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Play it and find out... On second thought don't play it. If you're involved in college you really wanna graduate. EQ will addict you so much you'll forget about work. I don't know why it is. I really HATE RPG's but EQ is just extremely fun. It's got a weird aura about it, all I can say. [m, 16]

Almost everyone who has taken an introductory psychology course in high school or college has heard of B.F. Skinner. Skinner is an important figure in Behaviorism, and developed a learning theory known as Operant Conditioning. Skinner claimed that the frequency of a given behavior is directly linked to whether it is rewarded or punished. If a behavior is rewarded, it is more likely to be repeated. If it is punished, it becomes suppressed. This deceptively simple and straight-forward theory may explain why EverQuest is so addictive.

The rewards cycle in EverQuest begins with instant gratifications. When you start a new character, everything you need to do is close by - finding the guildmaster; finding mobs to kill. The first few mobs you attack die in several swings and you make level 2 in about 5 kills. By the time you make level 3 half an hour later, you are more aware of the underlying skill points, the accumulation of money, and gain a desire to get better equipment. Gradually, it takes longer and longer to get to the next level. The simple tasks that you did to improve trade skills have become trivial, but the rewards you get - the blue skill points and the metal bits - drive you to perform tasks more elaborate than before because trivial tasks are no longer rewarded. The one-click reward disappears, and is gradually replaced by rewards that take more and more clicks to get. And suddenly, some of us find ourselves clicking away for hours in front of a forge or jewellery kit.

This process of guiding an individual to perform more and more elaborate and complex tasks is known as shaping in Operant Conditioning. It is usually explained in textbooks in conjunction with Skinner Boxes. Skinner boxes are small glass or plexi-glass boxes equipped with a combination of levers, food pellets, and drinking tubes. Laboratory rats are placed into Skinner boxes and conditioned to perform elaborate tasks. At first, the rat is rewarded with a food pellet for facing the lever. Then it is rewarded if it gets closer to the lever. Eventually, the rat is shaped to press the lever. Once the rat learns that pressing the lever is rewarded, a food pellet does not need to be dropped every time and the rat will still continue pressing the lever. It is in the same way that EverQuest shapes players to pursue more and more elaborate blacksmithing or tailoring combinations. Moreover, EverQuest players continue to attempt elaborate combinations in the face of many costly failures.

There are several schedules of reinforcement that can be used in Operant Conditioning. The most basic is a fixed interval schedule, and the rat in the Skinner Box is rewarded every 5 minutes regardless of whether it presses the lever. Unsurprisingly, this method is not particularly effective. Another kind of reinforcement schedule is the fixed ratio schedule, and the rat is rewarded every time it presses the lever 5 times. This schedule is more effective than the fixed interval schedule. The most effective method is a random ratio schedule, and the rat is rewarded after it presses the lever a random number of times. Because the rat cannot predict precisely when it will be rewarded even though it knows it has to press the lever to get food, the rat presses the lever more consistently than in the other schedules.

A random ratio schedule is also the one that EverQuest uses. Both melee and trade skill points increase after a random number of attempts. You know you won't get skill points unless you practice the skill, but you don't know how many attempts it will take to get another skill point. Level increases also take a random number of kills. You know that you won't gain a level by standing around, but you don't know exactly how many mobs you need to kill. Because the time it takes to level can be estimated however, one might argue that level increments follow a fixed ratio rather than a random ratio schedule. It is the presence of experience penalties from dying that randomizes this estimation, because it is hard to estimate deaths. The ability for certain classes to use effective strategies (druid quad-kiting for example) at certain levels also means that a higher level may be completed in less time than the level before it. Veteran players know that just because you can get a bubble of experience in half an hour today doesn't mean you can do it again tomorrow, because class demand and grouping conditions change even in the same zone from day to day.

A completely transparent experience points system would be a fixed ratio schedule because you have a very good grasp of how many more solo kills it takes to gain a level. Thus, if EverQuest exposed the underlying numerical experience points and told you how many points a mob gave you, and how much more experience you need to gain a level, it would be less effective as a reinforcement schedule. A system that can most effectively hint at progress without sacrificing this opacity maximizes the random ratio schedule, and this is why the recently implemented blue macro-view line in the experience bar enhances the schedule already in place. This is particularly true for mid-level players who would get frustrated by the normal experience bar that moved too slowly, and thus made them feel that progress was not being made.

