I wanted to write about games as a medium, particularly video games. I wanted to write about the way they offer new opportunities for storytelling, the way they allow players to have a form of complete character embodiment that those of us who write fiction can only dream about. That they’ve altered our conceptions of identity, explored the ethics of choice and consequence, reimagined our notions of time and mortality. I wanted to write about games because they get a bad rap compared with even the now-rehabilitated form of comic books. I wanted to make clear that they’re blamed for mass shootings on a yearly basis not simply because of the typical rage against the new, but because of a recognition that the way they tell their stories is powerful, overwhelming, and yes maybe even a little bit dangerous.
Soon after starting, though, I realized how the vast majority of games I actually play, the ones I will sit in front of my television set for hours on end staring at with unblinking eyes, are rarely the transformative experiences I was describing. The ones I spend most of my time on are repetitive. Their stories, if they have one, usually range from laughable to embarrassing. The ones I spend most of my time on, the ones that most people spend their time on, are a simple form of entertainment that’s half Roland Emmerich flick, half slot machine. Yet my understanding of this does little to keep me from spending another evening playing them.
I don’t know of any gamer who hasn’t battled addiction at least once, though maybe that’s not the right word for it. All I know is that sometimes it’s only temporary, like a small fever that quickly disappears the next morning. A significant other heads out of town for the weekend and two days alone becomes two 20-hour sessions of the new Fallout. A Dark Souls sequel is released and suddenly half your annual vacation days get spent mastering a harsh new world. But then it’s over. When the end credits start rolling, life returns to normal, a few hours disappeared into the quicksand of flashing lights and simulated movement, but nothing worse than that.
Sometimes, though, the games get out of hand and start encroaching on other aspects of life. I have watched a friend skip out on his roommate’s birthday party in order to rendezvous with his guild in an MMO, another friend leave a conversation mid-sentence in order to deal with the latest catastrophe happening in Eve Online. I have a friend who purchased a new game rather than pay his rent and, as a result, was evicted, and another who wouldn’t leave his house for months because he feared falling behind in the League of Legends competitive scene. None of these are the actions of healthy people, ones who were playing “just a game.”
Or if we do insist that these are just games, then why do we forget that fact, sometimes temporarily and sometimes for months, years, perhaps even longer.
Inside the Skinner Box 1
Given slightly different circumstances, B.F. Skinner might have become a great novelist. He studied English as an undergraduate at Hamilton College, and after graduation spent a year working on stories and newspaper articles under the mentorship of Robert Frost. Nothing really came of it, though, at least not as much as he’d hoped. While working at a bookstore in New York he came upon the works of Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson, a pair of psychologists with a decidedly scientific bent. In contrast to their European counterparts like Sigmund Freud, Pavlov and Watson were interested in theorizing the mind through observable phenomenon, not simply by interpreting dreams and analyzing what people “thought.” Their belief was that the most telling way of seeing how a person’s mind worked was observing them in action. Maybe this vein of thought simply appealed to the writer in Skinner, with its emphasis on showing rather than telling. In any case, he put his literary ambitions on hold and applied to the psychology graduate program at Harvard.
Sometime during 1930 and 1931, while still studying at Harvard, Skinner designed what he called an “operant conditioning chamber”—which the world would soon take to calling a “Skinner Box.” His idol Watson had posited that everything about animal behavior could be determined by patterns of stimuli and responses. Watson believed so completely in this theory that he denied the existence of a mind or even the idea of consciousness; to him humans were simply complex machines. He said, “The rule, or measuring rod, which the behaviorist puts in front of him always is: Can I describe this bit of behavior I see in terms of ‘stimulus and response’?” A psychologist’s job was simply to figure out how exactly this machine’s programming worked, what the inputs and outputs were, the ones and zeros. Skinner didn’t quite believe in this anti-humanist form of Behaviorism to the same extent that Watson did. He believed in the existence of human minds (or at least he professed to much later in life), but simply thought that it was more productive to understand behavior through the lens of phenotypic causality.
Perhaps Skinner’s greatest contribution to the culture was the idea that free will is an illusion. At least, that’s what my father, an avowed follower of Skinner and behaviorism, always repeated to us when my brothers and I were growing up. My father, a defense attorney, always made it clear that it was simply the environment that made his clients break the law, and used this defense countless times in his career. Likewise, it wasn’t our fault when we, his children, screwed up: we’d simply been “programmed” wrong and it was his job, using Skinnerian psychology, to fix us.
The Skinner Box was the ultimate expression of this way of viewing human behavior. A subject, perhaps a white lab rat, perhaps a person, is put in an environment with a lever they can pull. At first, there’s nothing else in the environment, just four walls and the lever. If it’s pulled, one of three things will happen: something neutral, something good (a reinforcer), or something bad (a punisher). For instance, nothing at all might happen, or you might receive a dollar, or you might receive an electrical shock. The complexity of the animal in the box hardly mattered, and in time Skinner so thoroughly mastered the manipulation of animal behavior that he managed to teach pigeons to play table tennis. This is not an exaggeration or a joke, though how aware these pigeons were of what they were doing is debatable.
My dad used to say that just like Skinner with his pigeons, he could train us to do anything, from playing musical instruments to simply keeping our rooms clean, if only he had the patience.
This was Skinner’s first attempt at rationalizing and mechanizing thought. Later on he would try this again with his “aircrib,” a mechanical crib that responded to a baby’s cries by changing the child’s environment, for instance raising or lowering the temperature. Treating the body as a machine, with binary responses to stimuli and measurable emotions—happiness that can be understood as a function of direction proportion to amount of crying—is essential to Skinner’s conception of humanity. When Skinner returned to writing much later in his career, he wrote the utopian novel Walden II about a society founded by a group of academics after World War II. What made this community most perfect of all, both to Skinner and to its fictional inhabitants, was that everyone in its world rejected free will. They had a sort of consciousness, but understood that it was simply a biological byproduct of their essentially machinelike nature.
Almost all video games operate as Skinner Boxes. Defeat the evil monster and there is a chance that something good will happen, for instance the monster drops a rare item that will make your next attempt at fighting him easier. Don’t fight the monster at all and nothing will happen. Fight him and die and something bad, perhaps losing your experience points, will happen.
This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Whenever my aunt visited us in Albuquerque (she lived in Santa Fe), she took anyone in the family who might be interested to a local bookstore, Page 1, where she had essentially infinite store credit from selling used books in a scam I probably shouldn’t talk too much about publicly. For a little while, Page 1 also stocked computer games. As a devoted follower of J.R.R. Tolkien—the type who re-read the Lord of the Rings every year since the fourth grade and lapped up dozens of books by his lesser disciples in the hope that some of them would be half as good as the originals—one game’s box attracted me more than the others. Its cover featured two piratical-looking men staring at each other, one an orc and the other a human. This standoff was framed by a glossy silver border and, more important than anything else, text right below the box’s cover that read, “Now Compete Free* Over The Internet.”
The game was called Warcraft II: Battle.net Edition, and I knew practically nothing about it aside from the images on its cover and some screenshots of pixellated art on the back of the box. The line about competing on the internet is what really mattered, as I’d recently moved to the other side of town from where my friends lived and I’d been growing increasingly lonely. Battle.net was a simple online platform that allowed owners of Blizzard Entertainment’s games to play against each other. It featured “lobbies” where players could talk between games, as well as lists of matches waiting for players, organized by title or type (team, free for all, etc.) that updated regularly. This game looked like the palliative I needed, not just a single adventure I would beat and move on from like so many in the past, but an endless series of games I could play without getting bored. Although my aunt was leary of giving me a game rather than a book, she’d always had trouble saying no to her nephews so she soon acquiesced.
At school, I grew increasingly miserable. It seemed like all of my friends were dating, going out to parties with high school students, making out and drinking 40s after school in the alleys and parks back on the other side of town. So I stopped trying. After school, I would play Warcraft II and soon afterwards Starcraft, which used the same matchmaking service but was in every conceivable way a much better game, the 20-year Laphroaig to Warcraft II’s Dewar’s 12.
I played Starcraft seven days a week, every week, especially after a kid at school invited me into his clan. We didn’t talk at school, didn’t even know what to say to each other when it was just the two of us and we could share video game stories without feeling ashamed. But we played online for hours on end. Our clan had more than 100 members, and some of us weren’t half bad, which might not be a surprise considering that many of us were devoting 40+ hours a week to Starcraft.
During the spring semester of eighth grade a girl named Lisa made it known to our mutual friends that she found me, for reasons unclear to all parties involved, attractive. That’s right, she wanted to go out with me. After learning about this, I had essentially no choice but to ask her out. Those were the rules.
Lisa was smart, with dark skin and darker hair and a cynical demeanor that wasn’t too far from TV’s Daria. There was nothing I didn’t like about her. I asked her aside before math class one day, then stumbled through a memorized monologue about how we should, you know, go out together. She offered a cute half-smile and agreed, so we held hands until we reached the classroom’s threshold 100 feet away. I had no idea what “going out” with Lisa meant we should do, and I was too afraid to ask. So instead of doing something with her after school, either that day or any day in the future, I played Starcraft.
I played Starcraft at least three hours a night, every night. I would play from when I got home until dinner time, then after dinner until my parents either kicked me off or made me go to bed. Weeks went by this way. Lisa began getting antsy about me. Why was I ignoring her? Why didn’t I try to go to a movie with her, to hang out with her after school? Why was my phone line always busy when she called?
