The Skinner Box

In B. F. Skinner’s famous experiment in operant conditioning, a lab rat is placed inside a container and rewarded with a food pellet on completion of a task, triggered by an external stimulus such as a light, a sound or a shock. The pattern of reward becomes increasingly inconsistent, following a ‘schedule of reinforcement’ controlled by the experimenter.

Skinner Box (Operant Conditioning Chamber)

From Wikipedia:

Skinner’s operant chamber allowed him to explore the rate of response as a dependent variable, as well as develop his theory of schedules of reinforcement. If the event increased the number of responses it is said to strengthen its responding and if it decreased the number of responses it weakens the responding.

In short: a Skinner Box allows one to observe habits being formed, through control of the conditions surrounding a subject and their reward.

The lessons learned span far beyond Psychology: Education; Behavioural Economics; Interpersonal Communication and even Video Gaming have each benefit from an understanding of operant conditioning, so it is no surprise to see advertisers capitalising on our easily pliable behaviours.

One such experimenter, a brand of flavoured rice cake, posed the research question “how far will you go for Fantastic Delites” – their conditions, a large scale Skinner Box and the baying masses of an Australian shopping mall.

The results are equal parts twisted, fascinating and funny:

The evidence suggests human subjects will endure an embarrassingly strict schedule of reinforcement, especially in a public scenario.

At last year’s TEDxObserver Cory Doctorow gave a talk comparing the machinations of Facebook to operant conditioning of a more dangerous kind… and I can’t help but feel he has a point.

We will go pretty far for free rice cakes – but would we go further knowing we were in a Skinner Box?

Conclusion

I set out to assess the implications of a wholly new medium, one which had received little academic attention written from a media theoretical perspective. I made clear use of an industry connection to gain inside knowledge of the developments occurring to bring this medium to the mainstream. Building a methodology that could sustain the level of analysis that I hoped to achieve, I observed the interactions between technology and industry, market forces and cultural influences. Having positioned my subject at the crest of a curling wave, I employed critical media theory to explore the potential implications of my subject in its wider context of social reality. This ambitious task has granted me insight into how the complex interactions of various fields give rise to social change. Along the way I have revealed seams rich in potential for further analysis.

McLuhan is proven to apply to yet another medium, the perspective he offers served my analysis quite well. A further exploration might make use of his Acoustic and Visual Space probe, Cavell’s basis for McLuhanistic spatial enquiry in his book McLuhan in Space (2002) would be a good starting point for such work, since it applies McLuhanism to the media of time and space, thus a good start for work on the presence of virtual objects. Media analysts occupied with screen design might wish to extend Bolter and Grusin’s (1999) work on remediation to the emergent Mobile AR technology, perhaps from an explicit digital gaming perspective. Those with interest in advertising or business as applied to Augmented Reality would do well to continue Benjaminian thought to its logical end: manipulating a virtual object to hold added-value for commercial enterprise. Those with a more creative bent might enjoy a study of the public perception of AR artworks using Benjamin also. There is scope for research into AR-based social interactions; gaming styles; immersion and identity formation, but this sort of work necessitates that first Mobile AR spends at least some time in public consciousness.

Finally, I believe that I have convincingly laid out an argument showing that AR is currently being developed and packaged as an entertainment technology, but its potential for community-driven, self-proliferating excitement of user-created content makes AR a significant and culturally-transformative technology. Convergence between media types will enable and drive the creation of innovative content which if successful will itself rely on new ways of accessing and viewing content and ultimately new forms of content and user experience entirely. We are at the crest of a wave. Will it wither and let a larger wave pass above it, or will it grow to reach tidal proportions? Despite my predictions, only time will tell.

Deconstructing AR

The next four entries in my series on AR will assess it’s potential socio-cultural impact, which has now started to begin.

We have now reached a depth of analysis that has taken in the historical, economic and technologic paths leading to Mobile AR, but there are greater depths to plunge. From this vantage point, the question arises: how will the user experience this new medium? This section assesses the implications of Mobile AR from a critical and media theoretical perspective, and offers the other half of my close analysis.

