YANSS Podcast – Episode Eight – The Psychology of Video Games

The Topic: Video Games

The Guest: Jamie Madigan

The Episode: Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Last of Us Friend or Foe

A scene from “The Last of Us”

“The Last of Us” is a video game, a work of interactive art, and a question will arise in the back of your mind while playing, “What would I do in this situation?” and the answer will make you feel emotions no other art form can elicit.

The game is set in a post-apocalyptic United States, 20 years after the fall of mankind, in a world nature has mostly reclaimed, where resources are few and trust is scarce. Hope is the commodity in shortest supply. Most everyone has given up on rebuilding the old world. This is just how it is now. Every encounter with strangers pings that most primal of judgments under uncertainty: “Is this a potential friend or foe?”

Familiar? Sure, it’s a theme being explored all over in fiction. Something in the zeitgeist has us fretting over these things again, but in a game you have the opportunity to actually test yourself in a virtual reality, to see what you would do when the stakes are as high as possible. Would you trust others? Would you help strangers? Would you kill to survive?

In addition, “The Last of Us” explores something the gaming world calls ludonarrative dissonance. Many modern games have detailed stories with great writing and well-acted scenes interspersed between what amounts to bursts of mass murder. It can make a player feel like his or her agency in the world has been stolen by the storyteller, that the characters you are asked to portray live in two realities, one you control and one you do not. This can feel really off-putting when the characters are jaunty, smarmy, and noble in the cutscenes, but then you are asked to use those people to do terrible things. In an effort to solve this problem, Naughty Dog, the developers of “The Last of Us”, crafted an experience where you and the character feel justified when pushed to do harm, but afterward you, the gamer, feel disgusted with yourself and horrified by the power of the situation to change your behavior and shift your moral center. You find yourself quickly learning to avoid violence – a behavior I was astonished to see evoked in myself inside a game world, and was thrilled to experience. That’s something you won’t get watching “Breaking Bad.”

Watch a teaser trailer showing a friend-or-foe scenario here: Link

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In this episode of the YANSS podcast, we explore games and their potential to reveal our self delusions. I interview Jamie Madigan, the curator of psychologyofgames.com, who writes about the behaviors and cognitions that games both exploit and uncover. It’s a great interview. We discuss everything from the motivational nudging in “Candy Crush Saga” to the power of endowed progress when endorsing people on LinkedIn. Please forgive us for geeking out so hard during it. I promise, non-gamers will learn plenty in this episode. Links to the things mentioned in the episode are at the bottom of this post.

After the interview, as in every episode, I read a bit of self delusion news and taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of the new book, You Are Now Less Dumb, and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Violet Sinnarkar who submitted a recipe for white chocolate oatmeal cookies. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

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White Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies

Links:

Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Boing Boing Podcasts

Psychology of Games

Papers, Please

Spent

Newsgaming

Underground Railroad Game

The Walking Dead 

Narco Guerilla 

The Last of Us

Candy Crush Youtube Video 1

Candy Crush Youtube Video 2

Candy Crush Youtube Video 3

Candy Crush Youtube Video 4

The study concerning the cognitive load of poverty

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The Sunk Cost Fallacy

The Misconception: You make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, investments and experiences.

The Truth: Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.

You can learn a lot about dealing with loss from a video game called Farmville.

You have probably heard of this game. In 2010, one in five Facebook users had a Farmville account. The barrage of updates generated by the game annoyed other users so much it forced the social network to change how users sent messages. At its peak, 84 million people played it, a number greater than the population of Italy.

Farmville has shrunk since then. About 50 million people were still playing in early 2011 – still impressive considering the fantasy megagame World of Warcraft boasts about a quarter as many players.

So, it must be really, really fun. A game with this many players must promise potent, unadulterated joy, right? Actually, the lasting appeal of Farmville has little to do with fun. To understand why people commit to this game and what it can teach you about the addictive nature of investment, you must first understand how your fear of loss leads to the sunk cost fallacy.

Continue reading

Extinction Burst

The Misconception: If you stop engaging in a bad habit, the habit will gradually diminish until it disappears from your life.

The Truth: Any time you quit something cold turkey, your brain will make a last-ditch effort to return you to your habit.

Source: Corie Howell

You’ve been there.

You get serious about losing weight and start to watch every calorie. You read labels, stock up on fruit and vegetables, hit the gym.

Everything is going fine. You feel great. You feel like a champion. You think, “This is easy.”

One day you give in to temptation and eat some candy, or a doughnut, or a cheeseburger. Maybe, you buy a bag of chips. You order the fettuccine alfredo.

That afternoon, you decide not only will you eat whatever you want, but to celebrate the occasion you will eat a pint of ice cream.

