By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
“What’s that?” Laney asked, indicating the man on stilts.
“A sect,” Arleigh McCrae said. “‘New Logic.’ They say the world will end when the combined weight of all the human nervous tissue on the planet reaches a specific figure. … [As a musician,] Rez was interested in them, apparently. He tried to arrange an audience with the founder.”
“The founder declined. He said that Rez made his living through the manipulation of human nervous tissue, and that that made him untouchable.” — William Gibson, Idoru
I’ve been looking for a way to write about gaming — I’m so old I associate “gaming” with a family-friendly Vegas rebranding of “gambling” — and just the other day I finally found an opening. Oddly, a Republican Senator, Josh Hawley, provided it in the form of the following YouTube video (recommended by Stoller). It’s only about fifteen minutes long, and its worth a listen:
This article in First Things (“The Big Tech Threat“) is not a transcript, but does seem to be the original from which Hawley delivered his speech. In relevant part:
It is heresy to say that here, with Stanford University over my shoulder, but is Silicon Valley—the platforms, the products, the business models it has been giving us of late—really the best that our best minds have to offer?
My thesis is that the evidence strongly suggests there is something deeply troubling, maybe even deeply wrong, with the entire social media economy. My thesis is that it does not represent a source of strength for America’s tomorrow, but is rather a source of peril. Consider for a moment the basic business model of the dominant social media platforms. You are familiar with them. You might think of it as akin to financial arbitrage. Maybe we’ll call it attention arbitrage. Users’ attention is bought by tech giants and then immediately sold to advertisers for the highest price.
Now arbitrage opportunities, as those of you familiar with markets know, are supposed to close. The market eventually determines that something is off. So how is it that this attention arbitrage in the social media market is preserved and renewed over and over again? That’s where things get really scary, because it’s preserved by . Or, to simplify that a little bit, it’s preserved through addiction.
Social media only works as a business model if it consumes users’ time and attention day after day after day. It needs to replace the various activities we did perfectly well without social media, for the entire known history of the human race, with itself. It needs to replace those activities with time spent on social media. Addiction is actually the point. .
Now, I should caveat that since I came up as a Democrat, I know only a little more about Republicans than I know about gaming; I don’t know their factions, I don’t know their districts, I don’t know their rising stars or old bovines, I don’t know how they fit into Ferguson, Jorgensen, and Chen’s industrial structure, or much else. (Yes, ME-02 is Republican, but not my town, and in any case ME-02 is cranky.) Obviously, I’m going to have to write at a high level, as they say, because on this topic there’s no other level I can wiite at! That said, I think Hawley has the right of it here, and his concision is admirable. It also took some courage for him to come into the Hoover Institute, an outpost of Stanford, where so many Silicon Valley founders were
spawned incubated, and tell them their business models are morally wrong. Certainly, I would disagree with him on much else, but not on this. Oddly, or not, I don’t recall any West Coast Democrats doing what Hawley did here (see Ferguson et al., supra).
So in this brief post I’ll look first at Hawley’s solution to the social media problem he names, then at two UI/UX practices that monetize addition (loot boxes and pay-to-win), and finally at the larger social issues to which Hawley points (or does not point). I’ll throw together some random comments about Hawley qua Republican Senator from Missouri in an Appendix.
“The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act”
Hawley’s bill is named “The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act” (PCAGA), but as of this writing it has not yet been introduced, so I can’t tell you who the co-sponsors, if any, are. Hawley has, however, provided a one-pager:
Senator Hawley’s legislation would apply new consumer protections to games played by minors including:
• Games targeted at those under the age of 18.
• This would be determined by subject matter, visual content, and other indicators similar to those used to determine applicability of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)
• Games with wider audiences whose developers knowingly allow minor players to engage in microtransactions
And from McClatchy, Hawley:
“When a game is designed for kids, game developers shouldn’t be allowed to monetize addiction,” Hawley said in a statement announcing the bill. “And when kids play games designed for adults, they should be walled off from compulsive microtransactions. Game developers who knowingly exploit children should face legal consequences.”
