I discovered this excellent article on the psychology of loot over at Games Radar. Here's the short story for you, but I highly recommend you read the whole article for yourself. It shines a frightening light on what really motivates us to sink hundreds of ours into an RPG.
"For a lot of players, the motivation to grind for loot comes down to what psychologists call operant conditioning. This is the learning technique made famous by American psychologist BF Skinner and his eponymous boxes during the early to middle part of the 20th century. Skinner showed that he could take an animal and teach it to perform a certain action by putting it in a box and giving it something enjoyable or taking away something unpleasant as a reward (technically, taking away something unpleasant is termed a negative reinforcement, but we need not get hung up on terminology). With these boxes, Skinner could teach a rat to press a lever whenever it saw a light, and even teach pigeons to play table tennis.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘Skinner box’ has become widely used in game design terminology, employed with varying levels of distaste. Every dungeon in Diablo III is like a Skinner box, in that players will roam through it looking for a lever to press in the form of an elite enemy or a treasure chest, both of which usually reward them with loot. Operant conditioning creates habits by creating what psychologists call a compulsion loop. You see a cue (a lever or an elite monster), you engage in a behaviour you know will get a reward (press the lever or attack the monster), you get the reward (a tasty treat or an amazing new sword). The reward then reinforces the search for the cue again in the environment, which starts the cycle over. Of course, humans are possessed of brains that can override this kind of classical conditioning, but habits can be hard to break – especially if you’re enjoying them."
"Players often react to seeing epic loot or cosmetic touches on others with immediate, stark envy. Psychologists have studied envy and its role in motivation to perform tasks, and many of their findings are applicable to our love of loot."
"Benign envy can motivate us to seek out items other players have, but does so by helping us reevaluate ourselves as more competent."
See you tomorrow!