Gödel and intelligent machines. . . tangent here. . .

I am reading Gödel, Escher and Bach. Mostly because I have been intrigued by Gödel’s proof of incompleteness for a few years but have been far too dim-witted to sort it out myself.  Hofstadter’s 700+ page tome walks you through it one tiny bit at a time.  And it works; I get it now. Sort of.

quite dashing, eh?

At any rate, I’m on page 473, shortly after the story climaxes with the demonstration that no formal system can be ‘complete’; that is, there will always be some ‘ideas’ (ie., expressions) within a formal system that are undecidable as to whether they are true or false, particularly when you throw in self-reference in a tricky way.  I won’t try to make sense of this and foist upon you a long tedious discussion of some of the most abstruse ideas imaginable.  Partly because I’d make a wreck of it and partly because it’s an acquired taste, kinda like grain alcohol flavored with hot sauce.

There is one idea that’s cropped up, though, that I can’t help but comment on.   Apparently one JR Lucas has argued that Gödel’s demonstration of incompleteness demonstrates that machines can never be intelligent.  In a nutshell, machines, because they operate on a formal system, could never arrive at Gödel’s conclusions.  Ergo, they lack intelligence.  That’s a gross simplification of the argument, but let’s go with it.

There are plenty of criticisms to this argument, but I am interested in a really superficial one (I’ll leave the deep thinking to the logicians).  Namely, that most humans cannot arrive at Gödel’s conclusions either.  Or for that matter, even understand them.  Lucas’s argument seems to implicitly rest on the premise that because one human, Gödel, was able to sort this all out . . .  and because subsequently a few humans (myself not really among them) were able to understand Gödel’s logic and arrive at the same conclusions . . .  then in principle all humans (and the human brain generally) are capable of such a thing, while machines are not.  For a group of people obsessively worried about truth, provable assertions and decideability, this strikes me as a remarkably unwarranted premise.  In fact, I’d say your average human brain is no more likely than a Commodore 360 to understand Gödel’s logic.  What is remarkable, and important to note, is that somehow humanity manages to get by. Yes, that’s right.  The majority of instances of human intelligence are not that bothered by incompleteness and undecidability. Hell, just make a decision and be done with it.

Okay, let’s start again . . .

Outside the circles of rigorous, formal argumentation, one might view the entire endeavor of trying to devise a truth-telling formal system that is complete and free of error as, well, a strange sort of fetish.  Perhaps what is central to human intelligence– the type we see every day in billions of humans going about their human business– is not the ability to ferret out ever more abstruse formal truths, but their remarkable ability to move about within uncertainty, where undecideability and incompleteness are the fundamental conditions of existence.

Perhaps not being able to arrive at Gödel’s theorem is not such a handicap to machine intelligence.  Building machines out of formal systems and then claiming they can never achieve intelligence may be like pushing your little brother into the mud and then telling on him for getting dirty.

Video Game Addiction: The dark side of reward?

Can video games be addictive? It’s an interesting question.  Considering that I’ve just spent the last few posts arguing that understanding the basal ganglia can provide a strategy for creating motivation and, in particular, inducing habit, it’s a question I can’t really avoid.  Though I mean well, could greater insight into the brain processes underlying motivational processes help unscrupulous game designers enthrall millions of youth into automaton like existence addicted to crack-like video games?  Well, I don’t think video game designers need my help in that regard.  A quick google and you’ll get a cache full of worry about the threat of video game addiction to youth (apparently no one is worried about the middle-aged women with credit cards who pump billions into Zynga’s coffers).  Though reading these pages can sometimes feel like you’ve stepped into a 2012 alternative version of Reefer Madness—for example, listed among the potential symptoms of video game addiction on the Wiki page is “standing in the middle of nowhere looking into space for a considerable amount of time”—the question nonetheless merits examination.

So the basal ganglia are, in fact, the brain structures most frequently implicated in addiction.  In particular, addiction is believed to arise from drugs of abuse ‘hijacking’ the dopamine reward system and causing compulsive drug seeking vis-a-vis the basal ganglia: motivation run amuck and sorely misguided.  So on the various web sites promoting the idea of video game addiction, you will frequently encounter as evidence the observation that video games release dopamine.  Thus, 2 + 2 = video game addiction.  Is this true?  Despite the appearance of countless studies cited on these pages, there is actually only one straight-forward study of whether video games release dopamine (Nature. 1998 May 21;393(6682):266-8): yes, they do.  The rest of the apparent citations are simply to other popular media stories citing other popular media stories citing other popular media stories ad infinitum.  Not one byte of it counting as evidence, unless merely saying something often enough makes it true.

Nonetheless, in this case it is true: video games do release dopamine.  Could this induce addiction? Actually, dopamine is released all the time.  If you could do it in a PET scan machine, I guarantee you would see dopamine released during ping-pong.  You’d probably spike a little dopamine at the grocery store when you unexpectedly find cat food on sale. There’s a good chance that solving a math problem releases dopamine.  You release dopamine every time you have a meal.  In fact, if you did not release dopamine, you would die.  Literally.  In Parkinson’s disease, it is the progressive death of dopamine cells that gradually debilitates and eventually immobilizes its sufferers.  Lack of dopamine is a serious and tragic disease.  Dopamine is involved not only in reward, but in motor movement and learning of many sorts.  It modulates attention, energizes behavior and sharpens focus.  This is why so many college students are nipping Adderall; it releases dopamine—it’s speed.  And it is addictive.  And yet, our brains release dopamine constantly.  Why are we not addicted to everything?

