Morris minors and machine slots

Natasha Schüll’s study of machine gambling, Addiction by Design, won a lot of prizes when it came out in 2013.  But it’s had nil splashback on digital games – which is curious.  Most games rely on the operation of chance – or at least unpredictability – in order to unfold.  So an understanding of how and why ‘pure’ chance entrances people would seem to be a truly handy thing to have in your back pocket.  “Know your ingredients” as Joy of Cooking would say.    (18 million copies and counting!)

There is certainly a strong parallel between the revenue structure of free to play games and the revenue structure of machine games: for both, the overwhelming bulk of their revenue comes from a small number of players.  Revenue concentration in f2p is even higher than it is in slots machines – as physical machine slots carry an entry price.

But no.  There’s no quicker way to annoy your common or garden variety digital games person (designer or player) than to suggest that gambling and ‘real’ games share important design patterns.  If you are feeling brave and want to try it, I advise you to stand well back first.   (Unless, of course,  they’re into social casino – which is definitely a story for another day.)

There are other problems with using Schüll’s ethnography as a cookbook for supplying top recipes for ‘chance entrancement.   For one thing, her study  documents the detrimental effect that machine games have on some players.

For Schüll, this arises from a fundamental structural asymmetry between gamblers and the industry that supplies them:

“The gambler not only can’t win, but isn’t playing to win, while the gambling industry is playing to win all along.”

“The relationship that exists between players and the industry is not so much a clash between two systems of value as it is an asymmetric interdependency between a system of value extraction that plays by the economic rules of the market, and a fleeting zone of non-value in which those rules are, for the player, suspended.” p. 72

Not only is the problem that the relationship is asymmetric, but, according to some researchers, the design of the games is such that

“impaired control and subsequent problem development are an understandable and ‘natural’ consequences of regular high intensity [machine] play” p 16

As Schüll explains it, the industry,  by contrast, treats addiction risk as inhering in characteristics of the player, rather than the design characteristics of the gambles they partake in.  Schüll preserves a more or less discreet silence on this issue – except, perhaps, for the hint in her book’s title.

Many of the people who are the subjects of Schüll’s case studies have life histories of abuse, anxiety and rejection, and other very serious challenges.    The close focus provided by her enthographic lens leaves us none the wiser about whether her addicted subjects are typical.  Perhaps they experience a high baseline level of suffering which is relieved by the experience of gambling,  and this makes the experience more risky for them?  Less data about more people would help untangle this, of course – but that’s not the game she plays.

It is obvious that some players of machine slots become addicted.  Whether this has to do more with an individual’s predisposition to addiction, or more to do with an experience design which is intended, from the ground up, to create addiction in any player, is not entirely clear.  Common sense would suggest that both factors are important.

Whatever the answer, there’s the issue of whether it’s good to design things that some – but not all – people may have serious problems with.    You could apply a similar ethical question to the creation of cakes, or cocktails.  Or digital games – whether f2p or not.

But even putting moral qualms aside to prove,  in a low oven with a wet cloth over them, there is very different but equally difficult problem with using Schull as a cookbook: an utter lack specificity over mechanism.

She goes into a goodly amount of detail, and also has interesting insights about:

  • the phenomenology of the machine gambler’s experience (which I summarise in another post)
  • design tricks which are used to induce that experience

What you don’t get, is any deep insight into how the designers’ tricks – some of which are very tricky indeed – work to create the powerful and nihilistic phenomenal experiences she documents.   It’s like showing separate pictures of two gears, without showing how they engage, except via a hand wave at ‘math farms’ and ‘random reinforcement schedules’.

So, like any interesting piece of work, her book creates more questions.

One thing that’s clear to me that machine slots are like Morris Minors.   The Morris Minor displays the high forehead and concentrated stereotypical ‘cute’ features of a baby.  This leads to a heightened response to take care of it.   No matter that they stopped production decades ago, and fall apart the moment you turn your back or slam the door.   They are still cute.   You still want to put money into them.

They act as a kind of super stimulus, abstracted and distilled from what you would expect to find in nature, producing a response which seems inappropriate, but may simply be the result of heuristics gone wrong, in contexts which supply powerful but misleading cues.

The plot line of machine slot inputs and outcomes probably performs a similar similitude function to real world features – although what the feature detection hierarchy is that is responsible for their power has yet to be fully explained.

Morris Minor 1000 Source: /0/06/Morris_Minor_1000_1958.jpg


Strata: liberal arts meets data science, and things get important

I applied for a speaking slot at Strata’s first London event so that I could get a comp to the conference – and much to my delight, I got one. Alongside singing for my supper and trying to attend 3 tracks simultaneously, I kept myself entertained by trying to work out the culture of the event.

