain decide whether a particular loop is worth remembering and repeating. So, cue — routine — reward. Or put another way, smell of coffee — cup of coffee — caffeine hit. Or still another way, game trailer — leveling — dings and loot.
Over time, Duhigg says, the cue/routine/reward loop becomes automatic and powerful senses of craving and anticipation take root in the brain. He uses various real-world examples to illustrate his point, including data from big business marketing campaigns and experiments on an elderly man named Eugene, who helped scientists understand that people can and do make unconscious choices without remembering anything about the decision-making process.
Another cited experiment involved a group of monkeys who were trained to anticipate a yummy fruit juice reward when they saw and responded to a shape on a screen. Scientists created distractions for the monkeys in the form of food placed away from the screens, as well as an open laboratory door so that the monkeys could choose to go outside. For a few of the monkeys, the distractions worked and they left their monitors. Others, though, had developed a strong craving for the fruit juice, and “would sit there, watching the monitor and pressing the lever, over and over again, regardless of the offer of food or the opportunity to go outside,” Duhigg explains. “The anticipation and sense of craving was so overwhelming that the monkeys stayed glued to their screens, the same way a gambler will play slots long after he’s lost his winnings.”
Habits, like the fruit-juice craving in the monkeys, can emerge outside of our consciousness, or they can be deliberately designed, Duhigg writes. This is where video games enter our discussion, and while Duhigg doesn’t spend much time on games or game theory, other authors have. Nick Yee’s research is probably the place to start since there’s a lot of it, plus the pejorative use of the phrase skinner box in MMORPG discourse traces back to Yee’s studies.
Regardless of whether or not you subscribe to the notion that MMOs are a bad habit, it’s impossible to deny the obvious tactics employed by MMO designers that develop powerful cues and cravings in their users through the use of the habit loop.
Duhigg illustrates these tactics, though he’s talking about a completely different industry. “Every McDonald’s looks the same,” he writes. “The company deliberately tries to standardize stores’ architecture and what employees say to customers, so everything is a consistent cue to trigger eating routines. The foods at some chains are specifically engineered to deliver immediate rewards — the fries, for instance, are designed to begin disintegrating the moment they hit your tongue, in order to deliver a hit of salt and grease as fast as possible, causing your pleasure centers to light up and your brain to lock in the pattern. All the better for tightening the habit loop.”
Substitute the phrase DIKU MMO for the word McDonald’s in the paragraph above, and you have an accurate high-level description of a typical MMORPG.
Food for thought, no?
The good news is that Duhigg says that even the worst habits are delicate. “When a fast food restaurant closes down, the families that previously ate there will often start having dinner at home, rather than seek out an alternative location,” he explains. “Even small shifts can end the pattern. But since we often don’t recognize these habit loops as they grow, we are blind to our ability to control them.” Controlling them is a process unique to every individual, but it almost always involves recognizing the steps in the habit loop and substituting alternate behaviors in place of the loop’s routine.
“Habits aren’t destiny,” Duhigg says. “Habits can be ignored, changed, or replaced. But the reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision-making.”
Ultimately, what I took away from Duhigg’s book is that habits and habitual behavior are a much more powerful force than most of us realize. Whether or not you agree with my comparisons between Duhigg’s examples and MMORPGs, the book is worth reading if you’re into self-improvement or you’re curious about the brain and looking for approachable studies on the subject.