Saturday, June 30, 2007

Can't Stop the Craving.

This is probably the best article about video game addiction I think i've ever read. The media skews gaming so much... it's nice to see that someone who actually IS a gamer is saying something intelligent. As with anything written by a human, take it with a grain of salt. It is someone's opinion, but I think it is well-paired with fact. Pay particular attention to the theory mentioned at the end, which I thought was a quite relevant and scary thought. This hit me pretty close to home, seeing as I play World of Warcraft and other addictive computer games. Kind of makes you want to get a life.

Here's the source, in
case you wanted to read more of his stuff.

"For a bit of fun I decided to try out the new Lord of the Rings Online game yesterday - since they were giving away beta licenses for free. It's one of those massive multiplayer games in the vein of World of Warcraft - I wanted to see what it's all about. What struck me was how incredibly banal the game is. And yet - reports are starting to pile up of people becoming totally addicted. What astonished me was how compelling these games have become despite the fact the overall abysmal quality of the gaming experience (this latter claim I realise I'll need to justify at least to some extent). If the entertainment experience is as poor as I claim - what could then explain the compulsive behaviour? Could deep seated psychological drives be the source? And could their satisfaction by these means be leading to a massive retardation in the creative and emotional abilities of an entire generation? And what is an even scarier thought - could these sorts of virtual environments one day be used as new forms of political control?

As I stepped into the MMORG (massively multiplayer online role playing game) I realised very quickly of what the basic dynamic consisted. You are given a character that runs about the fictional world (which admittedly looks quite grand) - slaying monsters and completing quests. Such activities are rewarded through the provision of experience points. The accumulation of enough experience points leads to the character gaining levels which bring more hitpoints and abilities. As you gain levels, the baddies somehow happen to gain in strength also - so that it never becomes a complete walk in the park. You can go on quests as well. At the earlier levels these are fairly undaunting - such as killing wolves or delivering messages. Quests are also used to deliver plot elements. The plot itself is derived from the works of J.R.R Tolkien - as the name of the game suggests. The multiplayer element allows people to team up to help in the completion of the more difficult quests.Despite all this - progression in the game is mechanical. It's essentially a numbers game - the application of statistical probabilities drives success or failure in combat. The rate at which you attack, the chance to hit, the amount of damage done etc - are all determined by the machine. The quests themselves don't add anything to this essential gameplay experience - it's just the application of these rules to specific in game tasks - i.e. move to some location - apply statistical formulae in combat environment - return to base - get reward. In some cases you might have to perform a task like burying a body - but the game itself does this work for you - you just have to move to the right location (once the dead body is buried - it respawns so that someone else can come along and bury it - so as to complete the same quest).

There is virtually no risk at all. You can't die as such - death only causes you to be respawned at the begining of your current map. The only seeming penalty being that your morale is weakened for 10 minutes (and though they call it morale - it's just a negative adjustment on the statistical probabilities determining the fate of your character). You're allowed to just keep pushing forward endlessly - gaining levels, increasing your stats. By the end of this experience you've paid the purchase price plus a monthly subscription fee, and an enormous amount of your time - for what?

So how is it that this process of application of mathematical statistical probabilities could be so appealing? What about this banal process could possibly be addictive?

I began to read the current research on internet and gaming addiction - but found very few answers. Despite the reports of internet and gaming addiction becoming common in the mainstream media - rigorous research is moving slowly. Mostly its hampered by difficulties in the application of the concept of 'addiction' to behavioural compulsions such as a gambling and gaming. Even in clearly pathological cases of compulsive behaviour - where the compulsive behaviour completely takes over the life of the individual - it's difficult to isolate gaming itself as the cause of the problem - as opposed to simply being an effect of other deap seated psychological problems (depression, anxiety and the like). They conclude in the main that there simply isn't enough empirical data to support the claim that these games are addictive.

