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March 16, 2007


An historical example of this phenomenon is drug use. We have drugs today that are much more powerful, stimulating and addictive than the relatively mild beers, wines, and herbs which people had access to historically. When distilled liquors have been introduced around the world it has been accompanied by several generations of serious abuse problems. Eventually people have become somewhat adapted to hard liquor but alcohol addiction is still a widespread problem.

The response has been to ban most of the more potent drugs (in an admittedly somewhat inconsistent way) in order to reduce the harm from these unnatural stimuli. I suspect that we will someday see similar restrictions on too-addictive video games. The record from drug prohibition suggests that we may not do a very good job on drawing the line between what is OK and what is not, unfortunately.

I also think it's a good bet that after (a) a sufficiently high-profile death (Congressperson's son) or (b) the problems scale up to where everyone knows someone who lost their job, we're going to see attempted regulation (that's a political prediction, not policy advice).

However, as we all know by now, electronic information is a lot harder to control than material objects, and material objects are hard enough to control already.

Scott Adams (Dilbert creator) said that the Star Trek Holodeck will be the end of evolution for our species, because everyone will simply spend all their time there having sex with supermodels. I'm sympathetic. This implies that the only thing intelligent to evolve will be humorless dullards who would rather replicate in real life than enjoy the pleasures of endless frat parties with nubile, funny, and eager babes.

Perhaps this is why God has so little humor in the Bible, he's the ultimate replicator.

Another approach might of course be to try to boost self-control. Self-control correlates with being able to delay gratification, long-term planning and career success. An enhancement of this would be socially and individually beneficial, probably far more than most other cognition enhancers.

There are experiments that demonstrate that glucose drinks can actually boost depleted self-control:
and presumably there might be more deep methods of enhancing it. So one strategy of handling the rise in temptations is to make us better at handling them.

An interesting and rather worrying paper is this,
which argues that it is the flow experience of games that hooks us. Normally flow is hard to achieve through stimuli, which at most just generate happiness, but the more profound flow state seems triggerable by the right games. This goes beyond mere habit-formation to get a pleasurable stimuli since the highly motivated flow state involves using all mental resources to prolong and expand the state. So we might not just have to learn how to overcome simple pleasure temptations but also complex flow temptations.

Overall, enhancements of strategic individual thinking would be extremely useful. But there are no guarantees they will be developed at an equal pace as the games.

When people know that candy bars can be too tempting, they can prefer to work in places without candy bar machines. Similarly, people who find ice cream or cookie stands too tempting can stay away from shopping malls that allow such stands. People who find the sight of naked people too tempting can choose to work and shop in places that do not allow people to walk around naked. Economists have worked out models of many of these situations, and the keep coming back to the conclusion that giving people mechanisms of self-control is good enough, unless people are biased to to underestimate their self-control problems. And so recommendations for more self-control regulation tend to be based on claims that we are biased to underestimate our problem.

I find certain types of video games far more addictive than the average human does. This, however, reduces my demand for these video games. I have never bought or played World of Warcraft because I strongly suspect that I would become addicted to the game. If enough potential addicts are like me then games that become too addictive will suffer in the marketplace.

Games have trouble satisfying creative urges -- to the extent that they do, they're just a medium for classic creativity, rather than a time-wasting game. It's no accident that lots of programming talent is being expended on a more dynamic version of Second Life, and I can certainly see game-like (or at least hyper-competitive )features in Wikipedia -- which is a lot like a version of trivial pursuit that happens to output an encyclopedia). It's true that as games get more compelling, they'll turn into evolutionary dead ends -- but I strongly suspect that the most compelling games are the ones that take advantage of our evolutionary instincts by tricking us into doing what makes evolutionary sense.

I think the fictional evidence misses a key factor in raising kids. At least for some people the continuation of a line, that line either being blood or values. I think most soon to be parents don't look forward to the nasty sleepless evenings with newborns or such. But give the availability of abortion, we still do not see L'Dolce Vita culling all humans from the reproducing herds.

People do enjoy long term endeavors. I find the idea that my line will stretch far into the future to be a very good driver in my quest for higher education and wealth attainment. Delaying my own gratification is an integral part of that quest. I, in fact, hope to lay down a family "constitution" to instill my values on my children's children. If I am going to give them wealth they better damn build an empire with it.

Robin: would you say that the quantity of addictions -- and addictions that make people genuinely, deeply unhappy -- in the world is pretty good evidence that we in fact systematically tend to underestimate our self-control problems?

Gowder: It's pretty good evidence of something, that's for sure. Clearly the economic models that indicate that nothing ought to be going wrong are not validating against experiment.

Anders, glucose drinks are known to promote the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin one would expect to help self-control, but the problem is that the effect lasts less than an hour and is followed by a bigger effect in the opposite direction.

Paul, see my post tomorrow morning.

Drugs may be the best model for this sort of addiction, but one big difference is that software can evolve much faster. New street drugs are invented every so often, but obviously at a rate much slower than new software can be introduced. Game software might evolve not just to be more addictive, but to be safer, since killing the customer is counterproductive. Fatally-addicting games could have safety features introduced, like forcing the user to take a break every so often. And presumably such features WOULD be introduced, since it's in the interest of all parties.

The upshot of such an evolutionary path would be games that are highly addicting but not fatally so. The social problems wouldn't be so much players dropping dead as having the game world suck in so much human attention that real-world productivity suffers.

