Monday, August 19th, 2013

The Ka-Ching Zone

The quasi-hypnotic effects of certain Internet activities were discussed by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic recently: "The Machine Zone: This Is Where You Go When You Just Can't Stop Looking At Pictures On Facebook." In particular, Madrigal drew serious attention, at last, to the elephant in the room: people may spend hours a day demonstrating compulsive "engagement" on Facebook or Tumblr, but they very commonly loathe themselves for doing so:

Silicon Valley has made the case to itself (and to the users of its software) that we are voting with our clicks. [...] Of course, that completely elides the role the company itself plays in shaping user behavior to increase consumption. And it ignores that people sometimes (often?) do things to themselves that they don't like.

Madrigal goes on to compare the lure of these time-sucking pastimes—in particular, clicking through photographs on Facebook—to the similarly hypnotic and addictive appeal of slot machines, citing MIT anthropologist and researcher Natasha Schüll's name for the trancelike state sought by slot-machine gamblers: "the machine zone."

What is the machine zone? It's a rhythm. It's a response to a fine-tuned feedback loop. It's a powerful space-time distortion. You hit a button. Something happens. You hit it again. Something similar, but not exactly the same happens. Maybe you win, maybe you don't. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

This does sound uncannily like obsessive Internet use. Do the designers and purveyors of these addictive products, whether they are slot machines or LOLcat galleries, have an ethical responsibility to protect users from the consequences of their own compulsions?

Schüll talks about one [slot machine] designer, Randy Adams. At first, he tells her that he's "morally" opposed to [designing] machines that enable compulsive behavior, which is an acknowledgement that it's possible to do so. [...] When pressed to specify 'the part that turns it from fun into addiction,' he replied: 'It's the design of the game," and then added that this characteristic of design was "not intentional on our part, just the way it happened to evolve.'"

The designer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, disinclined to confront the fact that he is complicit in contributing to the addictive potential of the game. The truth is actually something worse: he's almost certainly been hired explicitly to exploit and enhance the addictive potential of the game.

As a thought experiment, imagine there were incontrovertible proof that certain web service designs caused people to enter the machine zone, quadrupling time on site for a subset of users. Would designers outlaw their use or would they all deploy the tricks for their startups?

[Can this be a serious question?]

Things could be different. A site could encourage a different ethic of consumption. To be a little absurd: Why not post a sign after someone has looked through 100 pictures that says, "Why not write a friend or family member a note instead?"

That isn't "a little absurd," Alexis Madrigal; that is XXL-absurd. We may fool ourselves that social media and slot machines are there to entertain us, "just for fun"; these are commercial products that exist solely to make money for their owners. With respect to the making of money, the evidence has long been limpidly clear: Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are no different from the most rapacious Gilded Age plutocrats, whom they exactly resemble in every particular excepting the moustaches (so far).

The function of a plutocrat is to increase profits by every available means. If software engineers have failed to comprehend exactly what it is they are enabling… well… their longstanding reputation as the flower of our intellectual meritocracy is thereby all too plainly called into question.

"[F]ighting the great nullness at the heart of these coercive loops should be one of the goals of technology design, use, and criticism": here Madrigal makes an accurate and worthy observation. But on what planet has he observed that technologists are "more likely to be ideologues than craven financial triangulators"? Wearing a t-shirt to work doesn't mean you are not The Man—or, to be more accurate, his obedient servant.

I can demonstrate this to you conclusively in three words: Candy Crush Saga.

This infernal game (in which I am currently trapped on level 97) is the ultimate slot machine that never pays out. It even looks and sounds quite like a slot machine: rows of colorful digitally clinking gewgaws that once in a while align and cascade in a bizarrely gratifying way, in response to minute commands from the player. The sounds this game makes are both hellishly unpleasant and profoundly, weirdly pleasant. Candy Crush Saga is making its owners rich as Croesus, and not by accident.

Professional game designer Andrea Phillips wrote recently on the similarity between gaming addiction and gambling addiction:

[A]t least some game developers are intentionally trying to induce addictive behaviors, without question. It's common for a game design spec to talk about making a game "more addictive" in positive terms, as shorthand for "highly engaging and fun to play." There's also rampant and intentional use of the compulsion loop, which is a term ultimately derived from Skinnerian psychology: You train a rat that something nice will happen when it presses the lever, in order to get it to keep pushing that lever again and again. [...]