My concern here is that the problem and the solution are disproportionate; the addiction (“attention arbitrage”) problem encompasses an entire industry and affects the whole of society; and yet the PCAGA solution protects only children. (I have the same problem with some of Elizabeth Warren’s proposals.) Do adults not have the same moral claims? Particularly since many adults are caregivers to children? The parallel to the opioid epidemic is exact, with the Sacklers in the role of Silicon Valley. Or cigarettes. Now it is true, as Hawley says of a parallel bill during the Q&A period in the video, that this is “a place we can begin immediately,” but I have the sense that the mountain has brought forth a mouse without even laboring. So, more like this, please.
Loot Boxes and Pay-to-Win
Still from the one-pager, the PCAGA would prohibit two forms of “manipulative design”:
• Microtransactions offering randomized or partially randomized rewards to players Pay-to-Win
• Manipulation of a game’s progression system – typically by building artificial difficulty or other barriers into game progression – to induce players to spend money on microtransactions to advance through content supposedly available to them at no additional cost
• Pay-to-win – Manipulation of the competitive balance between players of multiplayer games by allowing players who purchase microtransactions competitive advantages over other players
Here is an example of a “loot box” From ParentZone:
The game Overwatch offers players the chance to buy loot boxes in randomised bundles with prices starting at £1.50 for two loot boxes going up to £30 for 50 boxes. But when a player purchases each bundle they’re not paying for the items within the loot box, but rather the chance of getting something worth using in the game. The probability of a player’s loot box containing anything of actual value is not shown and so there is no idea of knowing the odds of winning
(So loot boxes, despite industry protestations, are gambing, especially if the game includes money and a secondary market where loot can be resold. And just as in Vegas, it’s the random element that hooks the user:
“We know that when there is randomization people are more enticed to open more boxes and get more things. We’ve been using that idea for decades in things like card packs. What’s a bit different with games is that the dematerialization of money removes a barrier. When you buy a card pack as a kid, you need to ask your parents for physical money and the transaction is very concrete. When money is not physical anymore, it’s way easier for people to buy it without the moment where you see the money leaving your pocket. It’s harder to stop yourself,” [Epic Games UX Director Celia Hodent] said.
And likewise of “pay-to-win“:
[P]retty much the entire mobiles games industry is built on the principle of pay-to-win in a much more blatant way. Pretty much all the most popular mobile titles in the world have some way to pay to “advance,” whether that’s buying lives in Candy Crush, buying chests in Clash Royale, buying raid passes in Pokémon GO, paying to skip wait timers in…literally everything.
It will not have escaped the reader that these dark patterns in games are very much like, well, the dark patterns in Our Neoliberal Democracy. For example, a college degree is a loot box. You pay a lot for it, but you don’t really know what’s in it, and there’s a strong random element to what you get. And speaking of college, “pay-to-win” is what happened in the Varsity Blue admissions corruption case, isn’t it?
Beyond Neoliberal Gaming
Hawley concludes his speech this way, again from First Things:
An economy that does not value the things that matter produces a society shaped in its own image. That, I want to suggest to you, is something that we cannot afford. It is something that we cannot allow, and it is within our power to change it. And that is the great challenge and task of our time. I think it is incumbent upon all of us, as we consider the place that we’re in now, as we consider the new era that we’re living in—particularly those of us who believe in free markets, in the free and open economy—to be asking ourselves: What kind of economy are we encouraging? What kind of a society is that producing? And what is our responsibility, as members of that society, to shape it in the best way for the future?
What is clear is that Hawley believes that the economy of attention arbitrage produced by the social media “platforms” is a form of social engineering somehow inimical to free markets. Some would disagree; above I broached the idea that loot boxes and pay-to-win mirror the “free market” society that already surrounds us — and which hatched and grew decades before personal computers, let alone gaming platforms, developed. What I would like to suggest is that other forms of gaming are possible. I’ve been slowly and intermittently reading Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday Here (page 91) is a game:
The anthropologist Jane Goodale watched a group of children (the Kaulong people of New Britain) who hd been given a bunch of bananas suffcieint to provide one banana for each child. The children proceeded to play a game. Instead of a contest in which each child soich ti win the biggest banana, each child cut his/her banana into two equal halves, ate one half, offered the other half to another child, and in turn recieved half that child’s banana. Then each child proceeded to cut that uneaten half of the banana into two equal quarters, ate one of the quarters, offered the other quarter to another child, and recieved another child’s uneaten banana in return. The game went on for five cycles, as the residual piece of banana was broken into equal eighths, then equal sixteenths, until finally each child ate the stub representing the one-thirty-second of the of the original banana, gave the other thirty-second to another child to eat, and received and ate the last thirty-second of another banana from still another child. That whole play ritual was part of the practicing by which New Guinea children learn to shar, and not to seek an advantage for themselves.
