or, Why do pissed-off birds, mismatched zoo animals, and tripped-out pachinko boards give me such a braingasm?
by Daniel Maté (a composer-lyricist-bookwriter, supposedly)
I held out for a good long time. I really did. Everyone's been talking about this game Angry Birds for the past year or so, saying how devilishly addictive it is. Sounded like a very bad idea. I didn't know much about the game itself -- something about slinghots and green pigs and exploding eggs? -- and frankly, I didn't want to know. It's fine for my friends with office jobs: an engaging but innocent diversion to get them through their daily drudgery. Or maybe, in moderation, a way of passing the time on long rush-hour commutes.
But not for me, I said. For me, there is no such thing as moderation.
No: when it comes to whimsical video games with bright color schemes and arrestingly silly soundtracks, I'm a straight-up, unreconstructed fiend. I'm like Chris Rock in New Jack City. I'm like my lookalike Rob Downey in... um, the '90s. You know what? Let's not sugarcoat this. I'm like this guy.
A lot of people go for dark, violent first-person shooter games. Not me. The goofier and more vivid and seemingly innocuous, the better.
Just a few of the games that have, for weeks or months at a time, captured my complete, and completely unproductive, attention:
• ZOOKEEPER, a high-speed online game where you, the harried and titular zookeeper, have to frantically swap animal faces to make three of a kind until you either fill your quota per species or run out of time and face the condescending wrath of your asshole boss (I hate that guy.) If you're taking too long, the animals' facial expressions go from cute and hopeful to frowning disapproval, which can be quite upsetting when you're trying your best.
• PEGGLE, a pachinko-type game where you have to clear the board of colored pegs by aiming a magic ball and then watching it careen wildly all over the board. You have a limited number of various "special" shots per level, which make the ball do cool things like splitting into three balls, calculating the best shot, and become a fiery ball of destruction. There are various "Peggle Masters" who teach you these moves, from an Egyptian cat princess, to a French lobster named Claude, to a Confucian owl named Master Hu. Yes, bad puns and snazzy graphics abound, and best of all when you clear a level there's this ludicrously silly and cool celebration sequence, bizarrely called EXTREME FEVER, complete with a close-up, fireworks, a sparkly rainbow, and Beethoven's Ode To Joy. Let's see, how can I describe it? Okay: it feels kind of like the whole world has just ejaculated puréed diamonds, and you're the cause. Click here for a taste.
• ANYTHING SUPER MARIO BROS.-RELATED, ESPECIALLY THE SUPER MARIO GALAXY GAMES FOR THE NINTENDO Wii. Self-explanatory: I simply can't get enough of Mario and Luigi. I don't actually own a Wii, but I haven't let that stop me. I've had several babysitting gigs here in Brooklyn since grad school, and the Universe has been beneficent: two of them have been for families with boys aged 7 to 12. Come bedtime, it's: "G'night sport. No, you can't have a glass of water: Princess Peach needs me. If you need anything, call my cell and leave a message. I'll be downstairs on the Wii. Don't come down. Sleep tight."
Hell, I'm such a Mario fiend that I have been known, recently, to spend hours on YouTube watching videos of other people playing the fucking game, complete with boring, nerdy, meme-heavy commentary. (After three or four videos I actually got kind of fond of this dude "NintendoCapriSun". And I'm not alone: he's got tens of thousands of followers on his YouTube channel.)
On one level (get it? level), it's easy to explain why these games appeal so much: they're a fun, involving, and basically harmless escape from reality. They provide a safe outlet for aggression and competitiveness. And some of them, especially games like Super Mario Galaxy, are truly amazing feats of ingenuity, engineering, design, and artistic vision.
But what is it that makes them feel so good to play? Or, more ominously, so damn hard to stop playing?
I'm not sure, but I think it's probably dopamine.
Dopamine is one of the key neurotransmitters in our brains. Neurotransmitters are substances that carry electrical impulses from one brain cell to another, making thought, emotion, and bodily functioning possible. Dopamine in particular is heavily involved in motivation, curiosity and exploration, and its circuitry has been called the brain's built-in "seeking" system. So when I'm hopped up on my own natural 'dope', I'm alert, attentive, and interested in what's coming next. I'm on my toes, neurologically speaking. Which perfectly describes the state of being immersed in a well-designed game world. According to an interesting article I found and didn't read in its entirety (I mean really, who has the time?),
"The game world is teeming with objects that deliver clearly articulated rewards: more life, access to new levels, new equipment, new spells. Most of the crucial work in game interface design revolves around keeping players notified of potential rewards available to them and how much those rewards are needed."
In my father's book on addiction he quotes a UCLA researcher's findings about the relative effects of various "addictive" substances and behaviors on dopamine levels in the human brain:
"...food seeking can increase brain dopamine levels in some key brain centres by 50 percent. Sexual arousal will do so by a factor of 100 percent, as will nicotine and alcohol. But none of these can compete with cocaine, which more than triples dopamine levels. Yet cocaine is a miser compared with crystal meth...whose dopamine-enhancing effect is an astounding 1,200 percent." (p. 154, U.S. paperback edition)
Obviously no one's done research yet on the dopaminurgic effect of the Luigi's Purple Coins level in the Toy Time Galaxy in Super Mario Galaxy 1. I'll bet it'd make meth look like pastry flour.
One interesting aspect of what happens in addiction, according to research, is that as the addict's brain gets flooded with the feel-good neurochemicals (including dopamine, serotonin, and pain-relief molecules called endorphins), it compensates for the overload by reducing its number of receptors for those chemicals. This means that it takes more of the "good stuff" to produce the same high as before -- or, in other words, the person's "tolerance" level gets elevated. It also means that when the source of the chemicals -- whether it be an addictive substance or behavior -- gets cut off, the brain can't produce its own supply of them like it could before.
So basically, when I'm on a Peggle bender, my dopamine circuits are completely hooked into the game. Other "rewards" -- fresh air, exercise, social contact -- don't do it for me. In order to feel alive and motivated, i.e. like a real human being, I need to get a hit of that sweet sweet Ultra Extreme Fever. (It's like they're not even trying to hide the fact that they want you to get hooked.)
Clearly, this is no way to live. These games want to control my brain. And I need my brain for... for... um, what is it I do again?
No, really, I'm doing my best to rid myself of this tendency. Honestly. The games may be silly and innocuous, but any kind of addiction has nasty consequences, if only for my productivity and self-respect.
Star Trek: The Next Generation once had a great episode where the entire ship becomes hopelessly addicted to a mind-controlling video game that gives jolts of (seemingly) sexual pleasure as rewards for completing levels. It's all an alien ploy, of course, and only Wesley Crusher and Data (and a sexy Ashley Judd, until she gets hooked too) see through it. Someone recently did a clever abridged mashup of that episode with the Angry Birds game, and I'll end with it here.
(Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some thieving-ass green pigs to go fling furious birds at. Gimme back my damn eggs, swine!)