There are very few published articles on the subject of AR, let alone Mobile AR, and fewer still that offer a media theory perspective on user-interactions in augmented environments. There are a clutch of articles that refer to such an area, but like my own analysis, these academics have resorted to applying old frameworks to a new medium, with McLuhan, Baudrillard and Benjamin seeming the most applicable theorists. My own thoughts on Mobile AR resonate with these thinkers yet no such analysis has involved all three epistemologies, so I must tread carefully…

Constructing A Methodology

Mobile AR is still highly prototypical, and has not received much previous academic attention thus far. A deep analysis of this technology and its implications requires a specially developed methodology, a methodology which acknowledges the pre-release status of the technology, and recognises that Mobile AR represents a fusion of a number of different media technologies. Given that there is no fixed point of entry for analysis, I look to academics writing on the subject of other radical and emergent technologies that (at the time of publishing) were yet to reach the mainstream.

At this early stage of the product cycle there is an interesting interplay between fields. This interplay is assessed in Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing by Kline et al. (2003), and it raises some arguments useful to the further analysis of Mobile AR as a cultural artefact. One of its lessons is that assessing new technologies is fraught with a long-standing academic and cultural issue: the problem of technological determinism. The theory is that new technologies drive social, political and cultural changes, and that the perceived linearity of technical progression is somehow representative of humanity’s own progression, parallel trajectories dependent on the other’s existence. The weaknesses arise when one assigns these same values to their own assessments, which isolate the subject technology from its wider context. Indeed, it is often forgotten that in order to achieve these innovations, social, economic, political and cultural forces have all worked in collusion. Digital Play (Kline et al., 2003), quotes Leiss (1990) in an especially provoking summarisation:

“Strictly speaking, there are no imperatives in technology. The chief mistake … is to isolate one aspect (technology) of a dense network of social interactions, to consider it in abstraction from all the rest, and then relate it back to that network as an allegedly independent actor.”

Leiss (1990: 2) in Kline et al. (2003:8)

Leiss’ point is that academic enquiry should seek to observe its subjects in the light of their true context. He highlights the importance of the “network” as the source of each technology, denying the idea that modern culture is ‘Under Technology’s Thumb’ (Leiss, 1990). A personal observation is that within the “network” also lie the forerunning technologies that gave rise to the newest developments, and the means to develop them further. This idea recalls McLuhan, who to the detriment of Leiss’ argument, was sometimes known as “the most famous media technological determinist” (Straubhaar & LaRose, 2005: 51) who, in reference to man’s “perpetually … modifying his technology” McLuhan (1964: 46) states that “man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms”. He hereby suggests a hidden complexity to human-technologic interactions, a complexity I return to later in this work. For now though, these thinkers’ opposing perspectives make a further analysis rather difficult. I recognise McLuhan’s view that there are forces at work within the “network” that need to be addressed, but accept Leiss’ view that I should view the web of interactions as a whole, in order that technological determinism cannot skew my findings. I must reconcile these perspectives in my own approach. Seeking to refrain from any dangerously deterministic hyperbole, I continue the assessment of Mobile AR as an emergent and potentially “network” enhancing new medium, but from which determinist-proof methodology?

Digital Play, though referring mainly to the digital games industry, looks into the complex dynamics between developer, distributor, market and economy. Its critical evaluation of this medium adopts a methodology that suits my own AR enquiries:

“The story of the emergence of interactive play and of its uncertain crisis-filled transformation into one of the premier industries of digital globalized capital is both exciting and revelatory. Historical perspective is vital to critical understanding. We strongly agree with Williams that it is impossible to diagnose the cultural impact of a new medium until the specific institutional circumstances of its development are understood. Moreover, critical media analysis requires historical perspective in order to argue against the deterministic view that technology “is a self-acting force which creates new ways of life [Williams, 1992: 8]”.

Kline et al. (2003:79)

Now, since Mobile AR is such a new and radical technology, it is best considered in terms of other, previously radical technologies and their own timely impact. This approach recognises the emergent nature of Mobile AR technology and the lack of current research in the field, but also allows the opportunity to reflect on the implications of this technology in a relatively safe way: that is, through the lessons learned from full-fledged media. I propose that a useful lens through which to view Mobile AR is offered by an historical analysis of Mobile AR’s better established component media, with a view to producing an understanding of the implications AR holds for society. This approach allows AR to be considered as a product of a convergence of paths: technologic, academic, social and economic, providing the basis for deeper analysis as a consequence.

