I think I have something new for you, but Raph has covered similar territory. At the very least you get a new word.

The digger wasp (Genus: sphex) is the unheralded mascot of the grind. When laying eggs, it makes a nest, finds a bug, paralyzes the bug, drags it home, makes sure the nest is okay, drags the bug in, lays eggs on it, and buries the whole thing. When the eggs hatch, the bug will still be there for baby wasps to eat.

The interesting part is that this is all mindless, genetically determined behavior. The sphex has no idea what it is doing. If you were to move the bug while the sphex was double-checking the nest, it would come out, see no bug, and reset its mental programming to go find a bug. Coming upon the paralyzed bug three inches away, it would drag it back to the nest, make sure the nest is okay, and come back out to discover that you have moved its paralyzed bug three inches away again. Reset, go find a bug, hey here’s one! Drag it home, go inside to make sure the next is okay, and come back out to discover…

Wow, you’re a jerk. You just keep moving its objective a few inches away and laughing as it keeps doing the same thing.

Douglas Hofstadter’s word “sphexishness” is used to mean tolerance for repetition. The wasp does not realize that it is in a loop, doing the same thing over and over again. Each time it finds no bug, it treats it as a novel situation.

Frankly, as a little-used term, it is somewhat under-specified and I am going to appropriate it for my own use. When you are grinding orcs or whatever, you realize that you are grinding (FSM I hope so). But you keep doing it. You are sufficiently entertained by going through the same motions, with minor variations, again and again.

When playing my City of Villains Stalker, I sneak up on a group of three yellow minions, Assassin Strike the first one, Build Up-Eagle’s Claw-Crane Kick the second one, Placate-Assassin Strike the third one. There can be minor variations, such as when I hit my 5% miss chance, but that is a solved problem as well. I have assassinated thousands of minions and lieutenants, and there are no possible unsolved problems in that sphere.

I have heard children’s behavior described similarly as working out unsolved problems in physical space. You might see a kid pouring water back and forth between a pitcher and a glass, or stacking a tower of blocks, knocking it over, and re-stacking. This is all new for them, and their brains are still getting a grasp on how this gravity thing works.

Antisphexishness is not just a desire for novelty but possibly the nature of consciousness. “It is a general sensitivity to patterns, an ability to spot patterns of unanticipated types in unanticipated places at unanticipated times in unanticipated media.” It is the reason why procedural content is can be bad: once you see the pattern behind it all, it reduces everything to a solved problem.

Killing ten wolves is not more interesting than killing ten rats. A wolf is a rat with different numbers and graphics, maybe a different ability. The fundamental is the same. A goblin is a bipedal wolf, an orc shaman is a goblin with a fireball spell, and a dragon is a flying shaman. Almost everything in the game can be understood as fiddling with variables on a fairly simple template.

The actual content is what is new. “Kill ten rats” and “bring me ten rat tails” only add content to the extent that the quest text is novel. If you add an “orc shaman leader” that also has a freezing spell, that is new for the seconds that it takes me to work out “orc shaman + purple tint + second fireball with less damage and a slow effect.” City of Villains has endless newspaper missions, but really it is the same mission with a narrow range of variation.

When you are learning how the game works, that is antisphexishness. It is new and exciting. There are lots of moving pieces and you have no idea how they work. Learning how they work is fun. An ideal pacing keeps adding new pieces as you become comfortable with the old ones. A poor pacing leads to The Grind, which is sphexishness. You are performing by rote. You already know how to defeat goblins, and defeating 100 of them to level is not an interesting variation. Learning how to do a new raid is interesting. Once you know what you are doing, “farm status” is just sphexishness, raiding by rote until you get your new gear.

Yet Another Fantasy MMORPG is sphexishness. I said The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™ is WoW because the gameplay is a solved problem with minor variation. Making EverQuest in space is just the same, with different graphics. No, it does not help to call it “morale” instead of “health” or “fuel cells” instead of “mana.”

This is why you cannot recapture the magic of your first MMO. It was all new then. The better you are able to transfer your skills from one game to another, the less fun the new game is because it is already a solved problem.

This is not to say that it cannot be fun to play in your comfort zone. Working with your friends like a well-oiled machine has its own joys, but once you really start to feel like a machine, what is left?

: Zubon

Edit to add: there is reason to doubt the original sphex narrative, as apparently there is a spread of sphexishness in sphex. There is more of a bell curve in how likely a wasp is to repeat behavior as opposed to just dragging the food inside. It is not just that all sphex perform this behavior endlessly. The nuance of the researched was dropped along the way of a good story, and I have not gone back to trace all of the research in this game of Telephone.

