Last Thoughts on Gaming and the Ames Room

As we leave our extended section on virtual reality, gaming, and vindicating Diego Maradona, I thought I’d get some last words in on addiction to gaming. There are three types of gaming addictions. The games you’re addicted to because they’re fun, the games you’re addicted to because you want to waste time, and finally the games you’re addicted to because the game devs have designed them specifically for that task.

We’ve discussed with the Sicart article about how the designers of a game try to predict gamer behaviour:

When game designers talk about their practice, they
often say that their role is to predict player behavior,
and plot their interaction with the system in ways
that encourage the playability of the game. This
means that the rules of the game are designed with
a series of affordances and constraints, relative to
the choices given to the players, which condition the
experience of the game by its users.

I would like to violently disagree with that statement. I used to think the greatest evil in gaming was QTE (quicktime events), but ever since the introduction of the Achievements system on the XBOX (Trophies on the PS3), I’ve noticed that games have gotten a bit less enjoyable. There are two culprits at work: my OCD and the Trophies. Basically players are rewarded with trophies for completing certain acts in the game. For example, in GTA IV there are 200 pigeons hidden in obscure place around the city. You get a trophy for killing all two hundred of them. Now, on the home screen on the PS3 there is a section where you can view the percentage of trophies you’ve collected for each game, and when that percentage meter next to whatever game I’m playing is not 100%, by God I will not rest until it is.

Maybe it’s my fault for needing to complete it since the trophies are not central to gameplay. However when you look at the other games that are being pumped out today, you know the ones where you level up, there seems to be a sinister pattern. I first noticed this playing America’s Army, a multi-million dollar game developed with your parents’ tax dollars. Back in the good old days of Counter Strike, shooting people in virtual reality was about mastering a skill, and to a certain extent it still is in games like Call of Duty.

BUT, notice that orange bar on the bottom of your screen, the experience meter. You now get to level up to show the world how skilled you are at shooting pixels in the face. To be fair, you actually get something for leveling up in Call of Duty, unlike Achievements. And by something I mean a marginally useful gadget that will marginally help the process of shooting silhouettes in the face a little easier.

The even more sinister part about leveling up is that while the first levels pass relatively quickly, the latter stages require exponentially more experience points. I first noticed this when a buddy of mine told me that it takes the same amount of experience to level from 0 to 90 as it does from 90 to 100. Why would they do such a thing? So you become more frantic about leveling up, thus increasing your addiction.

This is similar to something we behavioral economists (you better believe I am) like to call “irrational escalation of commitment. Instead of leaving the game at the point of mastery, you continue performing repetitive and pointless tasks for a couple of digits. “I’m so close to level 60!” you might say, but realize that whatever effort you’ve put into mastering the game becomes sunk cost once you decide to pursue numbers instead of skill.

I may not mind this clearly unethical practice to get gamers to hook on the game as long as possible if these levels or achievements offered increasingly awesome rewards, but the fact is that they reduce gamers to lab rats. The example I like to use is the one about the rats that press the button to trigger pleasure in their brains. Once the rats opened the flood games by pressing the button the first time, they continued to press it… till they died. Like gamers in Korea.

Edit 3/26:
Sorry to add on to the already long post, but I think think this article may be of interest to some:
South Korean couple starved child while raising ‘virtual baby’

Anyway, to atone for the long post, I present to you the Ames room, where as hard as you may try, you will not be able to see past the optical illusion.

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