Monday, June 7, 2010

Shoot the Pokies: Facebook games and chronic illness

I know a little bit about motivation and different reward schemes.  It's part of what I teach.  The psychology behind motivation is fascinating, and a little bit scary.  Nothing, however, is so scary as the variable ratio rewards idea coupled with negative reinforcement.

You're performing an everyday action - stapling papers, making a coffee, walking to the elevator, washing your hands when, suddenly, $100 falls out of nowhere!  You look around, but it couldn't possibly have just popped into existence like that... could it?  You keep washing your hands, looking around expectantly, but it doesn't happen again.  You pocket the money and shrug, willing to take this mysterious mystery money at mysterious face value.  You treat yourself and your partner to a really nice dinner that night, courtesy of the Universe.

The next day you're making a cup of tea when another $100 pops onto the counter!  This has to be a fluke, right?  Free money, for doing... what?  And that's when you start to wonder.  You start to try to find common threads between when money appears and what you're doing at the time.  Every time you think you have a pattern figured out, it changes.  You were walking the dog at 6:01am on a Wednesday morning, and you found money two weeks in a row, but the third week - nothing!  Worse than that, nothing for three whole days!  Did you ruin it somehow?  Did you jinx it?  Then BAM! Four pops in one day!  Could this get any better?

Soon you start to not only be okay with money falling out of the sky, but you start expecting it.  Buying a coffee?  Talking to a friend?  Walking home from the bus stop?  You're always looking up, never quite in the moment, always wondering when the next hit will come and always running through statistics in your mind.  You start to keep a diary of exact times, places and dates, down to the second, when the money shows up.  You're happy to have so much of it, but you're sure this can't last, and you're so afraid it will be over soon that you hoard the money away in a safe place.  It becomes all you think about.  You awake from a dream of a 5 pop day only to be disappointed not to find money just waiting on your pillow.  You start to find less and less money, but you think about it more and more.

Finally, one day, your partner calls it quits when you're busy staring at the ceiling during sex.  You ran the statistics, and you're sure it's going to be this Wednesday at 12:03am in the bedroom of your apartment.  Your partner says they don't know you anymore, and quietly gets dressed while you're counting down the seconds to 12:03am.  12:03am comes and goes, and by the time you recover from the shock of being wrong, it's too late.

This is, of course, a situation of extreme hyperbole, but for people addicted to any kind of activity, be it gambling, gaming or substance abuse, it's a similar and terrifying path.  I've never been a gambler, but I have been a World of Warcraft addict.  Not as bad as some, but 18 hours a day when I wasn't working, and any other spare time I had on the days I was, going to bed at 3am and getting up at 8am to play, again, until 3am the next morning...  WoW was all I talked about, all I thought about, and what I dreamed about.  I never want to go back there again.

It's not the game's fault.  I have a predisposition toward acquiring an addictive personality.  Luckily, WoW showed me this before I reached my formative years - before I started drinking heavily and getting into the party scene, I was already well aware of my propensity for addiction.  I have to say, WoW stopped me from trying many of the harder drugs when they were on offer.  I knew what the chances of me getting addicted were, and drugs are far more devastating than any social addiction.  I will never even try to take up smoking.  But, for those three years of my varying states of addiction, I was a slave to sever downtime.

Maybe you can't imagine what that's like.  Let me give you a lesser example.  You're growing crops in whichever farm sim you prefer.  You choose a crop that will take 4 hours to grow, and should be done by the time you knock off work so you can collect them when you arrive home.  You start to head home, only to find someone's invited you to dinner, and you haven't seen them in a really long time, so you agree to catch up.  Waiting for the main course takes forever, and while the conversation is fascinating, you can't help but accidentally glance at your watch.  8:30pm?  It's already that late?  You calculate your chances of being able to finish your meal, say your goodbyes and rush home.  You text your partner to pick you up in 15 minutes, on the dot.  You make it home, grab the nearest computer, and...