Because releasing dopamine is an essential and extremely ancient evolutionary mechanism that arose to allow organisms to adapt to their environment.  Not only people, monkeys, cats and dogs, but worms and flies. . . almost any multicellular organism you can think of use dopamine. It is old old old.  It is there to help us.  The problem with drugs of abuse is that they crank the system to 11 on a dial of 10. Basically, addictive drugs plug the whole 110V system into a 220V outlet.  Things fry.  Not good.  So what about video games?  Can they do the same thing? Over crank the system?  Consider this: about 90% of kids play video games, millions of them daily.  What would happen if 90% of all kids in the United States smoked crack several times a week, many of them daily? Think about it.

We live in an alarmist society, one fond of medicalizing everything.  Everything can be addictive now.  Not only drugs, but sex, exercise, video games, shopping, gambling, shop-lifting, facebook, crossword puzzles.  It reminds me of the adage “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Addiction seems to be our social hammer.  From the Wiki page: “The most effective treatments seem to be, as with addictions or dependencies, a combination of psychopharmacology, psychotherapy and twelve-step programs.”  Really? Symptoms include: “Players may play many hours per day, having late baths and regarding personal hygiene as a waste of time.  (Previously construed as a symptom of childhood).  Or: individuals may “play at work.” (Alternatively viewed as a symptom of a dull job and/or poor supervision).  Many studies cite the excessive amount of time, often hours a day, that young people spend playing video games.  How is this different from spending, on average, 6 hours a day watching television, a staple of childhood for several decades?

There is no doubt that some people, kids and adults alike, retreat into the world of video games, sometimes obsessively and to their detriment.  And I certainly do not mean to make light of this.  If it were my son or daughter, I would not find it amusing but deeply worrying.  But I am not sure casting it as an addiction, pathologizing and medicalizing it, helps much at all.  Again from Wiki: “Ferguson, Coulson and Barnett [59] in a meta-analytic review of the research, concluded that the evidence suggests that video game addiction arises out of other mental health problems, rather than causing them.”  Which is to say that a deeply withdrawn child who plays video games for hours to the exclusion of friends and other activities may, in fact, have other problems.  Other problems it would be important to recognize and treat.

Do kids spend too much time playing video games, even kids without mental health problems?  Perhaps, but then as has been pointed out repeatedly, many people obtain satisfaction in the world of video games they cannot obtain in the real world.  Just like television. And movies. And books.  Perhaps the question could be asked whether video games release too much dopamine and are addicting. But why, in a sense, does the world we provide children, adolescents and many adults not provide sufficient dopamine stimulation to get them addicted to activities in the real world?  Is our world that dull?  Do we infantalize youth, leaving them without meaningful challenge and opportunities? Does a culture of passive consumption induce a mind-numbing ennui from which video games offer respite?

The world becomes interesting and engaging when you have the skills to engage it and to make it interesting and challenging.  As a tool for building motivational scaffolding, video games provide an opportunity for adults and educators to help children and adolescents acquire skills that can transform the way they see and engage the real world around them.   We should not lose sight of that amidst the spectacle of supposed video game addiction.  And maybe, just maybe, if we don’t like when people turn away from society in an endless array of so-called addictions, we might take a look at the society against which they choose to turn their backs.

Basal Ganglia II: Reward is not Motivation

We are surrounded by stimuli.  Whenever we are awake and conscious, a constant stream of information is pouring into our brains.  From this, we have to selectively attend to those stimuli which are salient; that is, those that convey information that will inform our actions–  more importantly, we need to attend especially to those stimuli with which we can interact.  A one hundred dollar bill is much more interesting laying on the sidewalk in front of us than taped out of reach behind an alarmed glass plate.  So the first element of a motivational structure is the salience we attach to stimuli and how that salience directs our attention.  The salience attached to stimuli is, at least partially, learned. For example, fashionistas and small dogs are both likely to pay more attention to what shoes guests are wearing, perhaps for different reasons, than your average Joe.  A criminal is more likely to take note of the police officer on the corner than an office worker at lunch.

Confronted with any particular stimulus, there are usually multiple actions we can take.  Coming across the nice police officer, we can smile and say ‘Good Day’ or we could avert our eyes, maybe duck down a sidestreet, or in some cases we might run like hell.  The range of responses we have determines how flexible we can be in response to that stimulus and, importantly, how well we can respond to our advantage.  Forgetting about the cop for a minute, think instead of ping-pong.  For a beginner, the ball hurling toward you induces only one response: swipe and hope like hell you hit the ball.  As a person continues to play, however, they develop a more refined set of responses generally tied to a more refined sense of stimuli.  That is, the ball is not only coming at me, but is heading toward the left corner with an up-spin. . . so I know what to do.  My response, in turn, sends the ball barreling like a bullet back to the right edge of my opponent’s side.  So a second element of a motivational structure is response repertoire.  This may be counter-intuitive at first. We think of motivation as that which makes us want to do something, not the something we do.  But the ultimate purpose of any action is to affect some change in the world. . . whether that be ending poverty or scoring a point in basketball.  When our actions yield positive results, they are rewarding.  And that makes it likely we will repeat them.   Thus, our response repertoire and skill set comprise a critical part of our motivational structure: we repeat what has been successful previously.

