What Classic gets right (or very wrong)

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Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been puttering around on my Hunter and Priest (started five levels apart) and really enjoying myself.  It’s painful, inconvenient, slow, grindy, and painful. And yet I have not felt at all unhappy about it.

We’re looking back at a version of WoW that had perfected the Skinner Box model without realizing it, or taking much trouble to hide it.

If you’ve never heard the term, “Skinner Box” is named after a psychologist that theorized a thing called an Operant Conditioning Chamber, which is a fancy way of saying that it trained animals using mostly positive reinforcement.  Push the right button, get a cookie.

In WoW, this is illustrated by the  nearly constant positive reinforcement mechanism that kicks in after level 10. Every time you level up, you get something, often many somethings. You always get a talent point. And sometimes you learn new spells or abilities.  If you’re a Hunter the phenomenon is doubled thanks to your pet.

Contrast this to BfA and Legion, where I believe it’s fair to say that aside from the changes to the core game at the start of the expansion, you gained nothing new.

Hell, the last time I got a new Talent is at level 100 – the end of WoD.

Did leveling up mean anything to you in Legion or BfA?  I mean, did they even lock out zones based on your level? (spoiler alert: they didn’t).

The modern niceties of modern WoW are sometimes a curse in disguise.  A game based on conflict that has basically greased the rails to max level doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Yet here we are.

But … about that Skinner Box thing.

The Skinner Box scenario is generally looked down upon by most “serious” gamers. It’s the perception that, instead of making a good game, the team has created a grindhouse in which you respond like … well, like a rat in a Skinner box.  Green light goes on, you hit the button. A pellet of food comes out. Green light comes on, hit the button again.  Eventually, what you’re conditioned to do is to press the button whenever you see a green light, and expect a pellet of food.

This reminds me of one of my favorite stories about “sick culture” work places. It goes like this.

Imagine a cage. In that cage are five monkeys.  It’s a big cage, don’t worry.

Now, hang a banana in one end of the cage.

Now, whenever a money approaches the banana, ALL the monkeys in that cage get hosed with a firehose.

Eventually, you’ll train them to never approach the banana.

Now, replace one of the monkeys with a new one.

The new monkey will approach the banana.  But instead of hosing the monkeys, you let the trained monkeys do your work: they beat the hell out of the new monkey until he too won’t approach the banana.

Keep doing this until you’ve replaced all the monkeys, then do a complete rotation again.

Now, you have a cage full of monkeys that have never been hosed, but won’t approach that banana.

And if they could talk, and you could ask them why they won’t go near the banana, they’d probably tell you, “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done things.”

I wonder if Blizz did us a favor by getting away from the Skinner Box approach?

Posted on September 15, 2019, in Classic, Game mechanics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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