Nocturnal Ruminations: The Anthropology of Loot (republished from an older site)

09 Nov

Jamie Madigan of offers an examination of the role of dopamine and the chemical psychological responses on which loot in gaming draws.  According to the sources used by Madigan, we discover that goal oriented behavior appears to influence the release of dopamine that makes our “brain cells that are sensitive to this chemical go bananas as its presence” (Madigan 2011), generating a sense of pleasure and satisfaction.  Drawing from that concept, it should be noted that in Madigan’s example from Schultz, we find that merelypresenting a monkey with a piece of desired fruit induces the release of this chemical.  Further testing including a Pavlovian style conditioning of the primates to which the monkeys began responding in the same fashion (Madigan 2011) as Pavlov’s dogs!

Madigan offers next the evolutionary perspective from Stefan Klein in his work, The Science of Happiness. It is presented that, as the mind is sensitive to patterns and  it is dopamine that provides us a chemical thrill for the perception of a correct decision, equivalent rewards become a “dull spatter” in comparison to even a marginal upgrade that causes neurons to fire anew (Klein [Madigan] 2011). The logical construction of the above written is that the anticipation of personal gain, no matter how trivial or tangible, is the point at which the thrill begins.  Upon receipt of the upgrade, the player is euphoric, and the anticipation begins anew.  Designers know this and manipulate it accordingly, keeping people coming back to persistent worlds or tables around the world (Madigan 2011).  The above is eerily reminiscent of the Thomas Theorem from the sociological discipline: “things that we perceive as real become so in their consequences.”

I present the above as part of my ongoing discussion of the topic of loot, or gear, or rewards, or whatever you would like to call it.  Whereas Madigan’s article focuses on the psychological magic behind the concept of rewards (thereby creating the biologic and psychologic base of this essay), I intend to examine this issue from an anthropological perspective.  Granted, this is mostly application of theory in response to the aforementioned article, my own reflexive perceptions and experiences with gaming, and the economy of rewards.  Inasmuch as rewards are the fruit, they are also imbued with further meaning within the immersive world as that world’svirtual material culture.  As such, these items are a part of identity and the generative structure therein, providing a curious problem when it comes to meaningful interactive fiction.

Is it really material culture when I can only see it on a screen?

Material culture is a concept linked directly to social sciences and history.  According to a UNESCO report about heritage protection from 1976, material culture is cultural property that constructs a “basic element of people’s identity,” where “being depends on having” (Colloredo-Mansfield 2003).  Think of going to a local grocery store, or back to high school, for example.  In any given store, you’ll run into people wearing brand name clothing with colorful and bright brand marks, people that dress in pajamas and an old tee shirt, or someone wearing a large amount of jewelry.  In all cases, we perceive these people based on the assumptions we make about the material culture they are wearing.  To which I ask, “What then is different about an MMO or RPG?”

Gear comprises an aspect of a person’s extension into the game.  It signifies just as well as level the relative ability, power, and preferred playing style of the player, defining them as “paladin,” or “PvPer,” or “in a shit guild.”  While obviously this a fictive identity construction, the player is influenced into obtaining rewards that allow them to play in the manner they see fit or demonstrate their accomplishments to other avatars.  In this vein, gear is virtual material culture, allowing a player to exemplify their class, their character’s faction allegiance, and their in-game status (paragon of holy power for the D&D paladin; forefront raider or PvPer; or character concept).

Identity and gear

Identity is a fluid and relative thing, negotiated and brokered in a variety of fashions across multiple constructions depending upon those for whom the agent will be performing (Bourdieu 1977; Giddens 1984).  Using the 800 pound gorilla in the room, World of Warcraft is a great example of where this is common (but it is not merely limited here, mind you).  At character creation, a player selects a faction to which their avatar belongs, a race within that faction, a class within the confines of that race from which their role will be determined, the play style in which they wish to be involved, and they start at level 1.  These factors begin the construction of that avatar’s identity (there is more that can be written about multiple avatars that have specified roles): level, faction, race, class, role, and gear.