The final element of a motivational structure is automaticity.  Timeliness is of the utmost importance.  If we are to select salient stimuli and emit advantageous responses, we must, generally speaking, do it quickly.  When that ping-pong ball comes hurling at you, there is no time for deliberation.  There is no time to analyze its angle of approach, velocity and spin.  This has to all be recognized automatically.  Not just ping-pong, but in everyday life: we have to constantly sort through a noisy barrage of stimuli and respond pseudo-instantaneously, without deliberation.  The vast majority of our daily actions are, in fact, entirely habitual.

The basal ganglia appear to play a critical role in this sort of automatic, habitual sensorimotor integration: selecting and highlighting salient stimuli and generating a rapid response, all rapidly and without deliberation or much, if any, conscious awareness.  If motivation is ‘that which moves us’– those processes that generate our actions and choices– this system, by shaping what we attend to and our immediate, habitual responses, very much shapes our movements and actions, which in turn shapes how the world responds to us.  In this sense, this basal ganglia system may be thought of as motivational structures, guiding and directing our behavior.

The basal ganglia, then, represent a key point of access for creating and transforming motivation, a substrate for motivational scaffolding, a mechanism for motivational plasticity.  How would this work?  The basal ganglia learn.  Specifically, their learning is guided by reward, that is, reinforcement learning.  When something good happens, they remember.  They remember the stimulus and action that preceded the good outcome, increasing the probability that (a) they will notice that stimulus in the future and (b) will emit a similar response.  It worked before, why not again?  In this way, the basal ganglia facilitate rapid, efficient and adaptive responding to the environment.

From the point of view of video games and educational or other games with a purpose, the critical point is that reward need not be important.  Though it’s true that a big, valuable reward, like winning $10,000 is highly reinforcing, little stupid rewards tend to do the trick also, like getting ’80 coin’ in Farmville for clicking on a crop.  That is, reward and motivation are not one and the same.  Motivation is that which moves me and shapes my actions.  Reward is simply a positive outcome, feedback.  Getting rewarded can change my motivational structure.  When we motivate a child with a cookie, we shouldn’t worry about whether this represents intrinsic or extrinsic motivation.  It doesn’t matter.  What is important is that the cookie comprises a positive outcome that induces learning and change, altering the child’s motivational structure– how he or she will see the world and the opportunities it presents for action.

By designing games informed by how the the basal ganglia work, we have a strategy for shifting how an individual sees and interacts with their environment: what they pay attention to and how they respond; in essence, what is important to them as they encounter the world each and every day.    These brain processes and structures are evolutionarily ancient and profoundly powerful.   Tapping into this sort of deep structure is precisely how Zynga has managed to get millions of people to regularly log on and play what is, looked at objectively, an inane, tedious and pointless game.   In the next blog or two I will revisit the ‘ville universe of Zynga and how those games masterfully leverage basal ganglia mediated processes to engage an absurd number of millions of players.

Meet the basal ganglia. . . a substrate for motivational scaffolding

The basal ganglia are is a group of structures nestled under the cerebral cortex.  What exactly the basal ganglia do remains controversial and subject to intense investigation.  They seem to be play a critical role, though, in a laundry list of neurological and psychiatric disorders, ranging from Parkinson’s disease to addiction to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder to, more recently, obesity.  That, together with the fact that they take up a fair amount of neural territory, suggests that whatever they do, it’s probably important.

An illustration of the location of the basal ganglia within the brain.

Historically, the basal ganglia have been thought to mediate two primary domains of function.  On one hand, they have something to do with motor control and motor learning, hence their role in Parkinson’s disease.  On the other hand, they seem to have a lot to do with motivated behavior, the link to addiction and obesity.  These two areas come together in what is now the predominant view:  the basal ganglia are structures that mediate reinforcement learning—that is, learning from reward— and contribute to selecting actions.  Referring to the last post, in the basal ganglia motivation and action are married, two peas in a pod.

What’s this have to do with video games?  There are three functions associated with the basal ganglia that are worth highlighting.

First, procedural learning.  There are several types of learning and memory.  There is declarative memory, such as remembering the capital of Idaho is Boise: facts and information.  There is episodic memory, such as what I had for breakfast or where I was in 2003.  And finally, there is implicit or procedural memory, which is memory of how to do things, motor memory of sorts, the sort of memory and knowledge you are not necessarily aware of.  Though video games may require all three types of memory, the lion’s share of mastering a video game is, generally, skills.  That is, within the game world, you learn how to do things.  From an evolutionary perspective, you have to respect this kind of learning.  Very few animals need to remember where they were in 2003 or, for that matter, what they had for breakfast.  Even fewer need to know the capital of Idaho, including most humans.  But how to do things, no organism can survive without that.  All the neural machinery in the world and all the learning that goes with it is of little use if you can’t learn how to take actions and do things.  Motivation isn’t much use either if you don’t have the ability to do something when motivated.  So the basal ganglia are all business, it’s about doing, not lots of useless fancy cogitating about state capitals and breakfast.

