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Why can’t we stop playing games on our phones?

smartphones

What happens when an organic form of existence, after evolving for millions of years, meets the last word in planned and designed addictiveness? Darwin goes searching for the gas pedal in this evolutionary phenomenon of his.

Smartphones have turned tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people around the world into players of videogames such as Angry Birds, Temple Run, or Candy Crush. But as the games made their way to everyone’s pocket, reports of addiction to them also escalated.

The official position of the American Psychiatric Association is that sufficient data does not yet exist for determining whether a true addiction is involved. But today reports are already widespread of mothers who were too engrossed in playing Candy Crush to remember to pick their children up from kindergarten, and many people testify that they feel addicted to casual games.

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A survey by Ask Your Target Market found, among other things, that 28 percent play during work, 10 percent have found themselves arguing with their near ones about wasting time on playing, and 30 percent consider themselves addicted.

What exactly gives these games such a dramatic influence over people?

How does crushing candy differ from old-fashioned games?

In contrast to childhood games that involved human partners, or at least involved manipulating real objects in real space, smartphone games require nothing. A central part of the expected gratification in old-fashioned games was deciding which game to play this time and making preparations (setting out the playing pieces, arranging the dollhouse, assigning characters, or determining who takes the first turn).

Even videogames for computers and for consoles are an entirely different matter from smartphone games. In videogames, we generally assume a masterful role such as superhero, soccer player, warrior, or the like, fulfilling a fantasy and giving our senses and emotions an experience.

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Such games boost adrenaline levels, and they awaken strong feelings of power as well as frustration, gratification, and enjoyment.

Playing smartphone games does not result from a desire to take part in any shared activity or to achieve any fantasy. Their gratification derives from a change of mental state, a sort of detachment. To select the app and start the game, no investment is required, no thought or intention, but merely the urge to play.

The urge appears just as hunger or thirst does. Like them, it requires no handling in depth and no thought process. Our primitive urges arrive from lower-level areas of the brain, such as the limbic system, which is involved in emotions and motivation.

How is the urge created?

The game designers seem to have arrived at a winning formula, dubbed the “ludic loop” and based on the fundamentals of behaviorism.

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The principle is simple. Significant feedback, in response to an action, encourages behavior that is repetitive if not obsessive. A slot machine can provide a perfect representation of how the ludic loop encourages obsessive behavior.

You perform a particular action and receive reinforcement: the machine responds with lights, changing colors, noises, and sometimes a monetary reward. That reward causes us to repeat the same action again and again.

A smartphone game is generally simple and easy to understand, and it requires no cognitive resources, so that children and adults alike can easily understand the basic principles.

At the start there is a system of learning by stages, whereby each time the level of play advances a bit, the challenge is revivified and thus the ludic loop is renewed and the desire to continue receiving those fresh doses of gratification causes us to play again and again.

Opening the dopamine faucets

Our attraction to this kind of action is attributed to the neurotransmitter called dopamine, a chemical found in our brain. Initially scientists associated dopamine with feelings of enjoyment (a high level of dopamine being visible during activities such as eating chocolate, sex, and hearing favorite music) but research in the past decade has indicated that dopamine has additional functions besides activating gratification and pleasure.

Close-up of chocolate chip cookies stacked high on top of each other

This molecule helps us in pattern recognition and it alerts us — by dropping to low levels — to a deviation from the familiar pattern we’ve learned (to a surprise, in other words).

The system centers around expectations. Dopamine cells are constantly creating patterns of action based on experience. After repeatedly crying and each time hearing Mommy’s steps approaching quickly in the corridor at the sound, the baby internalizes a pattern whereby crying receives a positive reinforcement (Mommy) and the dopamine level in the baby’s brain increases in response to Mommy’s footsteps even before she arrives.

Each time the dopamine cells predict wrongly (Mommy doesn’t arrive) the brain sends a special electrical signal called the habenular signal in response to the erroneous prediction.

