[-empyre-] ludic loops, and more…

Natasha Schull natasha.schull at nyu.edu
Thu Oct 22 05:12:22 AEDT 2015

Hi all,

I’m delighted to be included in this conversation, which I’ve been following with interest as it’s unfolded over the past weeks.

In his opening post Patrick gave a great overview of my work and its bearing on our theme(s), so I’ll get straight to some thoughts, organized by heading (although written as one stream): 


First, as we consider the term “compulsion” for our own analytic toolboxes, I think it’s worth recalling its technical meaning in psychiatry, as well as what it’s come to mean in other domains. Here’s a snippet on that from a footnote in my book on gambling addiction, with the most relevant bit highlighted: 

“When I use the terms “compulsive” or “addicted,” I do so not in a clinical or diagnostic sense, but in a colloquial, descriptive sense (as do gamblers themselves), to indicate behavior that has become excessive, out of control, difficult to stop, and destructive. It should be noted, however, that there are a number of technical differences among the terms I employ. For instance, although the group Gamblers Anonymous prefers the term “compulsive,” many psychiatrists consider this descriptor a misnomer, pointing out that excess gambling actually has an impulsive structure. While compulsions are characterized by a feeling of being compelled by an external force at odds with one’s own desires, impulses are  characterized by an increasing sense of tension or arousal in anticipation of performing an act, followed by pleasure, gratification, or a sense of release upon completion. Impulses, in other words, are “ego-syntonic” (i.e., intentional, goal-oriented) while compulsions are “ego-dystonic” (involuntary, alien, purposeless). Given that gambling is an ego-syntonic and pleasurable activity (at least initially), the original American Psychiatric Association diagnostic task force for pathological gambling decided the condition was better classified as an impulse control disorder than a compulsion (APA 1980). Some considered that decision debatable, since gambling typically becomes a problem only at the point when it feels involuntary and driven. The debate is likely to become obsolete with the recent decision to rename pathological gambling “disordered gambling” and to reclassify it as an addiction rather than an impulse control disorder.”

Second, whatever we take compulsion to describe, I would (respectfully) hesitate to endorse Murat’s view that we work to “positivize” the term since I think that would limit our capacities to acknowledge, analyze, and counter the harms and exploitations that can ride on compulsion. In other words, we would risk squeezing ethics out of the conversation in that ethics depends on the possibility of things being good or bad – by which I mean that interactive technologies can be configured in ways that enable greater or lesser degrees of human flourishing...


Like Katie, I’m fascinated by the “challenges that developers face when compulsion is a design value that equates with success.” Following the publication of my book on slot machine design and play, I’ve become interested in these challenges as they play out in the domains of website and mobile app design. In part this interest arose out of a number of (disconcerting!) invitations I received to engage with Silicon Valley designers in conversations about technology and habit, addiction, attention retention, and the like. I found these conversations to be rife with developer anxiety of the sort Katie spoke about – i.e. how to fulfill professional directives to ramp up revenue without hooking people into depleting, ethically dubious loops. 

At the Habit Summit, an event in Silicon Valley, I gave a talk on “the dark side of habit” in which I discussed the increasing prevalence (in mobile app and website design) of slot-machine-like features — notably, a turn to game algorithms that expose users to a “drip-feed” / “dribble-pay” / “grind” reward schedule that creates smooth, uninterrupted sessions of absorption (rather than long, suspenseful dry spells leading up to big wins). Designers in the gambling industry talk about game math that players can “recline on, like a comfortable couch”; a similar rhetoric pervades the design of online games like Candy Crush. Such games are so powerful because they’re affect modulators – they allow people to rapidly modulate and manage their moods. They’re addictive because the modulation is right there at your fingertips – you’re able to reach out and just start clicking…


My use of the phrase “ludic loop” was inspired by a great piece in The Atlantic by tech writer Alexis Madrigal (http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/07/the-machine-zone-this-is-where-you-go-when-youjust-cant-stop-looking-at-pictures-on-facebook/278185/), in which he uses gamblers’ concept of “the machine zone” to understand why digitally mediated activities like Facebook photo-clicking are so compelling. I quote it at length here as I think it’s directly related to kinds of “compulsions” we’ve been talking about on this forum: 

The machine zone is the dark side of "flow," a psychological state proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. In a flow state, there is a goal, rules for getting to the goal, and feedback on how that's going. Importantly, the task has to match your skills, so there's a feeling of "simultaneous control and challenge." 

Schüll sees a twist on this phenomenon in front of the new slot machines of Vegas, which incorporate tiny squirts of seeming control to amp up their feedback loops. But instead of the self-fulfillment and happiness that Csíkszentmihályi describes, many gamblers feel deflated and sad about their time on the slots. The games exploit the human desire for flow, but without the meaning or mastery attached to the state. 

