What is Rational to the Player?

To the detriment of all, I have started playing World of Warcraft again and it got me thinking about the topic of player rationalizing. When players do not understand the underlying rules or system for something, they naturally tend to rationalize based on their experiences.

Let me explain. So one of the new features in the latest expansion for WoW is a secondary profession called archaeology. Conceptually, it seems like a really good idea. Players travel throughout the lands of Azeroth and beyond in search of artifacts and by uncovering these artifacts, players earn items. How this translates in the game is that players travel to various part of the world (shaded in red on their map) and then proceed to play a game of hot and cold. You cast a spell and then get a red, yellow, or green light indicating how near or far you are to the object. While I could argue about how great a mechanic this is, that is not the point of this post. The point is how getting items works. And to be more specific, how players have almost no idea how getting items works.

Through archaeology, players can uncover epic items through discoveries based on what race the artifacts come from. Unfortunately, this is all the player knows. The actual mechanic is completely unknown. Take for instance, the item I have been trying to get Zin’Rohk. If posts on WoWHead are to be believed, this item can be obtained on your 10th troll solve or on your 10 thousandth troll solve. No one really knows anything other than what has been the experience of other players.

However, that does not stop players from trying to rationalize how the system works based on these reported experiences. Take a look at the comments section for the item here. Players swear they have a method for obtaining the sword, such as saving all your toll artifacts till you hit 450 skill level, or only solving trolls after you obtain one epic item. However, none of these players really have an idea.

Here we come to the point I am trying to make: If game designers allow players to rationalize mechanics, they are going to come up with the wrong answers to the detriment of everyone. For example, I have spent more time than I wish to admit, farming troll artifacts trying to get the sword. Because I have no idea how the mechanic works, I am exceedingly frustrated to be on a seemingly endless journey. Perhaps the mechanic is pure chance, so I could never get it no matter how much effort I use. Or perhaps I am doing something wrong. I have no way of knowing because the game designers have not explained how it works. If the mechanic were explained, I could either do whatever I need to get the item I want, or have made the decision beforehand whether or not to put the effort into something that could be based on chance.

Something similar to this occurs is when something in a game is truly random, such as the drop rate of an item off a boss. Players have a natural tendency to believe that if the item they wanted did not drop this time, there is an increased chance that it will drop next time. In actuality this is not the case. The chance is exactly the same, each and every time they defeat the boss. Frank Lantz provides a really excellent discussion on this here.

Anytime there is a mechanic is a game that is not explained, players will try to explain it and often they are going to come up with the wrong conclusions. This can lead to frustration because they are applying incorrect rules and expectations to the game. Now I am not trying to say that every mechanic in every game needs to explained thoroughly, that is just nonsensical. However, I do think game designers need to have more concern for player psychology (a common theme on this site). In some instances, explaining the mechanics will not take away from game play and will alleviate the potential for misunderstandings between the player and the game.

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About Jonathan Frye

Ph.D. student at NYU. Game researcher. Game Design/Usability/Theory nerd. Research focus on psychology of players. RA for Games for Learning Institute. View all posts by Jonathan Frye

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