Diablo III & Psychological Reward

NOTE: In the next few days I’m going to put out a more readable PDF “Archive” version and make it all pretty. I just wanted to put this out as soon as I was done writing it for catharsis reasons.

Diablo III & Psychological Reward

By patching Diablo III, Blizzard has essentially created digital hardcore drugs. They’ve more or less dispensed with the extraneous narrative bullshit that most games pay obeisance to and given me pure loot heroin, straight-no-filter psychological gaming reward. The game is purposefully light on story, creative setting, dramatic tension, character development, and cinematography. It is instead a finely-tuned satisfaction-dispensing brain titillation machine.

I’ve always felt that videogames are more than just mindless entertainment, that they can communicate and offer digital environments that allow the player to engage with a world, a story, a theme, a set of characters, or an idea, glued together by the act of play. Play, and the psychological reward system we expect from it, define our expectations of what a “game” should be. Whether or not a videogame incorporates other narrative or cinematic features, we still expect a videogame to pose some sort of challenge or hoop to jump through in order to get the psychological rewards inherent to the act of play. Diablo, as a series, and in particular in its latest iteration, makes no apologies for taking the crack cocaine approach to gaming: get to the source of what makes you high, get rid of anything extraneous, and enhance the high in the process. The result is a stripped-down and streamlined version of the successful loot-based gameplay of Diablo and Diablo II. The third installation takes away many of the aforementioned hoops we come to expect and simplifies the process of extracting enjoyment. You mine psychological reward from the game just about as quickly and mind-numbingly easily as your character harvests sweet, glorious loot by culling hundreds of variously inept demonic soldiers.

Diablo II: Lord of Destruction is one of my all-time favorite games. I’ve plugged in countless hours both on- and offline and have taken scores of characters to both the loftiest heights of gear heaven and to the ignominious void of Hardcore permadeath. D2’s endgame content felt rewarding. Treasure hunting for specific items that suited specific character builds was my favorite way to play. D3 makes treasure hunting simpler and sleeker, but it doesn’t feel as deep, particularly since there is no character-building to speak of: you can completely change your character’s skillset (which requires no investment save the time it takes to level up) at any time and the only way to increase your stats, sans Paragon levels, is through the use of mostly generic equipment. Sure, bounties and rifts offer new ways to go about the treasure hunting process, but the core mechanic of killing ever-more-powerful enemies to acquire ever-more-powerful loot feels empty without the goal of building a personal character. Even after spending nearly a hundred hours with a character in D3, it still feels like a template, a mannikin on which to place your loot (the real source of power in the game), a carte blanche killing machine, ready to immediately put to use any combination of skills you feel like at the time. What was the point with this decision? Was it to save the gamer time? If so, why does a game maker want to save the player time, if the purpose of a game like one in the Diablo franchise is to spend time—and a lot of it—in-game? Blizzard killed off the character development, making loot the ends as well as the means of the game. It’s just this endless loot loop, with minimal interaction from the player. Since the player obtains powerful gear simply by spending time searching for it, my endgame experience essentially boiled down to getting loot to get more loot, which is, admittedly, what I originally wanted, but the absence of the synergy between loot and character development eliminates so much of the player’s involvement that the whole damn thing just feels like putting a model train in motion, one that mass-murders hellish hordes as it tears through the countryside, leaving lopped-off limbs and piles of unneeded magical trinkets in its path. If clicking your character through hordes of monsters is like watching your train go round the tracks, then item hunting becomes a process of simply finding parts to make your train go faster, kill harder, or change the aesthetic appeal of the blooms of exploding spells and plumes of your enemies’ blood. The much-maligned Auction House did spoil the item economy, but Blizzard’s eliminating the auction house and incorporating new loot mechanics revealed that the philosophical approach to the game was to enhance and streamline the looting experience to better capitalize on unfiltered psychological rewards. What remains of the developers’ fat-trimming is an astonishing mix of precise design, endless reward and mindless tedium.