In this model, there are only two avenues through which character development occurs: leveling and gear procurement.  At this time, gear procurement is more an ephemeral function of the leveling process than an end. When the leveling avenue of character development comes to a close at the level cap, one can expect to see the beginning evolution of the expression of identity.  Fully decked in gear gathered through crafting, dungeoneering, or questing accomplishment, the character “progresses” forward by further acquisition of items that prepare them for “heroic” dungeons, raids, or PvP, while they’ve been further collecting gear that defines their nuanced perception of that avatar’s personality.

If Mr Doucet (see my first entry) is correct in his assessment that loot has been primarily used as a means of character development, then gear invariably becomes the only mechanical means of identity expression in World of Warcraft and another games.   When another player sees the avatar of an accomplished raider in the game, they know it from the color and even the tooltip of the item.  This demonstrates the player’s acumenthrough the avatar to complete tasks, optimize their actions, and reflect a sense of their virtual power all through pixelated representations on the screen.  Yet, this may only be one of a number of identities that gear demonstrates.

As identities are fluid, they may change over the course of one day dependent upon the social setting into which they are going (Wilkie 2000).  So too is this reflected in World of Warcraft.  Using that fully equipped character from the previous paragraph, we may yet see that individual quickly shift into their “other” gear set to fill another role within their unit.  While the appearance may be similar, one notes that the colors are different and the tooltip shows that the pieces are weaker than their “main” set.  Further, they may have only the worst gear from the last season of the Arena, proving that player versus player is a skill at which they lack proficiency or the desire to become “the best.” If they involve themselves in role play, the character’s gear slots may not even be filled!  They may only be cosmetically demonstrating their avatar’s personality, personal taste in fashion, and societal role through this selection alone.

The identity of the player as defined through the fish-eyed lens of the avatar reflects Beaudry et al.’s (1991) summarization of the relationship between social context and material culture, wherein they write that:

“Attention to historical and cultural context allows human beings an active role in creating meaning and in shaping their world around them; they are seen to interact with their environment, rather than react to it.  Material culture is viewed as a medium of communication and expression that can condition and at times control social action.” (153).

Nowhere in the gaming world has this been ever more expressed than in RPGs.  Tabletop imaginative games, science fiction/fantasy literature, persistent online video games, and even single player RPGs have made their billing off that above concept alone whether they would like to admit it or not.  Just think of the representation of magic users from Gandalf to Elminster!  Because of the emphasis on gear in RPGs as the central element of character development, games often lose their narrative voice, game mechanics, and generally playability as the game or game master attempts to offer more rewards (or the anticipation thereof).  In my opinion, interactive fiction cannot exist or attempt to offer meaningful narrative, if all the character is after is the next piece of loot.

Interactive fiction and gear.

Like its counterparts prose fiction and improvisation acting, interactive fiction works best when it is a reflection of the world in we as the players live.  In doing so, this allows the game or game master to present meaningful themes and narratives through which the player can explore their character’s identities and construct them through their own plan and reactions to events.  This means that the character must be provided with more avenues through which they can grow or regress, and adapt or remain static.  The disparity between the more realistic means of character development (personality, identity, choice, &c) and how current games tend to represent this is problematic in that it focuses solely on constructing the character’s identity through tools.

In the end, that is all gear is.  While a tool is an important thing, it is used by the hand of the person wielding it. To develop a character through their clothes, their tools, or their possessions should be akin to judging an individual for the clothes they wear or how they look.  Meaningful development cannot occur when this is the current paradigm, as it fails to construct a meaningful context without attribution to the game mechanics.  The game should define how the tools work for the character and for what purpose they are meant rather than the other way around.  Then again, I do feel like wrenching today.


Beaudry, Mary C., Lauren J Cook, and Stephen A Mrozowski. 1991. Artifacts and Active Voices: Material Culture as Social Discourse.  In The Archaeology of Inequality, edited R. H. McGuire and R. Paytner, 150-191. Oxford: Blackwell.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Colloredo-Mansfeld, Rudi. 2003. Introduction: Matter Unbound. In Journal of Material Culture8. 

Giddens, Anthony. 1984 The Constitution of Society. Berkeley: University California Press.

Madigan, Jamie. 2011. The Psychology of Loot. In Gamepro Magazine.

Klein, Stefan through Madigan 2011.

Wilkie, Laurie A. 2000. Creating Freedom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.


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