I made a short, speculative post on MMO superstitions on the Terra Nova blog a while back when I first began to think about the idea. This article is a more elaborate exploration drawing on a survey asking players to describe superstitions they have seen in an MMO. But I want to begin with the most interesting comment made on the Terra Nova blog post which was posted by Heather Sinclair, a member of the Dungeon and Dragons Online development team:
From beta all the way through months into launch players were CONVINCED that if you used the diplomacy skill on a chest it would improve the loot you got. This was SO widespread that you literally could not get in a pick up group without them querying about the diplomacy skills of the party and someone forcing everyone to wait while the highest diplomacy skill player cringed before the chest sufficiently. No matter how many times we posted on the forums that this was a myth and it doesn't do anything, they kept doing it. It got so bad our community relations manager even put it in his sig. Finally we made chests an invalid target for the diplomacy skill, then players whined that all the points they put into diplomacy were worthless because we "nerfed" the skill!
We've had similar problems with some of our boss encounters, for example, on my first dragon raid, I was regaled with a long list of things I MUST NOT DO or else the raid would be wiped. Not one of them was valid, but they were incredibly detailed and equally silly. (Things like you can't switch weapons, press hotkeys, cast spells, attack anything but a single leg of the dragon, that sort of thing). It was pointless to argue about, they wouldn't accept the fact that their rules were really all superstitions.
B.F. Skinner is well-known for his theory of behavioral conditioning, but one of his quirkiest studies involved inducing superstition in pigeons (1948). 8 pigeons were placed in a reinforcement contraption (i.e., Skinner Box) and were given a food pellet every 15 seconds no matter what they did. After several days, each pigeon had fixated on a particular superstitious behavior. One pigeon danced counter-clockwise, another two developed a left-to-right head-swinging motion, another attacked an invisible object in the top right corner of the cage, and so forth. This phenomenon has also been replicated among high-school students (Bruner & Revuski, 1961). And given that MMOs are a kind of Skinner Box that offer some random rewards (e.g., rare drops), it's not surprising that superstitious behaviors emerge in MMOs as well.
I want to make clear that I am using the word “superstition” in the context of MMOs without reference to spirits or religion in the way “superstitious” sometimes implies when used in everyday language. Specifically, I'm using the word “superstition” to refer to repeated behaviors driven by strong beliefs that doing X (or not doing X) will cause Y even though there is no good evidence that this is the case, or despite countering evidence. Superstition falls along a spectrum of related phenomena, such as urban legends and speculation. What differentiates superstition from these other two terms is that urban legends are typically stories which have no repeated behavioral component and speculation usually forms the basis for somewhat systematic testing. Of course, the distinctions among all these terms are not clear cut.
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