After the abolishment of the Auction House and release of D3v2, I decided to give the game a second go with the new Loot 2.0 system, which promised to get back to Diablo’s core: collecting endless hoards of loot and making that loot-grab feel meaningful. I re-downloaded and installed the game, downloaded the patch and loaded my old “softcore” character—a level 60 barbarian— and started killing some goddamn demons.

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The summer after my freshman year in high school, I was uprooted from my hometown and temporarily crammed with my parents and two sisters into my grandparents’ house. That summer was mainly concerned with surfing the internet over the slow-even-for-its-time phone line internet connection and playing Diablo II: Lord of Destruction. Both these activities required the use of the home’s only phone line and I would have to play in the evenings after my family had gone to sleep and when nobody else was home, splitting my internet time between chatting with friends on AOL, finding slow-downloading pornography and playing D2. Fascinated as I was with the female body at age fifteen, D2 dominated my free time on the computer.

At first, it was a way to maintain a connection with the friends I moved away from. This had always been the main function of D2 for me. My friends and I would adventure together, mostly power-gaming each other up to level 99 and endlessly farming the secret cow level for goodies. The reward I sought from the game was mostly social, as it was a way to maintain some kind of connection with the people I knew from my hometown.

Limited access to the internet moved me further away from online play and towards the single-player experience, and this is when I really developed my love for the game’s mechanics. I was growing more distant from my old friends anyway, and I had developed new playing habits. Lacking online multiplayer for much of the time due to the mercurial nature of internet access over a single phone line, I plumbed the depths of single-player hardcore. Without my overleveled friends there to shower me with powerful equipment and lightning-fast leveling runs, I was left to fend for myself and crawl through the dungeons with whatever gear I could scrounge for myself. Expectations for character builds had to be tempered, as there was no guarantee of obtaining that ultra-rare piece of equipment that really brought a build together. Builds had to remain flexible, open to change upon finding useful pieces of equipment. Instead of relying on the built-up riches stashed in mule accounts or friends’ scraps, I was limited to what I found in that game and with that character. It felt much more like ‘me against the horde.’ Mistakes in character development or in being too impatient resulted in death, and in single-player hardcore that meant starting fresh each time, the only gain made being what I learned from that death and how I could change my strategy to make it further next time. At the end of the main campaign was the quest to become as powerful and rich as possible before dying. I was fascinated with the strategy involved in planning a character’s development and using whatever items I could find to make it as far as I could.

Playing was no longer a way to connect with friends, but a way to play with myself, much like the loaded-line-by-line titty pics I was looking up the rest of the time. It was a system I plugged into to entertain myself in a specific way, one which reliably gave psychological rewards to a shy kid who felt cut off from the familiar. What I wanted to get out of the game was fundamentally different than it was before. I was now interested in the gameplay itself, and was plugged in to the core mechanic of killing and growing, watching characters die and reformulating strategies. Killing and growing, slowly fleshing out my roster of battle-hardened characters through a combination of increased familiarity and expertise with tactics and a bit of luck in finding rare and powerful items.

Building characters became something of an obsession for me, and with each toon I built up, I was already formulating the next strategy, the next skill I would try to make use of. I faked sick or exaggerated my real illnesses not only to stay away from the unfamiliar environment of a new high school but to put “valuable” time into building out my characters. There were character building tools, note sheets, statistics calculators, a growing roster of decked-out heroes and an even larger graveyard of dead ones, lost to the abyss of permadeath. I was obsessed.

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Videogames utilize a psychological reward system which triggers happiness and feelings of accomplishment. This is why we can feel satisfied with virtual experiences that do not have a story or any sort of progression in player skill or strategy. The reward system taps into our psychological reward systems and dopamine receptors, givin’ you those good vibes (Karim & Chaudri). Diablo II has just enough strategizing and player involvement to make things personalized and interesting and offers varied gameplay experiences based on class, stat, skill and item selection, but not so much as to slow down the face-rolling nature of the game’s you-against-the-endless-horde combat system.