It was busy because internet connections during that period required a phone line, and my phone line was always being used for Starcraft, much to my parents’ general hatred. If I played I wouldn’t have to talk to her and wouldn’t have to figure out how to have a girlfriend. If I played then I was assured success at something instead of fumbling my way through a risky endeavor. When I played Starcraft I had control of the game and knew the intricacies of every unit, every map, every possible scenario. With Lisa I was completely lost.
By the beginning of the summer, I barely knew how to have friends. How could I have a girlfriend? Not that our “relationship” lasted that long. One day I found out we were over. Not from Lisa, or even from one of her friends, I just heard that Lisa had made out with someone else at Altura park after school. She might have wished it were me and simply gone with someone else because I was never there; more likely though, by then she was probably more than happy that it wasn’t.
Early in ninth grade my parents banned me from the internet in general, Starcraft in particular. I’d long since stopped getting better at the game, and I wasn’t even interested in that aspect anymore. I played in order to turn off my brain, not to think about strategy or figure out a new build order for countering a Zerg rush. Starcraft was just a thing that I did to avoid Lisa and my friends and my problems. It was a way of killing time.
Inside the Skinner Box 2
Video games are Skinner Boxes, but then again, almost everything in life is a Skinner Box once you learn to see things that way. If your entire view of humans is that we are robots with input and output, that we simply respond to stimuli, there is ultimately very little that can be done to dissuade you of this fact. Behaviorism may be overly simplistic, but that doesn’t mean that it’s entirely false.
One of the problems with games, especially ones that put an emphasis on narrative, is that there is almost no other way they can work besides through Skinnerian reinforcement. Actions and dialogue trees that determine character interactions are obviously based on input and output, and with this easy to track. A guide book can tell you to say x in order to get response y from a character, which is all kinds of a problem in terms of learning how to deal with other humans but completely integral to how games work.
But then, the input and output of dialogue and actions are also the same way in which we interact with other humans. How we or another human being actually thinks and feels is always something impossible to grasp, so we deal with one another phenotypically. We gauge their response, whether they smile or glare, thank us or begin screaming in our face. From this, we try to judge what they’re thinking and feeling, but it’s impossible to really know what’s going on behind another person’s set of eyes. That this is the case is so much of why literature, which can offers us glimpses of this hidden interiority, is so vital.
Also true if you learn to see things this way: everything in life is a game.
That this conclusion is both difficult to avoid and an absolutely crushing, terrible way to envision the world is one of the intractable problems with living in contemporary America. If your relationship with other humans becomes like that of your relationship with video game characters, your ability to carry on normal human relationships, to have empathy for those you see and interact with, becomes greatly diminished. Sometimes it goes away completely.
Put another way: Does it make you feel better or worse to know that the 13-year-old yelling racial and homophobic slurs at the other end of your Call of Duty voicechat does not think of you as a person, but rather, as a part of the game they are currently playing? That the people who threatened Anita Sarkesian’s life thought they were playing a game? Or that the man who leaked nude pictures of Zoe Quinn had completely lost track of reality and began thinking of their relationship as one of numbers and statistics rather than emotions and feelings?
Put another way: What is it that separates a true Skinnerian, or video game addict, from a sociopath?
In 2010, The Guardian published an essay by one of my favorite living writers, Tom Bissell, titled “Video Games: The Addiction.” An exploration of the relationship between cocaine and Grand Theft Auto IV, it begins by saying:
Once upon a time, I wrote in the morning, jogged in the late afternoon, and spent most of my evenings reading. Once upon a time, I wrote off as unproductive those days in which I had managed to put down “only” a thousand words. Once upon a time, I played video games almost exclusively with friends. Once upon a time, I did occasionally binge on games, but these binges rarely had less than fortnight between them. Once upon a time, I was, more or less, content.
… These days, however, I am lucky if I finish reading one book every fortnight. These days, I have read from start to finish exactly two works of fiction—excepting those I was not also reviewing—in the last year. These days, I play video games in the morning, play video games in the afternoon, and spend my evenings playing video games.
When I first read this essay, what fascinated me so much about it was the point of view, the fact that like myself Bissell was a writer not particularly drawn in by a game’s writing or characters. So then what was the hook for a person who felt called to devote their life to the type of empathy we try to produce on the page?
As Bissell told it in his essay, it was the freedom to do whatever he wanted—within constraints. “My friend’s promise that you could do anything you wanted in Vice City proved to be an exaggeration,k but not by very much.” The game offered endless exploration, of a sort, but within a definite and definable world. It offered procedural stories, infinite stories, and while perhaps they were meaningless, they were always novel. The game offered the illusion of always finding new levers to pull, new rules that might lead to different outcomes, and learning what all of these interlinking levers did was the real draw.. “Liberty City … is the real central character of GTAIV,” he writes. The first time he played Grand Theft Auto IV, Bissell played it for thirty hours straight.
Players like Bisell become lost in the puzzle, in the work itself. “You have to appreciate it,” said Bisslll, describing both cocaine and GTAIV. “It does not come to you.” Most games that really hook you unveil their complexity slowly, as you grow to master their varying systems. By allowing players to create their own stories through emergent systems, games offer writers everything they could hope for, dream of, but all within a safe apparatus. This type of playing is almost like artistic expression, only the risks are all removed.
In some games there are arbitrary signifiers that tell players just how well they have learned its systems, its levers. Having a 340 light level-character in Destiny instead of a 395 light level-character doesn’t matter to anyone outside of the game, but to players within it, that’s the difference between a scrub and a veteran. The complexity of a game’s systems matter because of the way they trap our minds, the way they make the part of us that enjoys puzzle marvel at just how many levers there really are inside the box.
The action has to be sufficient, has to be nearly limitless in order for a player to become compulsive. GTAIV’s sandbox had to offer so many possibilities that Bissell could never experience all of them, with emergent stories eclipsing the designers’ carefully crafted but finite series of storyline missions. A Call of Duty single-player campaign is a summer blockbuster; a Call of Duty multiplayer mode, with 80 base levels after which a player elects to go back down to level zero for a prestige mode and then tries to obtain 10 prestige levels making for 800 player levels, is straight and uncut and feeds directly into the brain.
Bissell writes, “Video games and cocaine feed on my impulsiveness, reinforce my love of solitude, and make me feel good and bad in equal measure.” Yet, he also writes, “I do know that video games have enriched my life.” He broke his habit with cocaine, but stayed with video games, writing more criticism and soon becoming part of the industry by writing for games like Gears of War: Judgment and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.
Inside the Loot Cave
In 2014, Bungie Entertainment, which began as a niche Macintosh developer with series like Marathon and Myth and then became internationally famous with Halo, released its magnum opus: Destiny. The game was first teased back in 2009 as an easter egg hidden in Halo: ODST, and according to Activision CEO Robert Kotick, it cost $500 million to make.
Here’s how Kirk Hamilton began his review of Destiny for Kotaku:
I’m standing in front of a cave, my assault rifle drawn. I’m shooting at a steady stream of identical aliens. I do this for an hour, hoping an alien will drop a good enough item so I can finally feel okay about walking away. That moment never seems to come. That’s Destiny.
What Hamilton describes here is not the core gameplay of Destiny, but rather an outlier that the developer eventually removed from the game, mostly because the enjoyment of this “Loot Cave” Hamilton and so many others stood in front of eclipsed the Destiny experience. Simply put, the Loot Cave was more “fun” than playing Destiny proper, and the only way to change this was not to “fix” the game, but to remove the cave entirely. In a way, Bungie had created two games, Destiny and Loot Cave, one with varied content but disappointing rewards and the other with unvaried, completely bland and meaningless content but ever-so-slightly better rewards.
For most players, Loot Cave was the better game, or at least the one they spent more time playing. Hamilton describes it in greater depth later in the review:
Here’s how the Loot Cave works: The cave itself is located in one of the game’s sizable open levels. You stand outside and shoot the enemies that come out of it. If you kill all the enemies before they can leave, the game spawns more of them, creating an essentially unbroken stream of cannon fodder for you. Since every enemy killed has a chance of dropping some sort of weapon or armor, in about a half an hour the cave will be covered in gleaming rewards.
Word of the Loot Cave spread fast, and if you visited the cave any time last weekend, you’d find a bunch of players sitting out there, mindlessly slaughtering the aliens inside it. Not just sometimes—every time you passed the cave. How many players are standing there even as you read this, staring down a gun barrel into a cave, blithely pulling the trigger again, and again?
Two things are particularly important about the Loot Cave. The first is that, aside from variety of gameplay, there is little to differentiate shooting down this Loot Cave from any other activity within the game. Because of this, I fear that to my readers who don’t play video games what’s egregious about Hamilton’s description will not be immediately evident. Suffice to say, what he’s describing is exactly as mindless as it sounds, a game distilled to its most basic elements in as dull a fashion as could be imagine. The second is that the Loot Cave is a perfect Skinner Box.
At the end of his review, Hamilton analogizes the draw of the Loot Cave to “the pull of … slot machines.” This is understandable, especially given the article’s thesis statement many paragraphs earlier: “Destiny can be a cruel, exploitative game. It is deliberately unsurprising in so many ways, yet brilliantly bold in others It’s usually a lot of fun, except when it aggressively isn’t. I can’t stop playing.” As of this writing, Hamilton has played more than 1100 hours of Destiny and regularly covers it for Kotaku.