Introduction

Augmented Reality (AR) is a theme of computer research which deals with a combination of real world and computer generated data. AR is just one version of a Mixed Reality (MR) technology, where digital and real elements are mixed to create meaning. In essence AR is any live image that has an overlay of information that augments the meaning of these images.

Digital graphics are commonly put to work in the entertainment industry, and ‘mixing realities’ is a common motif for many of today’s media forms. There are varying degrees to which The Real and The Virtual can be combined. This is illustrated in my Mixed Reality Scale:

mixed-reality-scale
My Mixed Reality Scale, a simplified version of Milgram & Kishino’s (1994) Virtuality Continuum

This is a simplified version of Milgram and Kishino’s (1994) Virtuality Continuum; simplified, because their research is purely scientific, without an explicit interest in media theory or effects, therefore not wholly applicable to my analysis. At the far left of my Mixed Reality Scale lies The Real, or physical, every-day experiential reality. For the longest time we lived solely in this realm. Then, technological innovation gave rise to the cinema, and then television. These media are located one step removed from The Real, a step closer to The Virtual, and can be considered a window on another world. This world is visually similar to our own, a fact exploited by its author to narrate believable, somewhat immersive stories. If willing, the viewer is somewhat ‘removed’ from their grounding here in physical reality, allowing them to participate in the construction of a sculpted, yet static existence. The viewer can only observe this contained reality, and cannot interact with it, a function of the viewing apparatus.

Later advancements in screen media technologies allowed the superimposition of graphical information over moving images. These were the beginnings of AR, whereby most of what is seen is real with some digital elements supplementing the image. Indeed, this simple form of AR is still in wide use today, notably in cases where extra information is required to make sense of a subject. In the case of certain televised sports, for example, a clock and a scoreboard overlay a live football match, which provides additional information that is useful to the viewer. Television viewers are already accustomed to using information that is displayed in this way:

Simple Augmented Reality, televised football matches augment meaning with digital graphics
Simple Augmented Reality, televised football matches augment meaning with digital graphics

More recently, computing and graphical power gave designers the tools to build wholly virtual environments. The Virtual is a graphical representation of raw data, and the furthest removed from physical reality on my Mixed Reality Scale. Here lies the domain of Virtual Reality (VR), a technology that uses no real elements except for the user’s human senses. The user is submersed in a seemingly separate reality, where visual, acoustic and sometimes haptic feedback serve to transpose them into this artificial, yet highly immersive space. Notice the shift from viewer to user: this is a function of the interactivity offered by digital space. VR was the forerunner to current AR research, and remains an active realm of academic study.

Computer graphics also enhanced the possibilities offered by television and cinema, forging a new point on the Mixed Reality Scale. I refer to the Augmented Virtuality (AV) approach, which uses mainly digital graphics with some real elements superimposed. For example, a newsreader reporting from a virtual studio environment is one common application. I position AV one step closer towards The Virtual to reflect the ratio of real to virtual elements:

An Augmented Virtuality, the ITV newscasters sit at a real table in a virtual studio
An Augmented Virtuality, the ITV newscasters sit at a real table in a virtual studio

There is an expansive realm between AV and VR technologies, media which offer the user wholly virtual constructions that hold potential for immersion and interactivity. I refer to the media of video games and desktop computers. Here the user manipulates visually depicted information for a purpose. These media are diametrically opposed to their counterpart on my scale, the cinema and television, because they are windows this time into a virtual world, actively encouraging (rather than denying) user interactivity to perform their function. Though operating in virtuality, the user remains grounded in The Real due to apparatus constraints.

Now, further technological advancements allow the fusion of real and virtual elements in ways not previously possible. Having traversed our way from The Real to The Virtual, we have now begun to make our way back. We are making a return to Augmented Reality, taking with us the knowledge to manipulate wholly virtual 3D objects and the computing power to integrate digital information into live, real world imagery. AR is deservedly close to The Real on my scale, because it requires physicality to function. This exciting new medium has the potential to change the way we perceive our world, forging a closer integration between our two binary worlds. It is this potential as an exciting and entirely new medium that has driven me to carry out the following work.

