Gaming psychologist Jamie Madigan explains what ‘surprise mechanics’ actually are


We’re all familiar with the “surprise mechanics” incident, the absurdist argument in defense of lootboxes from EA’s VP of legal and government affairs Kerry Hopkins. It was the fuel for a great deal of facepalming and has cemented its legacy as a Dean Scream moment for EA, though it will likely not lead to the company’s downfall. Psychologist and author of Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games Jamie Madigan examined Hopkins’ statement and posited that she wasn’t completely wrong, just terrible at explaining herself.

The idea of “surprise mechanics,” Madigan states, has been a part of video game design for a long time now. The example given is a player seeing an elite-level monster, killing it, and hoping for the big shiny piece of loot. What drives this behavior pattern is the anticipation of a loot drop — the unexpected pleasure of having some extremely valuable or useful item suddenly hit the game’s floor. This sensation is likely what Hopkins was referring to, explains Madigan, but he also points out that lootboxes are earned outside of gameplay and so are not the same thing as they don’t trigger that same behavior pattern.

“Lootboxes are often sold in ways that elite enemies in Diablo or hidden dungeon caches in Skyrim are not,” he concludes. “There are usually no limits on how many lootboxes you can buy and open one after the other, where treasure chests or bosses in Borderlands have to be found and traveled to, not to mention that they require actually playing the game […] This is separate from the question of whether or not they’re ethical or problematic, and that’s the point: we should study and consider them separately from other kinds of loot mechanics.”

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