Season 3: Episode 2
Ashley Carman is the cohost of the tech podcast, Why’d You Push That Button?
Long before the Internet, games were a source of entertainment, comradery, and learning. The rise of technology enabled games to take on video form, and gaming as we know it became popular. Big Tech now gamifies most elements of our online life. The more you know about the evolution of games and why we are all so connected to them, the more you can see how they’re used to sometimes make online experiences better and sometimes more addictive. Here’s more on the games we play online, from Mozilla.
Veronica: Here’s a typical scene. A family huddled around a video game. They’re gathering points, collecting treasure, upgrading their avatars.
Speaker 2: Ooh, I got 32 points.
Speaker 3: Those are rewards. You should buy something.
Speaker 4: A training sword. A practice weapon confers no benefit. Do you want you buy it? Let’s buy it.
Speaker 3: Okay.
Speaker 2: Wait, wait. I see. Is there purple?
Speaker 3: Ooh, green.
Speaker 2: Blue, blue, blue.
Speaker 4: Okay. Purchased training sword. Okay.
Speaker 3: I have a sword.
Speaker 4: Yeah.
Speaker 3: I have a sword.
Veronica: It may sound like a dungeons and dragons type fantasy game. What with the training sword and all, but this game is actually designed to kickstart their motivation to get boring stuff done around the house. The App is called Habitica, and it’s just one example in a global movement towards gamifying every little corner of our lives.
Welcome to episode two of IRL’s third season. I’m Veronica Belmont. Today we’re talking about games gaming and gamification. How did the psychology of games get baked into our online lives in the first place? And now that even doing the dishes as a chance to collect gold coins, how is our love of gaming going to shape us?
I’ve got a very special guest along for the ride today. Ashley Carman is a tech reporter over at the Verge and she co-hosts a great tech podcast there called Why’d You Push That Button? Hi Ashley.
Veronica: So the question: if you could turn any part of your online experience into a game, what would it be?
Ashley: So I honestly feel like so much of my online life is kind of a sad game, but if I did have to come up with a game, I think it would be some sort of reward for me actually going out on a real date as opposed to just swiping on Tinder or whatever.
Veronica: Dang, that feels like super high stakes for like a game.
Ashley: Yeah, the date can go… It doesn’t matter. I have to just leave the house. That’s the point of the game. It’s just you have to leave and then you get your reward, which I would like to get paid to do that.
Veronica: So we talk about gamifying this thing or that thing, online dating, chores, but the reality is that like all the platforms we use online are super designed and meticulously designed really for being gamified, so even the most granular ways that smiley faces pop up, or I hear a little bells when I get messages. Is it all just becoming one big game?
You might have heard this term gamification before. Basically it’s the way certain companies take ordinary experiences and fold in gaming elements that’ll, excite us. So going for a jog for example could become-
Speaker 7: “Help me.”
Veronica: -running away from zombies! Pretty brilliant motivator, but full on gamification, like you get in Zombies Run, or the Habitica app, that’s just one way that game elements get embedded into our online experiences. You jump on Snapchat, and you have to keep up your story streak. That’s a gaming element. You share your workout score that your Fitbit produced for example, that’s a gaming element too. Points, badges, incentives, challenges, they’re all purposefully part of Instagram, and Whatsapp, and Tinder, and YouTube. Gaming is even part of the operating system you’re using, and part of the hardware you’re buying.
Every step of our digital experience is an opportunity to trigger those hard wired parts of our brains, that love to play games. There’s also this burgeoning industry of simulators that use games to teach people real world skills, or even bend them toward a certain mindset, and that’s where our first story comes in. It turns out, even before the internet really got it’s game on, some pretty big players had figured out that they could thread gaming into new technologies, and grab the user’s attention, maybe even change a few minds.
The results go way beyond fun and games.
Anthony Wilson: My name is Anthony Wilson, I’m from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
So I’ve always been a huge gamer geek, you know, first person shooters, and RPGs, and games like that. Real time strategy games.
Veronica: The percentage of us who are gamers, especially online gamers, has jumped massively in the last decade. It’s actually more than half of all Americans. Globally we’re talking about a hugely growing market. Double digit growth ever since the iPhone made gaming very mobile in 2007. It’s forecasted that 2.3 Billion gamers around the world will spend $138B in 2018. So, Anthony was pretty typical playing his first person shooters, until he stumbled on a game, that wasn’t just a game.