Second, the basal ganglia are associated with reinforcement learning and regulating motivational processes.  This is, in some ways, an extension of the ‘learning to do,’ no-nonsense, get-to-business attitude of the basal ganglia.  In a word, they do what works.  When an action yields reward, it is remembered.  There’s no la-de-da, am I motivated, what should I do sort of equivocating with the basal ganglia: they act first and ask questions later, mainly ‘was that a good thing to do?’  If the answer is yes, they remember and learn that action.

Third, the basal ganglia have been associated with habit.  Habit is essentially a behavior that happens automatically without much, if any, conscious thought or deliberation.  It is a response that is under ‘stimulus control’; that is, like pressing the brake at a stop sign, it’s an action that occurs automatically in response to events in the world, kind of like a learned reflex.  In a way you might think of this as the no-nonsense basal ganglia cutting to the chase: we’ve been through this many times, you don’t need to think about it, here is the best action to take. . . done.  This is the sort of learning critical for things like riding a bicycle, mastering a tennis serve or tapping the controller just right to dodge the death traps and kill the monster.

So returning to an earlier post, in appealing to a broader audience with a video game, particularly when motivation to play may not be present initially (eg., educational games), part of the challenge is to create motivation.  The basal ganglia represent potential neural substrates or brain mechanisms for scaffolding motivation, presenting a sort of triumvirate of motivational development: reward, action and automaticity.  In the next post I will look at how and why these three are related before returning, at last, to our original topic– inducing habitual game-play and the creation of motivation.

Motivation and action: a chicken and egg problem?

Motivation is a complex concept with a long history in psychology and neuroscience.  I am going to sketch a notion of ‘motivational structure’ in this post and, in a subsequent post link this motivational structure to a part of the brain associated with procedural learning and habit.  The purpose of this is to make an argument about how video games can create a form of ‘motivational scaffolding’ that creates motivation where there was none before.

First, the elements of motivational structure.  The earliest theories of motivation were ‘drive’ theories: hunger, thirst, reproduction and so on.  The basic idea is that a deficit state produces motivation to relieve the deficit, for example by eating, drinking or mating.  Though these theories are generally seen as too simplistic to fully explain complex motivational processes, it is hard to dismiss the general idea that we have certain needs and when these are not met this creates a ‘drive’ to meet these needs.  This need-based view of motivation was elaborated beyond simple physiological needs by Abraham Maslow in his famous hierarchy of needs (see Michael Wu for an excellent discussion of this and other motivational theories with regard to video game design).   In the discussion of intrinsic/extrinsic, I associated these internal need states with intrinsic motivation, or ‘push’ motivation.  In the mid 20th century, an alternative, ‘incentive’ view of motivation developed in which motivation arose not from internal, push mechanisms but from things in the world that become associated with value for the organism.  That is stimuli, such as Big Mac, can of Coke, or a scantily clad body all come to possess incentive value that causes us to engage in behavior to interact with those stimuli and obtain satisfaction.  This is a ‘pull’ mechanism, such as when a picture of a Big Mac makes your mouth water, which I associated with ‘extrinsic’ motivation.  Setting aside abstruse theoretical debate, it should be obvious that both types of motivation must exist and, moreover, there must be a relationship between the two.

Second, the functions of motivational structure.  Though we think of motivation as the thing that makes us want to do things, like play video games, eat Big Macs, surf the internet for porn, I want to give it a concrete function: the allocation of resources.  An organism has a finite number of resources and needs to make decisions to optimally use those resources for its survival and development.  The first and most fundamental resource is attention.  One cannot pay attention to and think about and consider everything all the time.  Example: if you just finished a huge meal while driving you probably won’t notice the endless billboards for fast food restaurants along the way but if you are hungry you will see and think about every single one; this is selective attention.  The second resource is effort/energy allocation.  This has two component: what to expend effort and energy on in the first place (do I study, do my laundry or talk to a friend on the phone) and, secondly, how much effort to expend.

It works like this then: faced with a barrage of stimuli and choices, a motivational structure is a set of associations between these stimuli and, based on previous experience, their potential value to meeting current internal needs.  A combination of one’s current need state (intrinsic, ‘push’ aspect) and the learned incentive associated with stimuli (extrinsic, ‘pull’ aspect) cause us to shift our attention to certain things in the world with which we can interact.  Among those things, we next decide which are more relevant to us at the moment: get to class on time (hate to be late again) or eat quick lunch (I am starving)? Finally, once we have selected a goal, our motivational structure includes cost-benefit analyses that tell us how hard to pursue the goal we just selected.  This is a very simplified conceptualization of motivational structure that is intended as a helpful framework for thinking about motivation.

Motivational Structure: push/pull, drive/incentive elements of motivation denoted in blue. Basic functions of motivation in red. Effect of experience on motivation, green.

