I don’t play many Facebook games. It’s not that I’m above it, so much as I’ve found better games to waste my time on. That and I’m a solipsistic hermit who prefers games where success is not reliant on inviting friends to your farm, restaurant, zombie trap or whatever. But I like that there are games on Facebook that some people find fun.
But are they really “fun”? I’ve noticed quite a bit of discussion about how social games in general, and Farmville in particular, are over hyped time wasters that are of little to no value for anyone playing them. With a number of qualifications, I agree with this. In fact I think that’s true of most video games, including most of the games I play. But usually these articles go further, implying something sinister is going on. We’re being exploited by Zynga and other game companies! Something must be done! (see this article for a good example of the sentiment).
As far as I’m concerned, this is all complete and utter bullshit. It’s a rehash of every tired old cliché about how much time young people waste these days. About how our culture has become rotten to the core, and how we, the old guard, are the only ones who appreciate it. It’s been said of the internet, music, and even books way back when. We’re going to say it about whatever media comes along when we start getting old. It’s a seductive us-and-them trap to be sure, and one that people have been falling into at least since the rise of mass media, probably for all of human history.
All of this has been bothering me since I first read the criticisms of Farmville and other social games, but today I read a great post on playthisthing.com that really crystallized things. It looks at just about every major game genre and identifies the “disingenuous design practices” that make it little more than a Skinner Box (machine that encourages an arbitrary behavior by rewarding you for it).
Social games and MMORPGs should be obvious, but what about classic arcade games? Surely no-one could call Pac-Man evil!
Disingenuous Design Practices: stacking difficulty in a probabalistic manner through edge of screen spawns, exponential spawn functions, non-essential time limits, interface kills (whoops wrong button! Insert Coin), roundDown collision detection and simply setting killer objects to be faster or more agile than you.
How about Tetris and Bejeweled?
Disingenuous Design Practices: Saturated color contrast, chunk-lite SFX and lateral number incrementation via score are designed to make your dopamine receptors squeal like a piggy while putting up the absolute minimum in content or design.
jRPGs, FPSs and classic console games get taken down too. Thing is, video games are about being rewarded for doing useless things. I’ve mentioned this in a previous post, but really, video games are just dopamine hacks (although there are other explanations for some gaming behavior) . Lovely, wonderful dopamine hacks that won’t harm your lungs as much as smoking or your bank balance as much as gambling. Sometimes they help you socialize, or kill boredom, or even learn things, but usually they are unproductive wastes of time. Which is OK; when was the last time you listened to someone who told you all your time has to be productive, and you should never relax or have fun? You find different reasons to keep playing different types of games because you derive value from them for different reasons.
The question of what is “fun” is surprisingly complicated. You (and Farmville’s critics) may wonder how something you consider a chore and gain little subjective pleasure from can be considered “fun”. As the skinner box demonstrates, just because you keep doing it doesn’t mean its fun. But as with so called “classic” games, something that seems like an unpleasant chore to some can be rewarding in and of itself for others. Fun comes in all shapes and sizes, and you need to ask yourself what fun really is when you’re questioning whether or not the jRPG nerd or the guy playing WOW is really having it grinding out level after level.
Today there are no widely accepted definitions of fun that are both rigorous and meaningful. However you can find a pretty good one here if you’re willing to do some reading. Yudkowskian fun theory accepts that, as with much of humanity’s shared value systems, fun is not just one simple concept manifesting in different ways. It’s a number of things, including complex novelty, improvement over time, and having direct control of your future in a given area. Based on Yudkowsky’s definition of fun, games like Farmville aren’t too bad in the scope of things. There are certainly more fun-optimal activities you could be pursuing, but there are many, many less eudaimonic things you might do, a number of which you’ll probably do anyway for skinner box related reasons.
It comes down to this: just because something is hacking your brain’s reward system doesn’t mean it’s fun. But it also doesn’t mean it’s not fun, and your intuitions really aren’t as bad as you might think at telling the two apart. So go waste yourself some time! Your brain will thank you later for the dopamine hit at least.
A lot of what we call “fun” seems to be based on fairly simple principles. Ok, so there’s still a fair bit of complexity there. But after I read this interview with AI designer Jurgen Schmidhuber and watched his excellent presentation at this year’s singularity summit I’ve started to view a surprising number of things I do through a different lens. There’s all sorts of deep and strange ideas in that interview, but the one that stuck with me the longest is the notion that much of what we consider deeply and fundamentally human is reducible to our brains rewarding us for gathering and efficiently compressing information.
I’ve been aware for a while that many video games I play, particularly RPGs, are little more than cheap hacks of the dopamine system my brain has evolved to encourage me to do things. It’s just gambling without the high monetary cost, or cigarettes without the lung cancer.
But Schmidhuber is making an even more bizarre claim, and making it in a very compelling way.Essentialy, he’s saying that many of our drives are based simply on gathering and compressing information. Compression here means something a little different from what your computer does when it compresses a .zip or .rar file, but its the same basic idea; removing unnecessary information to make a given thing fit in a smaller box. Computers do it by finding redundant sequences of bits and representing them in more efficient ways, and humans do it by making connections and forming “understanding”. There’s a diverse array of examples of this discussed in the interview. Music is appealing to us because we can recognize novel patterns that are somewhat, but not too familiar to us, and music that is either too formulaic or too discordant is unappealing. Art is interesting because we can find compressible visual or cultural themes. Dancing is much the same as music; repetitive yet novel sequences that initially seem bizarre and random but show deep patterns. We laugh at jokes because we make interesting and surprising connections between various semantic pieces. The list goes on, and Schmidhuber makes the case for the truth of this better than I can so if you don’t understand, go check out that video. You can find exceptions and complications that culture and emotions have introduced to all of these things, but it really is remarkable how often that basic principle of novel compression shows up.
Schmidhubers theory has interesting implications for what it means to be the complex biological robots we call homo sapiens. What is the first objection people raise when the question of machines being “conscious” or “intelligent” comes up? It’s usually something along the lines of “Well they might be fancy calculators, but they’ll never [be creative, appreciate beauty, laugh at our jokes, etc]”. There’s all sorts of things wrong with that argument, which I’ll probably have to write a separate post on sometime. Suffice to say even if you believe those things are deeply weird and complicated, you have no reason to doubt a sufficiently powerful and well programmed computer would be able to do them (unless you believe the brain runs on magic). If, however, many of those precious deeply complex human characteristics are really fairly simple processes, what does it imply about us? As sympathetic as I am to the notion that we are just complicated computers of one type or another, I was somewhat skeptical at first. But ever since I read through that interview, I’m noticing more and more often how true it is.
I’ll leave this as an exercise to the reader; now that you’ve been exposed to this idea, start looking at your daily activities through the lens of information compression. I think you’ll be surprised at how often it fits. Not so high and mighty now eh Mr deeply mysterious human?