The audience was mostly guys – and when I say ‘mostly’ I really mean all-except-for-a-handful. But there wasn’t a frat house or trading floor or rubgy locker room kind of vibe. I would say the atmosphere was quiet and scholarly. Rather like the tea room at the British Library, but with fewer eccentric hats. In fact I only saw one. (It was a good one, though.)

There was a huge aura of earnestness and seriousness and importance-ness to the keynote agenda. I do expect a data conference to be serious. It’s only proper.  But there was a particular flavour of seriousness in this conference that was new to me.

All the keynotes (agenda here) were strong, and some were marvellous. What they had in common was not so much a concern with data, but a concern with historical, political, and social perspectives, and transformative uses. So much so that I suspect that many (perhaps too many) of the speakers had been set the same essay question.

Everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet. Everyone was doing it well, and there were some truly astounding soloists. It all added up to a stirring performance in which I felt a twinge of reflected purpose, or glory, or somesuch.

I think this is what happens when you mix liberal arts with data science, and put some heat under the mashup. If you are looking for some inspiration – or you are wondering what on earth I’m talking about –  I’d say go ahead and check out any of the keynotes, which are all online on YouTube. 

If you were to check out only one, I’d suggest:  Ben Goldacre, on his quest to out the Dark Data from ‘missing’ clinical trials, using social media.  Unsuprisingly, his details show that he is available for after-dinner speaking and also may be booked through his agent.

I also really liked  Mark Madsen on Information overloadGeorge Dyson, on The first 5 kilobytes are the hardestJake Porway,  on Good data, good values, Jeni Tenison, on Open data: dreams to reality,  and Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino on The quiet comfort of the internet of things.   But I don’t think you can go seriously amiss by checking out any of the tallks.   Enjoy.

Greed, envy and joy: are social games anti-social?

I’ve recently read two interesting and different criticisms of social games:

  • one, which I’ll call the ‘not a real game’ criticism,  is that games like Zynga’s Farmville are good products, but not good games: they may be addictive, but they are not very interesting  (e.g.  Nick Saint in BusinessInsider, and the Project Horseshoe social games manifesto) 
  • another, darker, strand is that games like Farmville are anti-social – more specifically they are sociopathic (see Liszkiewicz’s talk at SUNY Buffalo, posted on MediaCommons)

It would be silly to confuse ‘being a good game’ with ‘being like a good video game’.   Yet this is what some gaming enthusiasts seem to be doing in their criticism of social games.    This is barking up the wrong tree – the squirrel is somewhere else.  Social games are not the same as traditional video games.    Games which demand immersion and commitment don’t seem to work well on social networks, as Playfish co-founder Sebastien de Halleux explained at the recent Social Media summit, while justifying why they had recently axed two titles which seemed to demand too much commitment and immersion for their users.   de Halleux argues that the dynamics of social games which sustain attraction are different, having to do with social exchange, self-expression, and what he calls ‘social emotions’.    It seems that people who are enthusiasts of traditional video games will not find the thrills they seek in social games.   (The same could be said of afficionados of  traditional MUDs and MOOs.)

So, social games are different.   But are they good? 

It would be silly to confuse being good with being successful.    I am sure we can all think of examples of nations, companies, products, and people who are successful, but could not, even with your glass more than half full (or entirely empty), be described as ‘good’.     

Are social games actually sociopathic, as Liszkiewicz claims?   I’ m afraid the specifics of Liszkiewicz’s argument just irritate me.     According to his trope, no commercial system which benefits from users investing their social capital, could ever be a game, or, indeed, could ever be good.   I can’t sign up for this, and  I’m not going to invest any more of my time – or yours – on it.    But the underlying question Liszkiewicz poses is worth thinking about:   what value do we create for ourselves, for our friends,  and for our societies, by participation in social games?

In Christianity, particularly Catholicism, we are abjured to abstain from the Seven Deadly Sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.  Buddhism has its own very similar teachings,  in which we are encouraged to beware of  the ‘Five Hindrances’, negative mental states which interfere with our ability to cultivate our mind:    sensual desire, ill-will, sloth, restlessness, and doubt.   You would not have to look far to find other, similar advice which has been honed in the wind-tunnel of time.

If there is no appeal to emotion, there will be no engagement in a game.    The mind must inhabit the body, and the world.  The game, to appeal,  must engage the mind and body.   But, in the appeal to emotion,  if we appeal only to those emotions which deliver arousal, but disturb and threaten our well-being, we are not doing ourselves, or our social ecologies,  any favours.   

First – and it seems a long time ago since 2007  – there was Facebook fatigue.    Now, it seems, we have Social game fatigue.  The challenge for the industry is to combine sustainability and success, ethics and excellence.   I don’t know if Jane McGonigle is right when she claims, in her TED talk,  that games can make a better world.    But I do know that it won’t happen unless we try.