What is important to recognize here, and lays the groundwork for the next post, is that although we typically think of motivation as leading to action—I am hungry, so I eat—the motivational structure described above cannot precede experience: it arises from interaction with the world.  So although the common sense notion that motivation shapes our actions is clearly true, it is equally true that our actions and experience shape our motivational structure.  So instead of designing video games based on the notion that we need to find gameplay that ‘taps into’ a person’s motivation, a pervasive belief, we should think about providing gameplay experiences that shape that motivation in the first place: design experiences that create motivation.  But how to do this?  The key is to look in the brain at where action and motivation come together so intimately as to be indistinguishable: the basal ganglia.  In the next post I will talk about what this brain region is generally believed to do and how that might give us insight into designing video games that ‘scaffold’ motivational structures.

Is Fun really a good design principle?

With games like Farmvile, Mafia Wars and Cityville, Zynga has helped expand the traditional game market and captured an absurd number of monthly active users in the process.  In December 2011, Cityville had 48.8 million monthly active users.  By comparison, in 2009 the console market in total was at 32.9 million.  In just the last three years, the number of ‘gamers’ in the US has tripled from 56 to 135 million.  With the continued proliferation of game options and platforms, there is no reason to believe this number won’t continue to grow as games wind their way more and more into our daily lives and routines.

Within this vast, diverse market, competition is growing increasingly fierce. Only a relatively short while ago, there was only a handful of facebook games.  Now, they multiply like fruit flies in a banana bowl.  In this fiercely competitive market, it is important to clearly identify not only who a video game is targeting (ie., market segment) but how a target market will interact with a game.

The benchmark for evaluating the market competitiveness of a video game is, broadly, fun. That is, the general objective is to achieve a game that people can’t put down.  If it keeps you engrossed until four a.m. and then you spend the next sleepy day at work or school anticipating getting back to the game and tackling the next level, it is likely to be a success.  A good video game is a lot like a good book you can’t put down.  But as games expand into ever-new market segments, increasingly for non-entertainment purposes such as education, a game you can’t put down may not always be the best marker of success.  By analogy, some games may be more like a newspaper, something you spend a little time with every day.  Other games may be like textbooks, something that’s good for you but that you’ll happily put down at the first opportunity.  And, even, some games may be like instructions and manuals, something that help you accomplish a task but not themselves intrinsically rewarding.

There will always be a place for games that engage players through temporary obsession.  Increasingly, though, the question might be how to engage players consistently across a sustained period of time.  This challenge is particularly pressing in games targeting players that may not be motivated to play in the first place, such as might occur in educational games.

The most common solution to questions of motivation is, not surprisingly, to focus on making games fun.  Indeed, that is one of the primary mantras of serious games: because games are fun, people will engage in activities they might otherwise avoid, like learning algebra.  The difficulty is that fun is in the eye of the amused.  What is fun for Bobby may be deathly dull and tedious for Susie.  As a consequence, using ‘fun’ as a guiding principle in designing games may introduce subjectivity where ‘fun’ is a slippery, shifting target.

Though clearly no game will be fun for everyone, I would argue that there are principles by which games engage players and that fun is a consequence rather than a cause of motivational engagement.  That is, rather than taking fun at face value and viewing it as a motivator . . . and designing games around someone’s subjective idea of fun. . . we might ask how games engage people’s motivational systems and how fun arises from this engagement.  From this perspective, instead of debating what is and is not fun, we might ask what does and does not engage people and how.

For a bit I’m going to focus on a different aspect of motivation.  Rather than looking at a game in isolation and asking ‘why would a person play this game,’ I am going to ask how a game comes to have a place in a person’s life and routine.   That is, out of all the competing activities a person can do from dawn to dusk, how does a game come to get their attention, effort and time?  Setting aside the goal of obsessive, all-night gameplay, I will argue that sustained engagement with a game requires transforming the game into a habit within an individual’s motivational structure.  In the next post, I will talk about ‘habit systems’ in the brain and their relationship to motivational structures.  Following that, I will identify principles of habit induction and argue that these principles may be useful to the design of many games, especially non-traditional ‘serious games.’

CityVille Genius: A narrative account of the first 15 minutes

It’s natural for video game designers to think of their competition as other video games.  But video games, especially among people who are not aficionados, have to increasingly vie for attention against an ever-growing array of alternative, immediate, on-demand entertainment options.  Thanks to Hulu and others, television can be watched any time, not just when a program is scheduled, including at work, during a commute, waiting for an appointment and so on.  Netflix and others are making movies a source of instant gratification; no theatre necessary, no rental.  Music, music videos and on-line radio stations have proliferated. There are friends’ facebook posts to skim through, links to click (always another funny cat video to watch), blogs to follow, increasingly diverse and sophisticated media to keep up on, and new windows onto corners of the world once reserved for those stodgy, yellow monthly National Geographics.  And of course YouTube, a phenomenal time sink if ever there was one. We as a population are immersed and overloaded with choices for our free time.  Social networking sites, digital download and smart, affordable and fast mobile devices create a potentially vast market beyond the traditional console/PC gamer crowd, but how do you get people with little interest in games to play your game instead of watching cat videos, reading friends’ posts, scanning the New York Times or looking for a sexy date?  You reduce all barriers to sampling the game, maximize reinforcement and incentive and induce habitual play behavior, creating incremental investment.  This, I believe, is how Zynga achieved millions upon millions of monthly active users, many of whom fall well outside the traditional game market.  Below I narrate my experience during the first 15 minutes of playing CityVille.  In subsequent posts I will elaborate some principles of engagement this narrative illustrates.

