Category: Gamification

A Break to Gather Thoughts and Ask a Question

One Candle in the Darkness is taking a week off to collect thoughts, mostly from the people who venture here from time to time.

Since everyone has only a limited time to read, watch or listen, or to write what folks read, or to create what folks see or listen to I want to make sure the producer (me) is delivering what you the partakers wants:

I’ve embarked on deep dive into psychology as a way to move into science and the process of science more generally, which will set up a dive into agency and how games can explain what we see on the headlines.

In the past, I’ve posted about the process of self-publishing, and dabble in the process of writing long fiction. Even included a few updates on A Perfect Blindness the literary novel that was published back in April 2017. Almost a year now.

The most popular posts were about insights into self-publishing, with a few strong ones talking about depression being an unintended side effect of two seizure prophylactics I’ve taken.

What then would people most like to find here?

  • Updates on A Perfect Blindness?
  • DVD extras from A Perfect Blindness? (cut scenes, background notes, “interviews” with the main characters? More playlists?)
  • Sneak Peaks at other fiction I’m working on?
  • More nitty gritty on publishing?
  • Writing in general/Long fiction in particular?
  • More psych?
  • The dive into science (Which is more interesting and informative that you’d think)?
  • Agency and how games can explain the headlines?
  • Something completely different?

Please let me know in the comments. I don’t want to put up stuff here no one cares about. Wastes your time and mine both.

Next up (Still): Science From Burke to Khun Part 1 (How one gets from Witchcraft to Science)

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To join Adventures in the Interzone: excursions to the more intriguing parts of a curious mind click here.

Agency Pt. 1—Neurology, the Temporal Lobe and the Self

How Games Help Explain Today’s Headlines Con’t.

Games deliver.

Adults get something from playing games, something far too scarce in “real life”: A sense of Agency, the feeling that one can have a desire, decide to realize it, act on that decision and have that action affect the world in some real way, successfully closing a loop of thought, action and response.

The effect need not be as consequential as The Enlightenment, or as paradigm shifting as creating the General Theory of Relativity, nor even necessarily successful. It needs only to have meaning to the actor. Such as when you goad a friend, ribbing him or giving her grief for no other reason than to get a rise out of him, or get her to pay you a bit more attention. Think of children who start life powerless and how they love to throw pebbles into water to make it ripple, or to stomp in puddles to create splashes, or do things they’ve been repeatedly forbidden to do, and then, as they are scolded, the merest of smirks rises the corner of young lips: he has shown he could affect the world. Being scolded is doubly sweet: he’s affected someone who exerts so much control over him.

Misbehaving in anticipation of a scolding works on both broad levels of agency: the more direct root level, the simple ability to think, act and get sensory feedback as a person in the world, and the more complex social level in which desire is murky, what action to take is not always clear and feedback is usually less certain and often difficult to interpret. The child leaves his coat on the floor for the umpteenth time this week; the parent’s voice rises in admonishment, yet the child wonders: will I really get punished? Will it be worth it anyway? Or is this serious? Here, a complex calculus requires on the fly interpretation of the specific circumstances, including the adult’s tone of voice and body language, and the child’s own urge to respond, all within a dynamic, ever shifting relationship, where what’s at stake grows more serious over time.

With root level Agency though, outcome and feedback are usually more direct and clear. With recent advancements in neurology, especially the ability to see, real time, what areas of the brain are activated when humans experience specific feelings, neurologists have shown that agency is active most strongly in the parietal lobe. This area of the brain plays important roles in integrating sensory information from the various sense organs of the body, controlling body movement as well as dealing with the comprehension of numbers and their relations. One specific area of this lobe, the posterior parietal cortex (PPC), processes information relating to the manipulation of objects. It handles the where of sight and spatial relations, and the how of controlling the movements of the body through motor signals, in particular of the arm, hand, and the eyes, enabling the self to take action based on how the body senses it’s physically positioned in relation to the objects around it.

Further, accumulating evidence from newer studies suggests that a specific junction between parts of this lobe play a critical role in distinguishing between self-produced actions and those of others. Injuries to or disease of this region can produce a variety of disorders related to body knowledge and self-awareness such as anosognosia (the inability of a person to recognize a deficiency he or she has—this is not the psychological defense mechanism of denial, but a physical inability); asomatognosia (loss of recognition or awareness of a body part: this is expressed both verbally and through lack of care); in an extreme situation, somatoparapherenia, a limb is claimed to belong to another person. Some studies have also reported that electrical stimulation of this area can cause out-of-body experiences—the feeling that the self is no longer a part of its physical body.

Some brain injuries, particularly to the frontal, temporal, parietal lobes further demonstrate that ownership does not always imply agency, nor even control. In alien hand syndrome, the hand acts without the person’s conscious direction, or sometimes, even awareness that it’s acting at all. The person understands that it is his or her hand, but feels no sense of control over it. Some sufferers claim that someone else is moving his or her hand.

