Why Gamers and Pigeons Are Superstitious


When I met with Nick Yee last week to discuss his fight against The Barbarians at the Gate, we ended up going down a lot of tangents. One of the more interesting ones was his paper on superstitions in massively multiplayer online games.

Yee told me about how MMOS, which he says are in many ways a fancy Skinner Box, create a lot of odd superstitions in gamers. Not superstitions in the spiritual or religious since, but repeated behaviours driven by strong beliefs that doing one thing will lead to a certain outcome, despite evidence to the contrary.

A good example of this sort of non-religious superstition is a study B.F. Skinner did in which he instilled superstition of this sort into pigeons by feeding them pellets every 15 seconds no matter what they did. After several days each pigeon had developed its own independent superstition about what produced this manna from heaven. One though circling clockwise was necessary, another that it had to attack a spot on the cage to get the pellets. Gamers do the same thing, it seems.Using his Daedalus Project, Yee found that about 380 MMO players had witnessed at least one superstition while playing. Yee found a bunch of interesting similarities about how gamers respond to this superstition, but more interesting, I think, are the superstitions themselves.

Instance Seeding

Most superstitions players described involved low-chance or high-risk events. For example, a low-chance event may be a rare loot drop. In World of Warcraft, there is a pervasive superstition that the loot table in high-level instances is determined by the first member of the group who steps foot inside the instance.

Some People Are Luckier

One interesting variation of the instance seeder superstition claims that certain characters are luckier or have better loot tables.

Lucky Charms

There is also a pervasive item-based superstition regarding drop rates across many MMOs and this is the belief that having certain objects in your inventory will improve the drop rate of rare items. The specific item changes from game to game, but takes the same general form.

And the list goes on and on.

It's funny because I can think of several occasions where I too have unwittingly become a victim of superstition. I think it's because as a player we have no way of knowing what the rules are, the ones hard-coded into the game, and the secrets, the easter eggs. And that we want to find those secrets out.

Kinda like life.

Superstitions [The Daedalus Project]


    Heh. One I've had for a long time is holding the action button down to improve my odds; eg hold the button down after throwing a pokeball...

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