wow_scales.jpg[Continuing his regular look at game-related psychology issues, Jamie Madigan examines what studies of fairness in the workplace can tell us about how people react to "nerfing" in MMOs]

Most of us have been in a situation where we feel that we’ve gotten the short end of a pointy stick. Maybe we were booted from a game server, banned from a message board, or had our favorite MMO game character weakened by a patch in such a way that left us shaking our tiny fists at the injustice of it and vowing that we’ll show them, we’ll show them all. And maybe other times the same exact things have happened but we've able to just sigh and say, "Well, that sucks, but looking back I can see why they did it," and move on.

Such differing ideas of what constitute "fair" treatment given identical outcomes have long been in the interest of psychologists, particularly those studying justice in the workplace. The research started in the '60s by examining what people considered fair pay and distribution of other rewards relative to inputs like work, time, and nice bottles of scotch. Since then, though, the field has expanded to include the fairness of the process by which decisions are made, and several "procedural justice" rules to live by in order to create procedural justice have been discovered.

In addition to some applications in consumer psychology of pricing fairness, most of this research has been done in the context of the workplace, specifically trying to understand fairness perceptions of compensation, performance appraisal, and hiring decisions. For example, some jughead named Madigan identified several sure-fire ways in which you could mistreat job applicants during the interview process in order to make them hate you and think that the whole thing was unfair. Or, if you preferred, you could NOT do these things and better the odds that people feel treated fairly. Your choice!

It occurs to me that these same rules apply to the perceived fairness of "nerfing" in MMOs -- that is, when the efficacy of a class, ability, or any other part of a game is toned down. It is not hard to find people complaining about a given nerf and calling it unfair. But fairness is not an objective state like having an elevated heart rate being on fire. It's a judgment made by squishy human brains, and as such it's susceptible to molding by perceptions and how information is presented or framed.

Below are a few lessons from fairness in the world of work that developers and community managers should keep in mind when putting together the patch notes on any big nerfs. I've even included relevant quotes from World of Warcraft players on the official Blizzard boards for the sake of illustration. (Which isn't to say I think Blizzard is doing a bad job in this regard. You'll never make all the people happy all the time, and with 15 bajillion players it's not hard to find a few disgruntled ones to quote.)

Voice and Participation

"We all know that the community was asking to nerf warriors right? No not really. Almost no one asked that."

One of the clearest and most reliable procedural justice rules is providing those affected by a decision a chance to voice their opinions. This is one reason job applicants tend to think less structured, open-ended interviews containing questions like "Why are you qualified for this job?" are more fair -- they give you more of a chance to participate in the process and influence the decision relative to tightly structured interviews that ask the same (often technical) questions of all candidates.

Likewise, developers who solicit and acknowledge input from players make things seem more fair. You don't even have to take their advice; just listening to it helps. Of course, if you DO happen to hear something useful and act on it, it's always good to point that out, too.


"It has always been this way... random nerf here, random buff there, suprise nerf there, odd buff there. ... Just the rollercoaster of WoW and the whims of the class designer and his buddies."

This one is kind of a no-brainer. Being consistent in your decisions helps them seem fair, even in the absence of bias. For example, research has shown that people tend to see subjecting ALL job applicants to drug testing as more fair than random testing. Likewise, efforts made to show consistent application of a guiding design philosophy or goals should combat perceptions of unfairness.


"I often find myself scratching my head at the decisions that get made about how/why to nerf and buff various classes. I chalk it up to I don't have all the data, the Developers at Blizzard do. ... I will admit that some of the changes they make are just completely baffling to me however."

Some researchers have posited that job applicants feel that more simulation-based tests (like disassembling an actual pump or troubleshooting real computer code) are more fair tests of ability than abstract tests (like paper and pencil tests of personality) because it's easier to draw a straight line from their performance to the hiring decision.

Likewise, players want to see a direct line between the decision to nerf or buff a certain class and the performance of that class in the game. To the extent that they can see the data and understand the goals of the change, they'll see it as more fair. Show them the math.

Freedom From Bias

"Being regularly nerfed with no warning or explanation (not that the nerfs aren't needed sometimes) is one of the main parts of the Warlock class... Shamans don't usually get many changes. Mage, DK, Warrior and Druid changes I'd guess are the ones that get more blue posts."

People generally don't like it when decisions are made based on extraneous factors unrelated to the goals of the decision. In employment we call that "discrimination." In WoW, they call it "you guys hate my class." Again, some context usually helps, as does showing some kind of big picture or master plan.

Recourse for Bad Decisions

"Ah but therein lies the challenge. You have to prove what Blizzard is obligated to do. And I'm sorry to say, but gameplay/content changing isn't something Blizzard is obligated NOT to do..."

People like to feel that if they disagree with the way a decision was made, they have some formal way of protesting it or asking for it to be reconsidered beyond sitting in a shack in the middle of Montana and banging out angry missives on an old IBM typewriter. Even something as simple as a survey, a poll, or a procedure for voicing displeasure to a class representative in the community can help. Again, you don't have to actually overturn the decision if it's the right one (and lord knows developers usually have a lot more data or a broader view than players), but just giving people a chance to appeal it helps.

So there you go. Some of you may be thinking "Well, duh," but that's kind of the point -- these are somewhat obvious, but a lot of time it's amazing how much work and playtesting and engineering will go into devising a patch, but how relatively little work will go into communicating the process by which those decisions were made.

Anyone else got other fairness rules to follow they want to share in the comments, or examples of these they want to share?


Adams, J.S. (1965). Inequity in social exchange. Advanced Experimental Social Psychology, 62 335-343.
Latham, G. P. & Finnegan, B. (1993). Perceived practicality of unstructured, patterned, and situational interviews. In Schuler, H., Farr, J.L., & Smith, M. (Eds.) Personnel Selection and Assessment. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Madigan, Jamie and Macan, Therese. (2005). Improving Applicant Reactions by Altering Test Administration. Applied H.R.M. Research, 10(2), 73-88.
Murphy, K.R. (1986). When your top choice turns you down: Effect of rejected offers on the utility of selection tests. Psychological Bulletin, 99, 133-138.
Smither, J.W., Reilly, R.R., Millsap, R.E., Pearlman, K., and Stoffey, R.W. (1993). Applicant reactions to selection procedures. Personnel Psychology, 46, 49-76.

[Jamie Madigan examines the overlap of psychology and video games at and for GamePro magazine. He can be reached at]