No loot boxes or pay-to-win at all. Can’t we have games like that? And if the platforms are doing to do social engineering, regardless, could we perhaps nudge them a more co-operative, and less vicious and greedy direction?
 A.k.a. dark patterns. “Dark Patterns are tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn’t mean to, like buying or signing up for something. The purpose of this site is to spread awareness and to shame companies that use them.” Leaving open the question of whether the addict means to satisfy their addition.
 Not to idealize New Guinea. Diamond makes clear they could play First Person Shooter games all day long.
 I’m trying to work through how to introduce a dark pattern into the banana game. I’m not sure it’s possible with the rules as they are. Readers?
Appendix: Random Notes on Josh Hawley
(1) The right people dislike Hawley. Like Obama’s speechwriter:
Ugh, Josh Hawley is insufferable.
What a giant step down from @clairecmc
— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) May 1, 2019
Claire McCaskill? Really?
(2) Hawley is also after Google. Ars Technica:
“There is strong reason to believe that Google has not been acting with the best interest of Missourians in mind,” Hawley said in a November 2017 statement. “When a company has access to as much consumer information as Google does, it’s my duty to ensure they are using it appropriately. I will not let Missouri consumers and businesses be exploited by industry giants.”
In addition to exploring privacy concerns, Hawley also vowed to dig into potentially anti-competitive behavior—including “Google’s alleged manipulation of search results to preference websites owned by Google and to demote websites that compete with Google.”
Hawley’s stance has been particularly surprising—and ominous for Google—because Hawley is a Republican. Republicans have traditionally been more friendly to big business and skeptical of privacy and antitrust regulation. But Hawley’s success is just the latest sign that attitudes on the right may be shifting.
(Note that Hawley is willing to name names, very much unlike Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.
(3) Hawley is Peter Thiel-adjacent:
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s office would not directly answer Wednesday when asked whether his investigation into Google had any connection to campaign donations from billionaire Peter Thiel, a high-profile critic of the company.
Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and early Facebook investor, donated $300,000 to Hawley’s campaign for attorney general in 2015 and 2016, a fact first noted by Bloomberg.
Thiel previously donated to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who brought an anti-trust action against Google as Texas attorney general in 2010.
(4) Here’s the About page on Hawley’s Senate campaign site. Much to ponder.
I’ve been intrigued by games that tell stories. The Independence War series (first person spaceflight/combat with a significant “problem-solving” element) was well received as a space-flight sim. There was a reasonably immersive story line that seemed to me to be somewhat “prophetic” in the sense of envisioning implications of unfettered corporate power.
It was also interesting in that (in IWar 2) the game could be modded and a “compiler” for the custom language in which the game was coded was released that could be used to add (within limits) new features to the game.
IWar2 story line involves space piracy and there were opportunities for the player to show cruelty or mercy — it occurred to me that this kind of game could have utility in personality disorder diagnosis. I wonder how long it will take (perhaps is already being done) for in-game player monitoring to be implemented and employed as unconsented psychological assessment. Or games used to “train” players into what is socially acceptable behavior. MMORPGs like EVE online would be ideal vehicles for identification of sociopaths. At one level, it might be useful to know who the sociopaths are among the current generation of youths, but the potential power of such techniques is also troubling.
“IWar2 story line involves space piracy and there were opportunities for the player to show cruelty or mercy — it occurred to me that this kind of game could have utility in personality disorder diagnosis.”
There’s plenty of games with morality mechanics these days. I don’t think any of them would be particularly useful for diagnosis. Video games are fantasy; people like to do things within fiction they can’t, and usually don’t want to do, in reality. And morality systems lend themselves to high replayability in games, which is something gamers usually want. Also, the ‘evil; a-hole’ route is often downright hilarious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-PjTuSQNLI4
As for stories, well, things have come quite far in the last twenty years: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiU_80Mx_xQ
Far Cry 5 had a ‘choose to kill or to save’ sequence.
