Applied Game Theory, R.I.P. 3: Addiction and Copyright

I am continuing my series of highlights from the Applied Game Theory column I wrote with Kurt Squire. The first is a column on the concept of games addiction (mostly Kurt) and the second is about the City of Heroes dispute with Marvel comics over copyright (mostly Henry). For the record, the City of Heroes dispute got settled out of court and the terms of the settlement have not been made public.

I am posting tonight from Cornell University. James Paul Gee and I had a public conversation today about games, participatory culture, and learning. We’ve done these off and on for the past several years — what I call the Jim and Henry show. Our host recorded it and will be making it available as a podcast so I will let you know when it is available. J

For the love of God, get that screenshot away from me!

New research suggests that people who play video games to excess exhibit traits similar to those of drug users.  Or so read the headlines at MIT’s Technology Review. A recent study on neurotransmitters and gaming made big waves: researchers showed that people who report “being addicted” to games experience increased releases of dopamine (a chemical associated with pleasure), when shown game-related images.

Most gamers react with amusement, before asking, “And this is a big deal because…?” If we are being honest, most of us have had played a game more than we should have. Some game designers brag about producing “addictive” titles. A few highly publicized stories ­ particularly around Massively Multiplayer games show that some people do let their gaming get the best of them, forgetting (or refusing) to sleep, shower, eat, or take care of loved ones. Of course, any activity from work to working out can have an adverse impact on our family, health, and relationships. And in fact, most of us have experienced something like what this research describes. All it takes is the login sound from WoW to put our minds back in Azeroth.

So why does this matter? It is one thing to urge people to balance game play with other import aspects of everyday life, another to equate gaming with drug addiction. Once that happens, groups like the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association step in, claiming authority to regulate the media you consume.

Here’s how it usually works. A group of moral reformers comes to the AMA or APA with a policy brief that cites studies “proving” that games are highly addictive. These groups do little or no independent research, relying on what they know from reading the papers (where negative research is disproportionately represented) and then they vote to approve some kind of feel good resolution or policy statement, which itself becomes fodder for more sensational news coverage

and another bit of ammunition that reformers can use in pushing for games regulation. These groups want to regulate games as drugs (or cigarettes, another popular analogy) rather than art: their medical “expertise” masks the attempt to simply assert their tastes as normative.

It’s hard to translate these research findings into meaningful social policies. After all, America’s success rate in the “war on drugs” hardly demonstrates that we should take a similar tack on other “social problems”?



Do we ban images or words from World of Warcraft? Do we ban any activity that is

pleasurable, or produces chemical reactions?

Most pleasurable activities stimulate the release of brain chemicals. We don’t know how, say, playing a highly competitive game of basketball affects the brain because you can’t sit in an MRI while playing point guard, but we do know that working out also leads to increased dopamine. So does eating food. Basically, if we banned activities that lead to changes in brain chemistry, the species would die out from starvation or a lack of procreation. Maybe just plain boredom. And once we start asserting that some activities are simply more meaningful than others, we are back in the business of making cultural, rather than “scientific,” judgments and in that space, it is hard to justify why the AMA should have any more say than, say, professional organizations devoted to studying the cultural impact of media.

So what can we do as gamers? We must refute the idea that gaming is a drug and suggest that it’s an activity –­ one a large portion of the American public, although apparently not of the American Medical Association, finds meaningful. In fact, this same study found that part of the pleasure in gaming is the learning that occurs through confronting new challenges.

Second, gamers should push to understand why people find games so compelling. Researchers like Ted Castronova and Constance Steinkuehler have shown that for some people the roles and identities in games are more rewarding than the roles available in the real world. Maybe Azeroth is a more socially engaging place than Starbucks, USA for some people out there. This can’t be explained purely in terms of dopamine dependency.

