World of Warcraft and the Addiction of Task Lists

by Mike Shea on 28 September 2008

Jonathan Blow, the game designer behind one of my favorite games this year, Braid, had a few interesting things to say about World of Warcraft. In an interview with Gamasutra, Blow called World of Warcraft "unethical". After reading the interview, I can get a feeling for what he's talking about.

There are a couple of ways to design a game. You can design a game to give the player the greatest overall gameplay experience you can or, in the case of WoW, you can find the cheapest methods to keep people playing. For WoW, it's a mixture of a few different things including level progression, reputation grinding, gear replacements, and the one I want to talk about today: the quest system.

I'm willing to bet that one of the strongest ways WoW keeps people playing is the constant desire to acquire new quests and check off the boxes. I used to joke with my friend Ben that our goal in WoW is to go back to where we started in the beginning: an empty quest log. Of course, that's impossible and now with daily quests, you're likely to have dozens of quests in your book at any time.

Being a two year veteran of Getting Things Done, I can attest to the addiction of checking things off of an action list. It really doesn't matter what the items are as long as you get them on the list, do them, and check them off. My stress level directly relates to how many items I have on my action list, regardless of their complexity. The GTD principle of "only focus on the next possible action" eliminates the stress of huge overwhelming jobs by breaking them up into 30 minute physically doable tasks. Instead, the number of next actions I have is what makes me feel either busy or bored. Having three to five next actions wherever I am is just about right. If I have less than three, I'm usually bored. If I have more than five, I'm usually stressed.

Every time I check off an item, whether its making a phone call, writing an introduction to a paper, or reading an article someone dropped off on my desk; I get a tiny little surge every time I check one off that gives me just enough wind in the sail to get to the next one.

In the real world, such lists are powerful ways to get a whole lot of things done. In a game, however, it's feeding a dangerous desire with meaningless stuff.

Do we really pay attention to the rest of the game when we play the game mostly with a large in-game check list on the side of the screen? Are we really building enriching social relationships when our goal is to kill 40 wild boars just to check off the list? Is Blizzard capitalizing off of a deeply rooted human desire to "check the box"?

In our modern world the simplest problems are usually taken care of for us and all that remains are giant balls of fuzzy shit we call "jobs" that have no clear steps, no clear dates, no clear chain of authority, and no end-state. It's no wonder that we seek out games that make it so clear how to progress, even if those steps are just barely interesting enough to keep us going. It isn't the graphics or the gameplay that keep us playing, its the addiction to checking off those little boxes.

Unethical? Maybe, but so is any big business. It's not about making the world a better place, its about making money.

For a lot of people, however, people who have very little social outlet, even a interface of text between human beings is better than nothing at all. It's not like those who sit hidden behind computer screens will suddenly go out and pick up people in a bar or attend church socials. Social misfits have hid behind computers as long as there have been computers. They might as well do it together.

For many, myself included, these games of mundane check-lists can have some very positive benefits.