When we get wrapped up in a repetitive task on our computers, I think we can enter some softer version of the machine zone. Obviously, if you're engaged in banter with friends or messaging your mom on Facebook, you're not in that zone. If you're reading actively and writing poems on Twitter, you're not in that zone. If you're making art on Tumblr, you're not in that zone. The machine zone is anti-social, and it's characterized by a lack of human connection. You might be looking at people when you look through photos, but your interactions with their digital presences are mechanical, repetitive, and reinforced by computerized feedback. 

The purest example of an onramp into the machine zone is clicking through photo albums on Facebook. There's nothing particularly rewarding or interesting about it. And yet, show me the Facebook user who hasn't spent hours and hours doing just that. Why? You can find the zone. Click. Photo. Click. Photo. Click. Photo. And perhaps, somewhere in there, you find something cool ("My friend knows my cousin.") or cute ("Kitten."). Great. Jackpot! Click. Photo. Click. Photo. Click. Photo. 

What Facebook and slot machines share is the ability to provide fast feedback to simple actions; the deliver tiny rewards on an imperfectly predictable "payout" schedule. These are coercive loops, distorting whatever the original intention of the user was. What began as "See a picture of person X" becomes "keep seeing more pictures." The mechanism itself becomes the point. 

Here's my contention: Thinking about the machine zone and the coercive loops that initiate it has great explanatory power. It explains the "lost time" feeling I've had on various social networks, and that I've heard other people talk about. It explains how the more Facebook has tuned its services, the more people seem to dislike the experiences they have, even as they don't abandon them. It helps explain why people keep going back to services that suck them in, even when they say they don't want to. 

Because designers and developers interpreted maximizing "time on site, "stickiness," "engagement," as giving people what they wanted, they built a system that elicits compulsive responses from people that they later regret. ...Fighting the great nullness at the heart of these coercive loops should be one of the goals of technology design, use, and criticism.

Following this article by Madrigal, I began to use the phrase “ludic loops” as shorthand for the troubling characteristics of so many nano-monetized digital and online experiences today. The journalist Douglas Heaven paraphrased me on this in his New Scientist piece “Obsession Engineers”: “ludic loops are tight, pleasurable feedback loops that stimulate repetitive, if not compulsive behavior. … They lure people into short cycles of repeated actions using tracks familiar to behavioral psychologists: you do something, the machine responds with lights, jingling sounds, and occasionally cash rewards. You do it again. And again, and again. Schull thinks the draw of … ludic loops is a constant repetitive switching between certainty and uncertainty." 

Another short piece (on the NPR website, accompanying a radio story they did on Candy Crush) described ludic loops like this:  "Anyone who has played Tetris will know the great satisfaction when, after sliding and turning a series of shapes, a four-block slides into place and four rows flash on-and-off and then disappear. But more than this, as soon as that puzzle has resolved itself, new ones are immediately created.” 


Here’s a passage from my book in which I try to think about the digital formatting of this kind of rapid, “open-close” experience in relation to Walter Benjamin’s mid-twentieth-century analysis of manufacturing technologies, in the course of which he drew a comparison between the temporalities of assembly-line labor and those of gambling: 

Both activities involved a continuous series of repeating events, each having “no connection with the preceding operation for the very reason that it is its exact repetition.”  “Each operation at the machine,” he wrote of factory work, “is just as screened off from the preceding operation as a coup in a game of chance is from the one that preceded it. . . . Starting all over again is the regulative idea of the game, as it is of work for wages.” This “starting over again,” this constant beginning that is discontinuous with all previous beginnings, meant that each act of labor or play was experienced as a nonchronological event “out of time.” Even as industrial work depended on clocks so that time could be precisely measured and segmented, that very mode of measurement and segmentation erased time by “screening off” each of its moments from the others. Likewise, Benjamin argued, the isolation of each gambling “moment” from the rest—“the ivory ball which rolls into the next compartment, the next card which lies on top”—removed gamblers from the ordinary passage of time.

This sounds an awful lot like the kinds of digital compulsion we’re concerned with in this forum (internet pornography, smart toothbrushes, slot machines, candy crush, hook-up apps)… which raises the question: are these digital formats qualitatively different than something like the assembly line or early arcade game — or are they doing the same work of removing us from clock time by fragmenting the flow of experience into a series of repeating moments,  just at a more intense speed? As a point of contrast to Benjamin’s description of roulette or card gambling, we have the slot machine — a device that further shrinks the time span of uncertainty, immediately resolving the event of the bet with the quick press of a button, speeding up encounters with contingency to a point where fragmentation feels like flow… thereby intensifying the possibility for compulsion?


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