Researchers like Jack Kuo and William Huang at Mt. Sinai Hospital in LA are developing more

nuanced models of game “addiction” that try to let /gamers/ decide what they want out of life, decide when gaming becomes unhealthy, and make their own decisions about what’s normal. They are careful to suggest that game playing can become an addiction but that the activity itself is not intrinsically destructive, unlike say shooting up herion. These researchers are finding that the number of cases of actual games addiction are much much smaller than the sensationalistic coverage would suggest. Gamers shouldn’t be in denial. We shouldn’t ignore the potential negative consequences of having games take over someone’s life but these small number of cases don’t call for dramatic policy shifts.

Now, hand over that joystick!


Suiting Up

“If he’s like a cat or a spider or a fucking wolverine, if he’s huge, if he’s tiny, if he can shoot flames or ice or death rays or Vat 69, if he turns into fire or water or stone or India rubber. He could be a Martian, he could be a ghost, he could be a god or a demon or a wizard or monster…. And no matter what we come up with, and how we dress him, some other character with the same shtick, with the same style of boots and the same little doodad on his chest,

is already out there, or is coming out tomorrow, or is going to be knocked off from our guy inside a week and a half.” – Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Chabon’s novel describes the frenzy response to Superman’s surprise market success in the late 1930s as every other comic book publisher worked to reverse engineer Superman to generate and trademark as many superheros as possible. Later, the creators of Superman would try to sue those companies, claiming that Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman or The Human Torch, were all infringing on the Superman intellectual property. The suits came too late – what might have remained a franchise had become a genre. If Superman’s creators had won that suit, there would have been no Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, or X-Men and no Marvel Enterprises.

All of this came to mind when we learned that Marvel Enterprises was suing NCSoft Corp. and Cyptic Studios Inc, creators of City of Heroes. Marvel argues that the game’s character generator could be used to create a “gigantic, green, ‘science-based tanker’-type hero that moves and behaves nearly identically” to the Incredible Hulk.

Ironically, we were planning to write a column which praised City of Heroes and its character generator for some of the most inventive and thoughtful use of genre conventions we have seen in some time. The game takes basic building blocks of the superhero genre (such, as for example, different ideas about how characters get their powers — from mutation, scientific experiments gone awry, visitors from alien worlds, technological enhancements, etc.), turns them into a menu of options, and allows you to design your own characters. From the almost infinite possible permutations, you can populate a world where everyone gets to be a superhero and every character feels different.

Is City of Heroes doing anything radically different from what the comic book industry itself has been doing ever since the first Superman comic hit the news stand? The idea of a city of heroes, for example, can be found in such recent works as Alan Moore’s Top Ten or Kurt Busiac’s Astro City. In both cases, the authors generate many variations on the superhero, often by mixing and matching characteristics of previous comic book protagonists. This is the way genres operate — early creations become archtypes

which other creators cannibalize, mimic and retool.

Take Marvel’s Incredible Hulk. Watching the surprise commercial success of the Aurora model kit for Universal Studio’s Frankenstein monster in 1961, Marvel publisher Martin Goodman told artist Jack Kirby that to design a “super-Frankenstein.” Kirby also mixed in some elements from Doctor Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde and the ancient Hebrew myth of the Golem. Initially, Marvel tried to mask his origins by making the Hulk grey rather than Frankenstein green but then they decided that green just looked better in the garish world of early 60s comics.

So what does it mean when Marvel says that any “gigantic, green, ‘science-based tanker’-type character” is ripping off the Hulk?

Any City of Heroes player who knew the generic formulas could make a series of some thirty or forty choices which could generate something which looked and acted more than a little like the Hulk. But, how is this any different from making my own Hulk costume and wearing it to the local Shopping Mall’s Halloween party? Legally, both actions would a kind of “public performance” and Marvel would be within its rights to sue me for infringing on their copyrights, though it would be pretty foolish to do so. The amount of revenue Marvel lost because I didn’t buy my costume from them would be more than offset by the amount of free publicity I generated for them.

So, why is Marvel so upset? Most comic book writers, artists, and publishers blame competition from the games industry for a sharp decline in youth readership of comics over the past several decades. And by and large, most official superhero games have been slavishly tied to the original franchises in ways that allow little room for player contributions and limited chances to exploit the distinctive potentials of games.

In other words, Marvel is pissed because they didn’t think of this idea themselves.