After Bungie removed the Loot Cave from Destiny, it claimed that the Loot Cave did not drop better items than elsewhere in the game, but rather, that players convinced themselves this was the case. Whether or not their statement is true is impossible to judge. I’m not really sure it matters.
At the end of my freshman year in college, I entered into my first serious relationship. We both wrote for the campus humor magazine, and lived in the same “college,” which was Yale’s fancy name for its Harry Potter-esque dormitory structure. It wasn’t until the next next year, after I moved into her room, that it became clear things weren’t alright, either with her or us. She seemed to be ditching a lot of classes, and those she did attend she pretty much ignored the rest of the time. Homework for statistics and Chinese piled up on her desk, at first unfinished and later unattempted. By the end of the semester there were days she didn’t leave bed, and other days where I was pretty certain that after dinner she went to the bathroom to throw up. I didn’t know how to talk about this, though, so I didn’t.
What I did do was purchase a used Gamecube off a friend of mine in Albuquerque and hook it up to an old tube television. I’d hit the alarm, quickly shower before class, then return home and wake her up. We’d play several hours of first Super Smash Bros. Melee and later Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, not talking about the classes she was dropping or the way she went weeks without seeing her friends aside from in the dining hall. She was absent, except on the screen, so that was what we did, occasionally marathoning television shows but more often simply going back over the same race tracks over and over again.
The beauty of those games was that they offered us a way of being together without having to actually say anything, to communicate in any meaningful way. She played as Bowser and I played as Pikachu and we knew the rules of the game and what it would take to win a match and that was it. Classes were difficult, people were even worse, but those games were comprehensible, concrete. Best of all, they offered a small venue over which we had complete control even while everything else in life was falling apart. You could win a game in a way you couldn’t win against bulimia, against depression, against social anxiety or self-hatred. Once the lights are off, you’re no longer yourself, you’re the car, you’re the avatar, and the only problems in the world are their problems, all of which are made to be solvable. In a world being shattered by complexity and abstraction, the confusion of the real, they offered us exactly the distraction we needed.
After returning from winter break, we almost broke up, largely because I’d stopped talking to her while I was on vacation with my family. I hadn’t known what to say to her for a long time outside of when we were playing games, so my only communication was silence. That didn’t last long, though, because playing Double Dash didn’t mean we had to talk about anything, or even had to necessarily like each other all the time. All didn’t need to be forgiven, we just needed to work as a team to win every race at every level of difficulty, and trying that meant playing over and over again in order to incrementally improve as players to beat the game’s infamous rubber-band AI.
As things got more difficult, she left the magazine, and I stopped even asking about classes. But we both purchased Nintendo DS’s so we could play the new Mario Kart DS together. She also purchased Animal Crossing: Wild World so she had something to play when I happened to be gone or busy, doing things like writing essays for class or comedy pieces for the magazine, which really she should’ve been doing as well but if I wasn’t going to ask about that earlier then now was far too late. Come spring break, she went home and dropped out entirely for mental health reasons.
Every novel reflects the circumstances of its creation, but Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler managed to do this in a way that would sound like an overly cute, post-modern Brooklynite MFA conceit were its circumstances not so dire and its translation’s prose not so uniquely 19th-century-Russian earnest. For those unfamiliar with Dostoyevsky, here’s a quick crash course of his biography. After beginning his career as something of a progressive social novelist, writing about the plight of the Russian lower class (his first novel was titled Poor Folk and reads pretty much how you’d think), he was arrested for his activities as a member of the Petrashevsky circle and reading/distributing banned literature. He was then mock-executed by the state and imprisoned in a labor camp, where he would reside for the next four years of his life with his limbs shackled and nothing to read except for the New Testament.
Following his release (such as it was—he was forced to serve for four more years in the military), Dostoyevsky was a changed man. He no longer wrote about the plight of the Russian poor or the need for political reforms, he aimed for something higher. For him, writing became a sort of religious mission, and so he would write about nothing less than the human soul and its strained relationship with God. This led him to create the great, sprawling Russian epics that he’s best known for, Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov. Along the way, though, Dostoevsky made a trip to Paris, and while there couldn’t keep himself away from the roulette tables. This, combined with the death of his brother and the collapse of his literary journal,was enough to ruin him financially. In order to stay afloat, he was forced to make a deal of sorts with an unscrupulous publisher.
This deal was a form of bet, and one that it looked like Dostoyevsky would lose. In order to pay off creditors (and avoiding creditors was largely why Dostoevsky was milling around Europe in the first place), he sold the rights to a collected edition of his works, with a clause saying that he would also deliver by November 1 a new novel. If he failed at this, the publisher would receive Dostoyevsky’s royalty rights for the next nine years. Meanwhile, Dostoyevsky was in the middle of Crime and Punishment, which it became clear he wouldn’t be finishing quickly enough to honor the contract. Rather than rush that novel to a close, he decided on the much crazier course of action and, with the help of a stenographer (who he would soon marry), dashed off a more than 60,000-word (in English) novel in 22 days. He called it, perhaps too fittingly, The Gambler.
To summarize: Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler in order to win at a bet he was forced to make due to gambling losses.You probably don’t need me to tell you right now that the book is by all accounts very autobiographical (its love interest even shares the same name as Dostoyevsky’s own), because it’s not like he had enough time to think up anything else. The remarkable thing about The Gambler isn’t that it’s Dostoyevsky’s best novel (it’s not), or that it’s the earliest novel focused on gambling addiction (it may well not be this either, though if there’s an earlier one I’m yet to hear of it), it’s that the book exists at all.
So what does The Gambler have to tell us about gambling addiction? Plenty, though many of its observations should come as no surprise at this point in time, gaming addiction narratives being a less-than-novel part of the world nowadays. What’s striking about the book’s depiction of addiction isn’t in its story of how one man ruins his life through gambling, it’s in how contemporary all of its material feels, how easy it is to replace the word “gambler” with its near-synonym “gamer” and instantly transport the book’s setting from 19th-century Russia to 21st-century America. There are descriptions of the way Antonida Vasilevna, the book’s first addict, becomes “indifferent to everything else” to the point that she’s no longer able to sleep for want of roulette tables. The narrator tells us, “I could not but marvel at the way in which, for seven or eight hours at a stretch, she sat in that chair of hers, almost never leaving the table. … Every gambler knows how a person may sit a day and a night at cards, without ever casting a glance to right or to left.”
Dostoyevsky’s gamblers are compulsives who play the game because it is a game, to the point that Alexei Ivanovich, the book’s narrator-protagonist and second addict, tells us, “No, I had no desire for money for its own sake, for I was perfectly well aware that I should squander it.” By the end of the novel he is playing purely for the action, and money is simply a means of getting more time at roulette tables. “I suddenly … became obsessed with a desire to take risks.” At this point it doesn’t matter whether or not a Skinner Box responds with a shock or a food pellet, the important thing is that it’s responding, offering some form of mechanical stimuli. After Alexei does somehow win, he gives his money away until he needs to gamble again, creating his own feedback loop when the roulette tables have for once failed to do so for him.
The addiction Dostoyevsky describes is inhuman and unthinking, even though the very idea of computers is a century away from him. Alexei isn’t an active participant at the roulette table, rather he “was merely waiting, as it were, mechanically, and without reflection, for something.” What this something might be we never learn, and in fact this missing facet is the key to his addiction. Alexei is waiting for something to break this cycle, but he himself is powerless to do so. Roulette, like the ideal video game, is essentially endless, and though Alexei can escape from Dostoyevsky’s groan-inducingly named city Roulettenburg, it’s only a temporary respite. Once away from the tables, he’s listless, and his life loses all sense of urgency or importance. The novel ends with Alexei dreading his future yet unable to keep himself from betting away everything he owns.
As for Dostoyevsky, he continued gambling even after writing a novel about how this vice ruined a man’s life, and even after it nearly did the same to his own. For him, betting was much like how it was for Alexei, only initially about the money. “[Then there is the] most important thing—the game itself. You know how this can draw one in. No, I swear to you, it isn’t just about the profit,” he wrote to his friend, the poet E.P. Maikov. The fact of recognizing this “demon,” as he sometimes described it, did nothing to allow him to actually leave the roulette tables for good. He only managed to quit playing after a quasi-spiritual experience in which the quite racist author left a casino, destitute and despairing, in search of a Russian Orthodox church. What he thought to be a church, though, turned out to be a synagogue, and he took this as a sign from God to quit worshipping at what was to him a temple of money (again, very racist) for his redemption.
Leaving this addiction behind was so transformative an experience for Dostoyevsky that he analogized it to Christ’s rebirth. But how do those of us without access to a religious epiphany find a way out of Roulettenburg—or the contemporary cities now built in its image?
The User Research Lead and Customer Relationship Manager for Bungie Entertainment is Josh Hopson, who holds a PhD in Behavioral and Brain Sciences from Duke University. Before Hopson began working in game design, he wrote a piece for the industry-targeted website Gamasutra, an offshoot of Game Developer magazine, titled “Behavioral Game Design.” The piece begins by saying, “Every computer game is designed around the same central element: the player. While the hardware and software for games may change, the psychology underlying how players learn and react to the game is constant.” With this it’s clear that he views humans themselves as part of the apparatus of video games, an equal part with software and hardware. Humanity is the third part of the program, and our psychology is integral to creating a compelling game.
