October 15, 2012 @ 3:23 pm
Saturday I visited this ancient quarry where people were making stone tools at least 10,000 years ago, and maybe as much as 15,000 years ago, before the Bering Strait opened up to the Asian coast. That implies that any people here were Europeans, so if there were any interbreeding there would be genetic traces in the present Indian populations, though those traces would probably be very difficult to detect behind all the later interbreeding that happened after 1492 and Columbus and all that.
But that controversy is not my point today. Today I’m sitting here watching my son play Avengers Alliance on my wife’s Facebook account, using up the massive amount of virtual swag she’s accumulated just gifting back and forth with me, but never actually playing the game.
I wrote about the Skinnerific design of these games previously, about how the small but frequent and randomly spaced little rewards are THE most efficient way to motivate animals to keep doing something. The other word that people use to describe this situation is “addictive.” There’s a little hit of dopamine every time one of the villains drops a Pumpkin Bomb, or any other silly gizmo. Practically every video game works this way to some extent.
But why? What sense does that make in the real world? What is it in our evolutionary history that makes us so vulnerable to this kind of manipulation? I think Morrow Mountain gives us the clue. As a species, we spent over a million years wandering long distances, picking up food and tools. Those people didn't live on Morrow Mountain full time; it was only a regular stop on the tour. Our brains were selected to find this kind of hunting and gathering deeply satisfying on an emotional level, and nourishing on the more basic nutritional level. It’s the same reason we love to go out and shop, rather than simply having everything delivered. Even when we shop online for delivery, we’re usually searching for something rather than having components delivered and assembling it ourselves, the way a nest-building bird or wasp might do if they had economies.
I think our modern environment is a poor substitute on the hunter/gatherer emotional level. We were designed to wander around out in the vastness and beauty of nature, in what a neuroscientist would call an enriched environment – structured, but variable; in other words, interesting. We’re so hungry for that sort of input that we recreate it when our environments are too boring, as they currently are. Either we literally create artificial environments full of concentrated stimulation, or we do the tourist thing, visiting new environments that offer us nothing we need, except for novelty.
As a relevant aside, my wife got curious about Coursera and is taking a free online class in genetics and evolution from my old buddy Corbin’s friend Mohamed Noor at Duke. She posted the urls for the VSI Facebook page, and we’ve already got 3 new likes in the past few hours. I was totally not expecting that outcome, and being unexpected, it enhanced the dopamine jolt when I saw it to something much higher than it would have otherwise. Kind of like the Survival Bonus on Avengers Alliance, which multiplies the point total by the number of surviving team members.