Josh Hawley is a smart, well-spoken guy. So naturally I mistrust him when he says we need to control social media; but he believes in the free market. He talks anti-trust when he should be talking government regulation. He laments social media as a monopoly on attention arbitration. He compares it to finance without saying the most important thing: He fails to mention that finance’s version of arbitrage was risk arbitrage. To spread the banana of risk as far as possible, knowing full well that when the economy crashes because there’s no there there and society will pick up the pieces. I suspect that what Josh would like to see is just that; break up Google and the tech giants with anti-trust; open the floodgates to other forms of attention addiction and let everyone have a go and the free market will magically make it all work. But unless Josh puts some serious government regulation on this explosion he’s going to unleash a nightmare. And he doesn’t even mention that one. So my guess is that Josh has a hidden agenda.
Your mistrust is well placed. Hawley is purely a political animal. Everything he does/says is calculated to advance his own agenda (which, “coincidentally” mirrors that of his big donors). See Lambert’s appendix note (3).
Yes it is true to mistrust him, but that doesn’t mean he is wrong. The entire app world is designed to suck more of your attention. Most of the gaming world have hired psychologists to help them. There is a need to regulate this world, just like all of the other things the government regulates under the premise that it will affect young minds and bodies in a negative manner.
Coming from someone who is actively working with this first generation of children that has grown up on these devices, this is one of the problems. Drop out rates are slowly increasing, even in the affluent neighborhoods. The number of calls for help that this generation is having at school is increasing. We are seeing rates of medical and mental interventions increasing at school. Look into it at your local district, ask the principal how many times the ambulance or medical professionals visited the high school this year. Ask him/ her how it was ten years ago. There is something going on, and being connected every moment may be one factor.
yeah, if Thiele is seriously behind him then you can be 100% sure that this is a cynical revenge plot. Thiele is a big fan of monopolies, in fact he thinks every successful business is a monopoly and that monopolies ar4e beneficial for society.
I might have added that Hawley also sued the opioid manufacturers while AG of Missouri.
This is the type of guy the Dems should be terrified of. Someone who is on the right side of some very important issues that they won’t tackle. You want 40 years in the wilderness? This is the kind of guy who could deliver it, not Trump. IMO.
You mean forty more years, no? Sadly, tens of millions of tribal Democrats still haven’t grokked that the Clinton and Obama terms weren’t the interregnums they scammed many of us into thinking they were.
Separately: I think the ‘what about the kids’ angle is a Trojan horse. Specifically because of this:
‘Games with wider audiences whose developers knowingly allow minor players to engage in microtransactions’
This makes the jurisdiction of the proposal so broad as to make the purported ‘kids’ focus meaningless. He specifically singled out Candy Crush as an example of a game with problematic mechanics. The audience for Candy Crush is heavily weighted towards middle aged women – not kids. And I don’t think that apparent inconsistency is an oversight, given the depth of understanding Hawley’s camp clearly has about how these business models work. I think that tells a lot about what his real aim is here.
Not sure I follow what your point is.
Are you saying it’s a cynical ploy to do nothing? Or is he saying “it’s about the kids” as a way to gain support to attack the WHOLE industry.
Moms let their kids play Candy Crush all the time.
Me? I prefer Soda Crush.
Roblox would be a better example. Roblox has microtransactions, but not gambling or loot boxes (at least not that I’ve seen). It’s explicitly targeted at kids.
I’d probably prefer that it didn’t have them, but they are a fact of life these days and it’s not really any worse than wandering through a toy store, so I’m treating it as a teaching experience for my son.
I played one of the Candy Crush variants for a bit as I like puzzle games (not for long though, as it’s not a particularly good one). They wanted me to buy power-up items that allowed me to circumvent the puzzle rules. I viewed this as akin to failing at Solitaire one move from victory and paying $5 to move the last piece. Why play a puzzle game at all if you’re going to cheat at it? Even the limited supply of free ones they gave me ended up sitting unused.
For what it’s worth, no one among video game customers actually likes microtransactions. At best they’ll tolerate them, and at a certain point players will rebel, as happened with Star Wars Battlefront II, where EA eventually relented and allowed the worst aspects of the loot economy to be stripped out.
It often seems hell hath no fury like that of disenchanted gamers made so because the company who took over their favorite game series took a hard look at how to cut development costs and content while still extracting money from them.