Teasing apart the elements of agency’s relation to self even further, experiments in 2009 by Marc Jeannerod have shown that self recognition in taking action has two levels: one is automatic, the recognition that one’s self is controlling body movements to do something; the second is self-reflexive, the conscious recognition of one’s own self as the originator of the desires, intentions and purposes for taking an action—the thinking about an action itself; these experiments have also shown that even though both of these levels rely on the “principle of congruence of the action-related signals”, these manners of self recognition can be sundered. For example, a person can open a door and enter a room, fully recognizing that it is he or she who opens the door and walks through, but be unable to identify him or herself as the origin of the desire to open the door and step through, nor understand what the purpose of doing so is, nor what is intended while extending a hand to grasp the door knob in the first place.

This experience is common in schizophrenia. Schizophrenic patients can act and understand they are the actor, but cannot “own” the thoughts that gave rise to the action. These inserted thoughts and the dissonance between their own awareness, inserted thoughts and actions all become material for delusions and delirium, including that of alien control: of being controlled by someone or something else. This loss of the ability to attribute thoughts and actions to themselves is in fact a major symptom of the disease, and lies primarily in a disturbed sense of agency.

At least one experiment suggests that the feeling of alien control is associated with increased activity in one part of parietal cortex: the area of the brain that has already been seen as centrally important not only for coordination of movement, but of a person’s sense of agency and so of sense of self. In effect, one’s sense of self—the ability to recognize oneself as a self at all—is hardwired to the same place that one feels agency, which is also a locus for motor control and sensory input from the body.

So far, we’ve primarily explored the brain itself, using neurology and changes caused by disease and injury. But even in perfectly healthy people, hindering a body’s physical ability to move or restricting the sensory inputs a brain receives at all can profoundly affect one’s sense of self.

Next up in the scientific study of Agency are the effects of manipulating the body, mining what Korean War era brainwashing attempts can tell us about Agency and the creation of self.

How Mumbley-Peg and Bloody Knuckles Help Explain the Headlines, Pt 1


Going it—Mostly—Alone No. 2

           I did get that reset post published—after a bit of struggle with the image. That let me pull off the cap of my Waterman fountain pen and put a check mark in the box next to that line on one of my three pads of paper. I’d made something happen, affected the world from inside a room in my apartment: I’d demonstrated I had agency, which was satisfying in itself.

Then, soon after I had published the piece, I got not only got a like, but a follower and yet another follower by the next morning: these felt good.

And that—right there—is social media acting gamefully.

As Jane McGonigal explains in Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, gameful describes an activity not normally thought of as a game being given aspects of games in order to manufacture, not only happiness, but purpose.

I’d thought something, written it out, and put it out into the world. In response, the world responded with two follows and a like within hours, which first appeared in my inbox and then on my blog. Not only did this feedback please me, but it gave me evidence that I’m moving closer to my goal of escaping obscurity. I now have a number, a score I can hold up against other people’s scores to see how I’m doing. They reveal near term goals—levels in game-speak—10 likes, then 50 follows, then 100 likes and so on up the “Most Liked” and “Most Followed” leader boards.

These scores also let me know if something I do works and should keep doing it, or if something fails—getting no follows, nor even a single like, or worse a thumbs down or snarky reply—and should make an adjustment or abandon that idea entirely.

The “happiness engineers” who design games understand that people crave feedback, and that positive feedback gives people an emotional high, and that feeling good drives people to keep doing what gave them these good feelings. Even negative feedback is better than none: if you know something doesn’t work, at least you can move on and try something else. After all, isn’t waiting is the worst part?

These game designers also understand that the more time between action and feeback, no matter how great the reward or harsh the punishment, the connection fades until, eventually, it breaks completely. What 4th grader can connect doing yet another worksheet of identifying number patterns with getting a corner office 18 years from now in a job that doesn’t even exist now? Or connect it to getting hired by that prestigious firm, or to graduating from the right college to get the interview in the first place, or to getting into the right high school to qualify for that college, or into the best middle school program to get on the track for that high school? Especially when they are on the verge of setting a new class record in Shark Attack they can brag about in school tomorrow.

Those worksheets with number patterns to decipher seem pointless and dreary, and like the rest of the work in “most of the institutions that take up our time—schools, offices, factories—[is] organized around the assumption that serious work is grim and unpleasant, ” as M Csikszentmihalyi observed in Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. Worse, “[b]ecause of this assumption, most of our time is spent doing unpleasant things” with grim resolve, while constantly yearning for something else, something enjoyable like setting that new record in Shark Attack.

