I’ve always had a problem with loops.
I first discovered them when I started to program computers when I was about 12 years old. Loops back then were a very big deal. Bigger even than Kim Wilde or Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Everything from word processors to video games worked because programmers nested loops inside of loops. To a young boy, it was powerful voodoo to learn that a loop was the underlying structure of every computer game being written. It meant, in very simple terms, that every game looked the same on the inside.
Get the input from the player
Move characters based on that input
Update the screen
Play some sounds
The computer would follow those instructions and, at the end of the loop, it would return to the beginning to do it all again. The problem for me was that I predisposed to think that way. I was the kind of child who would count obsessively, looking for patterns in the world. I found it very easy to think in terms of structure and loops and I soon became hooked on computer code to the detriment of everything else in my life, including my love for Kim Wilde. I would spend every waking hour pouring over the manuals of instruction sets.
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What I did with all this knowledge wasn’t particularly impressive, except to other 12-year-old nerds impressed when I hacked the school’s computer network so I could remotely control our teacher’s machine. I wasn’t one of those whiz kids who make a million before they hit puberty. I was just happy to be involved in the iterative process of computer programming. I would write code, run it, then improve it to make it do more. That was the loop of my life.
A computer degree and a short unhappy time as a programmer later, I eventually managed to escape the loop. I discovered other outlets for my peculiar mind. I obsessed over English literature and discovered how novels had far healthier structures. Poetic devices allowed my imagination to move forward in refreshing ways. Yet my love of loops and repetition never diminished. It’s the reason I enjoy the music of Bach, Philip Glass, or various kinds of electronic music.
It’s probably no surprise that two of my books are structured around variations of the same theme that I did hundreds of times. One involved writing letters to famous people (including Kim Wilde) and the other drawing cartoons. Yet they weren’t just straightforward cartoons. I had to crosshatch them compulsively in the style of Robert Crumb or the early Gerald Scarfe. Crosshatching was a different kind of loop.
So much for the biography. The reason I’m telling you all this is because the World Health Organisation has just produced a draft document of their International Classification of Diseases, to which they have added a “gaming disorder”. It is about time they did. I was an active gamer with a gaming disorder before I was a programmer with a programming disorder. Yet unlike programming, my love of games has continued my entire life and it also something I’ve had to learn to control. It’s not that I become addicted to all computer games but I do have to be very careful around certain kinds.
This is the first thing to understand if you’re not yourself a gamer: video computer games are not inherently bad. To any parent who might be worried that your child plays computer games rather than reading a book, I would say: it depends on the game as it also depends on the book. Gaming is an active discipline, stimulating certain parts of the brain, unlike other more traditional pastimes. No other form of media involves so much problem solving and lateral thinking. A game like Assassin’s Creed Origins opens up ancient history in a way that’s more involving than any book. A football management sim teaches about economics in a way that’s hard to achieve using textbooks. How a child internalises the information might be different but the outcomes are often the same.
The second thing to understand is that video games are not going to turn your child into a psychopath. The problem is when psychopaths do play video games and the way the media blame the games for the psychopath’s actions rather than acknowledge the fact that they were a psychopath.
Where you should be cautious is where certain repetitive behaviour might become harmful. If your child is predisposed, as I was (and still am), to certain habits of mind, then a computer game might be designed to exacerbate those habits. Heavily looped game mechanics can be real trouble. In psychology, the produce something called a “compulsion loop” and its purpose is to stimulate a release of dopamine in the brain. I can easily fall victim to any game that, let’s say, asks me to plant a certain crop, harvest it, sell it, and then use that money to plant even more crops. What begins as something that might occupy five minutes of your day can rapidly escalate to something that takes up your entire lunchtime or worse. You wake up in the middle of the night and can’t think of anything except that your damn chickens need feeding when, really, what I’m craving is a hit of that sweet dopamine.
Twelve months ago, when researching this subject, I came across the genre of “incremental games”, which are strange little examples of pure psychology turned into a game mechanic. They usually involve you clicking on one thing which then, through various iterations, begins to grow the game in complexity. They are hugely addictive, as I learned to my cost when I spent five minutes trying one called “Clicker Heroes”. It shames me to say that the game is still running under one of my browser tabs and I’ve been unable to break the habit (as much as I really want to).
I know I’m not peculiar in this but I do know that I more predisposed to this kind of repetitive game. I have a terrible habit of completely zoning out if I get thinking about something that interests me. A computer game that encourages this can become very problematic. What worries me (and where I think the WHO are at least on the right track) is that that I see increasing numbers of games that are cleverly designed to provoke this response in players. Those mechanics that began as experiments in game psychology in incremental games are starting to appear in mainstream titles. Game designers have started to bring in help from psychologists who understand what motivates us to do the things we do and to do them compulsively. When psychologists did the same in the 1960s, they revolutionised advertising. In the field of video games, it’s yet to be seen what kind of revolution they bring about.
The best example — and one which has recently received a lot of criticism and is hopefully disappearing — is the use of so-called “loot boxes”. These are, as the name suggests, virtual boxes that contain valuable items in the internal world of the game. They might be rare costumes or weapons, or some currency that can be used inside the game to buy upgrades. What has made loot boxes so controversial is that players are often urged to buy the boxes using real money or, more likely, using game credits that themselves can be bought with real money. Indeed, abstracting your purchases from the act of spending real money is one of their chief tricks. Given that you can never be sure what’s inside the boxes, the result is a system like that of scratch cards. The feeling that the next one is a “winner” can, in some people, become destructively compulsive. It is gambling by a different name.
Governments are already looking more carefully at the video games industry and loot boxes probably fall under current regulations. In Belgium, they have already been declared gambling and therefore made illegal. Yet, it doesn’t and shouldn’t end there. Video games are different from traditional forms of gambling and the patterns of addiction can be unique. This is significant given that, in 2017, the global revenue for video games was said to be something like $83 billion, compared to only $36 billion made by the movie industry. That $83 billion can pay for a lot of psychologists coming up with ever more sophisticated ways to lock us into loops we will find it increasingly hard to escape. First and foremost, the industry must step up and ensure that doesn’t happen.
And on that point, I would say more but, unfortunately, I have some heroes that need clicking…