To begin, I address the science behind AR and its current applications. Next, I exploit an industry connection to inform a discussion of AR’s development as an entertainment medium. Then, I construct a methodology for analysis from previous academic thought on emergent technologies, whilst addressing the problems of doing so. I use this methodology to locate AR in its wider technologic, academic, social and economic context. This discussion opens ground for a deeper analysis of AR’s potential socio-cultural impact, which makes use of theories of media and communication and spatial enquiry. I conclude with a final critique that holds implications for the further analysis of Mixed Reality technology.

Addictive Interactions

Can Digital Games Create A Dependency?

Late in 2001, 21 year old Shawn Woolley shot himself to death in his apartment. He was an EverQuest addict, clocking up to twelve hours a day inside the game’s expansive online world. Shawn had epilepsy, and would often have seizures directly linked to the time spent staring at his brightly-lit computer screen, yet he would continue to play. He quit his job and he would ignore his family just to advance his character in the never-ending game.

An article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that “A psychologist diagnosed [Shawn] with depression and schizoid personality disorder, symptoms of which include a lack of desire for social relationships, little or no sex drive and a limited range of emotions in social settings.” However, these problems matter very little in a virtual world, a fact that inevitably caused Shawn to take shelter within its walls. He created a character that allowed him respite, causing his psychological issues to disintegrate each time he entered this ultimate escapist universe.

Shawn’s mother is now attempting to sue the game’s developers, claiming that Sony is directly responsible for his clinical addiction and eventual suicide. It is unknown as to the true reasons Shawn took his own life, however his mother suspects that a within-game event caused his breakdown:

“Elizabeth Woolley remembers when her son was betrayed by an EverQuest associate he had been adventuring with for six months. Shawn’s online brother-in-arms stole all the money from his character and refused to give it back. “He was so upset, he was in tears,” she said. “He was so depressed, and I was trying to say, ‘Shawn, it’s only a game.’ I said he couldn’t trust those people””

(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online, March 31st 2002)

But of course for Shawn it wasn’t only a game, it was his raison d’être. He devoted his life to play, and was in a state of immersion as deep as anyone might ever hope to achieve. Shawn was not the only one to have experienced such dependency on the online game, in fact EverQuest is referred to by certain of it’s 450,000 plus users as NeverRest or EverCrack, in reference to it’s perhaps inherently addictive qualities.

So how can a game be addictive? Digital gaming cannot be physiologically addictive in the way that opiates, caffeine or nicotine can be, because there is not a direct physical link to the gamer’s neurology. Although physical dependency to gaming cannot by its nature occur, games cannot claim to be entirely safe either:

“Psychological addictions are a dependency of the mind, and lead to psychological withdrawal symptoms. Addictions can theoretically form for any rewarding behaviour, or as a habitual means to avoid undesired activity, but typically they only do so to a clinical level in individuals who have emotional, social, or psychological dysfunctions, taking the place of normal positive stimuli not otherwise attained.”

(‘Addiction’, Wikipedia, 10 December 2005)

It is highly likely, then, that Shawn was indeed psychologically dependent on the game. But is his mother right to prosecute, given Shawn’s neurological issues? It is important to remember that although it is never the intention of a game developer to create an addicting piece of software, there is certainly the need to create a game that rewards repeat plays. This ensures that the game will be a commercial success. In the case of monthly subscription games like EverQuest it is commercially sensible that gamers remain interested for several months and pay as such. There is a great emphasis on hooking new players and keeping current players captivated. This is done by adding new and exciting content, allowing for alliances and clans to develop, and to design a never-ending game. Gamers can of course choose to exit play, but why should they when the game experience promises to get even better? A game’s success is based on how fun it is to play, not how addicting it is. The two are simply quite hard to distinguish.

There is a fundamental difference between gamers that are addicts and gamers that are just highly engaged.

The immense majority of gamers will not develop psychological addiction to digital play, but are certainly likely to experience a milder form of compulsion that keeps them playing. This is not because games are addictive, but because games can be incredibly fun. It is very hard, then, to distinguish between those that are highly engaged with a game: that is to say they are immersed; in the flow; and experiencing a reward-based benefit from continued play, and those that are psychologically addicted to a game: that is to say they are not just immersed but entrenched, not just in the flow but fully empathetic to their avatar; and whose greatest benefit of play is the gratification of their psychological dependency for yet more play.