It's that tension of knowing you might get the treat, but not knowing exactly when, that keeps you playing. The player develops an unshakeable faith, after a while, that THIS will be the time I hit it big. THIS is the time it will all pay off, no matter how many times it hasn't so far. Just one more turn. One more minute. But it's really never just one more.

It is possible to play Candy Crush for free, but make no mistake, the game is a cash-generating proposition. The difficulty of the game escalates as you make your way through, but pay one dollar and be granted just enough moves or special candies to clear a level. Or pay one dollar simply to keep playing: five plays right now, rather than having to wait a few hours for five free ones. It takes a certain slight discipline to resist the bait. It's just a buck! Less than a coffee, the hapless player might think.

Megan Rose Dickey, a writer at Business Insider, recently admitted that she'd spent $127.41 in a single week playing Candy Crush. (Even I, a hardened skinflint when it comes to games, and to tech in general, dropped around $15 before wising up.) And Dickey and I are not alone. Despite its status there as a "free app," Think Gaming has estimated that Candy Crush Saga generates over $630,000 per day. (This is the tip of the candy-colored iceberg; there are games, even those aimed at children, which have in-game purchases in amounts of $10 and $20 and more; Apple just agreed to a "parental gate" after settling a class action suit over in-app purchases.)

Understanding how people work is one thing. The latest round of intriguing and/or menacing developments in technology is eye-tracking. "FocusAssist" is a product designed to turn off courses when the user diverts his eyes from his iPad training. While more elegant than the forced waiting time of online courses today, it's notable that this is promoted as a feature of new Samsung phones as well. Whatever use will they make of us with that!

I don't have anything against capitalism, so long as it is practiced in a principled manner, and honestly. But I don't care to be B.F. Skinnered into parting with my hard-earned pistoles. Can anyone doubt that the slot-machine-like nature of gaming now is the result of a deliberate strategy—or imagine for an instant that any profit-making entity will willingly concern itself with anything but profit, no matter the cost to its customers? This is inescapable. It's the compulsion loop of the plutocracy.

Maria Bustillos is a journalist and critic in Los Angeles.

22 Comments / Post A Comment

Ralph Haygood (#13,154)

"If software engineers have failed to comprehend exactly what it is they are enabling…well…their longstanding reputation as the flower of our intellectual meritocracy is thereby all too plainly called into question": I'm a software engineer. Anyone who thinks software engineers are the flower of any kind of meritocracy is insane. Yes, I know there are people who think that. And yes, they're insane.

However, we don't all work for plutocrats, and for some of us, that's deliberate. For example, I spent six months checking out the San Francisco/Silicon Valley "tech" scene and decided I wasn't interested. For the past year, I've been writing laboratory information management software for biologists.

By the way, computer games bore the hell out of me. I've never written one, and I plan to keep it that way.

@Ralph Haygood : For the past year, I've been writing laboratory information management software for biologists.

In a just world, that should be a sure-fire pick-up line.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Ralph Haygood I too am a software engineer, and enough of a "flower" to understand that Noam Chomsky is an intellectual, not Mark Zuckerberg. As for meritocracy, I put it in the same class as communism: it doesn't exist, in spite of all the crap various assholes out there try to sell as the thing. Having said all that, The Flower of Intellectual Meritocracy would be a pretty good band name.

Multiphasic (#411)

Great article, Maria! It's exactly the kind of unexpected, but predictably high-quality, content I get from the Awl, which is why I click the bookmark every 45 minutes or so.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Multiphasic Your great-aunt is waiting for a letter from you, you ingrate.

deepomega (#1,720)

I have a pretty serious issue with conflating addiction and skinner-box-ian stimulus-reward loops. You don't go into withdrawal when you stop playing Candy Crush, you just enjoy it. And I have a feeling the reason you don't-like-liking-it is related to issues of high and low art. Would you criticize, say, Breaking Bad for its tendency to draw viewers into a fugue state where they watch all five seasons on Netflix?

scrooge (#2,697)

