Every psychology undergraduate learns the same scientific parable of addiction. A rat with a line to its veins is put in a box, a “Skinner Box,” with a rat-friendly lever that releases small amounts of cocaine. The rat quickly learns to associate the lever with a rush, and starts to press it, over and over, in favor of nourishment or sociality, until death, often by stroke or heart failure.
Fortunately, rat self-administration studies, which go back to the 1960’s, offer a mere metaphor for human addiction. A human’s course down the same path is much less literal. People don’t literally jam a “self-stimulate” button until death. Right? Last week, Mr. Hsieh from Taiwan was found dead after playing unnamed “combat computer games” for three days straight. Heart failure. His case follows a handful of others from the past decade, from Asia and the West. Streaks of 12 hours to 29 days, causes of death including strokes, heart failure, and other awful things. One guy foamed at the mouth before dropping dead.
East Asia is leagues ahead of the West in the state of its video game culture. Multiplayer online games are a national pastimes with national heroes and nationally-televised tournaments.(And the South Korean government has taken a public health perspective on the downsides, with a 2011 curfew for online gamers under 18.) Among the young, games play the role that football plays for the rest of the world. With Amazon’s recent purchase of e-sport broadcaster twitch.tv, for $1.1 billion, there is every reason to believe that this is where things are going in the West.
Science and industry are toolkits, and you can use them to take the world virtually anywhere. With infinite possibilities, the one direction you ultimately choose says a lot about you, and your values. The gaming industry values immersion. You can see it in the advance of computer graphics and, more recently, in the ubiquity of social gaming and gamification. You can see it in the positively retro fascination of Silicon Valley with the outmoded 1950’s “behaviorist” school of psychology, with its Skinner boxes, stimuli and responses, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, positive reinforcement, new fangled (1970’s) intermittent reinforcement. Compulsion loops and dopamine traps. Betable.com, another big dreamer, is inpiring us all with its wager that the future of gaming is next to Vegas. Incidentally, behaviorism seems to be the most monetizable of the psychologies.
And VR is the next step in immersion, a big step. Facebook has bet $400 million on it. Virtual reality uses the human visual system — the sensory modality with the highest bandwidth for information — to provide seamless access to human neurophysiology. It works at such a fundamental level that the engineering challenges remaining in VR are no longer technological (real-time graphics rendering can now feed information fast enough to keep up with the amazing human eye). Today’s challenges are more about managing human physiology, specifically, nausea. In VR, the easiest game to engineer is “Vomit Horror Show,” and any other game is hard. Nausea is a sign that your body is struggling to resolve conflicting signals; your body doesn’t know what’s real. Developers are being forced to reimagine basic principles of game and interface design.*** Third-person perspective is uncomfortable, it makes your head swim. Cut scenes are uncomfortable for the lack of control. If your physical body is sitting while your virtual body stands, it’s possible to feel like you’re the wrong height (also uncomfortable). And the door that VR opens can close behind it: It isn’t suited to the forms that we think of when we think of video games: top-down games that makes you a mastermind or a god, “side-scroller” action games, detached and cerebral puzzle games. VR is about first-person perspective, you, and making you forget what’s real.
We use rats in science because their physiology is a good model of human physiology. But I rolled my eyes when my professor made his dramatic pause after telling the rat story. Surely, humans are a few notches up when it comes to self control. We wouldn’t literally jam the happy button to death. We can see what’s going on. Mr. Hsieh’s Skinner Box was gaming, probably first-person gaming, and he self-administered with the left mouse button, which you can use to kill. These stories are newsworthy today because they’re still news, but all the pieces are in place for them to become newsworthy because people are dying. The game industry has always had some blood on its hands. Games can be gory and they can teach and indulge violent fantasizing. But if these people are any indication, that blood is going to become a lot harder to tell from the real thing.