There’s nothing wrong with that (designing a program without keeping a user in mind is essentially pointless), however, it’s not the depth of human thought or emotion that he’s hoping to tap into. Instead, Hopson is interested in the most basic, surface level of interaction. “One hallmark of behavioral research,” he writes, “is that most of the major experimental discoveries are species-independent and can be found in anything from birds to fish to humans. What behavioral psychologists look for (and what will be our focus here) are general ‘rules’ for learning and how minds respond to their environment.” Rules are, of course, the fundamentals of computer programming, as well as game design. The locus of addiction, for hooking a player and creating compelling game design, is based upon rules that are unconcerned with we are birds or fish or even human.
Hopson could probably teach a pigeon to play Destiny if he really tried.
The goal of Hopson’s article is to make basic fundamentals of behavioral psychology understandable to laypeople. With this, he makes plain the relationship between his brand of game design and the Skinner Box, power ups in arcade games interchangeable with food pellets for rats. Hopson spends little time on this in his essay, though, because the relationship is so obvious that he doesn’t think it requires much explication. Instead, he’s concerned with min-maxing the ratio between rewarding a player and letting them do meaningless work towards a goal. How many times must a rat pull the lever to be rewarded with food? How many times must a player shoot into the Loot Cave in order to get a new gun?
Later in the essay, Hopson begins a new section with the heading, “How to Make Players Play Forever.” This is, in essence, the Holy Grail of game design, the thing that even World of Warcraft, the most successful game in the history of the medium (as of July 2012 it had grossed more than $10 billion, how much by now is impossible to guess) has been unable to pull off. “The short answer is to make sure that there is always, always a reason for the player to be playing,” writes Hopson. Well yes, this is obvious, but how is it possible to maintain interest for so many hours in the same activity forever and ever?
Joan Didion Writes in The White Album how, “There is … in all cultures in which gambling is the central activity, a lowered sexual energy, an inability to devote more than token attention to the preoccupations of the society outside. The action is everything, more consuming than sex, more immediate than politics; more important always than the acquisition of money, which is never, for the gambler, the true point of the exercise.” The central question of Hopson’s essay is how do you make the action infinite, and how do you make no payout the final one?
Hopson never writes about how to make a good game, or how to create compelling characters and stories that matter. He’s a psychologist, not an artist, so he’s interested in figuring out what levers we like pushing, not how to dress those levers up and make them a seamless part of the environment that players never intuit are really there. It’s implicit from the essay that these concerns are far less important to a successful game than creating the world’s most complex Skinner Box and simply putting players inside. The rest pretty much does itself.
10 years after this article was first posted, with Hopson now well inside the game industry and working full-time for Bungie, he wrote a follow-up. One section of this new article is called “There Is no Skinner Box.” Here he writes, “when critics of this approach describe games as Skinner Boxes, they completely miss the point of the Skinner Box … A Skinner Box is completely unnecessary to create operant conditioning.” If you view the world as a behaviorist, everything functions that way—there is no apparatus that’s not a Skinner Box. “There wouldn’t be any point to ‘putting players in a Skinner Box!'” Of course, a game is a box of sorts, a closed environment that we live in, virtual though it may be. It’s a simplified model of the real world and thus what Skinner hoped to create, only with more gears. It’s a bigger box, sometimes a seemingly infinite box, but the fact of the levers being pulled by a click of the mouse on an LCD screen changes nothing.
Ultimately, Hopson wants to defend a design theory that he says, “has been called ‘creepy’, ‘freaking disturbing’, and accused of promoting addiction.” But his defense doesn’t really achieve his intended effect: “For me, the starting place for this discussion has to be the fact that contingencies always exist and reinforcement learning is always going on.” Once you start the view the world as nothing but behavior, it’s difficult to stop. Once you begin to see everything as a game, there’s little that can dissuade you of that fact. None of which is to say that Hopson is wrong, only that he doesn’t necessarily understand why this has people so worried.
In a talk at the Game Developer’s Conference in March 2015, Hopson brought up Destiny’s notorious Loot Cave. “The funny thing is that we knew about [the Loot Cave] before launch, we knew that this was potentially exploitable activity, but we didn’t care.” Players spending hours of time shooting mindlessly into a dark cave wasn’t indicative of a problem. It was simply that the area caused users to complain about other users, who’d actively troll to keep the Loot Cave from functioning in the way it was intended by standing in the way. It was one of those complaints that made them remove the Loot Cave from the game, not the mindless repetition. The ones who tried to shut down the casino were the real troublemakers.
The Big Crunch
Jason Schreier’s essay for Kotaku “The Horrible World of Video Game Crunch” begins with the story of game developer Jessica Chavez.
In February of 2011, fresh off nine months’ worth of 80-hour work weeks, Jessica Chavez took a pair of scissors to her hair. She’d been working so hard on a video game—14 hours a day, six days a week—that she hadn’t even had a spare hour to go to the barber.
Chavez, who writes and edits text for the boutique publisher XSEED Games, says she dropped 10% of her body weight during this period, where she handled just about all the dialogue for the text-heavy role-playing game Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. By the end of the project, she weighed 99 lbs. (She’s 5’4.)
Crunch time, often simply called crunch, is a fairly self-explanatory word that refers to the period of game development in which those working on a game put in hours like Chavez. Crunch isn’t just a strange part of XSEED, it’s a simple fact of the game industry. Schrier calls it the industry’s “status quo,” and spend any length of time reading about how video games are made and the word will pop up again and again. Crunch is the mystery meat in games that gets turned into the sausage.
Because video games are a commercial art, crunch is about minimizing cost. Games have deadlines, and those need to be met, even if they’re unreasonable. The sad fact of the industry is that unreasonable deadlines are the standard. The assumption, when making a timeline for a video game’s release, is that there will be a large amount of crunch time put in by developers. Sometimes crunch time lasts for years.
Put simply, crunch time treats developers like automatons in a way that even Henry Ford thought was too detrimental a practice for his employee’s quality of life. Ford offered his employees the five-day work week and eight-hour work day because he knew otherwise they’d lose morale and quit. But Ford’s employees weren’t addicts.
In 2004, Erin Hoffman wrote anonymously under the name ea_spouse to tell the story of how crunch wrecked her relationship with her spouse, who also worked at Electronic Arts.
Electronic Arts offered a job, the salary was right and the benefits were good, so my SO took it. I remember that they asked him in one of the interviews: “how do you feel about working long hours?” It’s just a part of the game industry — few studios can avoid a crunch as deadlines loom, so we thought nothing of it. When asked for specifics about what “working long hours” meant, the interviewers coughed and glossed on to the next question; now we know why.
Crunch went from normal, i.e. 12 hours six days a week, to extreme, 13 hours seven days a week. Worse, “for the honor of this treatment EA salaried employees receive a) no overtime; b) no compensation time! (‘comp’ time is the equalization of time off for overtime — any hours spent during a crunch accrue into days off after the product has shipped); c) no additional sick or vacation leave.”
Crunch time is the flip side of player addiction, a paid-yet-forced practice of obsessing developers with the creation of their own games. No possibility for moderation exists, nor any possibility of an outside life. Although the purpose is different, the effects on people are similar, with developers going weeks or months without seeing friends or family, sleeping at their computers, ending relationships. Usually these are symptoms of addiction, not a healthy career, but of course there’s no reason why they can’t be both.
Why do smart, talented individuals put up with this practice? After all, as the internet’s commentators write, sticking with these jobs is the developer’s “choice.” No one forces you to stay at a job, and if crunch is really as life-ruining as claimed, why would anyone stay there?
Developers, though, are almost without exception passionate gamers. Hoffman writes, “No one works in the game industry unless they love what they do. No one on that team is interested in producing an inferior product. My heart bleeds for this team precisely BECAUSE they are brilliant, talented individuals out to create something great. They are and were more than willing to work hard for the success of the title.” Developers stick with it because they are hooked by games; the artificial addition of crunch couldn’t exist with the very real and personal addiction behind the scenes, the one that keeps people in their cubicles.
Could items of excess and compulsion be created in any other way? Could games be so entrancing if they weren’t made by those who are entranced? I’d like to think they could be, but I don’t think the industry will ever allow us to find out. Obsession seeths at every end of the industry. 60-, 80-, 100-working hours a week on any one thing cannot be healthy, but I have trouble seeing the difference in lifestyle, in happiness, between those writing the code and those loading it on their computers at home.
The Daily Grind
One commentator on Kirk Hamilton’s Destiny review wrote about the Loot Cave: “I shot at it for about an hour, until I stopped. The thought came to my mind, ‘If anyone asks me what was my most recent gaming experience, my answer would be that I had been shooting at a fucking cave for 60 minutes. What the fuck am I doing?'”
Another wrote: “I’m one of those weirdos that enjoys the grind, the loot cave is perfect for when I just want to zone out and maybe get something worthwhile out of it.”