The system-intensive nature of Diablo III works to minimize the aspects of videogames borrowed from other media and maximize the aspects particular to videogames. Story and dialogue are minimised, while the progression and reward system (here, loot) is placed above all else. Every decision in the game’s design is made to enhance the reward system. The loot system that D3, and D2 before it, utilizes serves as an apt example for the reward systems that lie at the core of many videogames. D3 is less interested in expanding the stylistic and thematic territory of its medium and more interested in perfecting the core reward system and turning it into a reward-dispensing machine. Like minimalistic poetry, which strives to do away with canonistic and stylistic frills, Diablo III gets to the root of the mechanic that makes it special: variable psychological rewards which incrementally enhance the player’s ability to obtain yet more rewards. It eschews the borrowed traits of other art forms and champions the core reward system unique to games.

On the surface, Diablo III looks like it improves on the old formula: changeable skills allow you the ultimate in changing-as-you-go character flexibility; a gradual slope in difficulty makes it easier to get through the core gameplay; class-specific generated items make every piece of gear more helpful; no stat point allocation means you spend less time in menus and less chance to screw up a character with poor stat choices; sharable stashes mean that when your hardcore character fails and bites the permanent dust, you still keep the rewards of your time well-spent (gems, gold and equipment you found), giving you a more powerful armory for the next character. All of this contributes to a game that eliminates as much menu, narrative and cinematic time as possible and dedicates as much of the play time percentage as possible to the endless-clicking, horde-killing core psychological reward system: the loot.

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The 20th c. psychologist B.F. Skinner conducted experiments on reward using a device called an ‘operant conditioning chamber,’ aka a ‘Skinner Box.’ He found that animals, such as pigeons, would press a food-dispensing lever more often when there was only a chance of receiving a reward, and not as often when there was a guarantee to receive one. Designing the reward system of videogames is very much reliant on the timing and careful measurement of reward dispensation per player involvement. In a game like Diablo 3, this equates to “how many boss or level runs must I complete to get a reward (read: helpful loot)?” Experience points provide steady, linear growth and reward, as you are guaranteed to get experience for each enemy you kill, allowing your character to grow more powerful and gain new skills, independent of what the luck of the draw gives you in terms of found equipment. This guarantee of getting at least some reward keeps playing worthwhile, even if you are unlucky in the item roulette. The items are the big rewards though, as weapons and armor are far and away more useful than your character’s inherent stats and skills. The promise of a good item is what keeps the player in pigeon mode, pressing the lever continuously. You can go hours and hours finding nothing, but when you finally do find a useful, or at least valuable item, you’re suddenly ready to devote many more hours just so you can get a good drop again (Chumbley & Griffiths).

Videogames all revolve around some kind of reward system, and how videogames present those rewards and how the player must attain them provide the framework for how games function during play (Elliott et al). In RPGs and adventure games, the player defeats foes, solves puzzles and explores locations to advance a more-or-less linear narrative. The player is often rewarded with more powerful destructive capabilities (what would a game be without the testosterone-fueled killing?), but the overarching reward is the advancement of plot, culminating in a narrative conclusion. Other games, like platformers, fighters,  shooters and racing games, typically reward the player through gameplay itself, guiding them through new gameplay elements toward a mastery of the game’s mechanics and control schemes, coaching the player into performing more difficult tasks. Similarly, puzzle and strategy games reward players with learned skills, forging new neural pathways on the way towards mastery. The types, frequency and magnitude of rewards, and how they are attained by the player, are bound only by the game developers’ imagination and skill in execution. Of course, exceptions abound and most games, especially complex modern titles, combine several or many reward systems. One of the most popular trends now, as in sandbox games, is to allow the player to define their own rewards and paths to them within the nebulous boundaries of the game. The endless combinations and variations of reward systems are what keep us pigeons searching for more and different levers to press.