Interestingly, now there’s youtubers (and other platforms) doing ‘let’s play’ streams and various other comment/feedback sites that allow that anger to bubble up and coalesce.
I think there is a continuum between traditional games (complex, high development costs, typically played by people for whom it is a serious hobby, high average hours played) and the new breed of loot box style games, especially mobile ones (low to medium complexity, typically aimed at casual gamers and playable in very short time intervals, low average hours played). While the best of the latter can be very good games in their own right, there are a vast number of them, and many are no more than a thin wrapper around a loot box style gambling system designed to set up an addiction loop and extract the maximum amount possible from those who are susceptible to it.
Gamers in the former camp are well aware of the drawbacks of the second model and tend to be highly vigilant for any signs that it may corrupt their own style of games. Game companies accordingly need to tread very carefully, but it’s still tempting for them because the loot box style of monetization often allows for much higher margins than the traditional business model, and the predatory system where those susceptible to addictive mechanics end up spending vast amounts of money and subsidizing everybody else is often a net positive for everyone except the exploited parties. (See also: casinos, credit card companies).
In general I think it comes down to intent. If you are fundamentally about creating cool content that people will enjoy playing and being fairly compensated for your efforts, you’re a gaming company. If you are about creating a platform that will allow you to spin up many related pieces of content with minimal incremental cost that will individually bring in 10 to 100 times the money it cost to create them, you’re a gambling company.
This one reason why this is a real threat. Back when Joe Lieberman et al started going after sex/violence content in video games, the consumers stood with the companies. Not so on this.
Republican talking hard truths about our collective addiction to social Media and Big Tech!
The picture on Hawley’s “About” page looks manipulative to me.
To me also. Can the omnipresent blondness be merely an accident of nature? All of the clothing is red, white, and blue — and all of the Republican red patches hover above the Democratic blue ones. Only one of the figures looks into the camera (makes eye contact with the visual-consumer); the only one who faces left has his eyes closed. Here is an example of very astutely staged commercial photography turned to political purpose. The prominence in the image of Mrs. Hawley’s ring finger demonstrates how much care was expended in composing it. Her left pinky points diagonally downward, indicating with the section of Sen. Hawley’s resume that highlights his work on behalf of Hobby Lobby. (Although the image proper can be isolated, it can only be properly appreciated as a component of an image-text hybrid. The image grabs our attention and directs it to a text; the text then indoctrinates.) The Fall foliage reminds the indoctrinated reader of what to do during election season.
These are interesting details and observations. For me, the dominant impression from the photo is Hawley kissing his son. This gives me the impression of Hawley as a compassionate, paternalistic, Jesus-like figure, herding the flock and watching over everything. His hair color is darker in the video then in this photo.
I imagine a DIY video game company able to recreate an individuals life as a ‘game.’ Use Mo-Cap and photos/video to flesh out a realistic environment.
Lambert, the new hotness is Mortal Kombat 11. Lots of griping online about how long it takes to unlock in-game inventory and anger at how easy it is to simply pay to unlock said inventory.
Also, Fortnite, which is awesome, recently had a tie in with Avengers-Endgame. Grifters gonna grift.
Thanos in Fortnite is a great source of memes, at least.
Alabama’s Republican Senator Richard Shelby was good on regulating commercialism in schools. https://www.eschoolnews.com/2000/08/01/lawmakers-push-for-parental-consent-on-commercialism-in-schools/
The “Ferguson, Jorgensen, and Chen Industrial Structure” link is broken. I’ve found this one but I’m not sure it’s the one you intended, Lambert.
There’s a bit of confusion in the title. “Social media economy” is way wider than gaming. That said, the people who are the most vulnerable (IMO) to the microtransactions and the like are the same who are the most vulnerable to instagram/FB etc. And the “casual” games (and gamers) are the worst TBH.
But, as a specific problem, the microtransactions are actually relatively easy to solve re kids – don’t give the appstore your credit card. Sure, the kids can still go and put get your CC data to pay for it, but TBH, then you should be able to spot and control it. It doesn’t work for adults, but then, a willing adult will always find a way, that’s the unfortunate truth there (and it doesnt’ matter what the addiction is).
There are way worse things for kids on the internet. Just for the “fun”, go and create a FB/IG profile of 10-12 year old girl, and see what you get in the next couple of days.