When I first opened up the CityVille game, there is no demand placed on me whatsoever.  I do not have to read anything that explains the rules or the objectives, I do not have to understand anything that is on the screen and I don’t have to make any choices.  Zero demand.

In fact, they initially play the game for me. “Click here and build a house” which takes me to the buildings popup.  “Click here to select house.”  After that, “put house here.”  After I do this, the frame of the house appears with a message, click here to build.  I do this twice and whaddya know, there’s a house.  A bunch of xp and cash is awarded with a message ‘click here to collect.’

This strategy is brilliant. I don’t have to give a crap about the game at all.  I can be drinking coffee, listening to voicemail, chomping on a donut and with no mental effort just click here and there.  This demand-free process, however, manages to:

a) teach me the simple mechanics of the game

b) provide instant gratification in multiple forms:

i) I see the house my clicking brought into being

ii) I get xp and coin, instant reward, which cleverly I have to click to collect (ie., to make sure I process the reward without requiring that I pay attention to the meters, as I may not be sufficiently invested in the game to be bothered with that)

iii) by clicking/collecting coins/xp points, I am taught what the meters mean using positive reinforcement

iv) as I have clicked here and there, I notice other things I ignore but may go back and investigate (eg., I selected a country house but I noticed when I did so there were other choices, lots of them).  This action generates curiosity for me to go back and figure out what that menu is all about (as opposed to requiring me to figure out the menu before engaging the game).

v) within two minutes, I have achieved level 2 without any investment of effort, without any decisions.  Yay! Easy reward.

The net result is I have been positively reinforced, given rudimentary training on the game, have the beginnings of a city (an investment, trivial maybe, but just enough to keep me there another few minutes) and, most importantly, curiosity. This game is easy, painless and just might be fun.

So what do I do next?  With this easy reward and the beginning of a town, I look around before logging off.  Intrigued by what I can click, I explore the screen.  Again, it’s effortless. No demands, nothing I have to figure out; I’m just curious.  What do I find?

(1) there’s some crops. Click, another freebie (and click to collect more coins/xp). Crop choices pop up.  Again, that was easy and rewarded and I learned about the crop menu. Seems I have two choices. Maybe I’ll just pick strawberries. Why not? Plant.  Have to wait. Okay, I see.

(2) so I poke around more, avoiding the real work on my desk. Click on tree. “Chop down?” Hm. Don’t know about that.

(3) click on vacant lot (invite friend with a business). Hm. Not right now. But I’m now introduced to the social networking, something planted in my mind I might return to later.

(4) I have to get back to real work (ie., quit game and do my job), but before I go, is this it? I explore some of the menu options, hit build again. Oh, wait.  Houses are only 400 and I have 6000 coin.  I’m rich! Let’s build another. Or two.  What the hell, I don’t care about this game, I’ll just use all my coin to build a bunch of houses and call it a day. Why don’t I put up some of those 600 coin jobbers. All through this process, I am repeating the same basic movements, being reinforced. It almost seems as if for every coin I spend I get another back. Seems too good to be true. Easy game, free money.  Kinda like my job at the moment.

(5) Roadblock.  What do you mean I’ve reached my population limit and can’t grow without community buildings? Well, what the hell, I’ve got 5000 coin, I’ll just build me a community building.  Where are those things.  Probably in the buildings. Hm. Oh yeah, up on top, different choices. Let’s get a community building.  Maybe I’ll build a drug rehab or something. Hm. Not a choice. In fact, I can’t build any of these! I have to be at a higher level.  Level? Level. Hm, there it is. Well, I’m already at 2. If I get to level three apparently I can build this. How hard can that be? So far this game has been handed to me on a platter.

(6) Fine. If I can’t build more houses or community buildings, what else can I build before I quit and get back to work? Businesses. Ok. So I build a coffeeshop. That was easy. Hm. What else. Ok, a bakery.  Am I at level 3 yet? I’d kinda like to put in a postoffice and be done with this. (curiously, despite not really giving a crap about the game, I am now paying attention to the levels, they have become meaningful to me in the course of my ‘not caring.’).

(7) While I’m erecting my third business my mouse crosses the bakery, which says ‘need to deliver goods.’ Huh? What’s this? Naturally, having been well trained by now, I simply click.  Suddenly shit flies down from my ‘goods’ meter and goes into the bakery.  “Oh! That’s what that goods business is all about. And I see, I have to stock my stores. Okay, fine.” So I click on the others and see my goods meter go down, sufficiently caring enough to ask casually in the back of my mind “I wonder how I restock that meter?”

(8) I’m getting close to level three and that frickin’ post office. I discover through an accidental mouse pass by that I can collect rent. Well, that’s fun! So I collect the rent. What about the other houses. Message: rent due in [fill in the blank] time. Oh, I see, I have to wait. Check back at businesses. Oh, it tells me how many customers. Hm. Ok.