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When Diablo III released, I was again in a new place, this time Baltimore. I moved here to be with my girlfriend, who I met in Florida while we were graduate students. She was working five days a week and I was home alone a lot. I was ten years removed from my intensive Diablo II experience, where I was hidden away in my aunt’s old room, with her old Chicago Blackhawks memorabilia, the queen-sized water bed, the flickering CRTV and my battered Dell PC hooked up to a tragically slow phone line. I spent my time in much the same way as I did back then, though things were different. The internet was faster, online connectivity was uninterrupted; the pornography came much faster and in more desensitizing fashion, and so did the rewards offered by Diablo III.

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Diablo III uses a variable ratio reward schedule, which doles out rewards (loot) in random intervals, as opposed to a regularly-scheduled linear reward, like the experience bar which steadily advances as you kill monsters.

The use of variable ratio reward schedules in game design is often panned, however, for being “nefarious.” Detractors’ reasoning goes: if the game designers had chosen to use simple fixed reward schedules (where for each action there is a promised reward), the players would play a certain amount. With variable ratio reward schedules, the players are more active. Thus, the game designers are “tricking” the players into playing more than they really want to. via

I don’t think of the reward system as “nefarious,” but I did become unsettled by my experience (admittedly only after plugging in around 200 hours and having a good honest inner dialogue about what the fuck I was doing with my life). I realized through my experience with Diablo III that my relationship with Diablo and games like it is not like my relationship with other games, where I am engaged with story, characters, or a vivid world to explore. The most important thing for me in a Diablo game is the core mechanic of obtaining unique and valuable loot. D2 was far more incremental, randomly rewarding the player with some truly game-changing equipment; D3 streamlined the experience and made the growth more linear, turning the endless horde-killing into a fever pitch of a never-ending stream of smaller rewards. D2 cloaked the game mechanic in classic RPG character development and growth; D3 laid the reward system bare, the developers looking me in the face and telling me, “you don’t care about all that other shit. You want that loot, man! Well here it is, motherfucker, loot fuckin everywhwere!” And I was like, “shit, maybe you’re right.” Let’s not kid ourselves, Diablo 3 is for endlessly converting your free time directly into virtual items. It’s like a Coinstar machine where you insert your limited time on this world and get a little bit of direct brain stimulation in return. It’s a way to get at least some satisfaction in a life full of job applications, bills that don’t stop coming, and really fast internet porn. I continued playing Diablo III because I wanted to be a pigeon in a box.

D3 is interesting because of its stripped-down dedication to the reward system. There is very little fluff to the game, and it gets as close to a pure lever-pressing/reward-dispensing experience as it can. An engaging story sounds great, but in Diablo III’s case it would only serve to distract from its core mechanic. A great story would take time away from grinding for stats and loot. Like I said, it’s the crack cocaine approach to virtual reward dispensation, and it certainly helps you stop thinking about whatever may be happening outside the game, whether it be the stress of beginning to live with a girlfriend for the first time or the long list of emails piling up in your inbox that all begin with some variation of “We appreciate your application but…”

I dove completely into the endless om, the simultaneous sensory overload/deprivation that comes with hours-on-end concentration on a repetitive, remedial task. I helped encourage the shut-out-everything else experience by cutting the voices, music and ambient sound, since they distracted my pigeon brain from the shiny lever, instead electing to play some trancey music. I didn’t need an engaging atmosphere, characters or plot. They distract from me killing for loot, from seeing the loot, from picking it up… wearing it… wielding it…killing with it to get more loot. I only barely kept the sound effects on low volume so I could hear the sound of the loot dropping. If there was something I could do to smell it or taste it, I would have done that, too. My experience was like Scrooge McDuck diving into his vast hoard of gold and swimming around, except with the added bonus of consistently adding to my riches the more I swam around.

