Squirts, Rat Brains, and World of Warcraft

On Friday I mentioned how most games tap into the reward centers of your brain. If you still haven’t watched the Extra Credits episode about it, then you should, but I wanted to talk about it a little more in depth. Specifically I want to discuss what some people call the “dopamine squirt”. But before I can talk about that I need to talk about electrocuted rat brains.

In the 1950s a pair of scientists, Dr. James Olds and Dr. Peter Milner, performed a series of experiments on rats. Specifically they shoved electrodes into rat brains to see what would happen. The electrode was connected to a bar inside a small box so that any time the bar was pressed an electric current would activate the electrode inside the rat’s brain. Olds and Milner let the rats loose and watched to see what would happen. They carefully recorded how often the rats pressed the bar and then after a few days of observation they would dissect it and see what part of their brain the electrode had been connected to anyway. They found that rats that had a current running through certain sections of the brain pushed the bar more. A lot more. One rat pressed the bar over 7,500 times over twelve hours. After their results were published many people believed that they had managed to discover the brain’s pleasure center. The general idea was that these rats were pressing the lever over and over because it just felt good. Further research found that “pleasure centers” like these released the chemical dopamine, which was soon dubbed the “pleasure chemical”. Dopamine is released during almost any pleasurably activity and several drugs (like meth) cause dopamine levels to spike. So it was pretty much a done deal. Dopamine makes you feel good. You eat delicious food, dopamine comes out, and dopamine makes the food pleasurable to eat.

However, we weren’t done messing with rats brains quite yet. In 2007 some more scientists used drugs to wipe out 99 percent of the dopamine present in rats brains. The treated rats showed an interesting behavior: they wouldn’t eat. They would sit inches away from delicious food, and just lie there. Presumably they would keep sitting there until they starved to death. They no longer had any desire to eat, despite how hungry they got. Interesting. What’s more interesting is what happened when the scientists started force feeding the rats. They found out that the rats still liked eating the food. In other words the food was still pleasurable to eat. They just couldn’t bring up the will to go over and eat it themselves.

This kind of result showed that there was a lot more to dopamine than people had thought. If the rats still got pleasure out of eating then why wouldn’t they eat? Further tests showed something similar. Mice that had been stripped of their ability to produce dopamine would starve within weeks despite plentiful food being available. If the mice were given injections of synthetic dopamine then they’d start eating again. But either way they enjoyed the food the same amount. Another study showed that mice born with a mutation that caused an overproduction of dopamine showed a much greater desire to eat than normal mice but, again, didn’t actually enjoy the food any more than normal mice.

What does all this mean? Well, it means that dopamine is less involved in pleasure and much more involved in desire, which can be a pleasure in and of itself. Haven’t you ever wanted something so bad that the wanting itself was almost pleasurable? The feeling you had as a little kid in the days before Christmas is a good example. As the blessed day comes closer and closer you practically begin to vibrate with anticipation. The night before it’s hard to sleep because you’re so excited! And when the day comes and you get to rip open those presents…it’s almost a letdown. Not really of course (unless you got some lousy presents as a kid) but actually having the presents isn’t nearly as exciting as wanting them.

Life is full of this kind of experience. You can’t wait for dinner to arrive, but it’s not that big a deal when it comes. I mean it was good food, but probably wasn’t worth getting that worked up over. You wait a year for a new installment of a favorite book or TV series, and you’re first in line to read/watch it. But after some time you come back and watch it again and wonder why you got so excited over it. The excitement was dopamine, and it inspires seeking behavior. This explains why some people just love shopping even if they experience buyer’s remorse almost immediately afterwards. It wasn’t about having things but about hunting them down. It wasn’t about the pleasure of owning, it was about the excitement of desiring.

This is how games can become so enthralling and addicting. Let’s look at how this applies to what is probably the most infamous game currently in existence when it comes to inspiring addiction: World of Warcraft. For those of you who aren’t gamers World of Warcraft (better known as WoW) is a roleplaying game, or RPG for short. What that basically means when it comes to video games (other games use the term a bit differently) is that you create a character who begins at level 1. Completing quests and slaying enemies will cause your character to gain “experience points”, and once you have a certain amount you go up a level. Each level takes a little longer to earn, so level 2 is easier to reach than level 3, which is easier to reach then level 4, etc. Right now the maximum level you can get to in WoW is level eighty-five, which takes an average player about 300 hours to reach. Every time you level up your character becomes stronger. On top of that there is equipment that can be earned or bought that also increases your power. Some equipment costs large amounts of in game money that would take hours of work to earn.

What does this all mean? Just that WoW is built to flip every seeking and desiring switch we have. The entire game is nothing but goals that you can achieve. And let me tell you, it is addicting. I’ve never played WoW but I have played many other RPGs and the desire to level up is just as powerful as any other. The game is constantly giving you rewards that get you closer to your goals. Kill a monster? You’re just a little closer to leveling up. Complete a quest? You get just a few more coins to save up for that plate armor you’ve had your eye on. What’s more, as soon as you reach a goal you’re immediately given another. Finally made it to level 52 after three hours of hard work? Good job, now try for level 53. This is necessary because without new goals to strive after you start to wonder why you wanted to be level 52 in the first place. The answer? Because we like to want things, and having goals gives us a dopamine squirt that reinforces the behavior.

Even if you’re not a gamer you can probably see the dopamine squirt at work in your own life. Do you constantly check your emails? Do you log on to Facebook all the time looking for new notifications? Simple things like having mail in your inbox or little red numbers on your notification tab trigger the dopamine squirt. When we actually read the email or click on the notifications we’re usually disappointed. It was just spam, or game requests, etc. And yet our failure to actually enjoy the email or notification doesn’t make us want to see them any less.

So. This post went a little longer than I expected. I’ll be talking about something else on Wednesday, something writing related in all probability. Hope to see you then.

About Mark Hamilton

I am, in no particular order, a nerd, an aspiring writer, a Christian, an aspiring filmmaker, an avid reader, a male, a YEC, a GM, and a twenty something. I like learning how things are made, finding out how to do things from scratch, and I you can find more of my writing at thepagenebula.wordpress.com

Posted on June 11, 2012, in Gamification, Science!. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. So if the lovely chemical dopamine is so tied to the human condition then what are your thoughts on how this chemical is connected to personality?

  2. I’m not sure. I’m not a psychologist (though I sure seem to know a lot of them) but if I had to guess I’d say that people who have an addictive or compulsive personality might produce more dopamine than the average human being. But that’s just conjecture, you’d have to do a lot of research to find out for sure.

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