I have given up on Mass Effects multiplayer. Don’t get me wrong, as I mentioned in my review, I enjoyed it immensely. The thing that I can’t deal with is the randomization of the “requisition packs”. To those of you who haven’t played it, the game allows you to buy these packs (for in game currency or real money) with random items in it. There are different tiers of packs and the higher ones guarantee at least one “rare” item. It could be that swanky new character class I really want, or a new gun or just bonus XP. There is no way of knowing what exactly is in those damn packs. I find this sort of thing annoying. Life is random enough for me thank you very much; I do not need it in my games. Not this way.

From what I can gather; this system has been very successful for EA Bioware and that stupefies me. At least it used to. By some weird coincidence, the day I washed my hands off ME multiplayer, I happened to watch an old lecture by a man I greatly admire. Dr Robert Sapolsky. His accomplishments in the field of research and academia are too many to list, so just take my word for it and accept that this is one smart dude.

Titled “Are humans just another primate?” the lecture is a fascinating look at what makes us truly “human” and unique in the animal kingdom. If you are wondering what the hell this has to do with gaming, bear with me, that bit is coming. The one hour fifteen minute lecture is well worth the watch but the part that I was taken aback by was a five minute segment in the middle. If you intend to read any further, you should watch this:

That’s when the answer hit me. Dopamine! What is dopamine?  In layman’s terms: Dopamine is the stuff our brains produce to make us feel “good”. It is literally, the thing that allows us to feel pleasure of any kind.

Most human beings would then assume that any “reward” we get in life, i.e., a piece of cake for not cheating on a diet, a bigger paycheck, a new pair of Nikes etc. would lead to a corresponding increase in dopamine levels. What the study talked about in the video showed however is that “Dopamine is not about pleasure. It’s about the anticipation of pleasure.” That right there is why casinos exist. It is also why reward systems designed around that trigger do so well. It’s not the random drop that Diablo players love, it’s the promise of what that random item could be. Granted, this isn’t exactly breaking news, Diablo fans could have told me that 12 years ago. But now I understand that there is a very compelling physiological reason for it. On a more disturbing note, it made me reconsider my stance on “game addiction”.  The jury may still be out on whether games can be addictive at all but, I cannot just dismiss it as fantasy anymore. What I do know for a fact is that we will undoubtedly see more games supporting micro-transactions to exploit this phenomenon. And that unsettles me.

It made me wonder what would happen if I kept playing ME anyway. Would the “time lag” between the signal (firing up the game) and the actual reward (a chance of getting that shotgun that I really want) be just enough to sit through 25 minutes of killing stuff? I honestly don’t know. Thankfully, I do not care enough to find out.

        Image source

So that next time you feel like forking over some real cash just to get a random reward pack, or a key open a mysterious chest or whatever else, ask yourself. “Am I really enjoying this? Or is some suit making a monkey out of me?”