Wikipedia‘s page on “Grinding (video gaming)” defines this verb as “a term used in video gaming to describe the process of engaging in repetitive tasks during video games.” It also includes the information that:
Synonyms for grinding include the figurative terms treadmilling (a comparison with exercise treadmills) and pushing the bar (it can be a reference to a weightlifter “pushing the bar” on a bench press, over and over to get muscle gains, or a reference to Skinner boxes in which animals, having learned that pushing a button will sometimes produce a treat, will devote time to pushing the bar over and over again, or also can be a graphical reference to push the character’s experience bar to higher values). Related terms include farming (in which the repetition is undertaken in order to obtain items, relating the activity to tending a farm field), and catassing, which refers to extended or obsessive play sessions. Used as a noun, a grind (or treadmill) is a designed in-game aspect which requires the player to engage in grinding.
The see also section of the page recommends the following pages: Time sink, Experience point, Level (video gaming), Progress Quest, and Skinner Box.
Mi Abuela y Roulettenburg
In the mid-90s Native American casinos began popping up around New Mexico. First came a few small ones like the original Cities of Gold Casino in Pojoaque, which opened in 1995 in an old school building converted into a full-fledged casino in just 90 days. But eventually gambling interests constructed enormous Las Vegas-style megaplexes like Sandia Resort & Casino, which pulls in more than $40 million annually. Today the state’s 28 casinos loom over a dozen counties and are an inseparable part of the desert landscape, sticking out above sand and weeds like neon revival tents drawing crowds of worshippers from miles around.
My grandmother Cecilia, a small hispanic woman with an imperious manner and a cutting sense of humor that always surprised anyone who didn’t know her well, had been a gambler for as long as anyone could remember. She wore a turquoise and pink Isleta Casino & Resort jacket without shame and made trips to Las Vegas annually, or whenever she could convince her husband to make that nine-hour drive, and looked forward to these trips with a gusto verging on recklessness. But with the arrival of tribal casinos, trips to Vegas were no longer a necessity. Suddenly there were more than two dozen casinos in the state, some as close as a 20-minute drive from her house.
Her favorite casino was the San Felipe Casino Hollywood, which she’d visit when travelling between her house in Albuquerque and her daughter’s in Santa Fe, a trip she made with increasing regularity every year, less because it was needed than because of the enticing pit stop. When we’d head over to her house for dinner, Cecilia would tell us about how much she’d won at video poker, the highs and lows she hit on her way to another jackpot. When we were older, she sometimes asked us if we wanted to go to the casinos with her. My parents never seemed thrilled about this, but at that point they were used to our gambling and didn’t really care. After all, it’s not like seeing your grandmother’s gambling problem up close was something that made the vice seem even remotely cool.
I only went to a casino with Cecilia once. I drove her, my aunt Pat, and my oldest brother Daniel to Sandia Casino, the closest one to Albuquerque (now there’s another one, The Downs Racetrack & Casino, literally within the city and walking distance away from my parents’ house, the legality of which I still don’t fully understand). It wasn’t the first time I’d been there, so I wasn’t dismayed by the droves of elderly Hispanic men and women colonizing the cavernous building in the middle of the afternoon. You needed to walk through the main room, a huge open area where seemingly every person floor chain-smoked, in order to get to the tiny no-smoking room off in one of the casino’s remote corners. Just from that short trip across the floor everything I wore stunk like I had a five-pack-a-day habit.
I wanted to see my grandmother gamble because she always talked about it with so much enthusiasm. She was still cynical about it, making fun of the other gamblers (“suckers”) or the goofy design gimmicks on all the slot machines, but that didn’t take away from her obvious excitement, a giddy energy and restlessness I’d rarely seen in her before. My dad’s parents had always been omnipresent in my life, to the point that I couldn’t imagine growing up without them there for every holiday or recital or other family event, but far more so than my parents, it had always been difficult to understand them as people. My grandfather had been retired since before I was born and Cecilia’s work had always been sporadic, so what did they do all day? What made their lives worth living? They didn’t have money problems, so it had to be something about the gambling experience itself that was so exciting as to keep my grandmother always making excuses to take another trip to Santa Fe for one of her “pit stops.”
She sat down at a machine adorned with the usual array of glowing lights and neon decals, entered ten cents into it, and played a hand of video poker. I don’t remember if she won or not, but either way, she put another 10 cents in and played a hand. Then she played another. Her face wasn’t excited or disappointed—it was passive, devoid of any visible thoughts beyond the rote decision-making of choosing virtual cards for her hand. I remember that at one point she won a few dollars, then gave me ten cents and said I could play it for her on the next machine. I did, and I lost.
I watched for the next little while as my grandmother played dozens, maybe hundreds, more hands of video poker. She played almost in a trance, not talking to me about the game or anything else, her concentration fully taken up by pushing those small, lighted buttons at the front of the machine. Soon I was completely bored. I asked if she’d mind if I went to play blackjack, which had been my raison d’etre in casinos long before I was actually allowed to play in them, having learned how to count cards at the beginning of high school. She didn’t, so I left her for the next 45 minutes to try and win a few quick bucks doing something I actually enjoyed.
When I returned, my grandmother was still there, and the scene looked identical to when I’d left her. Cecilia’s eyes still looked straight at the machine’s LCD monitor and she tapped the buttons seemingly without even taking the time to consider her choices. It took me a few seconds to get her attention, and when I asked to leave she was reluctant, though uncomplaining. We exited the casino, and on the ride home Cecilia told me about some of the fantastic wins she’d had. She was elated. From the way she explained it, the entire trip had been an adventure, filled with more drama than her favorite telenovela.
Every Christmas for the last few years of her life, my brothers and I gave my grandmother a $100 gift certificate to a casino. It wasn’t that we were thrilled about her hobby, or vice, if you wanted to think of it that way. It’s that we didn’t know what else to give her as a present. As far as I could tell, she had no other hobbies or interests, which seemed odd and pretty depressing to me. It was only years later that I realized how many of my gamer friends also had no other hobbies or interests. She wanted to gamble, so we gave her an easy means to do so, the same way you’d gift a $50 Zynga or Nintendo eShop card to a child. The same way I asked my parents for a game cartridge for my birthday nearly every year from grades 2-12, and my mom would tell me she’d rather get me something else but knew that the cartridge was what I really wanted. It was what would make me happiest.
Towards the end of her life, Cecilia was accompanied at the casinos by my grandfather José. When I was younger, he split his time between political activism and gardening, and was always busy with some project or another. But as he grew older and his health declined, his interest in these other pursuits gradually waned until he was just as excited about gambling as Cecilia. Since she died, we’ve begun giving my grandfather the casino gift cards instead.
The advent of online gaming, in particular MMOS, brought with it a new concept: gold farming. No longer did characters have to grind for their own gold and equipment, now it could be bought and sold online, for real world money. While not lucrative enough to make this a real job in America, in other countries this led to the rise of a new form of employment. Gold farming could, in some cases, be a more lucrative position than actual farming.
Here’s how Julian Dibbell describes this work in his 2007 New York Times Magazine article, “The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer.” “Twelve hours a night, seven nights a week, with only two or three nights off per months, [farming] is what Li does—for a living.” Li Qiwan and other gold farmers would play the same World of Warcraft scenarios over and over again in order to make about 30 cents an hour. When Dibbell reported, a time at which World of Warcraft had millions more subscribers than today, he estimated 100,000 workers employed as gold farmers bringing in $1.8 billion of revenue.
Little of this is surprising; aside from the digital specifics of this enterprise offering us a version of our cyberpunk present more in-line with Terry Gilliam than Neal Stephenson, this is capitalism as usual. What does comes as a shock, though, is what many of these gold farmers do for fun when off the clock: they play video games.
It may seem strange that a wage-working loot farmer would still care about the freedom to play. But it is not half as strange as the scene that unfolded one evening at 9 o’clock in the Internet cafe on the ground floor of the building where Donghua has its offices. Scattered around the stifling, dim wang ba, 10 power levelers just off the day shift were merrily gaming away. Not all of them were playing World of Warcraft. A big, silent lug named Mao sat mesmerized by a very pink-and-purple Japanese schoolgirls’ game … [b]ut the rest had chosen, to a man, to log into their personal World of Warcraft accounts and spend these precious free hours right back where they had spent every other hour of the day: in Azeroth.
Dibbell tells us that this phenomenon is far from unique. One player he interviews, Fan Yangwen, “is that rarest of World of Warcraft obsessives, a Chinese gold farmer who has actually bought farmed gold.” His digital Stockholm syndrome, rather than depressing the other gold farmers, is admired. “When Fan shows up at the wang ba after work, it is a minor event; the other Donghua workers pull their chairs over to watch him play.”
When one player, Min Qinghai, quits gold farming out of frustration, he somehow splits the work into two halves. He finds employment as a farmer, a real one out on the fields instead of on a computer screen, but he continues to play WoW. “It’s instinctual—you can’t help it,” says Min. “You want to play.”
The Next Final Fantasy
Progress Quest is a zero-player game, which is to say that once a player has run the game and set up certain parameters, in this case the attributes of their artificial character, the game plays itself. There is no user interaction in a zero-player game, the only exception being if someone wants to watch the game go about its business. Whether or not this is a good way to spend your time is debatable, but I suggest every gamer give it a try for at least a few minutes.
