The chocolate factory.

In this tentative series, I'm going to explore how videogames and particularly online social/multiplayer ones are both better and worse than we like to think. It doesn't start from a joyous place, and I can't guarantee the end will be a happy one either, but I'm not here to sell ad space, so live with it.


Metaphorically and not, the 'civilized' world is sinking in its own waste, and trying to keep its collective nose above the stench by slurping the goop faster than it excretes it — you'll thank me for that image later. Wherever people aren't saturated by pointless crap, they're short of essentials, while a few places such as the US of A manage the incredible feat of routinely combining both, overfeeding toxic slurry to their poorest until their brains melt whilst their bodies inflate, until they can't afford even the most basic physical or mental exertion.

That was just to get the preamble out of the way, because I don't feel like making the full inventory of the many ways we are dooming ourselves. I'm sure there are many different and valid definitions of what civilization means, but a population of mindless blobs tube-fed by hyperactive stepfordian gerbils for the benefit of sociopaths most likely doesn't meet your standards more than it does mine. If we can agree on that, let's move on.


What I really want to talk about here is videogames, and most specifically MMOs, but not only. I'll use games because they're part of the question, and because that's a convenient vehicle for me — if the notional "10k hours of practice makes you proficient in any given trade" holds any truth to it, I'm probably some kind of 3rd dan black belt in gameology.

Here's my problem : I do love games, making and playing them, it's been a large part of my childhood, as is likely true of you too, reader, and an even larger part of my adult life, and yet I don't feel so good about that, lately. 
Designing and playing simulation, strategy, RPG and action games, on tables and on screens, has shaped my outlook on most things, from personal relationships to politics and from work ethics to parenting. On the balance, games have done me more good than harm, by a wide margin, and I count myself lucky for the help gaming and game making have been in turning me into slightly less shit of a person over the years.

Because of this, I find myself with a bit of a conundrum : when I look at what's on offer these days, at what's most likely to end up on people's phones, tablets and computer screens, I can't help but feel slightly uneasy advocating the idea videogaming is not junk food for thought, because in truth, it mostly is.
This is an apt comparison, too, because what makes junk food junk food is not that it's pizza, or meat sandwiches, or fizzy cold drinks, it's that it's those things, only made from the cheapest, most addictive and fattening, sugary, yet least nutritive crap the companies can find, with a single objective : leave you hungry and craving for more, no matter how much you gorge yourself.

In that regard, MMOs stand out as the worst culprits among videogames, because most of them are predicated on exploiting your frustration. Much like fast food, they need to offer something reasonably attractive to get you through the door, then keep you wanting for just a little more so that you stay and pay rent (subscriptions), or shell out for extras (Freemium). 


I could make the easy and common comparison with crack or meth instead of food, for sure, but it really wouldn't be an apt analogy. The worst aspect of the whole affair is this : food and games are not unmitigated evils, they're essentials, and when done right they can play a big part in making our lives better.
If crack cocaine is a nasty virus, essentially sprawling death incarnate, games are the gut bacteria that help you process stuff (otherwise wasted or toxic), unless the wrong sort of bacteria start to proliferate in your system, and things go bad.
Metaphor overload yet ? Me too ; let's back it one step and stick to the food-games thingie.

We're omnivorous apes, and there is an argument that it's been a defining trait throughout our history, for not only did it allow our ancestors to colonize environments otherwise inhospitable, hadn't they been adventurous enough about what constitutes food, but it also favored the quick and smart learners, and contributed to boost our specific inference engine. Our weird regimen also led us to develop technologies like food making, which paved the way for chemistry, pharmacology and in the arts and aesthetics department, at least in places, cuisine.

Many other animals play, among them all mammals (afaik), at least in their young age. 
Playing is a low-cost way of learning basic skills and behavioral rules, of socializing and honing one's abilities. Those individuals who are more eager to play are more likely to end up 'good at life', and thus most of their descendants (that's us) are primed to be aroused by preset signals, when it comes to food and play.
The more is known about us as a species, the easier it gets to exploit these traits — once evolved to keep us alive and fit — to now trick us into doing stuff that isn't beneficial but in the shortest term, like scratching itches purposefully designed to get slightly worse every time we touch them. 
Much of business, economy, and culture presently revolves not around the satisfaction of needs and urges elicited by our accidental and environmental circumstances, but around engineering the precise type of frustration or anguish that will trigger our feel of want for a designated object.