Anthony Wilson: Actually one of my friends in high school was telling me about America’s Army.
Veronica: Anthony picked up a disk. This was 2002 so gaming culture was only part way online. He was 16 years old.
Anthony Wilson: And this was a free game, and it was actually very impressive. The graphics at that time were pretty much on par with Counter Strike and Battlefield and things like that, and I would get to a point where I’d get home from school and play for like six, seven hours, sometimes three or four times a week, it was very addicting let’s put it that way.
Veronica: It was one of those games where you’ll play till you hear the birds chirping outside and realize it’s morning. Whoever made this thing, knew that they were doing. They knew how to make a thrilling army simulation. You see, America’s Army, the game, was made by America’s Army, like the actual Army.
Anthony Wilson: So when you like first start off in the game it’s more geared towards showing you some of the preliminary things that you go through in the military. You go through, a mock boot camp, a virtual boot camp, some virtual lessons as far as medical-
Speaker 9: Need a medic.
Anthony Wilson: -and some weapons training, and some of it’s pretty accurate, and it gives you a taste of what to expect when you get in the military.
Veronica: America’s Army wasn’t just a game, it was a recruitment tool. This game was explicitly designed by the US military to recruit gamers like Anthony.
Anthony Wilson: So, I guess the game came out right around the right time, because of what was going on in our country as far as the war over in Iraq, and Afghanistan-
Speaker 10: …Axis of Evil, the White House…
Anthony Wilson: So you get in this game and it’s kinda, you know you see the modern weaponry, and everything that’s in the game and, you’re like man I wish I was actually over there, defending my country doing this right now.
Some of the obstacle courses that you see in the beginning of the game are very similar to what you see at boot camp and you have to overcome. It’s a lot different though actually doing it in person than just pressing the w key and pressing the spacebar to jump over a log. When you’re actually jumping over a log in boot camp it’s a lot more difficult. One of the other things you don’t get out of the game of course is a drill sergeant yelling in your face, and actually being there, and getting the discipline and everything. You can’t just press pause and walk away from your drill instructor. So it’s a little different.
Veronica: Anthony turned that wish into reality just a few years later.
Anthony Wilson: I did deploy to Afghanistan in end of 2009, beginning of 2010. As far as the realism of the landscape and the buildings, and some of the visuals you might see over there, it was pretty accurate.
Veronica: Realistic graphics though, still aren’t real life.
Anthony Wilson: Nothing could prepare you for the real thing. You know there is real live guns, and you’re actually there in the middle of it. It’s not just a visual thing it’s the way your body feels, your mental state, the smells, just being there, and it’s a whole lot different when you realize you can re-spawn in a game, than when you can’t respawn, and you’re actually here.
Veronica: Re-spawn of course, meaning, coming back to life and that just doesn’t happen on a real battlefield. There’s not extra lives, and yeah, I guess that’s the biggest difference of all. There’s often something hard, something real behind these games. We think we’re collecting coins or slaying enemies, but all along we can pushed towards making micro-payments, or giving up personal data, or even, like Anthony discovered, choosing a life path.
That said though, this isn’t a story about entrapment, Anthony doesn’t regret his decision.
Anthony Wilson: There’s some people that say that they regret going into the military, but I could never say that cause it gives you a set of life skills you could never get anywhere else, and there’s also that comradery when you see somebody else out in public. They’re like oh you can just tell, that guy used to be in the military.
Veronica: By the way, Anthony’s still a hardcore gamer.
Anthony Wilson: Absolutely all the time. Actually that’s where I’m at right now is in my game room in my house. I don’t really have that marine body anymore, absolutely not.
Veronica: Okay Ashley Carman , so many people play video games, are you surprised that games can be used as a recruitment tool, and is this the kind of thing that only works on people who have say, six hours a day to dedicate to games, like Anthony did when he started out?
Ashley: I mean I don’t know, I feel like everyone games, like you said, I mean, I don’t think it targets a specific audience, but I think we all enjoy gaming, it’s like literally games are designed to hit on human brain weaknesses. So sure, like if you have six hours to play, that’s probably - you maybe are the target demographic, but at the same time sometimes when you find a good game you just get hooked in.