The diet ends in a catastrophic binge.

What the hell? How did your smooth transition from comfort food to human Dumpster happen?

Continue reading

Coffee

The Misconception: Coffee stimulates you.

The Truth: You become addicted to caffeine quickly, and soon you are drinking coffee to cure withdrawal more than for stimulation.

Mmmm, a warm cup of coffee with delicious cream, topped with a frothy head. You smell it brewing and feel cozy inside as you browse cakes and brownies, scones and biscotti. You get some of it in you, and you feel alive again – you feel superhuman.

Suddenly, you feel like John Nash, you can’t keep up with your own mind as geometric symbols float over the magazine articles in your lap. Someone strikes up a conversation about health care, and suddenly everything you’ve ever heard about the topic is at the tip of your tongue.

Damn, coffee is awesome. Except, of course, much of this is an illusion.

The truth is, once you’ve been drinking coffee for a while, the feeling you are getting after a cup isn’t the difference between the normal you and the super you, it’s the difference between the addict before and after a fix.

Ok, this is a very simplified explanation: Caffeine is an adenosine antagonist. This means it prevents adenosine from doing its job. Your brain is filled with keys which fit specific keyholes. Adenosine is one of those keys, but caffeine can fit in the same keyhole. When caffeine gets in there, it keeps adenosine from getting in. Adenosine does a lot of stuff all throughout your body, but the most noticeable job it has is to suppress your nervous system. With caffeine stuck in the keyhole, adenosine can’t calm you down. It can’t make you drowsy. It can’t get you to shut up. That crazy wired feeling you get when you drink a lot of coffee is what it feels like when your brain can’t turn itself off.

To compensate, your brain creates a ton of new receptor sites. The plan is to have more keyholes than false keys. The result is you become very sensitive to adenosine, and without coffee you get overwhelmed by its effects. After eight hours of sleep, you wake up with a head swimming with adenosine. You feel like shit until you get that black gold in you to clean out those receptor sites. That perk you feel isn’t adding anything substantial to you – it’s bringing you back to just above zero.

In addition, coffee stimulates your adrenal glands, which makes you feel like you could take a bullet and eat glass. When the adrenaline runs dry, you feel like you’ve been running a marathon, which leads you to look for more coffee to get those glands pumping again. After a few rides on the adrenal roller-coaster, you crash.

You might think all of this probably takes a while, but it takes about seven days to become addicted to caffeine.

Once addicted, you need more and more coffee to get buzzed as your brain gets covered in receptor sites. Neurologists report seeing patients regularly who drink two or three pots of coffee in one sitting before starting their day.

Coffee also releases dopamine, the feel-good chemical in the brain which is released when you have an orgasm, win the lottery and shoot heroin. A similar addiction cycle with dopamine leads to depression and fatigue when you aren’t hitting the beans.

Finally, caffeine takes about six hours to leave your system. So if you drink coffee six hours or less before going to bed, you won’t reach deep sleep as often. This means you wake up less rested, and need more coffee.

If you’ve been drinking coffee for a while, you aren’t getting nearly as much out of it as you did in the beginning. You are just curing an addiction.

“The take home is that regular use of caffeine produces no benefit to alertness, energy, or function. Regular caffeine users are simply staving off caffeine withdrawal with every dose – using caffeine just to return them to their baseline. This makes caffeine a net negative  for  alertness, or neutral at best if use is regular enough to avoid any withdrawal.”

- Neurologist Stephen Novella from his blog, Neurologica

Mind you, this is not a dependency. You will experience withdrawal symptoms upon cessation, but not like with amphetamines and cocaine. Coffee doesn’t seem to affect the dopaminergic structures related to reward, but before you breathe a sigh of relief, ask yourself how long you’ve been drinking it. Try and stop for two weeks and see how hard it is.

A cup or three will still give you pep, but as with all stimulants, over time you need more and more to reach that golden hum.

Don’t freak out, 90 percent of Americans are just like you, and you are not so smart.


You Are Not So Smart – The Book 

If you buy one book this year…well, I suppose you should get something you’ve had your eye on for a while. But, if you buy two or more books this year, might I recommend one of them be a celebration of self delusion? Give the gift of humility (to yourself or someone else you love). Watch the trailer.

Order now: Amazon Barnes and Noble – iTunes – Books A Million


Links:

Drinking coffee doesn’t make you more alert, new study shows

Caffeine, a drug of abuse?

The effects of chronic caffeine intake on adenosine receptors

Caffeine and adenosine receptors, a genetic view

Caffeine Withdrawal A Recognized Disorder

Adenosine and caffeine at About.com

Tolerance and addiction to coffee at Wikipedia