I spend a great deal of time in the outdoors. Hiking, kayaking, even some geocaching now and then. White water rafting. I enjoy exploring wild places and the unpredictable nature of the adventures often encountered in such places.
Which is perhaps what makes gaming so difficult for me.
Exploring wild areas grants all sorts of rewards. Rewarding mountain top vistas. Challenging, exciting rapids. Spotting the occasional shy wild animal. Overcoming obstacles on backwoods trails. Surviving with only the gear on your back for days in the wild. Finding your way with nothing but a compass and a map into and out of the wilds is even its own reward, after a fashion.
And the best part of all of these rewards: They are all completely - or at least mostly - unpredictable. Sure you might suspect that a beautiful vista awaits at the top of this mountain. But do you know already what, exactly, you will see? How about this rapid? Its challenging, but dos it try and recycle you or just push you under? What technique works best to conquer this particular obstacle. Even wild animals are unpredictable, in that you never know whether its a deer on the trail or an eagle higher up - or even a bear or cougar - you might encounter along your path. Or nothing at all. The most exciting part of the rewards earned for exploring wild places is the unpredictable nature of those rewards.
Gaming could offer similar rewards. And this goes double for sandbox games and MMO's. Their large worlds, detailed graphics and varied environs offer the perfect opportunity to focus on unpredictable, random, rewards spread across immense worlds, waiting for discovery. Games could offer real adventure, if they tried.
But they don't.
Games dole out rewards like new items and abilities on stead, predictable time lines readily visible to the player. Even loot is predictable in terms of both location and usually, with literally Rare exceptions, power level. Loot starts out mundane and becomes gradually more satisfying as the player puts in more time and effort, raising the quality of loot and the resultant euphoria it inspires through gradually increased exposure to this formulaic process. If it sounds like a familiar process, it should be, because games aren't the only thing in our society that utilizes this formula of gradually increasing rewards in exchange for gradually increasing levels of exposure.
Another way to get the same basic feeling: Drug Abuse.
Face it: The typical video game system for handing out rewards like loot and new skills basically focuses not on the enjoyment of the player, but on the addiction of the player to the game. Many games - and almost every MMO in existence today - uses a formula not unlike the euphoria and withdraw cycle of drugs in order to captivate millions across the world and convince to player just a little longer, just one more month's subscription price.
We have a choice in life. We can revel in unpredictable, rewarding events through genuine exploration and adventure. Or we can amuse ourselves with borderline addictive behavior in order to follow a carefully prescribed process of rewarding events laid out by game publishers - and the psychologists they no doubt employ - as a means to emptying our wallets by stimulating our brains in nearly the exact same way drug addiction does.
I wish more game developers cared about the adventure. I wish they understood what we really want in games. To explore the unknown; to receive rewards we didn't expect, didn't see coming. To not want to be hemmed in by arbitrary numbers and levels until such time as we have played long enough - and often paid money enough - to be allowed to explore anew. But alas, games must make money and to do so they must keep people playing. So we remain enslaved to level grinding and addiction-like simulation in order to enjoy a hobby.
Its almost shameful, really.