I’ve been sucked in. It’s true. I have played an inordinate amount of Pokemon Go, although “play” seems like an exaggeration, since all that the playing involves is taking walks and swiping or tapping incessantly on my phone screen. Strategy? Pidgies: collect them, evolve them with a lucky egg when you’re ready to level up (but only in the 20+ levels). The game is gleefully simple (and relatively stupid): collect stuff, collect more stuff, and then collect even more stuff. The player is “rewarded” with greater strength and ability as he or she “levels up,” but let’s be honest: the stuff and the rewards are imaginary; the only thing real is the time one spends playing. So, why do we play?I explained the old rat-reward experiment to my daughter while we watched people paw at their screens. B.F. Skinner showed in an experiment with rats that variable interval reinforcement leads to a higher rate of response than constant rate of reinforcement, and that both were significantly more effective than punishment (which, it turns out, swiftly ends the impulse to work—or play). Well that’s a lot of mumbo jumbo. Here’s the skinny: rats work (or play, for the purposes of game play) harder when rewarded; they get turned off by punishment; and they work hardest and longest when the rewards come consistently but unpredictably. Surely, rat brains and human brains are different, but just try to run such an experiment on people. Wait, let’s track all those Pokemon Go players and see what that tells us about how they play.
Short story long, we are built to be frustrated. The brain likes rewards (and hates punishments), but only so often—too many and it gets bored. Of course our complicated brains find connections and correlations around causes and consequences. So, it’s not a surprise when my brain gets caught up in figuring out if I received that reward for bringing my girlfriend flowers, finishing my annual report, or catching a wild Gyarados, and that’s just if I got a reward for doing something in the first place. My rat brain tells me: just keep working and something will come.
The cool thing about being human (and not a rat pressing a bar in a cage) is that the rewards come in all shapes and sizes—M&Ms, Mazda Miatas, sailing ships in bottles, shoes. We can turn those cash/work rewards into whatever we like. And I will not overlook the reward of the view out my office window, or the company I keep at work, or at home. The world seems designed to reward us—all these surprises. The Clash sings, “I fought the law!” That’s right brothers!
I do believe–and when I started writing this last week (before I reminded myself of all the rewards that I have strewn before me, like a reverse trail of breadcrumbs into the future) I believed it a little more—that games like Pokemon Go offer a fairly consistent diet of rewards, and that in spite of their frustrations (and because of them too), they are bright little respites from the “thousand shocks that flesh is heir to.” If we lead, as Thoreau asserts, “lives of quiet desperation,” we lead them because too often we think that our human brains need punishments to convince and cajole them into agreement or good behavior or harder work. We beat ourselves and each other like mules bound to work until they stop. We preach about “tough love” and manly determination as values that have meaningful positive consequences. My rat brain says, “I’m done.” My human brain says, “No thank you. I’m off to play.”