How to play video games when you have five children
The citizen’s guide to the future. But there’s another, better answer to the same question that could be the key to developing powerful new treatments in the field of mental health. The opposite of play isn’t work. This idea was how to play video games when you have five children offered up by Brian Sutton-Smith, a noted psychologist of play who died earlier this year.
Sutton-Smith became well known in the 1950s and ’60s for studying children and adults at play. Get Future Tense in your inbox. Video game play is literally the neurological opposite of depression. In the past few years, multiple fMRI studies, including a seminal one conducted at Stanford University, have peered into the brains of gamers.
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Level 1 of any game is easy, because players are usually not very good at a new game the first time they try it. Immediately, the learning process kicks in, as they figure out the rules, test different strategies, and improve their skills. If you’ve ever wondered how you—or a loved one—can fail 20 times in a row at an Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga level and yet still be enthusiastic and determined to try just one more time, this distinct neurological activation pattern is the reason why. To nonplayers, this tendency to keep trying again and again to finish a game level can seem obsessive and irrational. In other words: Video game play is literally the neurological opposite of depression. When the reward pathways are underactivated, we can’t anticipate success.
As a result, we feel pessimistic and lack the motivation to do—well, anything. And a lack of blood flow to, or even shrinking gray matter in, the hippocampus is associated with difficulty learning new skills or developing effective coping strategies—which makes it all the harder to get better at anything, let alone from depression. Some researchers originally interpreted this as evidence that video games can cause depression. Self-medicating with games can be a dangerous path to go down. But playing games to change our mood doesn’t have to be problematic. Researchers have found that this kind of purposeful game play builds self-confidence and real-world problem-solving skills.
You don’t have to change the games you play—you just need to focus on the way the games are making you better. When you do, you become more likely to believe that the strengths you build while playing are strengths that you can bring to your everyday challenges. So far, the results have been compelling. But you don’t need a special program to benefit from the idea that the opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression. If you have an avid game player in your life, start a conversation with him or her about how games can make us better. What skills or abilities do you need to be good at this game? What have you gotten better at since you started playing this game?
Is there a part of your everyday life where you could apply the same skills or talents to solve a problem or achieve a goal? This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. Why is my total in group incorrect? How can I report obscene or inappropriate groups or profiles? Think you got what it takes to write for Cracked.
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Then submit an article or some other pieces of content. Hey, why can’t I vote on comments? Cracked only offers comment voting to subscribing members. If you’re already an awesome Cracked subscriber, click here to login. What Would The Netflix Movie Theaters Be Like? The Best, Most Underrated Lines From Shows And Movies, Pt. So, the headlines say somebody else has died due to video game addiction.
Look, I’m not saying video games are heroin. I totally get that the victims had other shit going on in their lives. But, half of you reading this know a World of Warcraft addict and experts say video game addiction is a thing. So here’s the big question: Are some games intentionally designed to keep you compulsively playing, even when you’re not enjoying it? And their methods are downright creepy. If you’ve ever been addicted to a game or known someone who was, this article is really freaking disturbing. It’s written by a games researcher at Microsoft on how to make video games that hook players, whether they like it or not.
He has a doctorate in behavioral and brain sciences. Each contingency is an arrangement of time, activity, and reward, and there are an infinite number of ways these elements can be combined to produce the pattern of activity you want from your players. Notice his article does not contain the words “fun” or “enjoyment. Instead it’s “the pattern of activity you want. His theories are based around the work of BF Skinner, who discovered you could control behavior by training subjects with simple stimulus and reward. He invented the “Skinner Box,” a cage containing a small animal that, for instance, presses a lever to get food pellets.
Now, I’m not saying this guy at Microsoft sees gamers as a bunch of rats in a Skinner box. I’m just saying that he illustrates his theory of game design using pictures of rats in a Skinner box. This sort of thing caused games researcher Nick Yee to once call Everquest a “Virtual Skinner Box. 50 game, they didn’t particularly care how long we played. The big thing was making sure we liked it enough to buy the next one. But the industry is moving toward subscription-based games like MMO’s that need the subject to keep playing–and paying–until the sun goes supernova. Now, there’s no way they can create enough exploration or story to keep you playing for thousands of hours, so they had to change the mechanics of the game, so players would instead keep doing the same actions over and over and over, whether they liked it or not.
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So game developers turned to Skinner’s techniques. This is a big source of controversy in the world of game design right now. Braid creator Jonathan Blow said Skinnerian game mechanics are a form of “exploitation. It’s not that these games can’t be fun. Why would this work, when the “rewards” are just digital objects that don’t actually exist? Your brain treats items and goods in the video game world as if they are real. You spent all that time working for a sword that doesn’t even exist?
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If it takes time, effort and skill to obtain an item, that item has value, whether it’s made of diamonds, binary code or beef jerky. I have easily 500 hours in Zelda bottles. That’s why the highest court in South Korea ruled that virtual goods are to be legally treated the same as real goods. After all, people pay thousands of dollars for diamonds, even though diamonds do nothing but look pretty.
A video game suit of armor looks pretty and protects you from video game orcs. In both cases you’re paying for an idea. But because gamers regard in-game items as real and valuable on their own, addiction-based games send you running around endlessly collecting them even if they have nothing to do with the game’s objective. It is very much intentional on the developers’ part, an appeal to our natural hoarding and gathering instincts, collecting for the sake of collecting. It works, too, just ask the guy who kept collecting items even while naked boobies sat just feet away. As the article from the Microsoft guy proves, developers know they’re using these objects as pellets in a Skinner box. So picture the rat in his box.