Veronica: I feel like especially too, it may not be as true these days because I feel like gaming has kind of spread to all different demographics like women, for example I believe are the largest demographic of mobile gamers, but back in 2002 it was definitely still very much the 18-34 year old male audience, and that that younger demographic especially is really well suited for military recruitment, which makes sense to me, and it seems like it was really effective.
Okay, so I wanna get a bit deeper here. What was the Army thinking when they put this game together? Luckily, we found exactly the guy who can tell us.
Michael: I’m Michael Zyda, I’m the director of the USC game pipe laboratory.
Veronica: Michael Zyda was tasked by the Army to help build their game.
Michael: In the fall of 1999 the Army was missing it’s recruiting goals and they said we should really look at making a game that can give people a potential look at what a career in the Army is like before they join the Army.
Veronica: The Army has used old-fashioned advertising forever. Ads at NASCAR races, TV ads, but gaming was emerging as the ultimate medium for capturing the attention of the young, but it was more than an ad, like I said earlier, it was also a simulation. A lot of modern weapons systems actually have interfaces with joysticks, with buttons and screens. It’s not totally different from game consoles.
Think about people directing drones on a massive screen, they’re essentially playing a real-stakes video game. In fact, recruiters say that gamers are often better than real pilots at operating the Army’s drones
Michael: Children who played with Army toys in ages 11 to 14 were typically twice as likely to consider a career in the Army when they turned 18. So what the Army was thinking was, well if we put this game out and we make it teen rated, people who play it get experience at what a potential career in the Army is like in game form, then maybe when they turn 18 they will consider a career in the Army.
Veronica: Maybe they’ll sign up, and what’s more, maybe they’ll stay. They US Army had suffered from about a 20% dropout rate from Basic Combat Training.
Michael: A lot of them would get through Basic Combat Training and say, this is not what I expected in the Army. I think I wanna get out of the Army, this is not for me.
Veronica: By the time they drop out, the Army had already invested close to $100,000 in each of them. That’s a huge cost, but what if there was a way for soldiers to arrive already having a rough sense of what training looked like?
Michael: Basically if we turn away, 460 recruits because they played the game, they said oh I don’t wanna do that. Then that actually paid the entire cost of building and operating the game, and so it turns out the Army looks at the project as the most successful recruiting tool ever built for the US Army.
Veronica: Whew, since it began, millions of users have downloaded the game, they play it online, for free, courtesy of the US Government, and by the way, they US doesn’t have a monopoly on this stuff. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army released a training game called Glorious Mission in 2011 for example, where players can battle Japan for control of disputed territory.
So, maybe you’re thinking, you sneaky governments, but honestly, this strategy of spinning up a delightful interface for practical ends, it’s everywhere. Think about gamified education systems that help Autistic children break out of their shell. Think about VRChat rooms, where’s we’re finding that people act more kindly towards one another. I mean, why not make life a little more fun, a little easier to handle?
Maybe we can gamify… everything!
Speaker 12: Ahh!
Veronica: Of course, it wouldn’t be a good game without a serious challenge.
Speaker 13: Sweet.
Veronica: Ah do you hear that? The sweet sweet sound of cascading points? Why do I love it so? It turns out that when games get folded into our online lives, they’re relying on some pretty serious tricks. For the lowdown we caught up with someone who thinks, and writes about this stuff for a living.
Michelle: Hi I’m Michelle Manafy.
Veronica: Michelle is the editorial director of Digital Content Next. A not for profit that reps about 80 media companies.
Michelle: The word game in it of itself is an interesting one. We have this connotation of a game as being something fun, but there’s also this definition of the word game that has a more kind of darker or nefarious connotation. I mean gaming a system, manipulating it.
Veronica: Which makes us wonder, who is being gamed? The reason that second definition is so important is that the gaming parts of our tech, yeah, those can also be the parts that get us addicted.
Michelle: The idea of video game addiction was actually pretty early in the lifecycle of digital. We would see people play video games, to the detriment of their entire lives. They would fail to wash themselves, or care for themselves properly, they wouldn’t sleep, because video games were so engaging, that they couldn’t stop. So very early on, digital designers looked at that and said, well, gee whiz, wouldn’t it be great if people were in love, as in love with my app.