The purpose of these cells is to predict events. They always want to know which actions foretell a reward. From the dopamine cells’ standpoint, the virtual world is no different from the real world. Gambling machines and smartphone games are patterns to be predicted and identified.

When we are playing at a gambling machine or at Candy Crush, our brain cells strive to decode the mechanism’s pattern of action. They want to understand the game, to decode the secret of success, to discover the criteria that predict an upcoming reward.

Expecting a rerun, excited by surprise

Although the dopamine cells respond when they recognize a familiar pattern, they are more excited at unexpected rewards (three or four times as excited, as measured by the strength of the dopaminergic firing). In other words, the reward is more pleasurable the more surprising it is. A burst of dopamine, intended to turn the brain’s attention to new stimuli, is important to survival.

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The reaction to the unexpected has strong roots in our evolution. When we receive unexpected cash on a randomized basis, it forces us more strongly into obsessively repeating our action than cash on a predictable basis would.

The behavior was demonstrated by Skinner, one of the pioneers of behavioral psychology in the 1950s. When his lab rats received an unexpected reward from pushing a pedal, they would continue pushing it even after the reward stopped arriving. Once a causal relationship was established, it stubbornly retained its force.

Technology defeats evolution

Although the dopamine cells that deal with prediction try to understand the game’s reward system, they are fated for surprise time after time. From the dopamine cells’ standpoint, the stakes are life and death:  in order to survive in the world, they need to identify its patterns.

They ought to give up on the gambling machines and similar games in order not to waste their dopaminergic strength on phenomena that have proven quite unpredictable, but instead of losing interest in random rewards, the dopamine cells become addicted to them.

When we receive the reward, we experience a burst of pleasurable dopamine deriving largely from the unexpectedness itself. The dopamine cells cannot crack the pattern, they cannot accustom themselves to it, and they cannot learn or internalize it.

The illusion of control

Gambling machines and games like Candy Crush are not always governed by rules or control. The player may have the impression of understanding the game, and may try to construct a strategy, but the random fruits that encourage that impression issue from a generator by no set pattern or comprehensible algorithm. They obey nothing but a dumb little chip that produces numbers by what is known as engineered randomness.

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In this type of game, the randomness treads the fine line between the purely random and the illusion that control is available to whoever discovers a certain hidden logic. Such a pattern encourages the player to think it is possible to plan upcoming moves strategically.

The false sense of controllability is a powerful motivator. When people enter its circle of power, they can be made to repeat the same behavior again and again even with no reward and with no apparent stopping point. There is no specific goal, but only the pleasure of the little emotional roller-coaster. The game creates pleasure from within itself.

The little Mary Poppins in each of us

Although the theory is still in its infancy, psychological insights are already embedded in game design according to a certain formula for success. We are aware of the basic components underlying addiction.  Those components can explain the similarity among such popular games as Tetris, Bejeweled, and Candy Crush.

Matching and arranging random shapes that appear on the screen — attempting to find a pattern based on shape, or to arrange shapes in a way that fits —is beyond question a tool for gratification and pleasure at the deepest level.

Matching shapes or patterns is a basic human obsession, drawing from the same source that encourages babies to fit shapes into holes. We have a basic need to arrange objects. It seems that the urge to tidy up a mess and restore the status quo resembles a sense of mission. Arranging objects on the screen feels like setting matters right and restoring order.

Naomi Evans polishes the floor before the public o

And a point of positivity to end on

The purpose of exploiting pleasure-giving mechanisms does not need to be something like encouraging addiction. The limbic loop can help in treating or preventing psychological damage. Playing Tetris after watching a disturbing movie has been found to reduce the likelihood of flashbacks.

Games that encourage obsessive behavior can serve as a cognitive immunization against post-traumatic stress disorder. Furthermore, the more stressed our society becomes, the more we require stress relievers, and particularly those we can carry with us everywhere.

