In almost any game, on almost any platform, the idea of loot looms large and plays an integral role. Whether it’s a random drop, an opened chest, the sight of a new weapon, a fresh set of armor, or pile of gold can get even the most apathetic of gamers hearts fluttering. But what is the psychological effect of a new +12 Flaming Pistol? What is it that your brain is doing when your eyes catch sight of that new Tier 5 Armor piece? How does the way a game handles loot affect the way we as gamers perceive the game and our time within it?


MMO Loot

Sometimes I think Loot gets out of hand…

If we are going to look at this connection between human psychology and loot drop mechanics, it makes sense that we have some sort of foundation on which to build everything.  Thus we’ll talk about three recent games that have handled loot in rather different ways. Torchlight 2, produced by Runic, handles loot in probably the most conventional way. You kill an enemy, and there’s a chance they’ll drop something shiny.  There is a constant and continuous upgrading of your weapons, armor, and trinkets. This creates a drive to keep playing and keep killing things, and as the player you are always getting a little kick in the pants to keep going. It’s a fairly ordinary system, but it works wonderfully, and suits Torchlight 2’s gameplay perfectly.

2k Games and Gearbox’s new shooter Borderlands 2 ratchets this up more than a few notches. A LOT more. Torchlight 2 certainly has numerous loot drops, but the game

MMO Loot

As if they needed to make it gold…

doesn’t quite sell it the same way as Borderlands 2. The Borderlands 2 Launch Trailer claimed that the game has “870 gajillion more guns” than the original Borderlands (not to mention “96.5% more Wub Wub”). I didn’t even know that was a word… Here is a game that not only embraces the idea of loot drops, but shameless sells it with a maniacal grin. The guns get more and more over-powered and ridiculous, spitting out more lead and causing more devastation.  I know my grin gets bigger and bigger as I get more and more over-powered and as I continue to blow apart any unfortunate bandit to walk into my sights.  The entire point of the game is to get bigger and better loot.

Then there is another path. ArenaNet’s Guild Wars 2 offers a very different perspective on the idea of loot driven gameplay, focusing less on the stat driven grind than Borderlands 2 or Torchlight 2 embrace. Most of the high end items in Guild Wars 2, including the legendary weapons, which can take months to construct, are not that much better than the tier of weapons or armor directly below them. Stats are not the main goal here, but appearance.  The most expensive and rarest items in this game have some of the most impressive designs, and coolest effects. It’s a decision that has certainly created some mixed feelings in the MMO community, but it’s a different  direction that’s a nice bit of fresh air in the MMO genre.  It is also a decision that parallels the rest of ArenaNet’s design choices, not necessarily revolutionizing the MMO genre, but certainly giving it a thorough tune up.

So there we have it. Three different ways recent video games have handled loot. But what does it all boil down to? Why is it that we are drawn to loot and spend hours seeking rare things in the digital wilds of a game?  In a word: Dopamine. Our brain chemistry is the chief culprit here, causing us untold late nights and weary mornings. In the article “What Goes on in a Gamer’s Brain and why Loot Drops are so Damn Addicting, author and psychologist Jamie Madigan informs us that it is, in fact, not the loot drops themselves that keeps gamers coming back for more and more loot, but rather it is the anticipation we feel in finding something new that keeps us hooked.  Madigan references the work of Wolfram Schultz, a German Neuroscientist, heavily, and summarizes a large amount of his work in a few, well crafted gamer-centric words:

When we encounter something we like- say a patch of berries or a goretusk liver- our brain releases dopamine. Brain cells that are sensitive to this chemical go bananas in its presence, which makes us feel good-maybe even euphoric.  (Madigan,, 39)

Picking up that Flaming Maliwan Shotgun to replace your Vladof Submachine gun is, as a matter a fact, a drug. Sure, it is a natural drug that your brain produces and is part of your healthy functioning body, but that doesn’t mean it won’t force you to play another three hours in order to get some level appropriate shoulder armor.


“Pull, Pull, Pull, Pull!”

This chemical reaction in our brains to loot and the anticipation of loot has been proven in far more scientific ways as well. Schultz tested his theories on monkey’s  by using bits of fruit (since monkey’s make poor PUG members), and found that  the entire experience was based on the “anticipation and trying to predict rewards based on what was happening in the environment” ( 41). While it is not always reassuring to see us gamers to be compared to monkeys, it is certainly good science. We can always learn a lot about how we react to certain situations from our Simian brethren, and I have a hard time believing PETA would feel bad about Monkeys being subjected to copious fruit intake. Though, If they HAD tested the monkey’s with, say, a Random Zandalari Heroic, I might be more understanding.