So, it wasn’t even necessarily, oh well let’s get them to the point where they stop bathing to use my app instead, but really, can we capture that level of devotion, and translate it into our digital experiences?
Veronica: Maybe your parents had a similar question when you were young. How do we get our kids to be as devoted to our chores as they are to Saturday morning cartoons? I know! Turn it into a game. Use charts, and stickers. Our Habitica family has simply upgraded from stickers to virtual gold coins, and from charts to digital data sets.
Speaker 2: How, self care, school, chores.
Speaker 3: Where…
Speaker 2: Creativity.
Speaker 3: Creativity, yeah!
Speaker 4: Actually, you know what I’d like you to do. Turn the creativity off, for now, and select chores.
Speaker 2: Ten minutes cleaning, brushing teeth, clean your room, practice piano, you lose a point for wining, and then ten minutes of cleaning again.
Speaker 4: So if you did for example, ten minutes cleaning, I press the plus sign, what are you doing?
Speaker 2: Vacuuming.
Speaker 4: Is it as fun as you expected?
Speaker 2: Yes!
Speaker 4: Allright. And it gives you, six gold coins, and then you can look and see what your rewards are.
Speaker 2: Ooh a treasure box! You gained a level, by accomplishing your real life goals, you’re grown to level five.
Speaker 3: Huzzah?
Speaker 2: Huzzah!
Veronica: Turning household chores into a game seems innocent enough, but what happens when your online social life is gamified, or when you get sucked into a totally addictive game like Fortnite? What are the gears in your brain that a being cranked? For that, we had to New York University to meet their star cultural anthropologist.
Natasha: My names Natasha Schull, and I’m professor in a department called Media, Culture and Communication at New York University.
Veronica: Natasha’s made a career studying the hard wiring that makes our brains respond so addictively to certain games.
Natasha: I like to call it the Ludic Loop. You know Ludic coming from the certain impulse to play. So the Ludic Loop is the repeating cycle of a game that doesn’t really have a stopping point, you know except if your battery dies, or your budget runs out, a slot machine. So non-resolution is critical, so there isn’t an end to the game. It just keeps going, and repeating and repeating. And I think that’s really what Silicon Valley has tapped into with Ludic Loops.
Veronica: The flow and reward of a Ludic Loop, might be beneficial when you’re trying to get the kids to do the dishes, but it’s not so healthy when you’re hooked on playing Candy Crush, or Farmville for hours at a time.
Natasha: So you know that is not a positive optimal human experience, and you couldn’t say that you’re really choosing to be in that, and to enter that, or into any kind of creative state. It’s just ultimately very depleting and unhealthy.
Veronica: This is not about shame though, it’s more about noticing when you’re signing on to a bargain and you didn’t really want.
Natasha: I am definitely no stranger to the zone, and while sometimes I come out feeling refreshed, most often I come out feeling a little sort of ragged and tired, and drained, and I’m constantly trying to regulate myself with little tricks and I’m constantly frustrated because it’s hard to find what those tricks should be.
Veronica: Natasha uses the Freedom App sometimes to lock herself offline, but she said she still finds plenty of Ludic Loops, in the offline parts of her computer too.. Natasha Schull has written several books including keeping track and addiction by design. I’ve got links in the show notes for you at IRLPodcasts.org.
So Ashley have you ever found yourself in something like that? A Ludic Loop where you lose track of time and maybe not in a good way?
Ashley: Totally, I think I also get stuck in this loop where if I’m on Instagram or something, I’ll be scrolling but then I constantly want to actually just refresh to see what comes up next, so it’s a never ending refresh, so I can keep pulling down and seeing new things, even though there’s probably not gonna be that much new stuff. I just want to see what’s next.
Veronica: It’s like an endorphin hit or something, it’s some kind of like positive feeling you get. I do the exact same thing with Instagram, where I’m pulling it down to try to get it to refresh, and there’s just no more content, but I feel like, the way they redesigned it recently, I’m not seeing thing in order anyways so I’m like, you know what I haven’t seen, show me the things I haven’t seen.
Ashley: Yeah exactly, yeah I haven’t gotten halfway through my feed, at least just bring those up to the top.
Veronica: I feel like we’re more in a psychotic loop at that point, but maybe that’s a different episode.