But by adding elements from that game such as scores, immediate feedback and levels to the same deciphering exercise as the websites IXL, Dimension U and Khan Academy do, this boring, seemingly pointless task becomes game-like: becomes fun, something that our 4th grader might even want to do because it is fun. Because it’s gameful.

Sure, that’ll work for kids in school, but for adults with actual problems? Get real.

As real as it gets: a lot of American adults play video games. How many? Roughly 53% of the entire US adult population plays video games, and one in five of those adults plays almost everyday or everyday. That means a lot of adults are playing a lot of video games. They also play board games, pick up b-ball, soccer and on and on.

So, games for adults? Emphatically yes.

If games give this many adults that much pleasure overcoming problems that don’t even really exist, does it not make sense to harness this power to drive adults to do things they might otherwise avoid or even hate in real life?

After all, there are games even kids dread playing yet still play: not the ones required by Mr. Shout-a-lot in Phys Ed, but hidden, backyard games such as mumbley-peg and bloody knuckles. The first is certainly dangerous and possibly very painful, and the second certainly painful and possibly dangerous, yet kids still play them. I did. I was scared yet sort of thrilled by mumbley-peg. I mostly hated bloody knuckles—I always lost and that sucked—yet I’d find myself staring at some other kid’s outstretched fist, which I had to hit as hard as I dared with my bare knuckles so I could draw blood first.

As loony as my child-self looks in retrospect, viewing bloody knuckles and mumbley-peg, not as merely social rituals by which boys jockey for their place in the pecking order, but as games allows the desires to keep knocking knuckles until your skin splits open, or possibly having a knife blade driven into your flesh or lose by slicing open another boys’ finger open, or worse—chickening out—to make some real sense.

How can mumbley-peg and bloody knuckles be considered games since they guarantee psychological stress and promise physical pain simply for joining in, and the former could involve trip to the hospital, stiches and a tetanus shot. Neither sounds like much fun, and fun’s why we play games right?

Not always: real danger and the guarantee of pain doesn’t eliminate something from being a game, or being gameful. Broken bones, bruises and concussions are all part of football. People have even died playing it. No one would doubt it is a game. The day I’m writing this line is The Game: the annual Ohio State-Michigan game, and there will be much pain this afternoon, both physical and psychological.

From mumbley-peg to Big Ten football to table tennis to Halo to Candy Crush to poker, charades and Dungeons & Dragons, there are so many different kinds of games with so many different kinds of rules, with vastly different goals and wildly disparate elements—some are played indoors, many with cards, others with pencils and dice, or on a screen with headphones and a controller, still others on boards with pieces, or with little more than the imagination of the players, and some are played outdoors and involve teams, fields, balls and body protecting equipment and are played inside stadiums with spectators with officiating staff and thick rule books, others are played in back yards, and have rules as fluid as the wishes of the players—a very real question to ask is does it make sense to talk of games as a thing at all?

In 1978, philosopher Bernard Suits came up with probably the most useful way of thinking of this vast variety of activities when he called games: “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”.

Key here are “voluntary” and “unnecessary”. Nothing can truly be called a game if it’s involuntary or necessary. As a kid, I didn’t have to spread my fingers out on a stump and let a someone jam a knife between them faster than I could jam it between his fingers, nor did I have to try to draw first blood by slamming my bare knuckles against another boy’s. There was nothing necessary about it. In fact, avoiding them both would have been better in a lot ways—many kids did—but such is the power of games, and there is plenty of science to explain this allure.

Mostly mocked or overlooked within psychology for most of its history, the science of happiness is now taken quite seriously. Until relatively recently, the only dignified areas for “proper” psychological research were personality formation, pathology and therapies. Now, money and research both flow into how to achieve happiness, especially as prophylaxis against mental illness and as a way to live better, not only psychologically, but physically. This is a long way from a couch in Vienna.

Back up by all this new science, Ms. McGonigal lists seven primary facets of games, elements that can be taken from them and applied to non-game activities to make them gameful: Agency, Flow, Fiero, Communitas, Awe/Epic, Naches, and “pwn”, which a misspelling of own, and can be pronounced pone if one were so inclined—it’s usually written–and describes achieving such a major victory that one cannot help but gloat, such as defying essentially every political pundit who wrote a word about the 2016 presidential election from the Iowa Caucuses until 11:00 pm on November Eighth.

In the next post, we’ll start delving into these facets, including the science behind each one, starting with agency. Then, we can start applying this potent framework to some of the most confounding headlines we have been reading lately in order to illuminate the mysterious whys behind puzzling actors and begin pulling back the curtain on the hidden mechanisms that explain how many of these perplexing things came to pass in the first place. At the very least, it will let us cut through the fog of contradictory and oft reflexive opinions pouring from the myriad pundits clogging our screens and see that there are actual, controllable mechanisms in action here, which can be understood and then used.

Next time on One Candle in the Darkness: Games Explain

Agency: the ability to affect the world