The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'addiction'
If you've ever found yourself compelled to keep playing a video game, despite realising that you're not actually enjoying it, you may have been a victim of the Behaviourist conditioning techniques game designers use to get people hooked. Video game designers are applying Skinnerian techniques of behaviour reinforcement to compel players to keep playing, to get hooked early, and to invest more time (and often money) into levelling up. (And playing a game does not necessarily equal enjoying it; the stimulus of getting unpredictable rewards, and the fear of losing one's carefully built-up progress, are sufficient to compel one, even if they might otherwise have preferred to do something else.)
His theories are based around the work of BF Skinner, who discovered you could control behavior by training subjects with simple stimulus and reward. He invented the "Skinner Box," a cage containing a small animal that, for instance, presses a lever to get food pellets. Now, I'm not saying this guy at Microsoft sees gamers as a bunch of rats in a Skinner box. I'm just saying that he illustrates his theory of game design using pictures of rats in a Skinner box. This sort of thing caused games researcher Nick Yee to once call Everquest a "Virtual Skinner Box."
First, set up the "pellets" so that they come fast at first, and then slower and slower as time goes on. This is why they make it very easy to earn rewards (or level up) in the beginning of an MMO, but then the time and effort between levels increases exponentially. Once the gamer has experienced the rush of leveling up early, the delayed gratification actually increases the pleasure of the later levels. That video game behavior expert at Microsoft found that gamers play more and more frantically as they approach a new level.Behaviourist game design techniques are becoming more prevalent in the age of online games, where the maker's revenue comes not from once-off purchases but from time (and money) spent in the course of playing the game; hence, game designers have to get their players hooked before the other guy comes along and milks them. And milking is perhaps an apt metaphor, given that one of the leading examples of this sort of game design is the Facebook game FarmVille, which, by all accounts is more of a socially conditioned obligation than a ludic activity:
Farmville is not a good game. While Caillois tells us that games offer a break from responsibility and routine, Farmville is defined by responsibility and routine. Users advance through the game by harvesting crops at scheduled intervals; if you plant a field of pumpkins at noon, for example, you must return to harvest at eight o’clock that evening or risk losing the crop. Each pumpkin costs thirty coins and occupies one square of your farm, so if you own a fourteen by fourteen farm a field of pumpkins costs nearly six thousand coins to plant. Planting requires the user to click on each square three times: once to harvest the previous crop, once to re-plow the square of land, and once to plant the new seeds. This means that a fourteen by fourteen plot of land—which is relatively small for Farmville—takes almost six hundred mouse-clicks to farm, and obligates you to return in a few hours to do it again. This doesn’t sound like much fun, Mr. Caillois. Why would anyone do this?
The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because in entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each others’ farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies. As the French sociologist Marcel Mauss tells us, gifts are never free: they bind the giver and receiver in a loop of reciprocity. It is rude to refuse a gift, and ruder still to not return the kindness. We play Farmville, then, because we are trying to be good to one another. We play Farmville because we are polite, cultivated people.Here's more about FarmVille's use of the Cialdini reciprocity principle, as beloved of grifters. Meanwhile, other gaming companies are using other techniques to keep the marks coming back, like taking advantage of players' loss aversion ("your account is now flagged to have your characters below level 20 deleted as part of maintenance. Please re-activate your account now to ensure that your characters progress and names stay intact").
On a tangent, there is a blog titled The Psychology of Games; some of its content has to do with psychological manipulation techniques to control and monetise gamers, though it also covers examples of game theory (in the Prisoner's Dilemma sense) in games, psychoeconomics, the enjoyment of gaming as an activity, and, indeed, a wealth of psychological phenomena as illustrated through video gaming.
A piece by online communication expert Suw Charman-Anderson about how and why email is so dangerous to getting things done:
In a study last year, Dr Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University, England, found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption by email (bit.ly/email2). So people who check their email every five minutes waste 8 1/2hours a week figuring out what they were doing moments before.The distractive (and some would say destructive) effects of email come down partly to the psychology of addiction and reinforcement:
Tom Stafford, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield, England, and co-author of the book Mind Hacks, believes that the same fundamental learning mechanisms that drive gambling addicts are also at work in email users. "Both slot machines and email follow something called a 'variable interval reinforcement schedule' which has been established as the way to train in the strongest habits," he says.
"This means that rather than reward an action every time it is performed, you reward it sometimes, but not in a predictable way. So with email, usually when I check it there is nothing interesting, but every so often there's something wonderful - an invite out or maybe some juicy gossip - and I get a reward." This is enough to make it difficult for us to resist checking email, even when we've only just looked. The obvious solution is to process email in batches, but this is difficult. One company delayed delivery by five minutes, but had so many complaints that they had to revert to instantaneous delivery. People knew that there were emails there and chafed at the bit to get hold of them.Things like weekly "no email days" don't work either, because they don't actually change people's compulsive email-checking habits. Charman-Anderson's article recommends other notification technologies, such as Twitter and RSS aggregators, as better alternatives.
On a similar tangent, one of the tips for getting more done in Tim Ferriss' The 4-Hour Work Week is a somewhat counterintuitive-sounding low-information diet; rather than binging on magazines, news, books, blogs, podcasts and such, he advocates cutting that out as much as possible, reasoning that we can get by on much less information than we habitually consume and still know enough, whilst having more time to actually do things. The holes in what we know will soon enough be filled by what we hear in smalltalk, learn from friends unavoidably see in front of the newspaper kiosk on the way to the shops. (Which sort of makes sense; think, for example, of the how much you know of the plots of various well-known movies you haven't seen or books you haven't read. Whether or not you've seen Star Wars or read Animal Farm (to cite two examples), you can probably come up with a summary of what they're about.)