Addiction is a weird word: when I say it you imagine an alcoholic or drug addict with their life in tatters. What you don’t see are multi-billion dollar industries supported by this mechanism. Addiction is a process that the brain goes through. Many different behaviors are addictive, and while the most harmful examples are what we see when thinking of addiction the reality is they’re not the most profitable.
A slot machine could easily just spin the random chance of your roll as soon as you deposit a coin. Instead you pull a lever or punch a button, maybe both. This is part of a Skinner Box, also known as an operant conditioning chamber. The history of the term is that Skinner created a box and placed a subject in it to test for rate of response to variable schedules of reinforcement. This testing lead to a much firmer understanding of behavior and how to apply reinforcement. The term Skinner box is applied to lots of different practices that reward you under certain conditions.
For gambling it’s a clearly devised mechanism to pull in a certain amount of money over time while letting the gambler not feel like they’re losing their money. It works really well in part because rewards can hit dopamine receptors in the brain basically leaving gambling addicts feeling like they’re high on cocaine while they gamble.
While we might feel like being derisive towards these people, after all not everyone gambles and not everyone that does really gets into it, at the same time not all people who enjoy gambling lose too much money. Where things get fishy are games like Candy Crush that don’t even give you money back for playing with the RNG. Where in the past people had to gamble to feel this sense of stimulation to set off the response Candy Crush seems much more nebulous.
Unless you’re a gamer. Gamers clearly understand how it can be effective. In general most gaming is somewhat related to trying to get certain experiences, whether they be beating the boss with a sliver of health left or going for the high score, we go after experiences in very specific ways. Even though we might be able to hack this pattern somewhat by changing the goal, like going for a no death run or whatever, the reality is that a lot of what makes people certain sorts of gamers has to do with them finding a sense of conditioning that works on them.
While it’s easy to seperate out addiction as something obvious, like people addicted to chemicals or gambling, things like caffeine and food are also now seen as addictive. I always had a definition I used that “addiction was a situation where a person would do something even though reasonably they shouldn’t.” I wanted to get at how a mom may love her son very much but she would spend the new clothes money on drugs, or how a person knows cigarettes are bad for them but just doesn’t quit. However I feel like now the scope of things that are addictive is way larger than that.
Basically after Skinner this idea was proliferated through the entire economy. We saw more foods adding sugar, designing them to hit these conditions in the brain. We see people getting just out of their mind about checking in with social media. But we also have seen this advancement of the idea of gamifying subjects like education or work.
While I understand we all worry that somehow these little joy buzzers and points are going to detract from somehow instilling an honest love of learning or doing a good job at work in people the reality is the modern person is being attacked on all sides by frivolous activities that are going to make them feel like winners. Checking in with Fallout Shelter or whatever other app is applying this methodology actually works.
Though the sad part of this is that for most things using this conditioning we don’t actually have richer lives because of them. I’m not going to be telling the grandkids about that time I had an awesome vault in Fallout Shelter. We’re not going to be sharing that great joke on Facebook in our memoirs. These activities clutter our lives up like junk food where we know things have happened just nothing really of note.
However in gaming we’re seeing a tremendous push for this sort of system. Destiny, the game everyone loves to hate - unless you’re one of the poor unfortunates that actually likes it, is nothing but this sort of system. Over the first year it’s been out the game has pushed back and forth with players attempting to give just the right amount of gameplay for players to get them to hit one of these conditioning rewards and thus get them to come back. The central drive of the game is this loot grind and the only way to continue that behavior is to pay your Destiny drug dealer another 20 to get more.
Though this game suffers massively for it. Compare Destiny to Halo, though both games have some similarities in features, the world of Halo has an actual story that progresses. It might not seem like much on the surface, both games have loads of other similar features, but Destiny exists as a new incarnation of game.
At one point games like Call of Duty or Battlefield lived on models where basically they released a new game then expansions or DLCs. Now they live on models where you buy some sort of microtransaction item to get better loot. Destiny is a game that takes that idea forward. Destiny has to release new content due to the massive cost of development, but how do you get people to pay for new content whether it’s good or not?
There was a time when people just didn’t buy DLCs they didn’t like. You heard the next CoD map pack wasn’t what you were interested in and didn’t buy it. But modern game development is expensive, like really really expensive. Based on the push for season passes I’d imagine many games probably don’t actually make a profit before the DLC starts getting released due to gamers not wanting to pay more than $60 for a game. With Destiny’s model players have to buy the DLC to continue the rush of playing Destiny. Yes you could keep getting new weapons just from playing the original content, but that gear’s capped, you don’t want that. It’s trash. At least in your brain it’s trash, with a new shiny thing out there your brain isn’t releasing as much dopamine.
While I can’t moralize about whether this system is bad I will say that losing out on elements like story is. The hypothetical conversation you have with these theoretical grandkids might sound bizarre talking about Halo but how do you even begin to explain Destiny? Granted I doubt most of us are going to be telling stories to anybody about games we played 30 years prior, but at the same time we do learn from games. Looking back what have we learned from games? Bioware got us questioning what’s right and wrong, Disgaea taught me about time management, Persona reminds us we’re shaped by our loved ones, Destiny reminded us that we always have next week’s raid to get those boots.