Game designer David Sirlin once wrote that World of Warcraft keeps people playing
by tapping into their latent OCD tendencies.
OCD is short for Obsessive
Compulsive Disorder, a psychiatric condition characterized by recurring
anxieties which can only be resolved by performing meaningless rituals. Some
OCD patients have to put their shoes on several times in the morning. Others
walk a certain number of paces around their bedrooms before sleep. WoW players search for new gear.
At first, I agreed with Sirlin -- that's how WoW made so much money! Those devious
Blizzard guys were preying on people's compulsions. The game just baits people
along with a condensed stream of awards and an artificial, easy-to-climb social
ladder. Damn those evil Blizzard devs!
Then I started thinking about just why people play other
games, and I realized I was being hypocritical, because all game-playing is
compulsive on some level. To understand this, we need to look at the concept of
motivation itself, starting right at the bottom: just why does anyone do
Contrary to popular belief, humans do not act in pursuit of
physical sensations. The taste of great food, or the physical sensation of
orgasm, are not our primary motivations. These things do matter, but they do
not drive major changes in our behavior. What is really important to us is
satisfying compulsive urges and maintaining good emotional states.
The only thing all of our ancestors have in common, right
back to the first primordial replicator particle in a puddle on a hell-like
early Earth, is that they reproduced successfully. Most of those ancestors were
too stupid to think abstractly through a problem and weigh possible outcomes.
The solution that evolved was to simply react in certain genetically
preprogrammed ways to certain predefined stimuli. Most creatures have rules
like, "If you see a predator, move away fast" or, "If you see
food, smell it. If it smells right and you aren't full, eat it." These
rules are still in us today, and manifest themselves as compulsions, urges and
Not all compulsions are about direct physical results. Wolf
pups, for example, play-fight with each other regularly. Play-fighting produces
no immediate benefit for the wolf pups. It does not feed them or heal them or
keep them warm. They do it because wolf pups who compulsively play-fought
learned to fight and hunt better than those that did not, and thus reproduced
more, passing more of their genes onto the next generation. The play fighting
compulsion is a genetically selected trait because it provides an advantage by
making the wolf learn combat and hunting skills.
Similarly, humans are also endowed with a whole smorgasbord
of compulsions, most of which are only indirectly related to survival or
reproduction. These compulsions and emotional triggers are what drive virtually
all of our observed behaviors and habits. They are also the reason why human
behavior is so irrational.
For example, I bite my nails. I don't do this because I
think it makes them look good, or because I enjoy the taste. Ragged nails
certainly aren't getting me any girls, or making me richer or healthier. There
is no rational reason for me to do this. Even so, I and millions like me
compulsively bite our nails simply because it is in our nature to do so. This
is mildly obsessive-compulsive behavior, probably the expression of a
genetically-coded compulsion towards self-grooming and removal of foreign objects
from the body.