Or, since I’m one of these gamers and don’t like to think of myself as a rat, picture an adorable hamster. Maybe he can talk, and is voiced by Chris Rock. If you want to make him press the lever as fast as possible, how would you do it? Not by giving him a pellet with every press–he’ll soon relax, knowing the pellets are there when he needs them.
No, the best way is to set up the machine so that it drops the pellets at random intervals of lever pressing. They call these “Variable Ratio Rewards” in Skinner land and this is the reason many enemies “drop” valuable items totally at random in WoW. This is addictive in exactly the same way a slot machine is addictive. You can’t quit now because the very next one could be a winner.
The Chinese MMO ZT Online has the most devious implementation of this I’ve ever seen. The game is full of these treasure chests that may or may not contain a random item and to open them, you need a key. How do you get the keys? Why, you buy them with real-world money, of course. Like coins in a slot machine.
Wait, that’s not the best part. ZT Online does something even the casinos never dreamed up: They award a special item at the end of the day to the player who opens the most chests. And that’s hardly the most ridiculous aspect of the game. Now, in addition to the gambling element, you have thousands of players in competition with each other, to see who can be the most obsessive about opening the chests. There was always someone else more obsessed. Are you picturing her sitting there, watching her little character in front of the chest, clicking dialogue boxes over and over, watching the same animation over and over, for hour after hour? If you didn’t know any better, you’d think she had a crippling mental illness.
How could she possibly get from her rational self to that Rain Man-esque compulsion? He called that training process “shaping. Little rewards, step by step, like links in a chain. In WoW you decide you want the super cool Tier 10 armor. To get the full set, you need more than 400 Frost Emblems, which are earned a couple at a time, from certain enemies. Then you need to upgrade each piece of armor with Marks of Sanctification. Once it gets to that point, can you even call that activity a “game” anymore?
It’s more like scratching a rash. Now, the big difference between our Skinner box hamster and a real human is that we humans can get our pellets elsewhere. If a game really was just nothing but clicking a box for random rewards, we’d eventually drop it to play some other game. First, set up the “pellets” so that they come fast at first, and then slower and slower as time goes on.
MMO, but then the time and effort between levels increases exponentially. Once the gamer has experienced the rush of leveling up early, the delayed gratification actually increases the pleasure of the later levels. But that can be frustrating for gamers, so you can take the opposite approach of a game like New Super Mario Bros. Wii, where you make the levels really short so it’s like eating potato chips.
They’re so small on their own that it doesn’t take much convincing to get the player to grab another one, and soon they’ve eaten the whole bag. Somewhere in that bag is an angry dinosaur and a kidnapped princess. By the way, this is the same reason a person who wouldn’t normally read a 3,000-word article on the Internet will happily read it if it’s split up into list form. Are you ignoring boobies to read this? This is the real dick move.
Why reward the hamster for pressing the lever? Why not simply set it up so that when he fails to press it, we punish him? They set the cage up so that it gives the animal an electric shock every 30 seconds unless it hits the lever. It learns very very fast to stay on the lever, all the time, hitting it over and over. Why is your mom obsessively harvesting her crops in Farmville?
Because they wither and rot if she doesn’t. In Ultima Online, your house or castle would start to decay if you didn’t return to it regularly. They get the hamster running back and forth from one lever to another to another. If the levers are far away, they may drive their adorable cars from one lever to another. We asked earlier if the item collection via obsessive clicking could be called a “game. So that raises the question: What is a game?
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Well, we humans play games because there is a basic satisfaction in mastering a skill, even if it’s a pointless one in terms of our overall life goals. This is why our brains reward us with the sensation we call “fun” when we do it. This is why I haven’t included games like Guitar Hero in this article. They’re addictive, sure, but in a way everybody understands.
It’s perfectly natural to enjoy getting good at something. Likewise, competitive games like Modern Warfare 2 are just sports for people who lack athleticism. But these “hit the lever until you pass out from starvation” gaming elements stray into a different area completely. As others have pointed out, the point is to keep you playing long after you’ve mastered the skills, long after you’ve wrung the last real novel experience from it. This is why some writers blasted Blizzard when WoW introduced a new “achievement” system a couple of years ago. No new content, no element of practice, or discovery, or mastery was included. Why would humans voluntarily put themselves in laboratory hamster mode?
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Considering half of you are reading this at work, I’m going to guess no. And that brings us to the one thing that makes gaming addiction–and addiction in general–so incredibly hard to beat. As shocking as this sounds, a whole lot of the “guy who failed all of his classes because he was playing WoW all the time” horror stories are really just about a dude who simply didn’t like his classes very much. This was never some dystopian mind control scheme by Blizzard. The games just filled a void. Why do so many of us have that void?
Notice that pants are not necessary for job satisfaction. Most people, particularly in the young gamer demographics, don’t have this in their jobs or in any aspect of their everyday lives. But the most addictive video games are specifically geared to give us all three or at least the illusion of all three. You pick your quests, or which Farmville crops to plant.
Hell, you even pick your own body, species and talents. Annoying your Facebook friends with updates is a really annoying talent. Players will do monotonous grinding specifically because it doesn’t feel like grinding. Frost Emblem dance that kept our gamer clicking earlier.