NDS: I was in the first cohort of the Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholar postdoctoral program. I was definitely an outlier as a cultural anthropologist, but the pitch I made to them at the time was that research angles on addiction should include more qualitative work, and should also attend to the addictive effects of consumer interfaces and technology, not just drugs, as a public health issue.
I think any good addiction researcher would recognize that addiction is in a large part a question of the timing of rewards or reinforcements, or the so-called event frequency. So it makes sense that if digitally-mediated forms of gambling like slot machines are able to intensify the event frequency to a point where you’re playing 1,200 hands an hour, then they’re more addictive. Waiting for your turn at a poker game, by contrast, isn’t as fast – there are lots of pauses and lots of socializing in-between hands. Slot machines are solitary, continuous, and rapid. Uncertainty is opened up and then it’s closed — so quickly that it creates a sense of merging with the machine.
If you accept that gambling can be an addiction, you can then broaden the conversation to include other less obviously addictive contemporary experiences, whether it’s an eBay auction or Facebook photo clicking or even just checking email, and certainly texting. It’s so compelling to take your fingertip and just keep clicking, clicking to get that response.
EM: That’s fascinating. Or this word game on my phone — it’s become really, really addictive for me. I’m curious if you’ve had interactions also with people in game design? There’s a certain point of view that seems really prevalent right now about game design and play.
NDS: People in the general world of game and app design don’t see themselves as in the business of producing addiction but they have reached out to me. Often they want to hear about how to avoid creating addiction.
I was recently invited out to the Habit Summit, an event in Silicon Valley held at Stanford, with lots of local tech people who are all there to figure out how to design habit, how to retain attention. In my presentation to them, I talked about the increasing prevalence of little ludic loops in design, as ways to retain attention. With Candy Crush and so many phone apps, if you ride a subway in the morning there are people sitting there zoning out on these little devices. I think the reason they’re so able to retain attention and form habits is that they are affect modulators. They’re helping people to modulate and manage their moods. It’s addictive because it’s right there at your fingertips, and you’re able to reach out and just start clicking this thing to create a stimulus response loop.There are more and more moments of zoning out – to use a phrase from the slot machine gamblers – moments that are configured very much like a slot machine in terms of the continuous, rapid little loop where something is opened up and then it’s closed… open it up and then it’s kill the monster; kill the monster again; kill the monster again.
It’s so compelling to take your fingertip and just keep clicking, clicking to get that response.
NDS: In the end, the way I conceptualized the book was as a detailed, extended case study of addiction that really got down into the nitty-gritty of a particular case, but also shows us why it is important to actually understand the technology. Not just the behavior, not just the person — but the design, the configuration, and the way that can constrain and direct and guide behavior in certain directions, and why it might be a good idea to regulate it. There is no equivalent to the FDA for technology – a regulative body that would be setting in place limits on design: maybe you can’t play 1,200 hands an hour on a slot machine or spend four hours Facebook photo clicking, things like that. There should be researchers and policymakers in conversation about the intimate and even physiological ways that these things affect people.
There should be researchers and policymakers in conversation about the intimate and even physiological ways that these things affect people.
EM: One thing I’m curious about is if the gamblers you spoke with who thought of themselves as having a problem also felt a need for more regulation — was that something that came up for them?
NDS: Yes. At one point in the book a gambler asks, “Why should it be legal for me to go and just obliterate myself, destroy myself this way? I don’t want to be able to walk in a casino and just have at my fingertips this kind of self-liquidation.” So, absolutely. However, I should say that at the time I was doing the research with gamblers for this project, in the US there was a strong feeling that full responsibility and accountability lay with the individual, and that recovery was a question of taking responsibility. Anything that had the whiff of suggesting that some accountability might be shared by the casino industry and its products would be taken as denial, and as undermining the therapeutic process.
So, any time in a Gamblers Anonymous meeting that anyone started voicing any sort of indignation or outrage at the setup in Las Vegas, other people would kind of sit there and roll their eyes. But now there’s growing acceptance in the treatment community and among gamblers that it actually might enhance therapy to lift some of the weight of accountability or blame off of the person and onto the machines. Or as Cass Sunstein would put it, choice architecture — in other words, that choices always unfold in a context.
EM: I wonder if you have some thoughts on ethics around design. A lot of people who come to Ethnography Matters are working to understand what users want, what engages them…
It’s a little unrealistic to ask designers to not lead with the products and experiences that increase the bottom line and retain attention the best.
NDS: When the expectation on companies and on employees is to increase the bottom line, it’s a little unrealistic to ask designers not to go in this direction, to not lead with the products and experiences and interfaces that increase the bottom line and retain attention the best. Rather than ask companies to do this ethical work, I think it’s better left to regulation. This is a systemic problem; it’s not just in certain industries. Game designers I have spoken to agree with that, that it would be so much easier if they were designing within some set regulative criteria that would limit what they could do.
EM: Interesting… Do you find people sharing with you ethical quandaries that they have?
NDS: Absolutely, even publicly. When I was at the Habit Summit — people can see how much people are playing, how long they’re online, what they engage in. Some of the numbers are really disturbing for them to see; I mean, just the idea that people are spending that much time engaging in a certain website or activity or game. There’s such great data and metrics that you have at your fingertips, a window into how people are behaving.Read More… The Addiction Algorithm: An interview with Natasha Dow Schüll