Read Next: The psychology behind Web browsing

Image credit: Shutterstock

Excellent photo app Filters has been sold to Camera+, will live on!

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Filters, the popular (and affordable) photo editing app for iOS, is now part of the Camera+ family. In a blog post on Medium, Filters developer Mike Rundle says the app will remain as a standalone in the App Store, and isn’t being “acquired for parts and pieces.”

In a post announcing the app was for sale, Rundle said he was letting go because he didn’t have the time he felt Filters needed. “I have a full-time job, two small children, and Filters was a side passion project that ended up being pretty great, and it really needs someone (or a team) to take it to the next level and give it the attention it deserves,” he said.

Integrity seems to be a big reason Camera+ was handed the reigns for Filters, too. Rundle says he fielded over a dozen inquiries, but most were interested in the image processing technology Filters uses, which likely meant they’d scrap everything else.

The good news in all of this is that Filters will live on, and get the support it needs from an established brand. For once, we don’t have to caution against downloading an app that’s been acquired. How refreshing.

Filters has joined the Camera+ family! | iOS | [Medium]

Read next: Filters for iPhone puts hundreds of great filters and tweaks for pictures at your fingertips

Facebook is trying to make its workers check their privilege

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When tackling the problem of diversity in the workplace, Facebook is trying to address it from all angles. One of the biggest tentpoles in its plan is to collect its workers and make them look at their own bias and privilege.

Today, Facebook has made that course, called Managing Bias, available in a condensed version online as a teaching tool for other companies.

The course was developed to create a more inclusive culture for Facebook as a whole and, according to the Managing Bias website, to understand the limitations of meritocracy:

Research shows that individuals and organizations that believe they are meritocratic often have the poorest outcomes. That’s because when biases aren’t acknowledged, we can’t deal with them.

Managing Bias does exactly that: it groups Facebook employees in a room and makes them understand how they all contribute to unconscious preferences that taint meritocratic intentions. The company invites its employees to take an Implicit Attitudes Test (IAT) to help them understand how their own bias works. Then they drop aggregate knowledge about the way things are in helpful slides:

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The above slide is the aggregate assumptions from different IATs, which show things many of us already feel to be true: three out of four people associate men with work and science, and prefer white, able-bodied people.

These assumptions are also reflected in Facebook’s current diversity report, which was updated in June. Among Facebook’s US employees, more than half (55 percent) of employees identify as white, and non-Asian minorities make up less than 10 percent of the total workforce. Nearly three out of four Facebook employees in senior leadership positions in the US identify as white, also.

And when it comes to gender, nearly 7 out of 10 of global employees at Facebook are male. In tech roles, 84 percent of its workforce is male. And in global senior leadership, 77 percent of employees are male.

Managing Bias is designed to show Facebook employees that awarding and rewarding work is affected by internal preconceptions based on how a person looks. On resumes, traditional male names like John or Dave perform better than female names like Julia or Daniel or traditionally ethnic names like Jamal or Dinesh. In the workplace, minorities are judged more on their proven accomplishments, while employees in the majority can rely on their potential. Men are rewarded for assertive attitudes, where women who achieve work success are perceived as cutthroat.

The course also drills down into more subtle bias — particularly maternal bias, which shows that working mothers who are perceived to be less attentive to their kids are given fewer opportunities in the workplace.

Managing Bias is one program among many that are designed to bring more inclusion into Facebook overall. But it is special particularly because it’s deeply internal — it forces Facebook employees to see that they’re not as “race-blind” or “gender-blind” as they think they are. And, just maybe, that could feed into the company’s hiring practices overall.

Facebook

Read Next: Facebook ordered to allow Germans to use fake names

Amazon wants dedicated airspace for delivery drones

Amazon Prime Air Delivery Drone

It’s no secret that Amazon is seriously considering using drones to deliver packages across short distances, and now it has taken a clearer step towards reaching that goal.