Qualities such as plot, dialogue, cinematography, script and voice acting are all qualities borrowed from other media, but the lever-pressing/reward-dispensing dynamic is unique to games. The player involvement, even though it may be as simple as pressing a lever, connects the audience to the material in a more direct way. D3 embraces this, focuses on it, amplifies it. The gameplay approaches meditation, albeit one of pure stimulation instead of relaxation and emptiness. The rewards make my brain vibrate at the right frequencies and they come at a fast and constant stream. For the time I was really into playing D3, that’s all there was. It all just flows and hums at an incredibly efficient pace with barely a bump in the road to distract me from my incessant clicking. Cinematics breaking up your game flow? Disable them. Dialogue pops up? Hell, buddy, just keep clicking THE SAME EXACT BUTTON you have been clicking for the last 3 goddamn hours and it will go away REAL quick. Then it’s back to killing monsters and collecting that sweet, phat l00t. Come on, pigeon boy, there’s loot out there and time’s a-wastin! CLICK CLICK CLICK!

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Story, cinematics, script and dialogue are all great, and they greatly expand what videogames are capable of, but what really lies at the core of a game and what sets them apart from other media is the reward system ingrained into each game’s philosophy and play experience. I spent countless hours in D2 doing Baal and Mephisto runs not because I thought they would help me defeat Diablo and save the world (I had already done that several hundred times) but because the experience itself, the process of playing, was incredibly rewarding. It never got old; it never felt like I didn’t need more loot or more powerful items. Why be satisfied with having enough nuclear power to fuck the world over just once when you can have enough to fuck it over several times? I felt lucky to find every piece of valuable gear that dropped, but more important than that, I felt rewarded. D3 brought a bit of that magic back, but ultimately I was unsettled.

Different videogames give different types of pleasures and rewards. This should be obvious, as videogames are subject to the same variances in opinion as other media. To me, though, Diablo gets to the root of a central mechanism specific to videogames,  a direct and visceral connection to the inherent reward system that every habitual gamer looks for, akin to gambling. Like gambling, every item drop contains a random chance at a reward of variable worth. Unlike gambling, the player never loses resources, never runs out of money, only gains and gains, the only resource lost being the player’s time. It’s a slot machine guaranteed to pay out with incrementally bigger rewards so long as you keep your pigeon-ass seated, pulling the lever time and time again. Many games offer some variation of this type of reward system, but rarely do I see it implemented as cleverly and in such a soulless manner as in Diablo III. A comparable game, World of Warcraft, is often the first title brought up in discussions of videogame addiction, which, interestingly enough, is also produced by our drug science pals, Blizzard.

Although I was fascinated with the efficiency of the game, it was unfulfilling. I played through a few characters in Hardcore mode until I finally reached max level with a Crusader, the new class in “Reaper of Souls.” Again, just as with the vanilla release, I stood on the precipice of an endless endgame. Vast piles of sweet, delicious loot lay ahead of me, as well as the promise of the crushed skulls of my foes beneath my crusader’s heavy boots. I wasn’t excited, though. The pure gaming/reward efficiency is what drove me away in the end. In D3, there is no penalty for investment in your character. Your entire success is down to simply inputting enough time to gather enough equipment to give you stat boosts so that you can get equipment with better stat boosts. This crossed some barrier for me. The non-permanence of my decisions and the lack of a way to define my character through gameplay, personal strategy or decision-making turned the game experience into bald-faced time-wasting repetition. After toying around with various skills that required no time to build up, gameplay lost its flavor. I could play the game, but the game rarely played with me; there was no push-pull relationship between player and game; the game was non-resistant in my search for reward. The game effectively took away the aspect of challenge, of play.

After taking a step back and looking at what I was doing, I failed to see the point. I really did start viewing the gameplay as a drug-like experience, just a way to get a fix. I thought, “Is this all videogames are to me? A quick psychological reward with no long-term benefit, no chance for reflection or thought? What am I getting out of this, besides a temporary escape? Is it even satisfying?” D3 was the beginning of a videogame-centric existential crisis where I began to question the validity and value of my favorite pastime. For the first time in my life, I began seriously considering the idea that videogames were empty, vapid experiences. Had the old people in my life been right all along? Was my uncle justified in taking away my cousin’s game systems when we were kids, declaring them “evil devil machines?” Is denouncing videogames a big personal step into a boring, shitty adulthood?