The presence of multi-layered and overlapping goals in the game allow players to pursue multiple rewards concurrently. You need more experience to gain levels so you can kill bigger creatures. Along the way, you need more money to buy better equipment. You may want to develop trade skills, complete quests, travel across Norrath, or camp a rare spawn. Most of the time, you'll be doing several of these at the same time. In fact, the game forces you to. You can't keep up with mobs if you level but don't buy new gear. You can't continue blacksmithing if you run out of money. What this means is that you're always close to a goal - a reward. You are seldom far away from all possible rewards.

But something more intensely provoking has happened in EverQuest which makes it addictive. Another frequently encountered figure in introductory psychology textbooks is Maslow, known for his proposed hierarchy of needs. Maslow sees human needs in a pyramid scheme. At the bottom are basic hunger and thirst needs. Then follows security. At the top of the pyramid are aesthetic needs and personal achievements, which would only be possible on a strong foundation of sated hunger and security needs. Thus, even though personal achievements are more rewarding than filling an empty stomach, these achievements are only possible once you've filled your stomach. But EverQuest makes it possible for Joes and Janes to become heroes. EverQuest makes it so that you can slay Vox in a guild raid on an empty stomach. What happens when people can feel achievement through continuous mouse-clicking? What happens when these achievements are more rewarding than "real life" achievements? And what if it's easier to click the mouse than to cook dinner?

One important tenet of Operant Conditioning is that behaviors are not inherently rewarding - they are made rewarding through reinforcement. It is the shaping process in EverQuest that makes the in-game "achievements" rewarding. It is the shaping process that make "achievements" achievements. People who don't play EQ don't see the appeal in clicking "COMBINE" in front of a forge for hours. They don't see why players would camp Quillmane or ice cougars for hours, even days, for an item that usually doesn't drop. To outsiders, the time players spend playing the game is mind-boggling. But it's hard for those of us inside the construct to realize this because the game has conditioned us to pursue these rewards.

Many things set EverQuest apart from other available computer games. Unlike other RPG's, there is no story-line or super-ordinate goal. In fact, there really isn't even any kind of plot, which allows the player to feel in control. Games like Diablo II give constant instant gratification, and do not gradually take more and more time to reach rewards. Game-play at level 25 in Diablo feels just like game-play at level 10, whereas that is not the case in EverQuest. No one would play Diablo if you needed to camp a mob that only sometimes dropped an item. In fact, no one would play Diablo if you had to wait for a mob to spawn. But what sets EverQuest apart is that it is multi-layered and complicated in a way that few other games are. Everything from trade skills to faction, from mobs to their loot, from zones to planes, is complex and well-textured. Finally, it is different because it is massively multi-player, but while most multiplayer games are completely destructive, EverQuest has a decidedly constructive and cooperative tone to it. There is no blood in the game. No disemboweled intestines splatter on your screen. Instead, players often find themselves chatting while waiting for a mob to spawn. The ranger may be fletching as he recounts a particularly close battle. The warrior chugs some Dwarven Ale. There may be some emotes with playful, sexual overtones. In contrast with Quake or Diablo, this scene feels awfully relaxed and idyllic.

The massively-multiplayer nature of the game takes the virtual construct one step beyond just an elaborate Skinner Box. The problem with many people is that you can't have one box tailored to all of their reinforcement needs. But having them all in their separate Skinner Boxes is not interesting. The internet solves this problem by allowing individually tailored Skinner Boxes interact with others. And in this way, EverQuest has created a system of inter-connected Skinner Boxes, a Skinner Network even, where each Skinner Box is tailored to its host's needs and reinforcement schedule, and where individuals can interact with each other without sacrificing the integrity of their own construct. It is like the Matrix where everyone is isolated in their own nutrient vat, but where they can interact in a digitally-constructed world.

Click … click … click … mad typing …. Click .. click .. Click .. click … click … mad typing …

More recent findings on this issue can be found at the "Ariadne" report.