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.

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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.

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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.”

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Deliberate design

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?

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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.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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24 Comments on "The Soapbox: MMOs and the power of habit"

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Dandurin
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Dandurin

If I like a game it’s “Fun”.

If someone else likes a game it’s “Operant Conditioning”

kgptzac
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kgptzac

TimothyTierless They are definitely not two entirely different things.  Most people reading this site will probably agree that “no reward => not fun”.  There would be no concept of gaming if you separate the two notions in the way you described.

RickMills1
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RickMills1

“The simplification of anything is always sensational.” – Varied Types (G.K. Chesterton)

syberghost
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syberghost

Llokki TronSheridan I don’t see how one could argue the opposite, in fact; though I look forward to reading said arguments.

FF4LIFE
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FF4LIFE

So according to @vicariousfan and @Vagrent Zero, if you have the name Hellbound Heart, your an alt or hacker. I feel sorry for anyone who loves the novella by Clive Barker Hellbound Heart : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hellbound_Heart so be warned, if your a Clive Barker fan he will hack you and attack you. Also don’t talk to him about Final Fantasy. They hate it. Like really bad. Post the trolls when I can, that’s what I do. You’ll notice several users question these two people as well. Be warned.

Llokki
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Llokki

TronSheridan Only modern MMOs? One could plausibly argue that of all MMOs ever.

TronSheridan
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TronSheridan

Modern MMOs are digital Skinner boxes (operant conditioning chambers) and it’s the reason I will not get caught up in any of their treadmill grinds.

thatchefdude
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thatchefdude

TimothyTierless Although sometimes completing challenging content can be both rewarding and fun… Playing Witcher 3 for example on Death March has been challenging, but its also been incredibly rewarding and fun…. and I actually love the game more on the highest difficulty, and could never go back to playing on default normal to be honest… The way it makes you actually have to analyze and approach groups of enemies and combat situations, and not just spam buttons like an action game, its amazing…

I really find that often gaming is at its best on the more difficult settings available… That’s where you really have to try, and so you feel like you earned your success, rather than “oh cool, I just got to this part, lets watch!”

thatchefdude
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thatchefdude

reubendw Hey man, when I was in college and lost my job and had to live on $4500 for a semester to pay rent $550 amonth and living expenses I learned to be cheap as fuck, I went to McDs all the time to jack their free wifi, I even used to park my car outside in the parking lot and use it to download shit on my laptop.

And ramen, lots of ramen, and canned beans, and rice

Denngar
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Denngar

Always love seeing this sort of thing on MassivelyOP. I’m currently dealing with this myself, but with my language learning. There are certain phrases I kept saying that were wrong, but no one corrects me. I have family friends who I see a few times a year, who really try hard to help me break the habit, but when they’re gone, I go back to the old phrase that’s wrong but everyone accepts because I’m foreign.
I’ve broken away from raiding schedules, dailies, and even “hot new MMO/expansion of the month!” but simple Japanese phrases that cost me nothing have proved to be much more difficult to tackle.

reubendw
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reubendw

Sadly I’m reading this at a McDonald’s…

ComradeStanimir
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ComradeStanimir

Humans need heuristics. We can’t be present in every decision. This has long been known. 
MMOs are not really a realm I want to be a trailblazer in. There are other realms that require intellectual presence more than my pastime.

flatline4400
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flatline4400

Good article, but now all I want are some McD’s french fries.

Styopa
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Styopa

I thought all of this was pretty much self-evident?

As much as this carries a negative connotation in the sense of this article, let’s also understand why this system has evolved in our brain: because there’s a survival advantage to “not having to think through every single thing you do every day”.  Notice that animals do basically the same thing: if you hide a ball from your dog, and she finds it, the next time you hide it, she’ll usually go check there first.  In the most basic sense, successful patterns of behavior that don’t get us killed are deemed “safe” and should be repeated as much as possible.  That some systems have evolved economically to take advantage of that doesn’t change the inherent value of pattern-following and rote behaviors on a general basis.

camelotcrusade
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camelotcrusade

Damonvile  And this is a big reason why I read the comments.  You never know what insight or amusement  you will find, and I especially appreciated this bit of wisdom.

camelotcrusade
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camelotcrusade

TimothyTierless Your comment reminds me of a study I read a while back about gamer archetypes, and one of them was “achiever.”  For some people, fun can take a back seat to achieving, but that’s not to say the end result never brings it own rewards or satisfaction.