@deepomega Yeah, but Breaking Bad doesn't suddenly stop and demand another $1 before it will continue playing. You know how much you're paying for it, and that's what you pay.
As for the addiction part, maybe "addiction" is the wrong word here. It's not that you're addicted to the game the way you're addicted to heroin. You don't crave the game when you're not playing it. The critical thing is that it's hard to stop, like, say, chocolate or popcorn (or, in my case, Quick Poker 5-Card Draw). I don't think art-snobbery has anything to do with it.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@deepomega well, hmm… the word 'addiction' is used for a lot of compulsive behaviors that people are uncomfortable with themselves for persisting in, as Madrigal so ably describes ('machine zone' applies to a lot of things, including 'shopping addiction', 'slot machine addiction' 'gambling addiction' etc.) I don't think there need be much confusion there. As for "low art" haha I am about the world's biggest fan of that (even wrote a little book about it.)

deepomega (#1,720)

@scrooge The it's-hard-to-stop-ness 100% applies to Breaking Bad, and ignoring the monetization because it's sneakier (commercials, Netflix subscriptions) is disingenuous.

@barnhous Hah, I know of your feelings about low art, I just think that video games are an edge case where people are much more willing to say "there is no redeeming value here." (Or digital media generally!)

@deepomega I don't mind CCS's computerised pellet low-artiness but I despise it and myself (level 147, never spent a dime) for its treacly 1890s Candie Shoppe aesthetic. If only I'd found a free Bejewelled app first. Farmville 2, on the other hand, that's truly despicable low-computer-art. CCS at least has some degree of a learning curve, you realize you need to think ahead a little more, figure out what sort of decisions to make (albeit just barely). In FV, though, there is nothing to be done, no skill, no decisions, the only determinant of how far and how quickly you progress is how often you play. Now that's insidious. I'm level 45 but I'm also unemployed.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@deepomega These games are "low art" as much as piss is "low wine".

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@deepomega "ignoring the monetization because it's sneakier…"

Ignoring it because it's ignorable…

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@deepomega You don't believe in gambling addiction then? Because F2P developers use the exact same techniques, and even the same language, as the designers of slot machines. I can direct you to many Gamasutra articles on this subject.

On the other hand, I don't buy the premise that things like Facebook intentionally exploit psychology in the same way, because their business model is fairly different.

jonesrochelle412 (#247,212)

Great post!

Smedley T (#9,794)

You had me until, "I don't have anything against capitalism, so long as it is practiced in a principled manner, and honestly."…ha, ha, ha! And you called Madrigal "XXL absurd"? Really? That's cool — I don't have anything against horses, either, so long as they are unicorns, and rainbow-colored. That's Ayn Rand calling for you on line 2, Maria…

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Smedley T (p.s. I am a HUGE Madrigal fan. Just the one remark was XXL-absurd.)

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Smedley T haha, er. (Maria here.) Readily admit that principled capitalists are growing scarcer (also, pls leave Ms Rand on permahold.)

Smedley T (#9,794)

@Barnhouse/Maria. Thanks for the answer. I'm a big fan of yours, present outburst excepted, and glad we can at least agree on Ms. Rand, though even as she's on hold, Mr. Paul is pounding on the door downstairs, right? And while I was going to say "perhaps I exaggerated", what I really mean is "I wish I exaggerated", 'cuz I suspect even thinking that "principled capitalists" is a thing, is the mistake. Because its not about the "-ists", its the "ism" — the lack of principles is hardwired into the damn thing. Putting principles over profits simply ain't permitted — any CEO doing such is violating that corporation's bylaws..

scrooge (#2,697)

@Smedley T Count me with you in being a skeptic of capitalism, but surely it is possible, even if rare, for a capitalist to be principled? Am I unprincipled, for example, because I buy a house and rent it out at a fair rate to someone who needs a place to live?

Smedley T (#9,794)

@scrooge well, I do the same thing, so I hope its possible, and I would like us both to have the benefit of doubt on being principled. What I was trying to get at in my second go-round with Barnhouse is that the system is one in which the rules are that "profit" or "market" trumps principles. Various efforts to reform or soften that system are 1)fought against viciously, and 2) not working out so hot, if, well, how the majority of those doing under global capitalism is any indication. What about hard-working people who can't afford to rent out our apartments at a "fair rate"? Why/how exactly is it fair, then?

Nancy Sin (#232,943)

F-ing level 97. I'm wholly convinced that level is not beatable without financial investment. But I persist.

Seriously, though, I feel like Candy Crush of all games has an equivalent of that little note you mentioned. It's one of the few games I can cut myself off of because it literally forces me to.

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