From here, whether I continue to play until I deplete my coin or just I log off and return to work, I look at the screen and see a picture of a nascent town.  Whether I had any initial interest in the game or not, I have now created this town and invested some energy into it.  But not because I started out willing to invest. . . I was tricked into investing one little bit at a time with a simple strategy of building player investment rather than demanding it up front.  I was tricked (damn!) into caring about the game one sneaky little incremental bit at a time, like this:

1. Make it easy, make no demands (don’t ask me to figure out the game or, well, give a crap)

2. Provide frequent and varied reward– not just coin and xp points, but more importantly the reward that arises from discovery, the reward of novelty, the unfamiliar and unexpected: seeing things form, learning (even despite not caring), discovering the game and building knowledge and, even if rudimentary, skills

3. Provoke curiosity

4. Let the game unfold through exploration, including the mechanics

In this way, CityVille can take someone with nearly no interest in the game and within 15 minutes cultivate a significantly increased probability they will log on again ‘just to see what happened.’  And at that time, they will again be easily reinforced, drawn more into the game, and so it goes . . . redeploying this strategy again and again, Zynga has achieved 217.5 million monthly active users (12/5/2011), three times its next closest competitor.

Zynga: sinner or saint?

No one can question the success of Zynga, but the value of its contribution to the video game industry seems highly controversial.  On one hand, there are those that see Zynga as an evil empire, crushing the artistry, quality and joy of games under the weight of crass money-grubbing, designing games solely to elicit one particular response from players: typing in credit card digits.  A blog post entitled ‘Who killed videogames’ captures this sentiment fairly well.  On the other hand, there are those who believe Zynga has opened up a whole new universe of gaming.  I want to say from the outset, I don’t really have an opinion on this.  It is what it is.

That said, whether you believe Zynga games are stupid or brilliant, its business strategy destroying or enhancing the industry, two things are clear: one, the company engages millions upon millions of players consistently over periods of months to even years and, two, they have attracted millions of players outside the traditional ‘gamer’ market.  That is, for better or worse, they have happened upon techniques that reliably engage people and keep them coming back—at least for the time being.  There is something to learn here.

As zeal for a soteriological vision of videogames transforming mankind ratchets up—the ‘reality is broken‘, video games make us better doctrine—video games face the same challenge as any path to salvation: getting converts to step onto the path.  Unless the world is to be transformed and saved by a relative handful of gamers tapping away at their Playstations till the wee hours, games will have to appeal to a much, much larger audience before they start fixing reality.

Understanding why and how the Zynga games have become so successful, whether you love or hate them, is useful.  I certainly won’t be the first to attempt to analyze the design of these games.  Their success is often attributed to their social networking characteristic, in which they leverage social relations and norms to draw players in and keep them engaged.  These games are, after all, called social networking. But I don’t buy it.  It’s a nice story, but I think it is just a story and rather fanciful and doesn’t really account for their success.  Alternatively, a very deliberately calculated ‘internal friction’ is frequently identified as a key design principle.  Enough of the game is given away free to engage players but obstacles and constraints impede full, unfettered enjoyment.  Although this critically provides an alternative monetization scheme (ie., rather than selling the game outright) and perhaps some tension within the game, I don’t believe this is the bedrock of Zynga’s success either, well, at least in terms of engaging players.  In subsequent posts, I will explore the way in which the design of Zynga games, particularly Farmville and Cityville, engage a player such as to maximally induce habit.  The habit, of course, being playing the game.  Consistently. Over a long span of time.    If video games are going to save the world, how to get converts is no small matter.  This is as good a place as any to start looking for principles of engagement.  Traditional games won’t help us here: there’s no need to preach to the converted.

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation: Is there really a difference?

A long-standing distinction in psychology, particularly within education, is that between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  Extrinsic motivation is rewards and reinforcers provided by someone else, such as a cookie treat or gold star.  Intrinsic motivation arises from an individuals own goals and interests.  The difference is between doing my homework because I want a cookie and doing it because I want to learn.

The impetus behind this distinction is important: you want students to be self-motivated.  If their motivation relies solely on the provision of cookies, then soon as the cookies go away, so does their motivation.  And learning.  That said, I think the distinction, nonetheless, does more harm than good, obscuring the complexities of motivational processes.

Ingesting calories to sustain life is fundamental to the survival of an organism. Millions of years of evolution have designed neural mechanisms to make sure people feel motivated to eat.  Working for a cookie, from this perspective, is pretty intrinsic, arising from powerful internal motivational systems.  Conversely, the student that struggles to write the best essay possible may be internally motivated to ‘do well,’ but does this arise from internal evaluation, ie., “I am satisfied”, or from the need for approval from teacher and peers?  Is being told ‘you are smart’ really any less intrinsic than a cookie?  Could not a student playing a video game for points, redeemable in cookies, be equally motivated simply to surpass his/her previous performance, relatively indifferent to the cookie rewards?  The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic, looked at closely, is not nearly as clear as one might hope.  Intrinsically motivated people may often be successful.  Can we really distinguish whether it is some intrinsic desire to do what they do or social recognition or financial return that motivates their behavior?  Or some complex combination of all of the above?

