Sunday 24 July 2011

Don't submit yourself to a game machine!

(This is a translation of a post in my Finnish blog)

Some generations ago, when people said they were playing a game, they usually meant a social leisure activity that followed a commonly decided set of rules. The devices used for gaming were very simple, and the games themselves were purely in the minds of the players. It was possible to play thousands of different games with a single constant deck of cards, and it was possible for anyone to invent new games and variants.

Technological progress brought us "intelligent" gaming devices that reduced the possibility of negotiation. It is not possible to suggest an interesting rule variant to a pinball machine or a one-handed bandit; the machine only implements the rules it is built for. Changing the game requires technical skill and a lot of time, something most people don't have. As a matter of fact, most people aren't even interested in the exact rules of the game, they just care about the fun.

Nowadays, people have submitted ever bigger portions of their lives to "gaming machines" that make things at least superficially easier and simpler, but whose internal rules they don't necessarily understand at all. A substantial portion of today's social interaction in developed countries, for example, takes place in on-line social networking services. Under their hoods, these services calculate things like message visibility -- that is, which messages and whose messages are supposed to be more important for a given user. For most people, however, it seems to be completely OK that a computer owned by a big, distant corporation makes such decisions for them using a secret set of rules. They just care about the fun.

It has always been easy to use the latest media to manipulate people, as it takes time from the audience to develop criticism. When writing was a new thing, most people would regard any text as a "word of God" that was true just because it was written. In comparison, today's people have a thick wall of criticism against any kind of non-interactive propaganda, be that textual, aural or visual, but whenever a game-like interaction is introduced, we often become completely vulnerable. In short, we know how to be critical about an on-line news items but not how to be critical about the "like" and "share" buttons under them.

Video games, in many ways, surpasses traditional passive media in the potential of mental manipulation. A well-known example is the so-called Tetris effect caused by a prolonged playing of a pattern-matching game. The game of Tetris "programs" its player to constantly analyze the on-screen wall of blocks and mentally fit different types of tetrominos in it. When a player stops playing after several hours, the "program" may remain active, causing the player to continue mentally fitting tetrominos on outdoor landscapes or whatever they see in their environment. Other kinds of games may have other kinds of effects. I have personally also experienced an "adventure game effect" that caused me to unwillingly think about real-world things and locations from the point of view of "progressing in the script". Therefore, I don't think it is a very far-fetched idea that spending a lot of time on an interactive website gives our brains a permission to adapt to the "game mechanics" and unnoticeably alter the way how we look at the world.

So, is this a real threat? Are they already trying to manipulate our minds in game-mechanical means, and how? There has been perhaps even too much criticism of Facebook compared to other social networking sites, but I'm now it as an example as it is currently the most familiar one for the wide audience.

As many people probably understand already, Facebook's customer base doesn't consist of the users (who pay nothing for the service) but of marketeers who want their products to be sold. The users can be thought as mere raw material that can be refined to better fit the requirements of the market. This is most visible in the user profile mechanic that encourages users to define themselves primarily with multiple choices and product fandom. The only space in the profile that allows for a longer free text has been laid below all the "more important things". Marketeers don't want personal profile pages but realiable statistics, high-quality consumption habit databases and easily controllable consumers.

The most prominent game-mechanical element in Facebook is "Like", which affects nearly everything on the site. It is a simple and easily processable signal whose use is particularly encouraged. In its internal game, Facebook scores users according to how active "likers" they are, and gives more visibility to the messages of those users that score higher. Moderate users of Facebook, who use their whole brain to consider what to "Like" or not or what to share and not, gain less points and less visibility. This is how Facebook rewards the "virtuous" users and punishes the "sinful" ones.

What about those users who actually want to understand the inner workings of the service, in order to use it better for their own purposes? Facebook makes this very difficult, and I believe it is on purpose. The actual rules of the game haven't been documented anywhere, so users need to follow intuitive guesses or experiment with the thing. If a user actually manages to reverse-engineer part of the black box, he or she can never trust that it continues to work in the same way. The changes in the rules of the internal game can be totally unpredictable. This discourages users from even trying to understand the game they are playing and encourages them to trust the control of their private lives to the computers of a big, distant company.

Of course, Facebook is not representative of all forms of on-line sociality. The so-called imageboards, for example, are diagonally opposite to Facebook in many areas: totally uncommercial and simple-to-understand sites where real names or even pseudonyms are rarey used. As these sites function totally differently from Facebook, it can be guessed that they also affect their users' brains in a different way.

Technically, imageboards resemble discussion boards, but with the game-mechanical difference that they encourage a faster, more spontaneous communication which usually feels more like a loud attention-whoring contest than actual discussion. A lot of the imageboard culture can be explained as mere consequences of the mechanics. The fact that images are often more prominent than text in threads makes it possible for users to superficially skim around the pictures and only focus on the parts that seize their attention. This contributes to the fast tempo that invites the users to react very quickly and spontaneously, usually without any means of identification, as if as part of a rebellious mob. The belief in radical anonymity and hivemind power have ultimately become some kind of core values of the imageboard culture.

The possibility of anonymous commentary gives us a much greater sense of freedom than we get by using our real name or even a long-term pseudonym. Anonymous provocateurs don't need to be afraid of losing their face. They feel free to troll around from the bottom of their heart, looking for moments of "lulz" they get by heating someone up. The behavior is probably familiar to anyone who has been reading anonymous comments on news websites or toilet walls. Imageboards just take this kind of behavior to its logical extreme, basing all of its social interaction on a spontaneous mob behavior.

Critics of on-line culture, such as Lanier and Rushkoff, have often expressed their concern of how on-line socialization trivializes our view of other people. Instead of interacting with living people with rich personalities, we seem to be increasingly dealing with lists, statistics and faceless mobs who we interact with using "Like", "Block" and "Add Friend" buttons. I'm also concerned about this. Even when someone rationally understands on the rational level that this is just an abstraction required by the means of communication to work, we may accidentally and unnoticeably become programmed by the "Tetris effects" of these media. Awareness and criticism may very well reduce the risk, but I don't believe they can make anyone totally immune.

So, what can we do? Should we abandon social networking sites altogether to save the humanity of the human race? I don't think denialism helps anything. Instead, we should learn how to use the potential of interactive social technology in constructive rather than destructive means. We should develop new game mechanics that, instead of promoting collective stupidity and dehumanization, augment the positive sides of humanity and encourage us to improve ourselves. But is this anything great masses could become interested in? Do they any longer care about whether they remain as independent individuals? Perhaps not, but we can still hope for the best.