Friday, June 29, 2012

You can't fight this feeling anymore

I had more of a plan for the flow of this website, but screw it, I feel like writing about this more than what I had planned for my second post.

Looking to see what territory's already been covered on this topic in the blogosphere, I came across a pretty neat blog with a very similar M.O. (but much more visibility) called The Psychology of Video Games.

Now, I'm not naming names, but I find that a lot of these sorts of blogs and sites launch into grand theorizing that weave these fun and amusing stories that overlook much more parsimonious and tenable explanations.  Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with that in the blogging world.  I used to love that stuff as an undergrad psych major.  It made me feel like I understood people more than anyone really does (or can).  But as a man of science these days, I find myself looking on like some kind of kung fu master who only notices the sloppy, extraneous movements in a martial arts exhibition rather than just enjoying the pageantry of the show.

Wow, reading that over, I just feel silly, but I'm a Scotch and a half into my Friday night with my wife out of town, and that kinda crap just sorta flows in these contexts.

My anticipated recollection of this evening

Anyway, I was checking this guy's blog out and came across this article on why we gamers just can't resist that "one more level" itch.  You can go ahead and read it for the full story, but I'll summarize it here.

Basically, he attributes it to the impaired decision making associated with a state of elevated arousal.  To me, that must've just been an excuse to bust out one of my favorite studies in behavioral science, Ariely & Lowenstein, 2006.  Sadly, the blogger at Psych of Games left out some of my favorite details. Allow me to fill them in:

They had dudes rate agreement with statements about risky sexual behaviors.  These included things like (and I'm paraphrasing here): "I would totally bang a grandma," "I guess I have a shoe fetish," and "Screw condoms, am I right?"

The control condition had men rate these statements in a state of cold, flaccid sobriety.  The experimental condition had them masturbate "to 75% arousal" (don't ask me how you'd operationalize that) while viewing pornographic images and periodically interrupted the wank session with one of those statement ratings.  Lo and behold, men's propensity for the sexual behaviors increased when their soldiers were at attention.  

(You will not believe how many euphemisms for erections I have competing for attention in my head right now.  So here are a few more: their firemen were bunkered up.  Their guns were locked and loaded.  Their rockets were go for launch.)

Anyway, our psychologist gamer friend theorizes that the desire to play "one more level" in the face of having to go to get up for work in five hours is the result of impaired decision making in a state of arousal.  I'm not going to make jokes about him getting turned on by video games.  I'm sure at least some people have in his comments.  Instead, I posit that the arousal experienced during video games is more akin to "wakefulness," and if anything, puts you in an optimal state of arousal for performance.  (But, to paraphrase Alton Brown, that's another post.)

No, I'm going to argue for what I think is a more parsimonious and tenable theory: video games are an addiction.

(Somewhere, a smirk of smug, victorious satisfaction curls over my mother's lips.)

The psychologists reading this know where this is going.  Time to invoke our old friend, B.F. Skinner.  Wait a minute, they wonder, is Richard a behaviorist?  To which I answer, yes, but only when it works.  Here's a picture of B.F. Skinner catastrophically failing to explain why you can't use the principles of behaviorism to reinforce your dog into having a conversation with you:

"But, Richard, a dog can't reliably execute the motor behaviors necessary for the scientific measurement of what would be considered evidence consistent with our definitions of capacity for human language.  And the inability to match the ostensible form and complexity of human language does not necessarily obviate the possibility of a capacity for some form of language."


Anyway, I won't belabor you with the details of how behaviorism explains how video games are an addiction.  Cracked did a surprisingly good job of that already.  I'm just here to invoke that explanation.

Any time you're playing a game and you say, "Just one more ___," you're describing a discrete, reinforcing event.  A reinforcing event that probably comes about from the repetition of some varying number of discrete actions.  Hey, wait a minute, that sounds a lot like my psych textbook's definition for a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule, which has been shown to lead to a prolonged persistence of the reinforced behavior - even in the absence of reinforcement - sometimes at the expense of basic needs like food and sleep!

Sweet tapdancing Christ, gamers are cousins to slot-jockey gambling addicts!

"I just need two more boar livers.  Maybe this next boar will have one."  We've all had at least some variant of that thought at some point.  You may not be proud of it, but goddammit, you can't get better until you admit you have a problem.

Anyway, my point is, that's why you find yourself saying, "One more level..."  

It's because you have a problem.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to play Diablo III for the next six hours.  You can find me on there as ChairmanYao.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


In my never-ending quest to procrastinate (productively, when possible), I've decided to begin a blog fusing my personal and professional interests together.  Welcome to the Playability Blog.

If you're somehow not related to me or a real-life friend wondering what logorrheaic nonsense I'm up to now (instead of the many things I should actually be doing to graduate), introductions are in order.  
As of writing this, I'm a sixth-year doctoral candidate in the University of Illinois psychology department.  I'm a cognitive psychologist by training, but growing ever immersed into the world of human factors.  In fact, I'm writing this as a human factors intern at Motorola Solutions in Planation, Florida.  If you're not familiar with human factors, then for now let's just call it "applied psychology" (though I'm sure there are ergonomists out there who would be offended at such a limited definition, I have plans to flesh that statement out in future posts).

This blog's title, "Playability," is my spin on a ubiquitous term from human factors, "usability" (basically, user friendliness).  My goal is to apply the ideas of psychology and human factors to understanding what makes games fun and engaging.

This is certainly not virgin territory.  It's becoming increasingly popular to look at the psychology behind what makes video games good and bad, due in no small part to my academic older brother, Mike Ambinder of Valve.  (It's weird to see a wikipedia article on someone you've gotten drunk with, but I digress.)  Gamasutra has also been doing this for years (and I encourage you to check them out if you haven't already).

Still, there are ideas I've had while playing games, conducting research, and standing in the shower that I have yet to see discussed anywhere on the internet.  Maybe it's because they're painfully obvious or canon for courses in game design.  Heck, I'd never even heard of a lot of the terms mentioned in egoraptor's Sequelitis on what makes Mega Man so awesome (one of my favorite videos on the internet right now, by the way).

But being the narcissist I am, I'd like to think maybe I can provide that same learning experience to others on the internet with the particular knowledge base I have.

Some disclaimers:

1. I make no claims to being an expert in game design; what I will shamelessly flaunt is an expertise with studying and understanding the cognitive processes underlying human behavior - which I hope gives me at least a little more street cred than the angry nerds on the IGN message boards.

2. This blog is my fun pet project first and an educational experience second, so I might not hunt down every single citation to back up every single thing I say.  I do that enough in my professional life.  I will happily go the extra mile, though, upon request.

And so, with that, I embark on this masturbatory exercise of intellectualization.