So what ? Everybody does it.

True, and if you agreed on the premise that our world is turning to crap because we've made churning and eating shit a competitive pastime, you may feel a little uneasy about that.
Games are a special case among other mass market artefacts because they're powerful behavior prescriptors, and because playing is nearly as integral to our condition as eating. We simply can't go (far) without eating and playing, and what we choose (and get) to eat and play affects our sanity and capacities, among other things.

In a weird fit of mental acrobatics seldom observed outside tea-party rallies, the same gamers and game makers who will tell you how big of a deal gaming is in their life and world outlook will simultaneously and reflexively dismiss the potency of games as mind-altering devices of any harmful consequence, which is at the very best oxymoronic.
My contention is that, for better and worse, videogames are more powerful magic than the industry cares to admit, and that game designers have no excuse for their shirking the corollary duty to use this power responsibly — which doesn't entail being defensive, nor knee-jerk over anything controversial.

On a brighter note, the more we know about games and how to make them, the more good they can potentially do. If TV, the titular village idiot in the popular fiction family has finally managed to bring us stuff worth watching voluntarily in the last two decades, I want to believe videogames are not cursed to eternal mediocrity, and MMOs can aspire to better things than making professional human traffickers feel woefully inadequate at ruining people's lives.

Inevitably, I'll be talking about stuff that will rub some friends the wrong way, because of unpleasant things to contemplate, and also because Jack Thompson, but it's all for the children, and also the worthy cause of feeling OK with what you do.

Speaking of which, next episode is about how videogames really cause mass shootings, and stuff. 
Nah, just kidding — almost.


[Sorry, no pretty pics on this wall'o'text : I suck at iconography, plus I don't have the time for it. Suggestions are welcome however, and I'll update the article if warranted.] 


Psychochild said...

I think you make two fundamental mistakes with your theory.

1. Eating has some significant differences from playing games. We understand human physiology more than we understand human psychology. We are learning how much sugar, salt, sodium, etc. the human body should be given, and know that giving more than that can be dangerous. We also know that the body tends to crave these things for various reasons, so adding them makes people want them more. However, we're still very much learning, and if you pay attention to food trends in the past few decades you'll see a variety of conflicting information. I've read some articles that have said the "all fat is bad" mantra might be part of the cause of the obesity epidemic, because fat is one of the things that helps your body feel sated when eating.

So, what are the elements of a game that can be compared to these food additives? How much is "too much" for an average person? Does individual psychology vary enough making universal guidelines pointless? I think we need to understand psychology better before we start getting in a panic about "good play" vs. "bad play".

2. I think that just because games can have positive psychological effects it doesn't follow that games must have negative psychological effects as well. It's like saying that because doing crossword puzzles increase your memory and vocabulary, they must also have some sort of negative effects on your brain functions as well.

Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun posits that gamers see the pattern behind the presentation in a game. This is why we can have benefits (better pattern recognition, better critical thinking, better reactions) without having negative effects (seeing someone get shot in a game doesn't lead people to want to shoot people outside the context of the game, because a gamer really doesn't see it as "someone getting shot").

That said, I think that there are some things we need to pay attention to. I think there is some exploitation of player psychology in how games are presented. However, I think these are part of a larger issue with how society exploits flaws in human psychology. Frankly, I'm more concerned about how the advertising industry uses these techniques rather than thinking we need to bring games to heel first and foremost.

My thoughts.

AcD said...

Flattery will get you nowhere, this thing doesn't even qualify as a theory yet — it's in the earnest half-baked pie skeet shooting stage. :)
Just try and go with the assumption I'm not on the warpath against gaming as a business or a hobby, I'm just looking at the nasty bits to see if they could be reworked into something beneficial.

1. Look for the pattern behind the presentation. ;)
The business of supplying attractively packaged food experiences seems an interesting analogy to that of videogaming because they both harness and repurpose some similar and deeply-ingrained reflexes and behaviors in the pursuit of release or enjoyment. Also food and games are both essentially beneficial unless done really wrong.

