Computer games

April 20, 2019

We need to wake up to what’s really going on with video computer games.A lot of the chatter about gaming centres on issues about whether it makes our children more aggressive or not. This is not the most important issue. What we need to be thinking about is whether gaming is becoming something much more akin to gambling.  Here is an abbreviated outline of some of the issues we need to be thinking carefully about. You can make your own mind up about it.

The video gaming industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the US. The rise of casual gaming on mobile platforms has led to a massive expansion of the industry. The structure of the games has changed as well. In the 1990’s video games were ‘premium’, meaning you paid once to gain access to the game for life, rather like buying a book. Video game companies have shifted to more profitable models known as ‘Free to play”. The aim of the FTP game is to get as many players playing for free, with the hope that some, if not all, will keep buying in-game content.

In-game game content includes things like ‘visual enhancements’, ‘digital trophies’  and ‘virtual goods’.

These companies are increasingly using ideas and technologies that are used in casinos to keep children playing for longer and in many cases get them addicted. Commonly they use fake currency. This helps create a disassociation effect in the player, meaning that he is more likely to  spend more using a fake currency than a real one. This is the same psychology behind the use of the credit card.

They have added another dimension from casinos known as ‘progress gates’. The typical slot machine charges you to keep playing as soon as you lose, this is known as a ‘hard progress gate’. By way of contrast a ‘soft progress gate’ prevents a player from playing for a period of time, which can be bypassed by paying to keep playing. Hard and soft progress gates are part and parcel of video games.

Among the other more dubious gifts from the gaming industry is the the ‘loot box’. This is in effect an in-game lottery ticket; for a small amount of money a player can purchase a variety of items that promises to enhance the game experience. For example in FIFA 18 a Premium gold pack ‘might’ get you a top player and note the emphasis on ‘might’. The odds are something between one in eleven and one in thirteen of this happening. You are more than likely to get a low level player that you have to trade if you can. These Loot boxes have been at the centre of the rise in ‘smartphone ‘freemium’ games which although free to download cant be properly enjoyed unless the player pays for in-app boosts.

Perhaps the most important game changer if you will excuse the pun is that the games now use the variable-ratio reinforcement reward system. This was a system designed by behavioural psychologists to eliminate aberrant behaviours. This same psychology is behind Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, FOBT, that are known as the ‘crack cocaine’ of gambling. The end goal is to keep people playing on the machines regardless of whether they win or not. Computer games use the same psychology. This system comes from behavioural psychology and works as follows. The theory is that you don’t reward behaviour every time you play. You vary how often a person gets a reward when they accomplish the target behaviour ( in this case keep on playing the game). You might start to reward them say every 5 times or 7 times they play randomly until the behaviour you want is established ( ie they are locked into playing the game ). Once the behaviour is established ( the player is addicted//or in the zone if you prefer) then you can lengthen the time between rewards. It is proven that eventually the extended time between rewards becomes no deterrent to playing because the behaviour is now hard wired into the brain. The end goal is to induce the ‘state of flow’ or being in ‘the zone’, in which all of the player’s attention and consciousness is pulled into the game and nothing in the outside world matters.This helps explain the explosive rages our children get into when we try drag them away from the game.

Of course while the system was originally devised for eliminating aberrant behaviours it is now the science behind FOBT and more importantly gaming. The question parents have to get to grips with is that unlimited playing of computer games is not good for your child whatever they tell you to the contrary. By all means let them play but it has to be time limited.


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