Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Video Games, Schedules of Reinforcement, and a Lot of Money

An NPR radio report this morning covered the way companies use data from online video games to keep kids playing and to sell in-game products.  (Here's a link.) The report says that the for-profit study of these games has "become a science."  Indeed, even several decades ago, science was being applied to the early games.  But few could have anticipated just how big the video game industry would become. 

Why play at all?  Because of the reinforcing consequences--consequences on schedules of reinforcement.

Anywhere there are consequences (which is everywhere), they're on schedules.  So applications of schedules are everywhere, video games included. A classic article on the reinforcement schedules in video games appeared in the trade magazine Gamasutra in 2001 (article link). And author John Hopson got the schedules absolutely right:  ratio (work-based), interval (time-based), etc., and the typical behavior patterns they produce.  Obviously, game designers generally want a high, steady, and persistent rate of play.  If you've read my book, you know why they go for variable ratio schedules for those basic experience points or extra skills.  But designers also utilize time-based schedules:  With the slower rates of play that they foster, these schedules encourage more exploration--more chances to check out the new possibilities that the game designers introduce for variety.  After a while, also, anyone can get tired of a frenetic pace and want a bit of a break.  The international connections provided by the real Internet friends who are helping or fighting you adds another dimension, with social reinforcers adding to the attraction.  You can see where the science comes in, as game designers try to build in optimal schedules of reinforcement as they balance all the other factors they need to consider. 

Negative consequences play a role too:  You want to avoid getting killed in the game, or losing tools, or friends.  The possibilities are infinite, and avoidance is a powerful motivator.  The NPR report notes what scientists find, that being given an immediate threat enhances the power of the opportunity to pay real money for survival aids.

On a larger scale, reaching the next level in the hierarchy of accomplishment is a big positive reinforcer (shaping!).  While World of Warcraft offers different scenarios, most with dozens of levels, Candy Crush Saga has hundreds of levels.  Caught up in the game for weeks or months, kids and adults alike can lose track of how much they've spent.  Because the games are online and require permission to join, every click can get recorded into the database.

How big are these effects?  The top games raise millions of dollars every day.  That's the power of consequences . . .

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Culture and Consequences

Weisman Art Museum
I hit the road again in a couple days, only a week after I returned from my big southeastern book tour.  This time it's a short trip to the Weisman Art Museum, the University of Minnesota's Gehry-designed building in Minneapolis.  I will be one of the presenters in an anniversary evening devoted to a discussion of choice, and I want to devote this blog post to one of my topics: culture.

Different cultures and subcultures maintain different standards in the arts and elsewhere, and consequences are clearly involved.  If everyone at a party prefers pop music and you start playing country/western or rap or classical, there might well be adverse consequences.  Speaking of classical music, a century ago, the Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, with harsh, unpredictable rhythms and dissonance, famously provoked a riot.  One leading critic called the music "barbaric."  Where have we heard this more recently?  Oh, yes--the introduction of rock music in the 1950s and 60s was greeted with similar expressions by some.

How do we develop musical or artistic preferences to begin with?  Often from positive childhood associations, and sometimes explicit consequences and rules:  "This is considered a classic." - meaning "Most people like this so you probably should too."  Social norms operate all over the place, don't they?  All these processes are dynamic, of course, and our preferences and associated reinforcer values can and do change over time. 

Food cultures have a few extra wrinkles.  In his recent book Cooked, Michael Pollan discusses the laborious process in Korea of developing a taste for the sour national dish, kimchi--in its basic form, fermented cabbage.  I've tried it several times--most recently on my southeastern trip--and with all the good will in the world, I could not make myself eat much of it.  (But I hasten to add that the rest of that Korean dinner was great.)

For many Korean kids also, a taste for the dish must be trained over time:  Eating kimchi is modeled by adults, there's a slew of positive associations in the larger culture that enhance its reward value, and the youngsters get directly praised for persistently trying it.  It goes beyond, say, acquiring a preference for your local barbecue style in the US, because for most people kimchi is definitely an acquired taste.  It's a healthful, nutritional dish, though.

Among the obvious applications, taking advantage of these cultural value-enhancement methods can help to develop healthy eating habits in youngsters.  I'll devote a future post to approaches like the successful Food Dudes program encouraging kids to eat fruits and vegetables.