In 2013 I published “Community vs. Addiction in Interactive Media” on Gamasutra in response to an email from a parent. The child of the parent threatened suicide when told they would have their Xbox taken away for poor behaviour. The parent asked me what was going on, and if their child was “addicted to computer games”. I realized this was not a unique situation, and that publishing my thoughts might help a lot of people.
Since 2013 there have been other experts that have published works that supported my original observations to such an extent that it is time to revisit this subject and suggest how these new understandings can affect our success or failure as game developers. I would recommend watching Dr. Paul Zak’s Ted Talk on oxytocin and reading this recent article on the “real cause of addiction”.
Dr. Zak explains how oxytocin can induce intense altered states of consciousness that can boost our feelings of trust and connection. He demonstrates that a simple hug can cause this chemical’s release. On a more global level, he details that countries with higher oxytocin levels are more productive per capita.
If you consider Google’s recent research on what causes some teams to be more productive than others, I’m going to just come right out and suggest that the more Connected a group of people are, the more productive they are. I also feel that further research on the effects of oxytocin on human behaviour and wellbeing are going to significantly change our views of team and national productivity.
As the Huffington Post article explains, a person’s level of Connection to community is the key factor in whether a person succumbs to drug addiction, and whether they recover or not. The reason the War on Drugs was an unmitigated disaster was that there were two civilian wars going on simultaneously. The War on Drugs and...
The War on Connectedness
As Noam Chomsky explains so eloquently, the most effective way to prevent a populace from taking collective action to institute change is to “atomize” them by promoting individualism and separation. Some governments, corporate oligarchies, and religions have become very sophisticated in their development of methodology to fragment the civilian population.
Social media is so popular with civilians because it acts as a tool to enable Connection. The bad news for governments that find themselves poorly connected to their constituents is that they can be overthrown in days by a populace united by social media. The “Arab Spring” raised The War on Connectedness to DEFCON 1 planet-wide, as controlling groups decided this was a real problem for them.
Much like the War on Drugs, The War on Connectedness cannot be won. The harder you try to win, the worse your drug situation becomes. Your economy suffers (American’s used to laugh at the Canadian economy) as Dr. Zak explains. Anxiety and depression have skyrocketed 8-fold in the last 50 years among our youth. There has been a marked shift towards external loci of control, which reduces lifespan and productivity even further.
McCarthyism in the USA and the Cultural Revolutions in the East during the Cold War had a dramatic chilling effect on Connection world-wide, starting a bit more than 50 years ago. About 50 years ago key populist leaders advocating for societal Connection in the USA were cut down in an orgy of assassinations, including two radically populist USA presidents (I count both Kennedy’s). When my two real-space friends and early mentors Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested for greater Connection and inclusiveness at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic games, they were subjected to the most severe of domestic shaming (including detailed death threats and blacklisting) upon their return home.
The USA government has spent billions or trillions (no one really knows) of dollars on monitoring/manipulating electronic communication during this period and now is using technology to bypass iOS encryption. I don’t mean to single out the USA. They may be the biggest spender in this War, but other countries are doing their best to compete. The War on Connectedness is the largest and most expensive war being fought on Earth right now if you don’t count our war against the environment.
So why do I say it cannot be won? Because we as a species are wired for Connection, thanks to oxytocin. We now have technology that enables Connection that was never available to our species in any previous generation. I think it is improbable that Pandora’s Box can be closed without destroying the associated economy. If you threaten modern day humans with Disconnection, they are going to react similarly to how the child reacted when they found out they were going to lose their Xbox. With depression rates already at 8 times the rates before the War on Connection started, how big can that number get before an economy (and attached society) collapses? You’ll find out if you start shutting down their social media.
Imagine the magnitude of Occupy Facebook...
When I say that The War on Drugs or The War on Connectedness can’t be won, I’m not taking an ethical position or saying they are just or unjust. I’m just saying they lack efficacy and are unsustainable.
I don’t know how long those two wars will go on, and I’m not attached to the outcome either way. I’m an aggressive economist. I look for systems that are broken and find ways to exploit or remedy them. In this case there is tremendous unmet consumer demand for Connection. The gaming industry has been retooling for the last few years to bring them products that further promote Disconnectedness. “Pay to win”, by far the most widely used business model in the mobile space where most game development is occurring, promotes individualism and narcissism at the expense of community.
Products like Facebook and Tinder are extraordinarily popular with consumers, but are built on weak business models. I attribute their popularity and a lack of game innovation to the massive decline in mobile gameplay last year. This leaves a huge amount of the budget that consumers are willing to spend on Connection still on the table. Selling Connection, especially electronic Connection, is still legal across most of the globe. Short of blackouts like China uses, governments don’t really know how to control social media. The best they can do is influence it.
If, as the Huffington Post article posits, consumers will largely choose Connection over legacy/analog addictions, then there are annually trillions of dollars just sitting on the table. Why aren’t we grabbing that money?
There are two big hurdles.
The first is that as a society, and even as a scientific body, Connection is poorly understood. What we do now know has been understood intuitively for a long time, but the science is at best only a few years old and still very rudimentary. It still has not effectively trickled to industry (or government).
The second problem is that, due to their computer-based nature, our most popular social networks were created by people of below average social talents and experience. Industry in general, and the gaming industry in particular (now, not 10 years ago) are intensely data driven. Data driven companies don’t strongly attract or listen to social butterflies.
The unsolved technological hurdles to making massively social games that rival the scale of other social networks are essentially nil. The hurdles exist in the labor pool, and in particular management. Companies are built using a formula for what is known to work. When it comes to doing something new that there is no formula for, companies are crippled in this regard.
Building advanced social (gaming) networks sounds like something expensive that will take the collective resources of a company. Any company attempting this will certainly experience a lot of growing pains. Until it happens, and can be copied by less ambitious competitors, that huge pile of money is just going to sit there and taunt us.