I believe in the value of play. I also believe in the value of videogames not just as a form of play but as communication, as art and as social medium. They can be narrative, artistic, visual, engaging, beautiful, emotional, but they always have that hook that keeps you coming back for more. Sometimes that hook, that challenge, is very small, minimized by the other elements of the game, but without it, the work fails to be a game, or at least it fails to be a fun one.

Diablo 3 feels very much like what is described by the labcoats of the world. It feels like a game stripped down to that addictive core. It’s almost like I-Dosing, where there is a direct connection between the digital signal coming out of your computer and into your brain, producing a chemical effect. It’s simplicity in the form and execution of the central concept of its genere, which is something to marvel at for its pure deliverance of stimulation, but there’s little humanistic essence to it, no subtle character behind the stilted dialogue or plot, no poetry in the cut-and-dry gameplay. Diablo 3 is in some ways an incredible game, one that does brilliantly what videogames are expected to do, what gamers look for in a game, but it fails to do more than that. I’m not going to say it fails to be ‘art,’ because that’s a damned silly discussion to start; it just fails to be more than pure unfiltered mental stimulation.

Even with my misgivings on how I play the game, I do still think that Diablo III is very fun, if not quite as deep as its predecessor. But I want to understand more about videogames and appreciate them on multiple levels rather than mindlessly clicking for a reward. For all the other literary, visual and cinematic facets of videogames, they are built from the system out, and that system relies on psychologically rewarding the player’s input to the gameplay experience, a contract between game and player. It’s why I seek games out and why I recently would periodically feel the need to put down Ulysses, a book I enjoyed on multiple and subtle levels, to play Fifa 13, a game I enjoy on one very specific and admittedly shallow level. But while D3 is a game that admittedly performs a specific function, videogames as a whole mean so much more to me. I’m not “over” videogames, and I don’t think of them as a negative in my life, and as much as the prospective demon summoner in all of us might like them to be, they are not devil machines. I feel videogames have contributed deeply to who I am and their influence will always be present, and there will probably always be a place for them in my life. I just don’t want to feel like a pigeon in a box.


Works Cited/Consulted & Further Reading

Chumbley, J., & Griffiths. “Affect and the computer game player: the effect of gender, personality, and game reinforcement structure on affective responses to computer game play.” Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 2006: 3, 308–316.

Elliott, Luther, et al. “The Contribution of Game Genre and Other Use Patterns to Problem Video Game Play Among Adult Video Gamers.” International Journal of Mental Health Addictions. 2012: 10.6, 948-969.

Granic, et al. “The Benefits of Playing Video Games.” American Psychologist. 2013: 66-78.

Hellman, et al. “Is There Such a Thing as Online Video Game Addiction? A Cross-Disciplinary Review.” Addiction Research and Theory. 2013: 21.2, 102-112.

Hilgard, et al. “Individual Differences in Motives, Preferences, and Pathology in Video Games: The Gaming Attitudes, Motives, and Experiences Scales (GAMES).” Front. Psychol. 2013.

Karim, Reef and Chaudhri. “Behavioral Addictions: An Overview.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 2012: 44.1. 5-17.

King, et al. “Video Game Structural Characteristics: A New Psychological Taxonomy.” International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. 2009. doi:10.1007/s11469-009-9206-4

King, et al. “The Role of Structural Characteristics in Problematic Video Game Play: An Empirical Study.” International Journal of Mental Health Addiction. 2011. doi:10.1007/s11469-010-9289-y

Koepp, et al. “Evidence for Striatal Dopamine Release During a Video Game.” Nature. 1998. doi:10.1038/30498

Przybylski, et al. “Having to Versus Wanting to Play: Background and Consequences of Harmonious Versus Obsessive Engagement in Video Games. CyberPsychology and Behavior. 2009. doi:10.1089=cpb.2009.0083

Seidman, Max. “The Psychology of Rewards in Games.” Most Dangerous Game Design. http://www.mostdangerousgamedesign.com/2013/08/the-psychology-of-rewards-in-games.html