Progress Quest began as a parody of Everquest and other early MMORPGs, particularly games with auto-attack combat systems. Here, the game simply hits that auto-attack button instead of the player and displays statistics such as experience points, items, and monster encounters for the player to watch in a simple text-based display screen. There are also quests and plots, but these are essentially meaningless and almost as randomly generated as every other aspect of the game.
Alternately, they’re exactly as meaningful as the quests in any other game—it’s hard to say.
While Progress Quest was always meant as a parody, it taps into one of the longtime banes of online video games: “bots.” A video game bot uses a form of AI to play a game autonomously, sometimes even using machine learning in order to optimize their play based upon certain parameters. A good bot isn’t distinguishable from a human player unless, say, you try to talk to them. Even then, sometimes a particularly sophisticated bot’s automated responses are indistinguishable from those of human players.
The first time I discovered bots was while playing Diablo II, probably the game I’ve beaten the most times in my life and perhaps second only to Starcraft in sheer number of hours played. The game is adapted from the roguelike formula, with an isometric world where you go about completing quests by using attacks or spells. Almost all of these attacks require clicking the mouse fast and repeatedly, and the game had a reputation for burning through mice as often as a car needs to fill up on gas. Players would use bots in order to have their characters run through the same high loot-drop areas of the game over and over again, picking up items that had certain parameters and depositing these in their stashes. Sometimes I would join games where these bots were playing, and sometimes they would join mine. They tended to be much more powerful than my characters, with top-of-the-line equipment, so I never really minded their slightly subpar play or when the occasionally decided to run straight into a wall for half an hour. It all kind of balanced out.
Actually, some of my favorite experiences in the game were when a player who used bots came online and offered me loot. These generous players offered me the game’s most valuable items like Annihilus Charms or Stones of Jordan without even asking for a trade. They did this with a shrug (or, to be more accurate, a “*shrug*”) and, at times, a question as to why I didn’t use a bot as well. I wasn’t afraid of being banned from the game—bots were against the rules of Diablo 2, in fact they’re illegal in practically every game that exists—it was more a sort of point about playing the game. Why would I want to play Diablo II if I wasn’t going to be, well, playing it? How was that even fun?
One of these players asked for me to return the equipment they’d given me, since if I wanted to stay pure and play without bots, that’s what I should do. I understood their point, but really didn’t want to give the equipment back. Instead I exited the game and went offline. The next day I played for six hours more, happy with the new rare bow he’d given me.
Gamers Anonymous 1
The official pamphlet for Alcoholics Anonymous has a section titled “Only you can decide.” It reads, “Consider your drinking carefully in the light of what you may learn from these pages. Determine, for yourself, whether or not alcohol has truly become a problem for you.” This wasn’t helpful to me, because I was looking for a definition of addiction, concrete math for determining when excess was simply a quirk, a character trait, and when it was a real problem. I wanted to know where the line stood between addiction and obsession, between compulsion and passion, mania and infatuation. I wanted to know where the line was between having fun and what David Foster Wallace called “Too Much Fun.”
A.A. refuses to put a definite label on alcoholism, likely for reasons inclusivity, but that does little to help those who remain uncertain. They write,”…it could be described as a physical compulsion, coupled with a mental obsession.” But that’s just a matter of defining a thing with its synonyms, creating a tautological loop that tells us nothing. What if, for instance, you have a physical obsession but not a mental compulsion, would that still qualify? Really, what I wanted to know were guidelines that could be used to tell the tipping point, whether five days a week was ok but six days meant you had a problem.
A.A. does offer another way of defining alcoholism, and with it problematic addiction in general: through narratives. How has it affected lives is always the question, but I’ve never quite sat well with that methodology, either. It’s always seemed too much like Justice Potter Stewart’s obscenity threshold, a way of throwing up hands, giving up, and saying “I know it when I see it.” But do we really? I can’t be the only one who doesn’t trust themselves enough to self-diagnose through my own stories, the only one delusional enough to rationalize any personal narrative into something that makes me come out looking good.
“Problem gambling” is supposed to affect the lives of 1.6% of American adults, but because it’s frequently more invisible than alcohol abuse, Gamblers Anonymous has come up with 20 questions to diagnose people with the addiction. Here they are:
- Did you ever lose time from work or school due to gambling?
- Has gambling ever made your home life unhappy?
- Did gambling affect your reputation?
- Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?
- Did you ever gamble to get money with which to pay debts or otherwise solve financial difficulties?
- Did gambling cause a decrease in your ambition or efficiency?
- After losing did you feel you must return as soon as possible and win back your losses?
- After a win do you have the strong urge to return and win more?
- Did you often gamble until your last dollar was gone?
- Did you ever borrow to finance your gambling?
- Have you ever sold anything to finance gambling?
- Were you reluctant to use “gambling money” for normal expenditures?
- Did gambling make you careless of the welfare of yourself or your family?
- Did you ever gamble longer than you had planned?
- Have you ever gambled to escape worry, trouble, boredom, loneliness, grief or loss?
- Have you ever committed, or considered committing, an illegal act to finance Gambling?
- Did gambling cause you to have difficulty in sleeping?
- Do arguments, disappointments or frustrations create within you an urge to gamble?
- Did you ever have an urge to celebrate any good fortune by a few hours of gambling?
- Have you ever considered self-destruction or suicide as a result of your gambling?
I took the quiz and found that even though many of these questions don’t even apply to video games, I still answered “yes” to 14 out of the 20.
According to G.A., most compulsive gamblers will answer “yes” to at least seven of the questions. Yet I still believe myself to be more or less a moderate gamer. If this is a world of comparatives, maybe I’m simply a compulsive gamer and not an addicted one. Or maybe I’m obsessed but not in a way that’s life-ruining. I’m not sure the test really helped.
What’s particularly weird to me, though, is that even an organization like G.A., which specifically caters to addicts, refrains from using the word “addiction,” instead going with its less extreme cousin “compulsion.” On Thesaurus.com, synonyms for addiction include enslavement, fixation, dependence, craving, inclination, obsession, hang-up, and other words that seem even less related. For some reason addiction has always seemed like the ninth circle of these hells, the point of no return that means that not only do you have a problem, you actually have to do something about it. The positive connotations are few; we only tell friends they’re an addict either as joking hyperbole or when we’re at the point of intervention. Obsession speaks to a sort of feeling and not even necessarily a character flaw, it’s related to first love and infatuation and intensity. I often say that my favorite writers and directors were obsessed as a positive description, a way of recognizing their devotion, their passion. Compulsion, on the other hand, the word chosen by G.A. and similar organizations, is mechanical and mindless. While addiction and obsession speak to inner turmoil, a self behind the decisions that may well be diseased but is still ultimately in charge, compulsion tells us that there is no self there at all, just a process. When A.A. speaks of a “physical compulsion” it is speaking only of behavior, a Skinnerian way of looking at that half of the problem. After all, while addiction may be a combination of compulsion and obsession, only one of these things is possible for anyone other than yourself to notice.
I think defining video game addiction mattered so much to me because I wanted to find a way to differentiate certain behavior patterns from the basic logistics of video games as a medium, the very first artistic medium solely defined by mechanical reproduction such that no analogue equivalent is even possible. Video games, good ones at least, are excessive by nature. There is no such things as too much game, and no good franchise ever ends; instead games get iterated on into infinity. More people are needed to create another sequel so the title can sell millions more copies and everyone working to make it needs to work more hours so that we never run out of things to do in its limited but seemingly limitless world. Good gameplay is by necessity addicting, infinite, in a way that other works of art cannot be. Every book has an ending, but World of Warcraft was released 12 years ago and some people have been playing it daily for that entire time. If the definition of a bad game is one that you want to quit playing and a good game is one that you wish you could keep playing forever, then the goal of the industry is to make us all addicts.
And if excess is built into the form, then what’s to separate compulsive playing from normal playing? In the Dark Souls series you have to regularly play an area or boss dozens of times in order to get through them, repeating the same actions in the same locations with the same enemies until you know all of these better than your commute home from work. If that isn’t compulsive behavior, then what is? But then, that’s how the games are supposed to be played, not the behavior of a person who’s hooked on them but simply the behavior of a person playing them at all. Dark Souls, the second game in the series, may be the best video game I have ever played, yet it’s also a game my fiance had to actively stop me from playing on numerous occasions. She said she was worried about me. She mentioned the fact that I had tears coming down from my eyes, and I explained that this always happened to me when I played intense games because when I’m that focused my body forgets to blink and this is how my eyes adapt and keep themselves from drying out. I keep playing even though my eyes are dry and my wrist aches from encroaching carpal tunnel syndrome because the game doesn’t have a pause button and I know that if I just gave it one more try I could finally defeat the Capra Demon.
Indie Game: The Reality
Indie Game: The Movie is a documentary about how small game studios, those with one or two designers, find creative and commercial success in an industry bloated with hundred-to-thousand person teams. One of the developers behind Super Meat Boy, Tommy Refenes, tells us about the sacrifices he’s made in order to finish his game, the way its creation overtook all other aspects of his existence. “I’ve sacrificed having a life. It’s kind of weird, I don’t go out, I don’t really socialize. I can’t really spend any money because I don’t have any money right now so I can’t like go out. If I were to go out on a date or something I have no car to pick them up in, I have no way to buy meals or anything … You kind of have to give up something to have something great.”
Edmund McMillen, the other half of Team Meat, says, “I definitely want to communicate with people, but I don’t want the messy interaction of having to meet friends and talk to people because I probably don’t like ’em.”
