Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Pavlov's People

At dinner last night over at my in-laws, the topics of conversation were wide ranging.  We talked about Neil Degrasse Tyson's reboot of the Cosmos series, in part because my plasma physicist father-in-law knew Carl Sagan as a colleague.  He'd watched the new show, of course.  What did you think, we asked?

"I just can't believe people are that much dumber now," he said.  Ah.

The evening went on, and conversation wandered.  And then, said father-in-law noted that he'd downloaded Candy Crush Saga.  Which made me grin a little bit, and get to talking about the odd devolution of gaming.

I shared with him the interview I read with one of the designers of that pernicious little mindsucker, who'd explained that the game was created to be both addictive and frustrating.  It gives pleasure, sure.  But the goal of the game is not strategy, or thought, or diversion.  It is to 1) hold your attention and 2) get you to buy things.

As a lifelong gamer, I've noticed this change in online games.  I prefer strategy games, either turn-based, tower defense, or real-time.  I like a good puzzler, and games that play around with physics.  Those used to be, three or four years ago, the norm, along with shooters.

But that is not how games are evolving.  "Casual" games, they are called.

Less and less skill is required, replaced with gaming dynamics that are sparklier, more reward based, and more honed to keeping your immediate attention.

It's about stimulating pleasure centers, and getting you to repeat an action--either towards the end of frustrating you into making an in-game purchase, or simply keeping your time-in-game sustained while ads are run before your captive eyeballs.

That is, in point of fact, the stated purpose of these games.  They know what they are doing.  There's some serious psychology underlying their design.

Candy Crush does that, O my addicted friends, but there are other games that take it even farther.  Like, say, the surprisingly successful Cookie Clicker.

Here is Cookie Clicker.

What do you do to play Cookie Clicker, one might ask?  Let me explain the complex control system to you: You click the cookie.

Press it, and a cookie falls into the milk.

Press it faster, and more cookies fall, and the milk rises.  The more you press, the more cookies fall, and then you get more rewards.

You click the cookie.  That is the entire game.  You can also set the game to play itself when you need to sleep or eat, which will unlock something special, which helps insure your return to the clicking.

Oh, and your return to the in-game purchases, that let you make even more cookies.   And to the ads that scroll along the bottom of the game.  That's the real game being played.

Or to put it another way:  we are the real game being played.

Because that's not just a phone in your pocket.

It can do many things, and one of its most amazing functions:  It's a Skinner Box.