Saturday, December 9, 2017

My Free-to-Play Gaming Postmortem

So there was this period of time from mid-September 2015 to mid-October 2017 in which I didn’t write a single blog post. What happened? This post is my attempt to reflect on my hiatus from blogging.

The most convenient answer—and the one most friendly to my ego—is that I had simply gone through some Major Life Changes that got in the way of devoting time to this blog. However, if I dig deeper, I must admit to myself that October 2015 is when I started playing a free Japanese mobile game called Puzzle and Dragons (PAD), and October 2017 was when I started to get tired of playing it; I finally deleted the game from my phone last week.

Left: A random person's monster collection. Right: a monster card in all its glory.
The basic gist of PAD is that you assemble a team based on different “monster cards,” each of which has different properties. You obtain the best cards by spending “magic stones” on a Rare Egg Machine, which pops out a random monster card at a cost of 5 stones. The stones can be earned for free by beating levels in the game or purchased for $0.99 each (or only $59.99 for 85!). With your team, you fight your way through various dungeons, doing damage to the enemies based on how many orbs of the same color you can match in rows or columns of at least 3 on the game’s puzzle board. As with any decently fun game, it felt rewarding to finally beat a difficult level after multiple tries. And the artwork and graphics, hand-drawn by Japanese artists, were top-notch. But in addition to these basic features shared with most games, PAD has many mechanisms that increase its ability to grab ahold of players’ attention, time, and money, and these psychological manipulations are very clear for me to see in retrospect.

Left: Narrowly escaped death from the enemy's attack. Right: My team doing some serious damage to Kali.
The game frequently gives away magic stones and other goodies for free, using reciprocity to make a player feel motivated (or obligated) to keep playing. Also, you get more rewards the more consecutive days you log in, which helps players make the game a daily habit à la Snapstreaks. The most powerful cards, of course, are very rare, so there’s intermittent variable interval reinforcement when you get lucky and land a good card. There are special events every few weeks called “Godfests,” which are the only times players can get certain rare cards, creating some serious FoMO. Once you’ve invested time and energy to assemble a nice collection, there’s a strong tendency towards loss aversion, as no one wants to feel like they’ve wasted all this time for nothing. Since most of PAD’s players are young men, many of the most desirable cards feature scantily-clad female characters, a.k.a. “waifus.” And there’s a community aspect as well, with multiple forums devoted to the game where players share their accomplishments and good Godfest luck, leading to upward comparisons and social reinforcement.

Despite all that, I’m not sure I would say that I was addicted to the game in a clinical sense. I was spending ~30-60 minutes a day playing the game, and maybe another half hour a day reading about it. My personal relationships and work did not suffer, as far as I can tell. Over the course of 2 years, I spent a grand total of $10 on in-app purchases of magic stones. On PAD forums there are reports of “whales” who've spent upwards of thousands of dollars on the game, so I got off relatively easy, at least in a financial sense.

Still, how PAD affected my mind is undeniable. Instead of reading blogs related to psychiatry and mental health, I was reading blogs and watching YouTube channels related to PAD. I stopped even thinking about my blog, and every time I had a spare moment, I would open the PAD app instead of taking in my surroundings or reading a book. In fact, I read far fewer books in 2016 and 2017 compared to any other year in my life since I learned to read, though part of that may be due to reading more on the web. It wasn’t all bad, though. I wasted far less time on Twitter, and I was no longer waking up in the middle of the night with ideas for blog posts. I had a convenient and pleasant distraction from politics. And I’ve spent much less mental energy these last 2 years obsessing about my fantasy football teams than I have in previous years.

So what finally made me stop? A part of it was the fact that PAD’s creators are constantly adding more difficult dungeons, which in turn require ever more powerful (and rare) monster cards to deal with. Playing the game started to feel increasingly like a Sisyphean task. I’d also like to think that a part of me missed blogging and reading books. Recently, I came across the philosophically-oriented Slate Star Codex blog, written by a young psychiatrist, and I thought, “If he can write several 2000 to 5000-word blog posts in a week, then why can’t I be even 3% as productive (i.e. roughly a 1000-word post per month)?”

Lastly, some advice for parents out there: as fun as Super Mario Bros was for us in our youth, it does not remotely compare to the reinforcement mechanisms that today’s microtransaction-driven mobile games employ. I’ve heard multiple stories from parents about their kids stealing their credit cards to spend hundred of dollars on in-app purchases for games like Clash of Clans and Clash Royale. I now believe that parents should not be letting their kids play games like these, which all tend to use similar attention and money-grabbing tactics. As a general rule, this applies to any of the mobile games that you see advertised on TV; how else would those game companies have so much money to spend on prime time ad spots? Recently, regulators in The Netherlands have started investigating whether games that have “loot boxes” (a similar idea to the Rare Egg Machine) are a form of gambling and should be regulated as such. In my mind there is no doubt that these games can work very similarly to gambling, except you can’t actually win any money, so it’s in a way worse than gambling.