Refenes says, while crying, “I cried when we submitted the game to certification because it was like sending your kid off to school.”
McMillen says, “I was actually really worried that Tommy or I would die during the process of making [Super Meat Boy]. And I know Tommy even talked about it, too; as long as he finished this game he’d be ok with dying. As long as he finished the game.”
Phil Fish, creator of Fez, says, “I’m working on [the game] as hard as I can, all the time.”
When an interviewer asks him what he would do if he couldn’t finish the game, he responds without missing a beat. “I would kill myself. I would kill myself. That’s my incentive to finish [Fez], is then I get to not kill myself.”
In Simon Parkin’s book Death by Video Game, we meet Chen Rong-yu, a 23-year-old Taiwanese gamer who, as reported in a Daily Mail headline, lied “dead in internet cafe for 9 HOURS before anyone notices.” The article Parkin draws from is only 10 sentences long, and lays out the simple facts of the case: the way Rong-yu sat in his chair with arms outstretched over a keyboard as if still playing a game when he was discovered, that his last known activity outside of gaming had been a phone call he’d placed in the same cafe the day before, the way none of the 30 other gamers nearby noticed anything wrong because he, like many cafe gamers, regularly napped in front of his screen.
The waitress who noticed him dead only knew because rigor mortis had set in. It’s hard not to wonder how long it would’ve taken for him to be noticed were there no waitresses at the cafe. Days? Longer?
Rong-yu suffered a heart attack after playing League of Legends for 23 hours straight.. Parkin writes, “If people are dying to play video games, it’s worth investigating why that might be.”
One of the ways Parkin explains this problem is something he calls “chronoslip,” a fairly self-explanatory neologism that means losing track of time due to video games. The specificity of video games for this term caused me pause when first reading the book. It implies that there is something fundamentally different between video games and every other activity, even those like gambling, that revolve around chance and Skinnerian behavior reinforcement. But maybe he’s onto something.
We all have friends who read straight through the latest Harry Potter book when they were released, or have marathoned all of the Lord of the Rings or Star Wars movies. But how many of us can do this every day? Yet gaming for more than five hours straight has never been difficult for me or so many other people. Because we’re active participants, the immersion seems to be more complete, and Parkin postulates that we stop dealing with the reality of time outside the game, instead synchronizing with the rhythms of whatever it is we’re playing. A chronoslip isn’t just losing time, it’s changing from one time to another. “Time becomes yoked,” Parkin writes, “not to the ticking of the clock, but to the pattern of our interactions, the pleasing rhythms of cause and effect. In strategy games time is divided into the number of seconds it takes to build a barracks, train a soldier, or to mine the earth for resources. Seconds and minutes have no relevance here; time is calculated in units of action.”
Yet, to me that’s no different from playing hands of blackjack. Casinos have no clocks on their walls, and never change their lighting out of fear that this would remind gamblers of what time it is. There’s a Simpsons gag where Marge, addicted to gambling after just a couple pulls on a slot machine, is asked by Smithers whether she’s gambled enough. She responds, “No” angrily, without taking her eyes from the machine in front of her. Smithers simply smiles and says, “Ok. We’re required by law to ask every 75 hours. Get her another free drink.”
Parkin believes that it’s the uniqueness of video games as a medium that separates its devotees from the rest, the way they allow us to not simply read about someone or something doing extraordinary activities, but actually control them while they perform these extraordinary activities, And maybe these unique game traits, the way they allow us to play with new identities or systems, to play at being evil or discover “mysteries,” that keeps us playing. But Rong-yu didn’t die from playing an intelligent indie game about gender identity or learning to cope with an abusive father; he died playing a free-to-play game in which you earn points to acquire new characters.
Another way of defining chronoslip would be to say that it’s when an individual gets stuck in a Skinner Box.
When Parkin asks Taiwanese game cafe owners and patrons about Rong-yu, they seem nonplussed, perhaps because he’s not the first such death, nor would he be the last. In fact, he’s barely noteworthy—thus the only 10 lines in the Daily Mail. When Parkin asks a cafe owner, “How long is too long?” the owner tells him, “We don’t allow any customers to play for more than three days at a time. Once it gets past that amount of time we ask the customer to go home, rest and refresh. This is a well-organised internet cafe, you see.”
When he asks a cafe patron, Ding Kuo Chih, about Rong-Yu, he’s told it’s not a concern for him either because Chih “never played longer than forty-eight hours at a time. Nowadays I rarely play for longer than ten hours at a stretch.” What other activities, besides breathing, could we do for this many hours and not consider it a problem?
The first reported video game death was in 1982, when an eighteen-year-old American named Peter Burkowski died at a Berzerk arcade machine. However, Burkowski’s not even listed on the Wikipedia page for video game addiction’s “notable deaths” because there are so many far more lurid stories to pick from, more recent and easier to sensationalize. These include a boy in Louisiana who died of seizures after playing Nintendo 64 games for eight hours a day, six days a week, and a boy from Wisconsin who killed himself when his Everquest character’s proposal to another character was rejected. Even closer to home for me, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a woman allowed her three and a half-year-old daughter to die of malnutrition and dehydration while she played World of Warcraft. These are extremist cases, certainly, but while I’ve heard of film addicts and certainly made my share of bad decisions in order to keep reading, I’m yet to learn of a case in which these activities has ever killed someone.
Gamers Anonymous 2
The first hit on Google when you search for “Gamers Anonymous” isn’t for a twelve-step program. That’s the second hit, which links to information about On-Line Gamers Anonymous, a small but valuable program regardless of its questionable spelling of the word “online.”
No, the first result is for a video game store named Gamers Anonymous in Albuquerque, located about a mile from my parents’ house. One of my favorite small businesses in the city, Gamers Anonymous buys and sells used and new video games, and at one point I had $318 of credit there from purging old titles in my collection. Nowadays, of course, that credit is long gone.
It’s now been seven years since the publication of Tom Bissell’s article and the book, Extra Lives, it soon appeared in, which came at the advent of the modern era of video games but still feels a bit like a relic, especially given the role Bissell himself has played in writing for the franchises he once criticized. During the intervening years, as I wrote my novel that considers, among other things, the role the medium has started to take up in our lives, I couldn’t help but think back to his article, especially since it straddled the line between addiction memoir and game criticism in a way I could relate to. Only, as Bissell told me, the word “addiction” itself was never supposed to be part of the article, let alone the one that would be stamped upon it for all time.
“It’s not a word I have ever used about anything—not for myself,” said Bissell, as we spoke across Skype from opposite sides of the country. “I can’t tell you I have a lot of clarity on the subject in my head. I’m clearly a compulsive person. But addiction is not the way I would categorize my relationship with video games. Even when I was playing them more than I should have been, even when I was playing them to my own personal ruination, I have never thought there was something I was doing that I couldn’t stop doing out of my own choices and free will. And in fact, everything I’ve ever had a problem with I have always stopped. I’m not prescribing this for everyone, I’m just saying for me. So I was very upset when they called it ‘The Addiction.’ And it bugged me, and it still bugs me, because video game addiction… I don’t know. I’ve had reading addictions at various periods in my life. There’s been periods in my life when I’ve gotten up in the morning and I’ve literally read until dinner time, and I still do that sometimes. Is that an addiction?”
It’s easy to forget that to many in the 19th century, the heyday of the triple-decker Victorian novel, the answer to that question would have been yes. In 1882, Dr. John Harvey Kellog (yes, that Kellogg) wrote in The Ladies’ Guide in Health and Disease that novel-reading, “if once thoroughly fixed, it becomes as inveterate as the use of liquor or opium. The novel-devotee is as much a slave as the opium-eater or the inebriate.” The preacher Matthew Arnold wrote of the way novels would hook readers by “distilling themselves into [novels] …drop by drop” while the critic and philosopher Henry Mansel, in his 1863 condemnation of sensation novels and serialization, wrote that certain narratives were “called into existence to supply the cravings of a diseased appetite, and contributing themselves to foster the disease, and to stimulate the want which they supply.” Instead of our contemporary conception of readers as intellectuals of some sort, to these men novel readers were junkies waiting for their next hit.
But of course, that doesn’t mean that Bissell was necessarily addicted, and I don’t want to question his distinction. As he put it, “When I hit my version of rock bottom with cocaine, I went to a narc-anon type meeting. And I was in this room with all these other people, and it was meth that everyone was struggling with, mostly, and I was literally listening to people talking about leaving their children in the care of someone they suspected was molesting them so they could drive two hours to score meth. And I was sitting there listening to these stories, thinking, ‘I just blew a lot of money in Europe doing drugs and playing video games all day long.’ Whatever problem I had, I never got to a place like that. And I didn’t want to claim the mantle of having been that deep in the throes of something I had so little power over when I never felt that was true. It’s almost a kind of awe of what real addiction does to a human being that keeps me from claiming that for myself. I never felt the sort of heedless, suicidal propulsion into the heart of the sun that a real addict feels.”
Speaking with Bissell made me reconsider some of my fears about this subject, especially the melodramatic and lurid connotations—is compulsion really that bad, or even that relevant a subject? There are bigger problems in the world, bigger issues that need dealing with. Between now and the time I began this essay, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, and oftentimes I wonder about why I should ever spend my time worrying about the millions of people who play 40 hours a week of video games when there is unadulterated evil running the nation I was born in. And if we weren’t all playing games for all of those hours, wouldn’t we just be watching television, or watching movies, or reading overlong Victorian novels?
