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Kaj_Sotala comments on How habits work and how you may control them - Less Wrong

65 Post author: Kaj_Sotala 12 October 2013 12:17PM

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Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 20 October 2013 04:55:41PM 3 points [-]

Thanks again! Still didn't finish reading the whole thing, but this part came off as something that might be quite onto something, and very much worth pondering:

All this suggests that self-discipline is a local phenomenon; it occurs almost entirely in places where there’s feedback. With this feedback comes improvement, and with improvement comes even greater returns on feedback. Why? Because the better you understand what you’re doing, the more sensitive you are to the feedback you’re getting. If someone like myself, who has never once been serious about playing chess (though I was naive enough to think that I was good at it when I was 12), were to study the record of a game between two grandmasters, I’d have trouble gleaning anything useful from it. For a serious student of chess, however, there exist all kinds of patterns that they could see from years of study and experience. It also goes without saying that a more experienced chess student would find the literature more engrossing than even the most enthusiastic novice. Putting two and two together, it finally hit me that attention can be specifically defined as sensitivity to feedback.

So what does all this have to do with video games and their uncanny ability to fully engross even the most scatterbrained individuals? The answer lies in the specific type of feedback provided by video games. Most video games, in comparison to many other challenges, provide feedback that is extremely loud, extremely frequent, and extremely simple. While a game like chess resides in a world of abstractions where a move in of itself provides little in the way of stimulation, a game like Doom or Halo accessorizes every decision, however minor or inconsequential, with a pattering of footsteps or a loud explosion. Immersed in a dazzling audiovisual spectacle, the player is constantly saturated with shiny objects that draw them into the world created by the game. Even a simple strategy game from the 90′s offers an immediate sensory thrill that can’t be rivaled by a book, a chessboard, or a board full of equations.

But the spectacle itself is not the central mechanism by which games hook themselves into the player, but rather a supplement. It’s the very structure of the feedback: most video games are designed so that the simplest tasks are rewarded by some tinge of satisfaction. A few more points for every monster slain, various badges for different accomplishments, and all done at a pacing that gives the player a cookie right before they get bored. The role of the game’s audio and visual elements is to create a sensory anchor for this feedback loop, providing visceral cues and rewards for the habit loop constructed by the game. The player literally sees and hears the satisfaction that will come from obeying the cue that has come up.

All of this comes at a price. Complex systems learn by adjusting to feedback, and feedback that is sufficiently loud and frequent will oversaturate the system’s inputs, leading it to reduce its overall sensitivity in order to register changes. When instant and immediate gratification becomes the norm, more subtle forms of feedback become harder to register. Getting engrossed in a book becomes increasingly difficult. The same goes for different kinds of stories: it’s easier to sit through an action movie than a drama because the story is simple and the movie is mostly comprised of satisfying bits of conflict resolution in the simple form of karate chops and shootouts. We might force ourselves to sit through a few chapters of Tolstoy, but the real issue is that we ultimately have to re-calibrate our receptivity to feedback in order to gain interest in more subtle flavors of experience.**