I’m realizing as I talk about Instagram that this is another example of the Ludic Loop that Natasha Schull is talking about right? I’m refreshing for more content and there is no end point. I’ll never get to the last fancy cocktail picture or that last selfie. It’s like I’m telling myself I’ll just stand under this waterfall until the waterfall’s done.
But it’s not just a trance, my gaming brain does enjoy it’s trances, but it also needs to feel those rewards, those points, and those coins and bells and whistles. One of the feeling that I tend to get, and I think that everybody gets, when I’m in that gaming zone is this, totally oversized sense of achievement. Right? Like you’re doing something not so complicated, and then… suddenly it’s like I am an incredibly successful human being, and if something’s gonna make me feel that way, yeah it’s pretty hard to choose not to do it.
But here’s the thing, if the result is something my higher mind actually wishes I did more, we then, maybe gaming myself is a good thing. Here’s Michelle Manafy again.
Michelle: We always wanna be thinking about that end user, as someone who is valuable and who’s life we want to enhance, who we want to improve their lives with our game, with our content, with our video interface, with our hardware interface, rather than someone who we want to drive to the brink of illness through addictive behaviors.
Veronica: Michelle even argues that companies, the really long term thinking companies, actually have a vested interest in not getting us stuck in Ludic Loops, it’s counter intuitive, but think about it. If you’re addicted to a game or an app, the only way to break that addiction, might be to give up that thing altogether.
Michelle: They’ve gotta quit, otherwise they do nothing more than have this compulsive interaction with your platform or your interface that really ultimately leaves them feeling empty and unsatisfied and delivers no value to them, and you do so at the detriment of your long term relationship with that consumer.
Veronica: I know a lot of us have friends quitting certain social media platforms because they don’t like what it’s doing to them. Last episode we heard from Jaron Lanier, who argued that it’s time for online citizens to start demanding a better deal with these companies. We don’t wanna burn our modems, we don’t even want to get rid of all the awesome gamification going on out there either. We just want options online that make us feel more like our best selves, and less like eight year olds, who got set free in a candy shop.
Michelle: I think that for business people, for those of us that are trying to make a living online, I’ve absolutely no doubt that when they turn their efforts to creating better experiences, more enhanced experiences, more satisfying and rewarding experiences, that they will not only succeed, but they can turn the tide on this entire trend, and on any negative backlash that’s slowly coming to a boil in the consumer consciousness. I think that you see, from the amount of ex-Facebook employees, ex-Google employees, you see that some of these very very powerful people and truly brilliant people are stepping up and having an awakening.
Veronica: And that change can’t just come from the companies right? A lot of them have this huge interest in using all this game design to keep us hooked, so better game elements have got to be demanded by us, you and me.
Michelle: They also have a great deal of hope for sort of the Gen Z-ers, you know the generation after the Millennials. Frankly they feel empowered to use their voices for change and as we inform them, as this generation of technologists and educators and policy makers, awakens to the threat of unfettered data collection, of gamification of addictive design. As we become aware and we inform that generation, they can - they can get it done.
Veronica: Just to pair things back, I want you to imagine, a cup a coffee, I love coffee, I’m drinking coffee right now. You probably love coffee too, and yeah, we’re maybe even a little addicted, or in my case, a lot addicted. You get the shakes, or you get over buzzed, it’s a mess, and then one day, you realize, they make decaf coffee too. In the same way I get to switch to decaf after my first up if I choose to, I can make decisions about push alerts, I can make decisions about how many time sucking apps are on my phone.
If I’m a manager at work, I can even make policy decisions about the number of bells and whistles that are gamifying the work life of employees. What I’m getting at here is there’s more than one game, there’s more than one coffee, there’s more than one messaging app, or phone, or operating system, and if we’re honest with ourselves about how many Ludic Loops we’re getting stuck in, we can start designing a life where we’re not trapped inside those games.
I wanna check in one more time with our Habitica family. Hopefully, they’re not trapped in an endless list of chores.
Speaker 4: So, better do ten minutes of tidying-
Speaker 2: And I’ll get something, maybe.
Speaker 4: Well, we’ll have to see, we’ll have to check the game so.
Speaker 2: Well I’ll definitely get points.
Speaker 4: I think so.
Speaker 2: Each time you do you get points.
Speaker 4: Yeah.