"Game software might evolve not just to be more addictive, but to be safer, since killing the customer is counteproductive." -- mtraven

Argument from group selection. Killing the customer is bad for the industry, but not for the company. If everyone plays the most fun game on the market, and 10% of its players die annually from playing it, and you come up with a new, more entertaining game that will give you the entire market but with a 15% annual death rate, you don't get rich by trying to save lives.

As a rabid game player, I find that the stimulation I get from playing some of my favorite video games is basically the same as the stimulation that I get from reading some of my favorite novels. There are some authors that I find to be more addictive than even some of the best games. (Terry Pratchett comes to mind.) Oddly enough, though, I find television oddly lacking when compared to print media and interactive media, as I keep wanting to DO something instead of watch passively. (Having another person watching along with me that I can talk with seems to satisfy that urge.)

Regarding the video game deaths, well, I've done marathon gaming sessions, and it helps to have food within easy reach. I've joked with my family about the "video game diet" - when you get hungry, ignore it and keep playing video games. ;) Once upon a time, I skipped a midterm exam in college to play Final Fantasy X - and I regret nothing! (I ended up passing the course anyway, thanks to some fast talking. The magic words are "psychiatrist" and "antidepressant.")

I suspect that many ancient forms of self-discipline and meditation are aimed at enhancing self-control, either by increasing the supply of the pool, or (especially in the case of Taoist techniques, though many others such as Feldenkrais discuss this) providing cognitive alternatives to using self control that do not deplete the pool.
However, I am concerned that enhanced self-control may come with a social cost in terms of percieved degree of trustworthyness, desert of empathy etc. After all, drinking in high school correlates positively with later earnings. http://www.nber.org/papers/w12529

To me the most practically relevant question seems to be "what can we do to bias the production of addictive activities towards those which act as economic complements to productive or socially desirable activities, and as economic substitutes for destructive or socially undesirable activities". One possibility that I have been somewhat preoccupied with for some time is that of 'reputation markets'. It seems to me that these may tend to increase the degree to which life resembles a video game in so far as a person's reputation can ultimately constitute a set of dynamic visible scores that they can continually attempt to optimize under intermittant reinforcement.

On a related note, Wikinomics claims that in Star Wars Galaxies players build the 'medical' skill associated with their characters by providing diagnosis based on real medical data, thus developing real medical skills. I have long thought that games could teach foreign languages by making them practically necessary in the course of game play, but this might interfere with addictivity unless it was handled very skillfully.

Since this post seems to be a confessional, for me the only really addictive games are the Civilization series. My only 2 consecutive all-nighters ever were Alpha Centauri related, shortly after it's release.

Thank you for the latest release of gradewrecker. My GPA just went in the corner and shot itself.
-- USENET posting, author unknown

My solution to the problem was to own a really slow computer. It took so long to load up the game I had been playing that it always seemed preferrable to log on to forums and complain about games not matching up to ye olden days than actually playing any. Eventually I found even that was taking up too much of my time and now games are just a thing of the past. The question of whether I put too much time into reading blogs is still open though.

Richard Hollerith pointed out that the glucose drinks only last for about an hour, which is true. It is less certain that they are followed by a dip in self-control or that their effect is by affecting the neurotransmittors. Even if it is, it is a start for some serious neuropharmacological hacking. The serotonin system is already of interest in this respect:

A real willpower enhancement is likely something much more complex. Ideally we would like to strengthen our second order desires (at least some of them, some of the time). That might involve finding some pretty disperse neural nets, or more likely having a close symbiosis with software acting as an artificial superego. Design and implementation is left as an exercise :-)

It seems that one could trap this kind of desires too by games fulfilling them. If I have creative desires, spending a lot of time creating in Second Life would meet them. Maybe one could create "games" that help the third world in some way, trapping people with an altruist motivation (my favorite example is the spiders in the comic http://www.e-sheep.com/spiders/ ). The worrying thing is when the game shapes or constrains the activity into something less useful than it would otherwise have been. First order desire games trap us by providing simple stimulation, second order games by providing complex stimulation and meaning. But just as the stimulation in Tetris is fairly scripted the meaning and interaction in WoW is limited. Perhaps the healthiest aspect of the online games is how many players deliberately set out to expand their scope and circumvent their limitations. Maybe that is the solution of game addiction: try to ensure that the games are expandable and could in principle become arbitrarily complex. But that will still not help the people content with fulfilling first order desires.

Riley, a 15% death rate pa with total market saturation isn't an evolutionarily stable strategy.

Re: michael's suggestion about using reputation markets to make real life resemble a video game, I am reminded of Cory Doctorow's Down and out in the Magic Kingdom, where the main currency is "whuffie", a reputation measure that others use to determine whether or not they should do you favors.

I like the description of a superstimulus. I detect a hint of behaviorism.

Persons interested in the concept of super-stimuli should note the work of music scientist Phillip Dorrell, who argues that music is a super-stimulus for language:


He also speculates that software developers will soon be able to construct algorithms to produce "strong" music, that is, music which is better than any thusfar created by humans. This will bring about obvious addiction problems similar to those mentioned above relating to video games.

Porn, too, is a superstimulant. A user can see more nubile young females (or whatever gets him going) in an afternoon than his hunter gatherer forbears would have seen in a lifetime. Porn makers "lace" their products with domination, violence, risky and forbidden acts precisely to enhance their addictiveness.

People often have no idea they're hooked until they try to stop using, and suffer intense withdrawal symptoms (shakes, anxiety, depression, insomnia, overwhelming horniness that is far greater than their pre-porn libido, etc.). See "Three Myths about Porn."

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