Around the same time that Bissell’s book came out, Jane McGonigal, the author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, claimed that, “We spend three billion hours a week playing online games,” a number that feels more staggering when you consider that many games aren’t online, and even more staggering when you think of how old that statistic is (though I’m unclear where she obtained these numbers, and have been unable to verify them myself). She found this fact celebratory, as well as the way an average person who grew up in a video game culture would have spent 10,000 hours playing video games by the age of 21, the same amount of time they would have spent in school from fifth grade until high school graduation. “We have an entire parallel track of education going on, where young people are learning as much about what it takes to be a good gamer as they’re learning about everything else in school.” My worry is about whether a population more schooled on games than anything else can deal with those bigger issues, whether we’re in any way equipped to confront racism and homophobia, systemic poverty and American fascism and climate change. 10,000 hours is an awfully long time to be spent inside of Skinner Boxes.
Ashley Lynch, one of the victims of Gamergate, wrote in “Gamers Are Still Over (but they’re not over Trump)” about the relationship between Gamergate and the white supremacists who dubbed themselves the “alt-right.” She draws indisputable links between Breitbart’s Milo Yiannapoulos with Gamergate, and notes:
Milo had become the bridge between the toxic, anti-progressive subcultures of the internet’s worst elements and the alt-right, ultra conservative politics of Breitbart. He supported their “no bad tactics” approach and legitimized their white nationalist hate, sincere or not.
What Lynch calls the “no bad tactics” approach is the way of treating reality, and all of the lives within it, as a game, as simply “innocent mischief.” The fact that this had real and disastrous consequences on those like Lynch, and now with Trump in office even more disastrous consequences on immigrants, muslims, women, trans people, gays, black people, Native American people, and in fact more or less every single person who isn’t a white male christian in not just this country but the entire world, is what causes me to worry about the lessons games can inadvertently teach.
I did feel, after my conversation with Bissell, less worried about my own compulsive game-playing, because like him I’ve always been able to return to reality. But that does little to alleviate my concerns about how those 10,000 hours of shaped our brains, whatever word we want to use to describe it. Yes, many of the medium’s greatest achievements fight against hatred and bigotry, as works have done in all mediums for time immemorial, but that does little to assuage my fears. We can debate all day whether or not reading fiction makes a person more empathetic, whether literature improves our understanding of the world and the people who live in it, whether it is truly the social good that I like to think it is, but the fact of the matter is that games, as a medium, are something else. I am completely convinced that games are just as valid a form of creative expression as any other, while at the same time I feel that the vast majority of what we consider to be “compelling gameplay” is simply the world’s most (virtually) violent casino.
“I get frustrated when I read reviews of games, like say shooters, and people want all this deep, emotional engagement with them,” said Bissell. “Trying to create a deep, meaningful moving story from mechanics that are about rock-hopping, shooting, looting, climbing, is a fool’s errand. For that kind of engagement, the deep, peering into the psyche of another human being, I’m gonna read a fucking book. And I want to say to people sometimes, who get frustrated that games aren’t doing something more, they’re usually saying it from a place of complete ignorance because the thing, the doing more, is always this thing about maturity, or wrestling with real issues. But mechanics are the meaning of games, that’s where all the meaning comes from.”
If this is true, then the question of this time spent on games becomes even more pressing. My generation and the generations that are coming after me are spending our time on mechanics, on the intricacies of clockwork levers, rather than on empathy, humans, relationships. This feels big, even if I don’t fully understand all of the implications, even if I know that I have felt transformative, emotional, truly human experiences from games that I couldn’t have experienced in any other way.
Writing this essay has taken far longer than it really should have, and not because of the usual excuses, i.e. research, the internet, being blocked, etc. It’s because five minutes before typing out this text I was playing a game called Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, a collectible “card” video game by Blizzard that also happens to be my primary addiction during the last year or so since I first discovered it. I’ve been playing it, intermittently, during the writing of many other sections of this essay, not to mention times when I should’ve been making lesson plans, cleaning, cooking, paying attention to my fiance, or in some other way living my life. As such, I don’t know if I should recommend it here because it’s that good of a game, or avoid doing so because I don’t want to be a drug pusher. I guess I’ll let you decide what to make of it.
Hearthstone is a simple card game in which you summon monsters on cards to attack your opponent and whittle away their hit points. The first player who goes down to zero hp loses. Hearthstone has ended up the perfect game for me as I’ve grown older and now have commitments in my life that make an epic all-day, 14+ hour session of gaming like the ones I had when I was younger impossible. At least, so long as my fiance is still in town and thus my reason for not doing so more than simple and easy-to-ignore guilt. A game of Hearthstone can last anywhere from five minutes to (if things are going really long) more than 20 minutes, and as far as the vast majority of video games are concerned these are extremely short sessions. Most AAA-level games assume that players will put in at least an hour a session and do little to cater to “casual” gamers who can’t devote their full attention to the game at hand. Games like Destiny and Dark Souls don’t even feature a pause button, and this is in fact a celebrated feature because of the way it removes a certain level of ludonarrative dissonance from these adventures—if your character were alive, they couldn’t pause, so why should you be able to? The player is treated as part of the game, a system, and the realities of, say, having children and needing to leave the room occasionally to pay attention to them, are simply not part of the equation. The other feature Hearthstone offers that makes it feel easier to play alongside real life is that it’s turn-based, and so while the other player is taking his or her turn, you don’t have to pay attention.
Alright, this last assertion is a complete lie. Hearthstone is a game that pretends you don’t need to devote your utmost concentrate to it, that you can play Hearthstone “in the background” while doing other activities. But like any good game, Hearthstone soon draws in players, such that it becomes the foreground and whatever else is being done quickly recedes into the foggy mists on the periphery of our vision, like out-of-focus figures in the back of a film. But because the game gives the appearance of being casual, it feels as if you can play turns of it while, for instance, talking to your fiance about what to have for dinner, or writing an essay about video games. While Hearthstone sucks in a different part of your life from traditional video games, its addiction is just as pernicious. Ask anyone who’s spent more than $100 on Candy Crush for more information on the subject.
So why do I keep playing? Well for one thing, like so many casual and casual-ish games, it’s “free.” Its gameplay is akin to Magic: The Gathering, a true CCG I began playing in second grade when my older brother introduced me to it. Magic is expensive, though, since you have to purchase packs of cards regularly in order to keep playing, and so it’s something I’ve never been able to stick with because my financial history hasn’t permitted it, let alone the difficulty of finding other people to play with I actually liked once I moved away from Albuquerque. I’ve never spent a cent on Hearthstone, yet I’ve remained fairly competitive in it by earning the game’s virtual currency, gold, by playing daily quests and winning matches. Every day the game gives you a new goal, and if you complete it you gain gold that can be exchanged for new cards. If you don’t play every day, or at least every three days (that’s as many quests as the game will save for you at one time), you’re effectively losing these free cards. My brain reads that as throwing away money, and so as a result there’s only so long that I can stay away from it before I feel compelled to return and finish those lingering quests.
I have never paid a cent, but I’m certain that the number of hours I’ve spent, hours I should have spent writing or reading or just playing with my cats, would appall me if I knew what they actually were..
And by being digital, I can find someone to play with even at the crack of dawn when my friends are still asleep in their own homes and would not be thrilled to get a text asking them to come over for a couple quick games. With these two simple strokes, Hearthstone solved the problems I had with Magic, and with this created a monster. Or to be more accurate: it simply became the latest version of a monster that I’ve been dealing with for essentially my entire life.
Completing the cycle that’s occurred with all games I’ve become hooked on, I’m not really sure that I actually like Hearthstone anymore. The almost pure joy I initially received from playing the game, with its goofy sound effects and memorable artwork, wore off a few months into it when the constant repetition of strategies and card combinations became rote and predictable. It no longer taps into the part of my brain that’s used for deck-building and strategy—the part of my brain that made me briefly obsessed with Chess as I tried to beat all the varying play styles of the Gary Kasparov-branded Talking Coach computer my parents brought me for my 10th birthday. The part that used to create Magic decks and play them against myself alone in my bedroom. Instead it taps into the part of me that likes pulling the slot machine and seeing what happens, knowing that if I get a decent draw I can beat almost anyone and be rewarded for it.
So yes, I play pretty much every day, and occasionally I read deck strategies online or follow the cards for upcoming sets, looking forward to those brief periods when new cards are released and the game briefly becomes interesting again. But even though Hearthstone is something I readily acknowledge that I find dull–that probably had a negative effect on both my personal and artistic lives, I keep playing. If I don’t, then I won’t get any more free cards, and if I don’t have a steady stream of those cards, I won’t be able to compete.
And I keep playing everything else, too, not just those transformative games that stick with me, but also those mindless ones that I sunk a few dozen hours into but can no longer remember the names of. I do so with my eyes wide open, fully aware that my time in this world is limited and that those dozens of hours are time I will never get back. I maintain that I have free will, could quit if I really needed to… but for now I’m going to queue up for another game of Hearthstone. A new expansion comes out tomorrow, and I only need to win one more match to afford another pack of cards.