Speaker 2: Yeah.
Speaker 3: So, I’ll definitely, get points.
Speaker 4: I think so. Can you grab a handful of Lego and pop it in there like a big kid?
Excellent. So we’ll go to-
Speaker 2: Chores.
Speaker 4: Habits. No, now you’ve got ten minutes cleaning, see what you get out of this.
Part of a coin, four experience points, okay, and it looks like we have five gold coins-
Speaker 3: And zero…
Speaker 4: And zero gems.
Speaker 3: Gems.
Speaker 4: I think those gems are the harder ones to earn.
Speaker 3: Yeah.
Speaker 4: Okay, let’s look at rewards, it says not enough gold. So if we do it ten minutes again tomorrow, then we have enough gold for another reward.
That sound good?
Speaker 3: How about we do ten minutes now?
Speaker 4: Ten minutes now? Okay.
Well we still got more stuff to tidy up.
Speaker 3: Yep.
Speaker 4: So lets do it.
Hey can you get the books.
Veronica: That sounds, super effective, so Ashley, listening to everything today, it almost feels like we have these superpowers, like super attention, or super willpower, that can get activated, and we just kind of need to figure out how to control our own powers What do you think about that.
Ashley: Yeah, I definitely think humans can definitely be hyper focused, obviously if you get in a flow-state with any activity, you’re there for it, but I think we also can only resist so much. I think mindfulness is important, but at the same time, like Michelle mentioned in your interview, we have to demand more of the tech companies too.
And I have hope for this because of the time well spent movement. We see Google kind of taking some of the first steps of big companies that are trying to help us limit our tech time a little bit, but it’s a combination of both. Human have these special powers, but we also need help from the tech companies.
Veronica: I have a mindfulness app that’s gamified.
Ashley: There you go.
Veronica: Is that like the logical conclusion to all of this? We have to gamify our mindfulness to, oh lord.
Ashley: I’m pretty sure that is absolutely what needs to happen.
Veronica: That’s terrifying, and with that we have to say goodbye. Ashley thank you so much for hanging out today.
Ashley: Of course, thanks for having me.
Veronica: Ashley Carman is the cohost of the tech podcast, “Why’d You Push That Button?” You can find a link in the show notes, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
I guess my goal, going forward is to see the games, to notice that they’re everywhere. Starting with that little red dot telling me I’ve got new messages. Actually no, starting with the way that my phone feels like a gaming device strapped to my hand. These elements are always there, at every stage. It’s darwinian I guess. The designs or codes, or platforms, or apps that get my gaming brain more excited, those are the ones that’ll pass on their digital genes
Games, after all, can be an amazing tool. It feels like motivation might be what they do best. I use an app called fit bod to gamify my exercise routine, for example, and I freaking love it. I get these little achievements when I get my personal best in reps or when I level up to bigger weights. So do I wanna gamify something that’s kind of repetitive like working out? 100%. But do I wanna gamify my job? Hard no. I like to think I’m a creative person, someone whose brain is engaged at work, and that means I don’t want some Ludic Loop tugging my attention in a predetermined direction.
It’s really about a kind of literacy, being able to read these apps and platforms and devices. That can be easier said than done. Take Instagram for example, they delay the appearance of likes because they know that hesitation is going to get you hooked. The design in these things is that granular. Sometimes the games we’re playing are so subtle, they almost become invisible. Once we do notice the games that are inscribed into our online lives then, we get to make a choice.
IRL is an original podcast from Mozilla, and not for profit behind the Firefox Browser. For more of Mozilla’s take on the games we play online, check out the show notes for this episode at IRLPodcast.org.
Next time, in episode three we’re catching up with the runaway economics of attention, and seeing how the hunger for eyeballs is changing our lives. It’s gonna be a great one. I’m Veronica Belmont, I’ll see you online, until we catch up again IRL.
Speaker 4: So when you’re done you could press the button.
Speaker 2: I did three rounds.
Speaker 4: Three rounds?
Speaker 2: Yeah.
Speaker 4: You turned it you press it three times?
Speaker 2: Yeah.
Speaker 4: I don’t think that that works that way, I think you got one press of the completed task button.
Speaker 2: No.
Speaker 4: Yeah.
Speaker 2: No.
Speaker 4: Yeah.
Speaker 2: No.