The company today unveiled a proposal to designate a portion of the airspace above suburbs and cities for drone delivery.

The proposal suggests high-speed drones be limited to an area covering a height of 200 to 400 feet off the ground. Another 100-foot area above this corridor would be designated as a no-fly zone to act as a buffer against other traditional aircraft.

Meanwhile, the area between the ground and the high-speed drone airspace would be designated for low speed traffic, where there’s a lower risk of something going astray.

Drone Amazon

The company unveiled the plans at the NASA UTM Convention in California, and included five features for drones that would be able to fly in the zone:

  • An advanced GPS system to pinpoint their location in real-time along with any nearby drones
  • Reliable internet to maintain communications with GPS data and other devices
  • Online flight planning to predict and communicate flight paths
  • The ability to communicate with other drones to ensure they avoid each other
  • Sensors to avoid other obstacles including birds, buildings and cables

The change would have a negative impact on drone hobbyists, as they would only be allowed to fly in the lower 200-foot corridor. Current regulations allow them to reach up to 400 feet up in the air, so high-flying operators likely won’t be happy to see their range cut in half.

That rule dates back to 1981; current regulations were made with aircraft led by individual pilots and flight crews in mind, and Amazon believes they don’t apply to current airspace complexity. With drones rapidly becoming more popular, that airspace is likely only to become even more complex; the company says a ‘paradigm shift’ is necessary to safely accommodate a fleet of unmanned vehicles.

Of course, Amazon has to face many challenges before its drone delivery dreams come to fruition, and more research is necessary to assess potential safety concerns. Still, the company may have enough power and clout to help create the regulatory shift needed for delivery drone shipments to actually happen.

Revising the Airspace Model for the Safe Integration of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems via The Guardian

 

Review: Deliveroo brings food from restaurants that don’t deliver (and existential angst)

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We are lazy, pampered, awful people. You’re not? If you’re here reading about food delivery services, you definitely are.

Like me, you can press a button and make someone bring you food. At any other time in history that would be seen as so decadent that revolutionaries would be plotting to cut off your head, powdered wig and all.

JustEat and its many rivals have taught us that ordering take out food can be so simple that we don’t need to interact with a human being. At a push, you have to talk to the driver.

Tuck in at Tuk Tuk
Tuck in at Tuk Tuk

Deliveroo, a new entrant into the European market (it’s in France, Germany, Ireland and the UK), has just gobbled up a juicy banquet of $70 million in Series C funding. It takes the existing model and applies it to restaurants that don’t usually deliver.

Imagine a VC with slicked back hair, clicking his fingers, doing the ‘Shooter Mcgavin’ and telling you that this app is a game changer. That guy is an idiot but most infuriatingly, he’s right. Deliveroo is basically brilliant and that upsets me.

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Yeah, Shooter Mcgavin would probably love Deliveroo

It’s another excuse for me to retreat from humanity, to build my internet fortress and have food packages posted to me through a slot by a driver who is frightened by my searchlights and the huge meme murals I have painted on the external walls in the dead of night.

Deliveroo’s app is great. It shows you which restaurants are available, along with a very accurate delivery time estimate. The benefit over traditional apps – certainly in Dublin where I’m located – is that there is a more diverse range of cuisines available. That means more healthy restaurants and more international choices.

The downside is that Deliveroo has so far geared itself towards the effete metropolitan elites or, to put it more fairly, the app generally only supports delivery within city centers.

Oddly, while its Web service works in Dublin, the app actually isn’t available in the Irish app store. I was able to successfully use it as I have a UK iTunes Store account, a throwback to when I still lived in the land of my birth and wasn’t an out-of-place Brit soiling this emerald isle.

Taste of Brazil in Dublin is on Deliveroo and in @brokenbottleboy's belly
Taste of Brazil in Dublin is on Deliveroo and in @brokenbottleboy’s belly

The thing I loved about trying out Deliveroo was that I could experience a restaurant that I have never visited before and get new dishes delivered straight to my house. I opted for Taste of Brazil, which specializes in Brazilian cuisine.

