From Chapter 8 of The Fix, which is entitled “Gambling, the new Gaming”. If you wondered why it was so hard to tear yourself away from your “harmless” computer game, here are some clues:
It isn’t just children who are getting trapped in cyberspace. Increasingly, we’re taking our toys with us into adulthood. Like those fun cognitive-enhancing drugs, social technol- ogy is meddling with the boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘play’. Where previously a service like Twitter, which is essentially a chat application like the MSN Messenger of the 1990s, would have been regarded as a social plaything, it’s now part of the professional arsenal of communi- cative tools – sometimes even replacing email as a primary means of communication in the office.
But Twitter is different from email in important ways. Like other ‘web 2.0’ products of the past decade, it is becoming increasingly ‘gamified’, as product companies pick up tips from gaming engineers about how to keep people hooked on their services. Your old email client was never designed to keep you in it for as long as possible, but Twitter is.
And consider Foursquare, an application that lets you ‘check in’ to real world venues to let your friends know where you are at any given moment. (Mysteriously, the need to check in is felt most strongly by users when they are eating in a swanky restaurant or arriving in an exotic foreign city.) Foursquare awards ‘badges’ for various levels of accomplishments – ‘achievements’, they’re called – using language and user interface elements that are plucked straight from a video game.
Applications developers look to social gaming companies such as Zynga in San Francisco for tips when building their products, because they know that the games its engineers create are among the most addictive experiences on the internet.
One of the ways developers such as Zynga keep people hooked is with ‘design cues’, elements of the user interface that signal some sort of reward. These get people excited and, like other addictive cues, generate dopamine.
In the case of Zynga’s FarmVille, players receive visual hits every time they accomplish a task: for example, when they water or harvest a square of crops, they’re treated to a short animation and cutesy sound effect. And as they watch the gold coins they’ve earned from growing and selling pile up in their virtual handbags, and are also rewarded for their actions with the pleasing ‘whoosh’ sound, they’re encouraged to repeat those actions.
What’s interesting is that such actions should be ‘rewarded’ at all. People who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorders rarely derive any reward from them, but in this case meaningless, repetitive OCD-style actions are encouraged rather than frowned upon. It’s not by accident that these pieces of software deluge the user with little fixes of social reinforcement and ego massage.
Significantly, these tricks are being picked up by non-gaming soft- ware companies. Modern applications are engineered to provide dozens of little hits per hour: the modern computer is becoming over- loaded with intrusive notifications from Skype, Twitter, email, Facebook and any other software with a communication component. There’s a piece of software for Macintosh computers called Growl that was specifically designed to streamline the various notifications. In practice, it’s almost as invasive as the higgledy-piggledy world of indi- vidual notifications: it showers dozens of translucent rectangles across the screen every time a programme wants your attention. Infuriating, you might think. But the people who install Growl welcome the distraction. It makes them feel needed – and if the stream of notifica- tions slows down they wonder why.
The user interfaces of applications that perform perfunctory office functions are beginning to resemble dashboards. Apple’s OS X actually has a dashboard. The Dock, from which applications can be launched, has red status indicators – which are there to tell you, for example, that you have unread email. They are lifted directly from the video games of the late 1990s.
The result of this crafty borrowing is that people find it ever more difficult to drag themselves away from the screen. They admit as much, even if they don’t use the word ‘addicted’. But in terms of stickiness and brain-hijacking, every operating system pales in comparison with the latest video games…
Posted in: Gaming, Tech
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