I tend not to read many novels set in the dystopian future (I’m rather more fond of stories set in our dystopian present), but I was recently lent Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. And it reminded me of an essay I’d been meaning to write, something with the thesis “Infinite Jest: The Movie seems far less dangerous than Infinite Jest: The Game.”
Because it was nice, in Cline’s novel, that the protagonist gave up his games (at least temporarily) once he realized that relationships in the real world are more important. But that’s hard. Obviously Cline wasn’t aiming for absolute realism in his work, but his ending did inspire me to comb through some modern research on video game addiction.
Obviously video games aren’t addictive the way heroin is addictive. The way alcohol is addictive. You won’t go into physiological withdrawal, you won’t experience delirium tremens. But video games can be addicting the way marijuana is addicting (are there still people who disagree that marijuana is addicting? I think the clearest studies indicating that it is are things like this from Volkow et al. Marijuana boosts dopamine, which makes pleasurable activities more pleasurable. Habitual use leads results in a compensatory lowering of basal levels, however. If someone smokes a lot of marijuana, everything feels muted and bland unless they’ve smoked, which engenders a strong compulsion to smoke again. No, potheads doesn’t have to smoke more — they won’t get sick or die if cut off — but they’ll feel irritable and life will feel pleasureless if they don’t).
And there have been a handful of cases of “death by video game” already, often eerily reminiscent of descriptions given in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (the book). Which, in case you haven’t read it, the premise is this: imagine a movie so compelling that, once you had seen it, you would never want to do anything except watch that movie again. As in, wouldn’t want to sleep. Wouldn’t want to eat. Wouldn’t want to stand up to use the bathroom. You would, of course, die; presumably from thrombosis (when you’re immobile too long, your blood can clump — well, blood can clump all the time, but activity helps flush everything through your body so that no one aggregate gets dangerously large. But prolonged sitting can result in a sizeable clump forming, which can then plug shut a blood vessel. That’s thrombosis; it isn’t good), but if you’re particularly hardy you might die from dehydration instead. And, right, that movie was titled Infinite Jest.
There are several neurological explanations for why Infinite Jest: The Game will be even more dangerous than the film. Active participation in video games enhances the potential pleasure that can be experienced; with a movie, a predetermined outcome will be reached, but a player’s sense of control while gaming allows for dopamine release, i.e. blasts of pleasure, in response to in-game success (I believe Koepp et al.’s 1998 Nature paper was the first to monitor dopamine in gamers, although you could’ve asked any kid in an arcade back in 1978 and learned that, hey, shooting the aliens is fun).
And there’s the idea of replay. As in, starting another round of that exact same game to play again. There are some films that people watch over and over again, but usually not multiple times at a single sitting. Even if you do watch a movie repeatedly, it won’t grow with you; you’ll begin to anticipate each event, which diminishes the flash of pleasure when it comes. Consider this quote from Hull et al.’s review article about the interplay between video game design and its addictive potential: “a game player derives intense enjoyment by being immersed in the gaming experience, the challenges of the game are matched by the player’s skills, and the player’s sense of time is distorted so that time passes without being noticed.” I think good films do reward repeated viewings, which in a sense represents the “challenge” of a movie growing in tandem with your understanding of the work, but only up to a point. I think that it’s possible to reach a point where you’re not going to learn anything new from a film, at which point the challenge disappears.
And I definitely don’t mean to imply that video games have more stored meaning to offer an audience; honestly, I imagine that most players learn little or nothing with each repetition of some of the most addictive games.
Consider League of Legends, which was the game being played by one of the individuals profiled in that “video game deaths” article, and which numerous individuals have played for nearly ten-thousand hours. Each game is approximately forty minutes long, the games are quite similar from one to the next, and, as far as I can tell (and I put in some hundred hours of my own trying to find out, before their system requirements outgrew my duct-taped space-heater of a laptop) reveal little or nothing about the human condition.
But people play. Over and over again, they play. Because each game is short, it’s easy to loose track of aggregate time spent playing, and because you’re playing against other humans, paired via a fancy matchmaking system, the game should always approximately match your skill. Two of the features that Hull et al. remarked as key for addictiveness right there — inability to track time and constant challenge.
And there are a few more features we can add: for instance, when you do something “good” in the context of a game, you’re rewarded right away. Big flashes of color, satisfying sounds, and, of course, a new flush of dopamine. That immediacy is important. If you’re watching a film and have a good idea, that’s gratifying — but part of your gratification is delayed as you have to think through your idea, figure out whether or not it makes any sense, and every moment of delay results in a discounting of your brain’s sense of reward.
Because game playing is active, and players often sit much closer to their computer screens than movie viewers do to their televisions, video games should result in a more significant disruption of sleep cycle; it’s much harder to fall asleep while playing a game than while watching a movie. And although some people enjoy violent movies, the most addictive video games allow the player to perpetrate acts of violence on other characters; speculating about the evolutionary rationale for this might make this already-long essay too long, but suffice it to say that in many mammals aggressive behavior in itself feels rewarding, i.e., yeah, you guessed it, more dopamine!
And the problem is, once you have an activity in your life that triggers the release of buckets and buckets of dopamine, you’ll be beset by the urge to do that same thing again. Other activities, if they trigger the release of less dopamine, won’t feel worthwhile. And, video game design is iterative. Consider League of Legends again; they’re still making it better.
Anyone designing a new game can draw upon everything we’ve learned from past entertainments to make the next one even more pleasurable than anything that’s come before. Eventually, who knows, maybe an intrepid designer really will stumble across Infinite Jest: The Game and it’ll be just like those old scare stories about pot: try it once and you’re hooked!
With luck, that game designer will be too enthralled by his creation to ever get around to releasing it to the public.
(I wanted that to be the last sentence of this essay. But I can’t help but point out: this seems exceedingly unlikely. A key feature of the world’s most addictive games is human opponents, meaning Infinite Jest: The Game wouldn’t seem that bad until it was in fact released to the public. Because solitaire games tend to devolve into predictability; like the description given above for movies, a player might reach a point when there was nothing new to experience. But with a population of gamers all growing in skill together, ostensibly there is always a new challenge.)