I had the X Salada burger, Coxinha De Frango Com Reoueijao and Banana Caramelizada. The order cost me €25.35 ($28) including a €2.00 ($2.21) delivery fee, a €0.50 ($0.55) card fee and a €4.00 ($4.42) tip for the driver.

I tipped mainly to satiate my guilt at being a lazy takeout-ordering slug creature. It only made a minor dent in that feeling. My shame abides.

The cost of ordering from Deliveroo is actually quite reasonable in the end. You’re basically paying restaurant price with the convenience of not having to actually go there and navigate a space with other distasteful human beings.

My food arrived hot and looking good. The only point of minor criticism was that the burger could have been hotter, but it may be too much to expect a delivery app to suspend the laws of thermodynamics to better my dining experience.

If Deliveroo is available where you are, I’d broadly recommend it. You’re limited to ordering from one restaurant at a time and taking a punt from a place you’ve never eaten before can be a risk, but the app’s delivery time estimates and driver tracker are excellent features.

As long as you don’t forget that using the app is another marker in defining how entirely entitled you entire existence is, it’s wonderful.

Deliveroo [iOS]

Now better yourself… With this app that can help you start learning to code 

Facebook ordered to allow Germans to use fake names

shutterstock_244116676_Facebook and Messenger

If you want to use a pseudonym on Facebook, Germany is where you want to be. The Hamburg data protection authority, which regulates Facebook in Germany, has ruled the service can’t force Germans to use their real names.

Additionally, Facebook is prohibited from asking German citizens to provide an official ID.

The ruling spawned from an incident with a woman who had her Facebook account blocked for using a fake name. After blocking her, Facebook changed her name to reflect her real identity, and requested a copy of her ID to unlock the account.

The Hamburg data protection authority says the woman didn’t want to use a real name to avoid being bothered on social media for business purposes.

Oddly, Reuters reports that since Facebook’s European offices are in Ireland, the company argues Irish law should govern its service. The Hamburg data protection authority has obviously rejected that stance ad hoc, but don’t be surprised if Facebook challenges this one.

German regulator orders Facebook to allow pseudonyms [Reuters]

Read next: Facebook Moments not coming to Europe because of privacy concerns

AwareCar will tell you where you parked (and remind you to put change in the meter)

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There’s a lot you can learn from your car via in-dash dongles like Automatic, but if you’re more interested in interacting with your car, AwareCar may be for you. With an app and a Bluetooth beacon, you’ll get relevant, location-based info — all for $9.

The actual hardware is nothing more than a small Bluetooth beacon you slip in your car. The AwareCar team tells us those beacons will normally transmit at 20 meters or so, but the range can drop to 5 meters depending on where you stash it in your car (they recommend the glove box).

The goal is to do much of what a platform like Automatic does, except without the spendy hardware. The main attraction of AwareCar is that it tracks where you’ve parked, and can tell you how close you are to your car — even if you’re on a different level in a parking garage.

AwareCar also reminds you to pay for parking if you’re in a metered spot. Using data provided by cities (and GPS), AwareCar may know you’ve parked in a metered spot, and asks you to tell it how much time you’ve paid for. When your time is almost up, AwareCar reminds you so you can either leave or pay for additional parking.

In locations where metered parking spot data isn’t known, AwareCar tells me it plans to roll out a crowd-sourcing angle to get users reporting on metered spots. Later on, they’d like to make the info available via an API.

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The beacon also knows you’re approaching, and the app can be set to queue other apps using iOS’ Continuity feature. For instance, if you are a heavy Google Maps user, you’d find it as an icon on the bottom of your lock screen.

The Kickstarter campaign is asking for $15,000, and that’s just so the team can focus on building its software. Co-founders Dani and Drew say the hardware is ready to go.