Rather than categorizing motivation into different types, I would argue that ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ reflect different aspects of all motivation.  That is, all motivation is both intrinsic and extrinsic.  The ‘intrinsic’ aspect reflects the need or goal being met by a behavior.  Ingesting calories or producing a work of genius are equally intrinsic, motivated by an internal need.  The ‘extrinsic’ aspect reflects the outcome that arises as a consequence of a behavior.  The cookie and the genius essay are equally extrinsic, both something in the external world that has come about as a result of my behavior and meets some need.  “Reward” arises as an outcome that meets a need.  The need is always intrinsic and the outcome—something occurring in the outside world—is always extrinsic.

We are genetically programmed with a built-in motivation to seek food. We are not programmed with a motivation for large bank balances, getting into Who’s Who, gold stars on our papers or the pleasure of producing a work of staggering genius.  From a neuroscience and evolutionary perspective, these latter types of motivation, far from being ‘intrinsic’ are actually quite extrinsic, while a cookie reward is very intrinsic, the exact opposite of the traditional intrinsic-extrinsic distinction.  From this perspective, the interesting question is how motivational processes, starting with basic intrinsic motivations such as food, water, warmth, become transformed through experience to create complex motivational structures that yield such extrinsic, non-evolutionary motivations as writing a great novel, solving world-hunger or even learning how to do long division.

What does this esoteric discussion of motivation have to do with video games?  It suggest an idea simple in principle and complex in implementation: video games provide an experience that can change and shape motivation.  That is, motivation is not a static given, neither within the player (they are or are not motivated) nor within the game (providing this motivator or that motivator).  Motivation is a process.  The question, then, becomes how does interaction with a video game engage the motivational process and alter a player’s motivational structure?

One of the problems with educational games is that as you increase the educational content, the intrinsic ‘fun’ of the game declines.  This makes sense.  You are adulterating ‘fun’ (intrinsically motivating) with extraneous content that generates no intrinsic interest in the students.  They simply do not care about quadratic equations.  You are also introducing frustration as players have to build a cognitive framework for engaging the game (ie., in essence, the learning).  Grand theft auto does not require this.  The more a game is like learning, the more the motivational obstacles will become apparent.  This, in turn, leads to questions of how to motivate students to engage the educational games, which leads to question about intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.  We want students to want to learn, but, alas, many just don’t wanna.  So we must motivate them with extrinsic rewards, but this kind of motivation is viewed as inferior.  And so on.  We can simply reduce the educational content of an educational game, but this has obvious drawbacks.

The challenge is cultivating so-called intrinsic motivation from initial extrinsic motivation.  Start where the player is.  Starting with low content, induce in the player a progressive redefinition of ‘fun’ that provides the motivation for progressively sophisticated content.  As a process, this is not new.  Doing precisely this has been a primary objective of educators for decades: what Vygotsky called scaffolding, the gradual building of skills that progressively increases students’ competence and, ideally, their sense of joy and reward in exercising that competence.  What video games offer is nimble and exquisite control over the types of experience a student encounters in a game that can be explicitly designed to change their motivational structure: motivational scaffolding.

From this perspective, educational video games need to be designed around not just transforming a student’s cognitive schema (ie., knowledge, skills, acquisition of content) but, perhaps more importantly, explicitly designed to shape and transform their ‘motivational schema.’

Falling Stars. . . by Trident

Who says advertising never contributed anything of worth to humanity? After playing this game, I went out and bought a pack of Trident vitality gum.  I don’t chew gum, but I wanted to show my appreciation.

In this game, you click on stars at the top of the screen and they start falling.  You then draw lines representing different types of plants (oddly) which the falling stars hit producing a sound.  As the falling stars hit the drawn lines, they bounce, changing their trajectory.  This allows you to place lines in such a way as to create rhythms with the bouncing and rebounding stars.  Where you place the lines on the screen determines the tonality of the emitted sound.  The object of the game, such as it is, is to create a musical composition with the falling, bouncing and bobbing stars.

This game has a couple of characteristics I love.  First, the mechanic is extremely simple: draw lines on the screen.  There are no complicated rules, no meters, nothing.  Not even much of a game objective. You just start.  And discover.  If you bother with the tutorial, don’t bother: it’s beautifully useless.  The game leverages the reward inherent in discovery.

The game is player driven; that is, you don’t respond to anything, the game responds to you. It’s kinda like pinball in reverse: instead of controlling flippers to propel the ball you get to design the bumpers, and the balls, or in this case ‘stars,’ fall through.  As a result, the fun of the game is essentially creative as you learn new and inventive ways to deploy your line drawing to create new and interesting sound compositions.

The aesthetics are simple.  Other than the rudimentry ‘dreamscape’ background, all the sound and graphics are integral to the mechanic of the game.  The lines that you draw are all white and have very simple shapes and animations that correspond to the type of sound they emit when struck by a falling star.  The simplicity of the graphics and interface make the game almost like drawing on an animated chalk board—the white lines you draw and the white bouncing stars stand out against a green-gray background.  As you become engaged, you only see the white lines and bouncing stars.  The interface elegantly distills the heart of your interaction with the game, highlighting and reinforcing the player skill at its core.

And its free, unless you feel obligated to buy some gum.  The gum? It’s not bad. But it’s, well, gum.  In a fancy box.  With a fancy name.  And a fancy price. But then, in marketing terms, what are you gonna do with gum?