Sunday, February 15, 2015

Video Game & Social Media Addictions

Have you ever started a quick game of Angry Birds and thirty minutes later you are promising yourself that this is the last game you will play, only to notice an hour later that you are still playing that same game over and over again.  

First generation videogames, classics from the eighties era, such as Tetris and Pacman earned the nickname “Addictive undefeatables”, due to the fact that the levels were at times so difficult that they were practically impossible to complete and players took the situation as a personal challenge to try to finish all the levels.  In facts most of these games are still popular and addictive even today.
It is becoming more evident that video game developers and software designers are today using modern psychological techniques to get their customers ‘hooked’ onto their products, notable examples are Facebook, Snapchat or even playing a simple yet immersive game like Candy Crush.  Our brains yearn for continuous simulation, even if it’s just a simple reward.
Behavioural Psychologists have long identified that random reinforcements or rewards create powerful addictions. This particular technique has been used for years in slot machines, whereby money received from slot machines acts as reinforcement.  The gamblers consciously know that in the long run they will probably end up losing more money than they will win and yet nature of the random rewards and not knowing when the next big win will come, unconsciously keeps them coming back for more.  Over time designers, through the use of continuous marketing testing and psychological principles have identified a semi-scientific process which is being used to ensure that their software provides such random rewards so as to hold onto the user for as long as possible.
In reality the most profitable companies are not the ones who are able to produce the best video game or piece of software, but rather the most successful products are those which are able to hook their users.  Take operating systems for example, Microsoft launched it’s Windows 1.0 in 1985, the majority of computer users today think that Windows was the first and best graphical user interface when in reality there were other, some argue even better GUI operating systems, before windows such as Linux X introduced around the same time as Windows.  Tough Microsoft was able to get it’s users hooked to it’s product and therefore gain worldwide recognition as a standard provider of operating systems on IBM compatible personal computers.  Windows based computers are the most commonly used today in the world, due to the fact that Microsoft kept updating and focusing on the same user base.
Nir Eyal author of the best-selling book “A guide to building habit forming products” deconstructs the practice of getting customers addicted to a particular product into smaller steps.  The author advises companies to use a technique called ‘Seed’ marketing.  This involves creating loyalty amongst opinion leaders.  This is exactly what Facebook did in the early formative years when their service was offered exclusively to students attending particular US colleges only.  By getting highly opinionated, thought-leaders onboard, Facebook managed to infiltrate other strata of society easily.
Another technique advocated by Eyal is to require a high investment from the users possibly in learning how the product itself works or building an entire infrastructure around it.  Microsoft used this strategy when marketing newer Windows versions as it’s users find it very difficult to let go of this product for a competitor due to the time invested in learning and all the software associated with this OS.
Optimization, a buzz-word basically meaning simplification, is also advocated.  During 2013, Twitter removed all the clutter, options and company information from the main page and were replaced by only two strikingly familiar options, the “sign-up” and “sign-in” buttons.  This simple change managed to increase the user base dramatically after it started easing off after it’s successful 2009 launch.
We spoke about the subject of addictions and how it related to the online and gaming world to Ms. Amanda Grech, a registered psychotherapist with experience in dealing with people who have problems related to newer technology phenomena such cyber bullying.
Ms. Grech stated that currently there is a debate as to whether the internet and certain games are actually addictive, however excessive use of the internet or gaming is considered problematic and several studies are showing that in some cases gamers find it hard to control their behaviour.  Internet usage is becoming an ever-increasing part of our everyday lives and even though the internet offers a myriad of benefits, it does not go without some serious psychological underpinnings.  As with other mass communication technologies, issues surrounding misuse and addiction have broken the internet surface.
The Techsunday asked Ms. Grech to what extent activities like video-gaming or spending time on Facebook can disrupt one’s life.   The answer is striking, as usually these problems are related to excessive amounts of time spent playing or online, to the extent that they severely disrupt the users’ work or educational performances and social relationships.  Thus online behaviour becomes problematic when it is impacting negatively on someone’s life situation.  On the other hand, some video game publishers today are growing more conscious of their social responsibility towards their customers and use warning messages about overuse risks.
Video games often stir up controversy in families.  As the old adage goes, ‘prevention is better than cure’ and ideally parents are present in their children’s internet use, much prior the point of a crisis.  Ms. Grech suggests that in such situations it is imperative for parents to be open to technology and value the digital world such as the recreational aspect of online gaming.  This will facilitate the negotiation of reasonable resolutions with regards to internet use and young people are more likely to feel understood by the parents.  Similar to other areas in parenting, communication and education are the most effective and powerful strategies in shaping the children’s behaviour.   This is of particular importance also due to issues of online safety.  The internet can be very dangerous and parents need to ensure that their children are safe online.
If a person realises that he is spending excessive time gaming and is neglecting other areas in life such as self-care or the relationship with his loved ones, Ms. Grech suggested that it may be fruitful to observe and record online behaviour.  By building awareness, one may be in a better position to prioritise and plan time according to what is deemed most important in life.  
Another strategy that can help a person overcome internet misuse is to reflect on the function of the gaming behaviour.  The Internet could function as a distraction from important life issues that need to be tackled such as important decisions that need to be taken.   
Replacing face-to-face interactions by online networking is concerning as it could be the case that a person is avoiding offline interactions due to anxiety provoked in social settings or due to a poor concept of self.  At times in order to deal with internet misuse, a person needs support to strengthen other areas in life such as building a healthy self-esteem and working on issues related to social anxiety.  Ms. Grech continued to explain that most importantly, a person can always seek professional support with regards to this issue, particularly if one feels stuck or cannot bring about the desired changes in his life.

Concluding, Ms. Amanda Grech stated that not all aspects of the online world are problematic and some can healthily enjoy positive experiences such as feelings of achievement, friendship, sense of community and also a source of amusement if they manage to balance their online activities with their offline world.

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Notice: Article was originally published on the Sunday Times of Malta, TechSunday 15th February 2015.  Written by Ian Vella.  Article is being republished here only for information purposes and copyright is shared between the author and editor therefore republication is not allowed unless written consent is obtained by all parties.

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