Of course - the empirical data is all there - locked away in the servers of the various gaming houses. Because the action all happens on computers - use patterns can recorded and studied. It's almost certain that game designers are spending a lot of effort on this, because they seek to design the system which reels in as many people as possible. Granted this data won't account for other types of psychological problems a person may have going into a gaming experience - but it will detail very minutely the cause and effect of the various gameplay elements. There is volumes of empirical data which outline just which elements of a game keep people playing for so long.

What the game designers will tell you is that it is the reward system of the game which keeps people hooked. It was vital to the success of World of Warcraft that they got this aspect right. What they did that was so successful was that they removed the impediments to character progression and reward (for example - death was taken out as a real impediment of progression - WOW was a innovator in this respect. The fact that LOTRO has adopted this feature of the MMORG is a testament to its effectiveness in keeping players hooked.

Psychologically it makes complete sense. What we are describing here is a relationship between the game and the person - not a relationship between the player and game elements (like characters or quests, etc). Reward and punishment does not take place 'in-game'. It's not the in-game character that is being rewarded - say for killing an orc. It is the player (i.e. the real human) being rewarded - for playing the game. Conversely - when a player is killed and punished for it. The psychological association that is made is not that they should avoid the orc cave where they were killed (this is what we'd do in real life) - but rather that the game itself is punishing them… for playing the game itself. This is what I mean by saying the psychological relationships created do not exist in-game. Hence, a strong punishment for failure in the game, only translates to failure and dissatisfaction with the game itself - not with the action that the character performed that caused the punishment.

What the games have managed to take advantage of then - is the basic reward mechanism built into the brain. It's worth looking at this in a little bit of detail so as to get a better undestanding of what we're dealing with here.

The brain itself has a section devoted to driving reward seeking behaviour. It's called the mesolimbic pathway. It passes through the ventral tegmental area. The ventral tegmental area, when it receives a message from the cortex informing it of reward worthy stimuli, it releases a chemical called dopamine onto the nucleus accumbens, the septum and the amygdala. We don't need to go into detail about exactly what each of these do. The key is the substance dopamine - which is well known for the role it plays in creating the sensation of pleasure. It's considered determinative in the causation of reward seeking behaviour because of the way an organism will continue to seek out that behaviour in order to continue the sensations of pleasure caused by the dopamine.

Incredibly - other organisms evolved which can either artificially stimulate the production of dopamine - or contain substances which mimic it's ability to cause pleasure. These are the addictive substances we know so well. The opium poppy for instance has an army of humans tending to it's survival - it's hold over us as a species is that astonishing.

As such it's not so much of a stretch to imagine how virtual worlds once they became good enough as simulations of reward worthy behaviour would have the same ability to cause the brain to produce dopamine - and the attendent sense of well being and pleasure.

As an explanation for the explosive growth in online gaming - it's irresistable. And I'm almost certain that in the future the science will prove it.

But by then it will have become such an ingrained aspect of our culture that there will be little that can be done about it. It's very much like the way caffeine, alchohol, nicotine and gambling became established and accepted by the people before the deleterious effects were understood. And it's almost impossible to take it away from the people - particularly in a democracy - when its the people themselves clamouring for it.

I haven't yet made the argument that it's a dangerous thing at all. But I think it follows fairly immediately from the above discussion. The evidence is accumulating to the effect that this is causing people to lose their drive to participate in the real world. And this makes sense. The human organism evolved these physiological structures to drive survival. But with virtual environments - these structures can be sated through means that in the end having nothing to do with survival. Hence the drive toward behaviour which actually enhances our life - is likely diminished.

There are of course examples where people have begun to make a living from virtual environments. The stock example here is the nascent second life community - where people are able to make a living selling virtual property, avatar designs and the like. But this is a different case which would require a separate discussion.

Finally, I would like to raise the possibility that such virtual environments could be used as a form of sophisticated political control. Since this article is already long - I won't go into a lengthy argument. But just consider - if you were a repressive regime - would you like your people spending their time being satisfied online rather than working hard against the regime itself?"

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