AwareCar [Kickstarter]

Read next: Review: Automatic’s smart driving monitor adds context to your daily commute

Harpoon will help freelancers spear invoicing and time tracking in one handy service

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Freelancers all have the same underlying issues; tracking hours and billing clients. Often, the solution comes via a patchwork of disparate apps and services, but Harpoon is hoping to change all of that with a suite that includes financial planning, invoicing and hour tracking.

Harpoon lets its users track hours spent on projects, set financial goals, track revenue, and invoice clients.

When an invoice is sent via Harpoon, you’ll know when it was viewed. Information is extrapolated from data you enter (like time worked on the project) so you won’t even have to take time to manually create an invoice.

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Harpoon has also partnered with Stripe to handle billing, and each invoice includes a link to pay online. Harpoon tells us it doesn’t take a cut of your income for the feature; you only pay Stripe’s processing fees.

To help with juggling multiple projects, Harpoon has a built-in time tracker which also allows you to tag what aspect of a project you might be working on for better invoicing.

When it’s time to be introspective about how you’re doing, Harpoon has tools for internal monitoring as well. You can track your overall income and compare it to financial goals you’ve set — which lets you know if it’s time to take on more work.

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There’s also vacation tracking (seriously, freelancers, take time off) and the ability to see what you’re earning per-hour.

While today represents the launch of Harpoon, co-founder Ryan Battles says several hundred users have been testing it for months, giving mostly glowing reviews.

Pricing starts at $19 per month which gives you support for up to 15 clients. The $25 per month plan lets you track up to 25 clients, while the $49 per month plan lets you track an infinite amount of clients. All plans let you create unlimited projects and invoices.

Harpoon

Read next: The secrets to budgeting as a freelancer

VSCO updates its mobile apps with a new Collections feature for expanded image curation

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Visual Supply Company (VSCO), makers of digital film emulation presets and camera profiles, has debuted Collections, a new feature for its VSCO Cam apps on iOS and Android.

Collections allows mobile users, for the first time, to curate their VSCO profile with images from the community and interact with each other via the app.  

Curation has long been an essential part of VSCO’s mobile apps, but until now, it has been the sole province of the company’s staff within the apps’ Grid feature. But this highlights only a small portion of the content on the platform. The new Collection feature widens the scope of curation by letting users select the photos they admire. 

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“We take curation seriously,” Joel Flory, VSCO’s CEO and co-founder, told TNW. “It has been a key form of human inspiration and expression and is a key component of how VSCO goes about things. But it’s been something that’s been missing for the community at large to engage in. We are really excited to see how the community will ultimately respond to the ability to curate VSCO images to their profile.”

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With the update, which has been a long time in the making, VSCO’s Grid becomes the staff collection while the Collection becomes part of your personal profile.

Curating an image to a user Collection is a two-step process. First, you double-tap to save the image to the VSCO library. Then, you enter the library to actively publish the image to your Collection. All Collection images include original photographer attribution.

➤ VSCO Cam [iOS/Android]

Read next: Google’s 360-degree movies app is now available on iOS

Google now helps you dodge crowds at your favorite places so you can be the worst

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When you’re having a long, busy day, you’re often grasping for pockets of time to escape and do something right for you, like getting a quick coffee from the place by your work. But when you walk in at 3pm and you’re surrounded by 20 business suits who were all apparently pre-programmed to swarm the shop at the same time as you, it’s hard to not turn around and walk right out.

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Google Search understands that you hate people. So, in a blog post today, the company announced that it will now show you the busiest times of the week at millions of places on Google Search. Simply type in the name and location of the place you want to go, and Google will show you peak times at these places throughout the week.

So now you can avoid those business suits at the coffee shop. Or those meatheads at the gym. Or the sorority girls who crowd your favorite nail salon.

Google

Read Next: Google Now update lets you dictate messages to WhatsApp and Viber