BriarGrey
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BriarGrey

Very interesting!  While I hadn’t looked at it in just this way, I do deal with this when working on my health.  Two and a half years ago, I clocked in at almost 300 pounds, and I’m fairly certain I had probably hit over it a few time in the months before but just hadn’t gotten on the scale.  I was finally ready to really change that.  And it involved a lot of new habit creation and ongoing maintenance.  Fast forward to a year ago, and I was down 125 pounds.  I hit a wall and stayed there until now and I’ve put on about 10-15, but what I learned…is pretty much what you’re talking about here.
I found that what I was doing, was letting old habits creep back in — food in the office? I have to have it.  Uh, no, no I don’t.  Working at the computer on something stressful? I need something to munch on.  Uh, no, no I don’t.  My ability to recognize and categorize my old, bad habits has kept me basically maintaining with a slight gain versus ballooning back up.
I combat my old bad habits by reminding myself frequently what my new habits and expectations are.  I find it helps.  Before I go to bed, I lie down and go over how my day will look in general, what I will and won’t do, what exercise I will partake in, etc.  I give myself positive credit for what I did well in the ending day, I try to not be too harsh on what didn’t go well but I acknowledge it and plan how to combat it, and I just flat out plan and reiterate my habits and goals that I want.

When I really feel like I’m not doing well with that, then I take to the good ol’ moleskine and write it out.  Plan and repeat and so on.  In short – I guess I’m trying to reiterate the cues that I’m going to face and the reactions I’m going to have to them and what those rewards will be.

And it is true – those old habits will just jump back in, but if you think about them and become aware of them, it really helps mitigate the bad ones!

paragonlostinspace
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paragonlostinspace

schlag sweetleaf Hehe! Yep, sums it up rather well.

schlag sweetleaf
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schlag sweetleaf
paragonlostinspace
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paragonlostinspace

Fascinating, though I think that most of us at some abstract level recognise a lot of this.

alexjwillis
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alexjwillis

Very interesting article, thanks for posting. I’m pretty sure every single regular MMO player will find some resonance here.
I think in the past, when I was younger, I was less able to control my gaming habits. While it’s true that some of your habits get hard-wired or reflexive, on the flipside, with experience, you get to understand some of your cues and find other places to get your rewards. While routines are normal, it’s also normal for some of them to change or bang up against each other, and my MMO habits have had to adapt as my work and home life have become more time consuming. I’ve definitely found the need to move to less hardcore MMOs (sorry EVE) in order to meet competing demands, and I’ve drifted back to playing more single player games — just because of the presence of a pause button. 
But, when it comes to electronic media, the biggest destructive habit with me isn’t MMO gaming or gaming at all — it’s social media. That world has, even more so than the gaming world, mastered the brain-satisfying “ding”-reward (hello, notifications!) and the compulsive follow-up.

Murmillo
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Murmillo

TimothyTierless This ^^

Sometimes I’ve actually had to tell myself “Don’t do it for the reward if you don’t find that particular activity fun!”, because I would sometimes (more often than I like to admit) force myself through some activity to get that carrot.. 

The last time I remember doing this was with the WoW garrison, I logged in everyday to do the garrison in 3 characters to get enough gold for a spectral tiger, it took about 20-30 minutes to do it all incl. professions and killing Kazzak on all 3 chars, but it was more out of habit and the thought of the reward than fun… 

Kinda scary to think about.

And if anyone cares for the ending of the story… No, I never got the tiger, I only made 500k gold before I stopped. :P

Damonvile
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Damonvile

Being negative about anything you spend a lot of time doing is also habit forming ( so is being positive ). It’s something people often ignore and make excuses for. Things like “I call it how I see it ” or ” keeping it real” and other nonsense is the path people go down to poison their experience in every game.
You find what you’re looking for in your entertainment. If you spend all your time being negative and talking about what you hate, it’s eventually all you’ll find in everything you do.

TimothyTierless
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TimothyTierless

The problem I have is “fun” seems to have been replaced with “reward” somewhere along the way. They are two entirely different things.

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