Loot drops are a tried and true method of getting people to keep playing a game. You play for X amount of time and get a shiny new weapon. That’s not to say this is bad in any way, but it is what it is. Positive reinforcement keeps us playing whether we like it or not. You’ll of course reach a point, a Personal Limit if you will, where you will stop your questing for a better upgrade. But how does this factor into the decisions of the company producing the game? Blizzards’ Diablo III was another game focused on the loot, and it’s interesting to think about the marketing that goes into this.

Madigan wrote a second article, entitled “The Psychology of Diablo III Loot”, and makes an interesting observation about Blizzard’s reasons for placing such a heavy emphasis on  loot drops and the constant upgrading of gear; “Blizzard, probably has two goals among others: First, to get people to spend their in-game gold to keep the game’s economy moving (or real money in the case of the real money auction house), and second to keep us playing the game over and over again in order to find stuff the old fashioned way.” (Madigan,  2012). With the widespread use of cash-shops in more and more games, it becomes more and more possible to draw parallels between the in game grind and real life gambling. There are definitely huge shifts in the way things work in relation to loot drops in Diablo III, versus it’s older siblings, but the mixing of real life cash and the acquiring of in-game loot is something that is almost always going to raise a few eyebrows, and more than a few cries of “pay to win”.

But what happens when this is turned on its head?

Borderland 2 and Torchlight 2 have clearly embraced this idea of positive reinforcement through loot, and in my opinion it seems Borderlands 2 has not only done this, but perfected it to a gore-caked art. But what about Guild Wars 2? For a large


Unfortunately, this is not a armor skin in GW2

part of the game, you’ll be working your way up, gathering better loot, with more powerful statistics as you go, just like any other MMO. But then, you hit a wall. Statistics on high level armor don’t really vary too much, and you’ll find the stats you want with minimal effort.  Then, you are off to start looking for, get this, SOMETHING THAT LOOKS COOL. Not the best stats, not the most powerful weapon, simply something that you think compliments your characters or looks more terrifying than the greatsword you are currently wielding. Arena Net has essentially made positive reinforcement subjective. Your Personal Limit becomes YOUR PERSONAL limit. How far are you willing to go to look the way you want? Is that legendary sword worth a month of saving materials? The ‘endgame’ loot of GW2 is no longer a tiered ladder, but an open field. Once you get to a certain point, the doors are open and you can run where ever you want. On the other hand, there is almost no direction for you in this system, so there is a much greater emphasis on the setting of personal goals.

And it is a little difficult to say if it is going to work. Sure, it’s a bold experiment with a lot of freedom and promise, but I’ve already seen many people approaching the loot drops of Guild Wars 2 in the same way they have approached them in other MMO’s that function on the tested path of positive reinforcement. GW2 is breaking the mold, and not everyone seems happy with that.

While we are talking about these kinds of issues, it is only appropriate to talk about the bigger implications loot drops have on us as a community. You see, the more and more I look at the community of gamers who play GW2, Borderlands 2, and Torchlight 2, I see a real desire from that community for the grind. This is an interesting revelation, specifically because so many games try their hardest to remove the grind from a game or hide it behind innovative game mechanics. But what if we all really want to grind? Those release of dopamine are something are bodies crave, even if we don’t realize it, and despite all our protesting maybe we all enjoy a little grinding now and again. It is important for us to achieve some modicum of self-awareness in our playing of video games, and the gear-grind found in so many of these games is one of the most obvious way for us to see the psychological effect games have on us. I’m not for a second saying this is a bad thing, nor will it corrupt the children of the next generation, cause untold social problems, or even lead to laziness. Hell, I had one of the best semesters of my education during the time I was playing World of Warcraft at the most hardcore level I ever played.

Loot drops and the psychology behind them are simply a link between our physiology and our love of gaming. Know it, understand it, and love it. I’ll always stand by the statement that there is no wrong way to play a game (except playing peach in Smash Bros. Brawl. Just…no), and so if you want to grind for hours to acquire the greatest of all loot drops, the epic Time Lost Proto-Drake (That name is there for a reason. I swear Blizzard is clever), go for it. Next time someone tells you the grind is a bad thing, maybe you should think twice about that. You never know when you might find that next rare drop…

[You can find more of Dr. Jamie Madigan’s work on Psychology and Gaming at his website]

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]Born in Maine, Educated in Canada, and forged on the Internet, Jacob is a proud gamer, unabashed nerd and writer. He received his degree in Classics from Mount Allison university and his love of stories and their meaning from countless hours reading Homer, playing old school RPG’s and studying Joseph Cambell. His one rule to live by? “Always dress as if you were going to give a speech.”[/author_info] [/author]