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.