So what happened to Shawn to get him in this state? Of course his schizophrenia played a large part in blurring the boundaries between his reality and his virtual world, but is that to say the casual gamer might never become so dangerously immersed? Could the magic circle ever wholly absorb a person? DeKoven (2002, p. 33) gives an account of Huizinga’s (1970) magic circle:

“[A] device to which we have access in order to keep the game going is the boundary that separates the game from everything else around it. Because there are boundaries, there are ways to get out of the game when you have to. Play is a voluntary act. You can’t play if you aren’t willing to. You can’t play if you feel you are obliged to. No game or toy can guarantee that it can make people play. You gotta be in the mood.”

Of course, for those that are addicted to gameplay, they are always in the mood. But then they aren’t really playing in the Huizinga sense. Gameplay must be voluntary, so for those that are playing purely to satisfy a compulsion are not really playing. Try telling that to the legions of EverCrack junkies. What are they really doing, if not playing? Salen and Zimmerman (2004, page 452) offer an account of Bolter and Grusin’s (1999) remediation theory that may help us understand the true mind state of the immersed player:

“Media operate according to a double logic. On one hand, media participate in… immediacy, the ability to authentically reproduce the world and create an alternative reality. At the same time, media also remind their audiences that they are constructed and artificial, a characteristic that Bolter and Grusin call hypermediacy… All media combine these two processes into what they term remediation, an experience of media in which immediacy and hypermediacy co-exist”

So the immersed player experiences the game in a state of remediation: aware that they are playing, yet suitably attached to a game not to disrupt the magic circle. These EverCrack junkies know they are playing, because they experience hypermediacy. An addicted player might experience a game purely as immediacy, where his life within the game unfolds as his reality. If this were true, then a game can never be accused of forcing an addiction, rather the onus is on the player to continually perceive gameplay in remediation. Players like Shawn that have trouble distinguishing truth from fiction are therefore more prone to psychological addiction. It can be suggested that the boundaries between reality and the game world suddenly dissolve when both the gamer’s propensity for addiction and the amount of gratification meet midway. That is not to say developers should hold back on making their games less rewarding, or better than reality, but perhaps that games should have better warnings for those who are less conscious of themselves as players.

Game ‘addiction’ is a relatively new thing. Before the invention of the home computer, and later the console, there really wasn’t much to be done on one’s own. Before interactivity there was just ‘activity’: reading; watching television or films; one-way communication with an entertainment medium. Then came the technology that changed ‘alone-time’ forever, in the process giving those anti-social types an excuse not to go outside and play with the other boys. The hardcore gamer was born, and with them new worries of digital addiction and stories of mind-numbing, brain-washing and the dumbing-down of the youth generation. Hardcore players are more likely to report their full engagement with a game, sometimes to the point of their realities shifting and their emotional drives realigning to the needs of their virtual representatives within a game.

What we see in the behaviours of hardcore gamers is not addiction, but engagement. Digital games are not addictive, although players may show characteristics of a dependency on them. Games are built around one core concept: ‘What would be fun for the player?’ As games get better and more realistic, it becomes easier to forget that we are really playing at all. The magic circle must be reinforced if it stands a chance of surviving intact against the next generation of ultra-immersive games. Gamers can only be protected from psychological addiction to these games if the notion that they are ‘just playing’ is constantly reinforced. A player’s double-consciousness should actually make play more fun, because the magic circle can remain unbroken. Developers would do well to remember that games are supposed to be fun, and the easier they make it to retain a lusory attitude, the more people will realise games are a safe medium after all. Developers are dependent on a good reception, and if they play things right, there won’t be any more blood on the keyboard.

1593 words

Bibliography

Bolter, Jay David and Grusin, Richard (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

DeKoven, Bernie (2002). The Well-Played Game: A Playful Path to Wholeness. 3rd edn. Lincoln, NE: Writers Club. Retrieved 11th November 2005 from http://www.deepfun.com/WPG.pdf

Huizinga, Johan (1970). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. London: Temple Smith

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online (March 31st 2002). “Death of a Game Addict” Retrieved 13/12/05 from http://www.jsonline.com/news

Salen, Katie and Zimmerman, Eric (2004). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: MIT

Wikipedia (December 10th 2005) “Addiction” Retrieved 13/12/05, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Addiction

Further Reading
Poole, Steven (2000). Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution. New York: Arcade

Sutton-Smith, Brian (2001). The Ambiguity of Play. Boston: Harvard University Press