Even if there are kids who can responsibly play these games without spending too much time or money, I would still strongly suspect that these games have an outsized influence on what their players think about—and stop thinking about—even when they’re not playing. And for me, that was ultimately the biggest negative impact.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Protests, Then and Now

Lately, I’ve been hearing and reading a lot about how America is the most divided it’s been since the 1960’s. But given all of the social progress made over the course of that tumultuous decade, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I was not around during the 60’s, but my mental image of that era is filled with vivid images of people protesting: at Selma and the March on Washington, on campuses all over the country, even at the Pentagon.

Which got me thinking, how are today’s mass protestors doing? (My thoughts on the NFL’s anthem protestors—and celebrity protests in general—are somewhat separate and not covered here.)

Last month, I was somewhat taken aback when I read about some anti-fascist rallies:
The explicit goal of the November 4 protests, which have been warped into a number of increasingly bizarre, "antifa"-related conspiracy theories by right-wing media, is to remove Trump and his administration from office. In order to achieve that end, millions of people will have to take to the streets of cities like New York, Austin and San Francisco, demanding that the administration step down, organizers tell Newsweek. It’s something that will not be achieved with the actions of only a few left-wing radicals, they say.
WTF?!? Am I the only one who thinks that holding an antifascist protest in SF is like Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders marching down the streets of Harlem instead of down Hwy 80 from Selma to Montgomery? If you’re protesting fascism, why in the world are you holding your protests in the most diverse places with the fewest white nationalists and their sympathizers? Why not go to where the Trump voters actually live, like the Deep South or Kansas? If that’s too far for city people to travel, how about taking a bus from Pittsburgh to Johnstown, PA or from Detroit to one of those Michigan counties that went for Trump? Or is that still too inconvenient for people?

Given all this #Resist talk, what are people actually doing to resist our president? During the 50’s and 60’s, the protestors organized very effective sit-ins which not only highlighted the racism and oppression of “separate but equal,” but just as importantly, disrupted lots of segregated businesses. And who can forget the cries of “Hey hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” causing Lyndon B. Johnson to not have a moment’s peace:
The president and his principal spokesmen were finding it harder each week to avoid the chanting protesters, who seemed to be everywhere. For the first time in history, a president was unwelcome in public in most parts of the country, making him a veritable prisoner in the White House, "hunkered down" there, to use one of his favorite expressions.
Fast forward to today, when we have a grossly narcissistic guy who cares most about his image, his money, and his opulent properties, so how is the fight being taken to that guy? Certainly lots of people are being blocked by him on Twitter, but what is most noticeable to me is how much he still gets to enjoy playing golf almost every week. So why aren’t people protesting every single weekend at Mar-a-Lago or Trump National Golf Club? Why aren’t they blocking off traffic, as protestors have done in Oakland and St. Louis? Why aren’t protestors shaming everyone who goes to those Trump properties with shouts of “Hey hey DJT, all your lies won’t set you free!”? Is this asking too much, if indeed this man is as dangerous as we think he is?

Speaking of which, one of the most infuriating things I read this year is this account of what actually happened when anti-Trump protestors came face-to-face with Trump supporters at a Trump rally in Arizona:
Elsewhere in the city, the police had done a masterful job of ensuring that large groups of pro-Trump Americans were separated from groups of anti-Trump Americans. The two groups were usually placed on either side of wide barricaded streets, but on this corner, there were no barricades, no police nearby, and access between the two groups was unobstructed.

Which made it all the more surreal and tragic how genial and almost embarrassed the interactions were. 

[…]

The Trump supporters looked up and down at their sudden audience, and, if they could get over their astonishment, smiled and held up their phones to take pictures.

And when the protesters saw just how unarmed and unassuming most of the Trump supporters were, and how free they were of signs, weapons, anything — they were left speechless.

That was a strange thing. There were a hundred or so protesters standing on the high steps, and at any given time a few dozen Trump attendees passing them on the sidewalk, but for much of the time they were in close proximity, and no one said anything.

Something was happening there, in that close confrontation between the two groups. There was recognition. There was the uncomfortable knowledge that they were in many ways very similar people. The rally attendees were not frothing at the mouth and were not spouting racial epithets. They were moms, dads, teenagers, and families who for whatever reason have an exceedingly high tolerance for wretched behavior and the absence of moral leadership from their chief executive.

Thus the protesters were flummoxed. It seemed cruel and strange to yell “Nazi” to a pair of grandparents in yellow polo shirts, or at a trio of Eagle Scouts, and so given the chance to say something directly to Trump supporters passing by them, mere inches away, much of the time they said nothing.
How about “Shame, shame, shame!” or “Your emperor has no clothes!” or “We want a president, not a wannabe dictator!” Am I just being unrealistic? Are my expectations too high? I think that on some level, this lack of basic effectiveness at protesting is one reason why the man is still in office.

Has our consumerist culture (see my last blog post on this), smartphones, and the internet made everyone so complacent that they don’t know how to break out of their own little bubbles to stage an effective protest anymore? Do we really think that some hashtags, clever signs, and funny hats are enough?