I wouldn't expect a 1-for-1 mapping here, and I'd worry about my own faculties if it seemed to translate 100%, considering. It's a brainstorming device, meant to fire up your inference engine, and the metaphor is just as useful in how it breaks than in where it sticks, if you're willing to allow it.

Now, if the urge to expose it for a pocket of hot air is so strong that you must insist this observation balloon be grounded on account of its unproven flightworthiness, all I can say is yes, I just used a metaphor to describe my use of an analogy. There's a pun in there somewhere about it being too soon to have a serene conversation about guns, but I don't want to cause more panic just yet.

2. That's cool, I don't think I argued that, either.
I stated (and that's a non-bulletproof working assumption) that games have the potential to be mind and worldview altering, for better or worse. I don't think I implied all positive things (whatever that means) must have a negative counterpart, rather I meant than anything that has the ability to affect a system in complex ways may yield unforeseen and/or unwanted consequences.
Just for kicks, I'll suggest overplay of crosswords might induce a teleological cognitive bias.

Raph Koster is a smart, talented an richly experienced agent in this field, and he makes interesting assumptions ; I also suspect he's a fairly decent human being, and that won't help him to find anything but what he's looking for, like pretty much everybody in soft sciences, yrs truly included.
Lucky we don't all look at stuff coming from the same place, no ?

Re : larger issue of institutionalized mindfuckerry. There's that, and overfishing also, can't be on all things at all times…
Also, call me reluctantly idealistic, but I'm of the mind the subculture of game making is more fertile ground for a productive discussion about ethics than the ostentatiously cynical and greed-defined world of advertising.
If you want ethics in advertising, that's a matter of legislation, not of self-mandated sense of responsibility/purpose.

Psychochild said...

I meant "theory" in the non-scientific sense, if that makes you feel better. ;)

Again, I think there are some fundamental differences between food and games that taint the metaphor. As far as I know, there are few people working at game developers who fulfill the same function as the scientists finding the "bliss point" to how much sugar to add or creating "custom sodium" to sell stuff better. The only way most game designers think about getting you to play more games is to make fun games, not to get you psychologically "addicted".

The closest you might get is the metrics-focused designers who evaluate player behavior and optimize that without paying attention to how it impacts the players. This was prevalent in social games, but we see that most social game companies aren't doing so well, so they didn't stumble upon the golden key that opens players wallets eternally. And, even then I say that getting someone to pay for a game they enjoy playing is a world apart from getting people physiologically hooked on eating masses of sugar, salt, and fats to increase profits.

And, you did argue that games have to have negative consequences if they have positive ones, to quote: "...the same gamers and game makers who will tell you how big of a deal gaming is in their life and world outlook will simultaneously and reflexively dismiss the potency of games as mind-altering devices of any harmful consequence, which is at the very best oxymoronic." Unless you meant "oxymoronic" in a positive context. :P

It is entirely possible to have games that have a positive effect on you while not having "harmful consequences". I don't think it's an oxymoron to consider something can have positive consequences while rejecting that it therefore necessarily has negative consequences. And dragging out egghead terms like "teleological cognitive bias" doesn't show harm, unless you're trying to admit that doing too many crossword puzzles has ruined your ability to talk to normal humans. ;)

As for "institutionalized mindfuckery", I think what happens in games in this area is peripheral to the art of game design. Looking at that article talking about junk food, read again how one company saw an increase in profits by abusing the "healthy" reputation of yogurt while packing it full of sugar to make it sell well and make huge profits. That's directly exploiting human psychology and abusing human physiology on a scale that worrying about whatever psychological flaws a game designer (probably accidentally) exploits feel quaint. Like trying to have someone take care of a splinter in their finger when their femoral artery is cut wide open and their life blood is draining out.

You said yourself this article didn't come from a good place. And, yeah, I understand the reluctance to tilt at windmills to no profit. However, I think if you're worried about the larger issues you should absolutely start tackling them. But, to point at game design and try to shame someone for making a game more fun seems like a misplaced sense of priorities.

This is my opinion, and obviously I have my own biases being a professional game designer. I think that ethics in game design are an important thing, as I wrote an article to that effect on my blog. But, I'd caution trying to see monsters in game designs where the worst you'll likely find are stains we really should take care of.

Of course, I don't speak for all designers, so I think there's still some use to you posting other articles in this series. Just be ready for me to shine a light on your logic. ;)