You're an addict.  Congratulations.  You have become a slave to the very technology you use for fun.  I'm not going to say play.  There is no element of 'play' to these ubiquitous Facebook games.  I know this sounds insincere, coming from me, who extolled the virtues of Country Story over FarmVille, but listen closely:

I already know all this.


What has become clear to me over the past couple of weeks is that most people don't.  People have no idea how Facebook games are controlling their lives.  A friend of mine has to spend a minimum of 3 hours a day, just to undertake basic maintenance of her Facebook gaming identity.  3 hours!  But she sees it as part of her duty, like feeding the cat, or washing the clothes.  She doesn't even realise how strange this is.  She delegates certain games to her children, so they can play them while she's in the shower.  She is a reasonable, intelligent and organised human being.  And she is an addict.

Let me get to the other half of the equation: negative reinforcement.  Contrary to popular belief, negative reinforcement is not punishing someone for doing something wrong.  It's the taking away of negative stimulus when you do something right.  Kids scream to get lollies.  When they get lollies, they stop screaming.  That is negative reinforcement.

Let's take a look at the negative reinforcement in my favourite Facebook games.  Bear in mind that all of these forms of reinforcement are strictly social - they cause embarrassment and a sense of poor performance in the viewer.

  • Pet Society: Pets get hungry, and dirty, signalled by flies buzzing around them; petlings run away and are symbolised by a crying face.  
  • Restaurant City: Recently changed, but your employees used to pass out on the floor while garbage piled up around them.  
  • Hotel City: Rooms that are closed for too long become infested with cockroaches.  
  • Country Story: Your animals are sad and hungry; fruit falls off your trees and rots on the ground.  
  • FarmVille: Your crops wither.  
  • My Empire: You don't have any money to make your people happy if you don't collect your taxes in time.


I deleted my FarmVille account today.  I just couldn't see the point anymore.  All of these games are self-perpetuating - you play them to keep playing them.  The social aspect is minor : who's top on the leaderboard?  Perhaps it would be different for me if the people I knew played these games and had a higher score than I do, but I'm not a competitive person by nature, so it probably wouldn't matter.  I only care about making things as pretty as possible, and for making my imaginary people/animals/pets as happy as possible.

These things are so simple.  Ever tried growing real plants?  My goodness, it's a lot of work!  Taking care of an animal?  My cat just keeps meowing when I've attended to her every need!  Running a city?  Dream on, buster...  These fantasies are small and, most importantly, compact and with clear victory conditions.  All they really ask is your time.  And your money.

Each point of Playfish cash is worth $0.20USD.  That means that, in paying 20PFC for a Rare Goods Pit for my city in My Empire, I spent $4USD.  That money was given to me by Playfish for levelling up my hotel in Hotel City, but the point remains.  If I wanted to buy those extra resources outright, and not even be guaranteed the resources that I want from its output, it would have cost me $4USD.  As Jesse Schell said, if it's worth my time, it must be worth my money, and if it's worth my money, it must have intrinsic value!  This is a lie.  I have spent real money on an imaginary poker machine system that only pays out once every 24 hours and only when I remember to collect.

Is there anything more dastardly?  I said before that it wasn't WoW's fault I got addicted.  But it sure made it easy for me to get into the mindset where I would be addicted.  Facebook games are the new WoW.  It's just that millions of people worldwide don't know it yet.

Quit those games.  Quit every Facebook game that shows signs of variable reward schema or negative reinforcement.  Choose to feel good about yourself, and reclaim your time.  You have no duty to these game worlds - they will continue with or without you, with no change or even the idea that you exist.  Close them down, shut them off, take those minutes from your day and turn them into something meaningful.  Interact in person.  Create your own rewards.  They may not be as exciting, but they also won't be as damaging.  Learn to let go, and don't let the rule of scarcity ("Last one!" "Sale for one day only!" "Never-before-seen prices!") rule your life.  You'll have more time, more money, and you'll be far better off, both in this world and online.

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