19 thoughts on “Sphexishness”

  1. I think its a gradual process which in itself uses a human tendency to sphexishness again. We play a game its new and fun, we slowly unterstand the game, its mechanics. At some point all is boring and minor variation. We are then antisphexish, only to move on to some other game with the promise of “new” content until we again realize which patterns make that game work.

    Great article.

  2. Reading this made me a little depressed because I realize that I’ve been grinding for a very long time now. The joy for me lately has come from rolling new characters, which allow me the opportunity to learn new ways to solve the problems. What happens when I run out of character classes? I hope that Death Knight shows up sooner, rather than later.

  3. I’d venture a guess and state this phenomenon is more prevalent in MMOs than, say, FPSs.

  4. I don’t know that I’d agree with that, Julian. I was in the top 1% of Unreal Tournament players back in the day, and I’ve played FPSs since, well, there was a genre. I stopped playing all but the most story-driven ones for the most part about 4 or 5 years ago. There really is only so many times you can frag XX-DeathBloodKiller-XX on any map before it becomes old hat. I’d say, once you reach the Sphex Point on any FPS, particularly in the multiplayer ones, you are dangerously close to reaching it on all of them. I still fire up a multiplayer FPS once every couple of months for an evening, but that’s about it, precisely because of how same-y all of them are. Once you master the basics, and I agree that there’s a bit more to master than in the MMO genre, there’s still not very much there there. It basically turns into map memorization and honing of skills, which, now that I think of it, kinda a good description of raiding.

  5. This explained to me perfectly why I don’t play my lvl 70 any more, except to farm. Since group pvp battles can have a lot of variation in players and classes, there are many opportunities for new, or at least semi-new experiences/challengesm, even after playing for months.

    Though I suppose it’s still kinda repetitive, but are Counterstrike, or Starcraft any different? There are only so many things each player can do.

  6. It is, of course, completely unfair for me to have linked Mr. Booth’s blog with “procedural content is bad.” That is not what Mr. Booth is saying there. He says it is a tool that can be used well.

    Many of us know how it is used badly out there, as a panacea rather than a tool. It is not the bottomless pool of content; it is an easily pierced veil trying to cover the recycling of existing content.

    Anyway, yeah, sphexishness.

  7. Joe: Yup, we’re not disagreeing.

    The reason I mentioned it was in the way I think we players generally approach MMOs and FPSs. Just going by personal experience, and what I’ve observed and heard from other players, most MMOs are initially approached looking for ‘the experience’ (and I’ll leave that one at that), and the sphex-state is dreaded, but known to be inevitable at some point.

    In contrast, what I’ve observed in FPSs is that we go in looking for the sphex from the get go. Or rather, how to reach a sphex of a high enough quality to be decent at the game as fast as we can, because the ‘performance sphex’ is ultimately all there is.

    Or maybe I’m just talking junk because I just finished a beer. Both options are good. ;)

  8. And yet Pokemon titillates me generration after generation, with the exact same gameplay in the exact same package. Everything you’re saying is dead on the money (although sphexishness is enough of a tongue-twister that I’m unlikely to adopt it as jargon). But I think there needs to be an allowance that the human psyche still derives enjoyment out of the repetition of some solved states. A sufficiently forgiving reward schedule can be both addictive AND entertaining.

  9. i definately agree that the Grind is the biggest downfall of gaming in general, but i believe this is especially true of mmo’s. we need to move past killing X number of [insert generic baddie here] for the VAUGE possibility of what we in the land of suffering call “phaT L3wTs”.

    that aside, i still cannot explain why Diablo 2 took 2 years of my life away. seriously. its clicking. no real strategy or anything like that to speak of, the plot is not something that makes me care… just click. click for more death for more loot for more death. why is this fun?

    anyway, as a way to possibly move past this, those of us who plan on being developers (which may in fact be all of you, im not sure who traffics this site) there is a great article on Gamasutra that suggests some really awesome ways of looking at fun itself, and how we can kind of break it down into learning new skills and using them.


    go forth, and know it better man.

  10. @TheDreadlockedWonder: Thanks for the Gamasutra link. That explains a lot about why some veteran gamers find newer games boring. They have seen it all before, so it takes something different to get them excited. It’s why the first MMO is often the best experience for MMO gamers. Everything is new the first time. The MMOs that come after it are just new names for the same old things and you don’t recapture that original excitement of learning how to play. Thanks again for the link.

  11. I know what kept me in Diablo II: cows. I had a Traps Assassin, and few things brought joy quite like the corpse detonation trap. Take out one cow, detonate, it takes out a group, detonate… The huge masses of enemies were awesome. In retrospect, I don’t know how long that lasted, but detonating giant cow hordes was a high point.

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