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The games people play are the games businesses play

6 October 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

Are you a player or being played?

Two major stories that have come to light are thanks to disclosures by whistle blowers. One relates to the statements from Facebook about how it is working to protect people on their platforms from harm and the disclosures from the whistle blower Frances Haugen that if the protection harmed their profitability they would prioritise profitability.

Similarly, the disclosures in the Pandora Papers demonstrate that the powerful are more than willing to say one thing and then do something else even when tasked with safeguarding the abuse of the public trust and funds.

This behaviour predates gaming but it has been studied and applied to make users more engaged and loyal. There are two parts.

How gaming techniques influence us to be more engaged and how our experiences using game mechanics make it easier for us to be willing to use the techniques on others.

Try, try and try again

A laudable sentiment is that to succeed you need to persist through failure and practice until you gain the proficiency to succeed. In gaming the same principle applies. Players are challenged and will fail, but ideally only challenged enough to encourage them to continue and that with repeated attempts will succeed.

Older generations lived in a world that was less forgiving for failing and trying again. Even if history shows it was often the hallmark of those that persisted and prevailed, for most they would be taught the right way to do something and then rewarded for doing exactly that.

The sentiment was that there was a single or limited right way to do things and that questions typically had right and wrong answers.

Younger generations who got to play more games were introduced to the central game mechanic that there is often more than one correct way to approach a challenge and that failure was not something that prevented you from trying again.

In fact, trying again was central to what made a game successful.

The catch is that when most of our learning or experiences are digital or gaming based, we are likely to apply or assume real world conditions can be tackled the way we might a game.

That in itself is not necessarily a problem, but having no regard for making mistakes on the assumption that you can simply correct it next time does not work in the real world. There is no information yet about whether the recent Facebook outage was a machine error or a human. They did say it was as a result of configuration changes. It seems likely that someone not something made the change and did not expect the consequence to be that their own access to correct it would be affected. If that is what happened then a minor tweak led to a much bigger issue than expected. When the norm is to test and update, it may explain how this could happen.

The extreme version of trying something even when you are not sure of the outcome or have all the skills yet is summed up with the idea of “fake it till you make it” on one level it is true. Confidence and persistence are key, but there are some major examples of it going wrong. Theranos and its young founder hoped to change the way blood is tested. It was an ambitious project but rather than slowing down to reflect on whether it could be done, it appears they pushed on hoping to solve it eventually while putting people at risk.

More recently a media start up hoping to attract new investments had a senior partner attempt to impersonate a YouTube representative to land the additional funding. When found out, they were apologetic but did not see it necessary to remove the senior partner nor that more should come of it other than them apologising.

What games offer

Cognitive neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier explored what if anything games might actually improve. She found that despite what some parents may think there are benefits to young people with learning and with older generations in slowing some decline.

Gamers that played action games for moderate amounts of time, 5 hours a week, showed improved eyesight, tracking skills and reaction times which would help with other tasks like driving or for athletes for helping them better anticipate what is happening. It also helped with some aspects of creativity and problem solving.

For older players it would sustain the same abilities. The challenge is playing the kinds of games for the optimum times rather than getting too wrapped up in the game.

Games even when you are not playing them can still occupy your thoughts particularly if you stopped when trying to solve a problem. The issue with games arises as they offer you the positive reinforcement for playing them even though they may not actually amount to achieving anything of value.

This is most problematic with the type of games called grind games that permit steady progress without much skill but only after a period of time passes. They are typically positioned as something keeping you busy while relaxing or waiting, but the tasks can be completed more quickly using additional resources. Those extra resources of course come at a cost, even if the game itself is free. For most it would simply take up some time, for some though it will dominate their time or they will find themselves spending much more than they would like.

This is particularly worrying with games children play as they look to their parents like free games.

The other typical mechanic with these games is to pause the game frequently to display advertising. Often those ads are for similar games and those most prone may find themselves cycling through games unable to focus on anything else.

You can remove the ads but that as you can imagine comes with a cost.

Some have even gone so far to progress characters or projects in the game in order to sell the account to those who want to get to the same point without all the time.

If you thought eSports were the only way to make money in gaming then you may have missed the growth of NFT based games like Axie Infinity where you buy and improve cartoonish characters called Axies. The longer you have them and the more you do with them the more they are worth which when you are ready can be traded or sold.

If you thought Pokémon Go was a crazy spin on a game, then this is even more weird. It has generated enough interest and players that the game has been valued at $3 billion. Not bad for a game.

But that is not the only shift that will gobble up your time and if you are not careful with your money, now consider the growth of sports betting.

To most, it may not be a game at all, but given how you can take bets on almost any sport and for any part of a game, many argue it is a way to make sports more exciting even for matches when you have no connection to the sport or the teams.

But like any past time, if the dopamine rewards are easy and often you may find yourself sinking time and money into something that is not going to be good for you.

The returns that games and betting companies are achieving will soon be reaching a tipping point with more businesses adopting the methods to suck us in and unless we start looking for the pitfalls, we will once again be left trying to find the regulations to deal with the downside too late.

6 October 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

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