In the most important neurological finding I have read all year, mammals have correlated but entirely separable systems for wanting and liking. Ponder that a moment. To some extent, that seems intuitively obvious: you can get what you want and not be happy. This is not, however, about mis-calculating how happy something will make you. Your basic theory of the world presumably includes some version of, “If Bob keeps doing X, he must like X.” You might make exceptions if X is heroin.
Some have proposed that MMOs should be in that same category of unhealthy addictions, and I suddenly find myself forced to take the idea seriously. You don’t need surgery or drugs to skirt that connection between motivation and enjoyment, any more than you need to hack the server to exploit flaws in the system. Our brains are meat hardware that worked well enough to reproduce itself on the savannah, while modern memetic software can develop quite powerful malware.
Let’s make that more concrete. Your brain gives you the same neurochemicals for watching that little bar fill that it would for actually accomplishing something. Even if you know you are accomplishing little, we can fill that bar faster than reality could and give you lots of numbers popping up telling you that you are advancing. There are lots of flaws in the human brain we can exploit to make you feel like you need to continue, preferably keeping you from pausing to consider whether you are having much fun or if you should stop. Too many players quit when you make them stop to think about whether they should keep going.
Why play worthless “social games”? We have found formulas that line up with how our brains pass out neurochemicals, even if they provide no value, even if they provide no enjoyment. The relevant neurochemicals go together often enough that you are conditioned to think you are having fun when you are just feeling compelled to continue. Cognitive dissonance should carry you through the rest.
Sometimes you take a week or two off and are eager to get back. Sometimes you take a week or two off and completely lose the motivation to log on. For some in that first case, congratulations, you really are having fun and not just following your highjacked motivational programming. For some, I worry that we just failed to make it through withdrawl symptoms the way that people in the second case successfully did.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to refresh the waitstaff in my Facebook restaurant. I wish I were kidding.