For the last decade or so, I have been a loud proponent of a simple guiding principle when it comes to the market of digital goods:
Do not allow folks to infinitely repeat a singular transaction, but instead install a hard cap, preferably at one (1). Endless repeat purchases of any given product should not be possible.
We have applied the same principle to those who wish to buy alcohol at a bar: bartenders will refuse to keep serving drunk patrons.
This principle does not apply to digital stores and many digital stores will gladly sell infinite amounts of digital tokens which obfuscate the real money value of the items you can purchase with said digital tokens.
Here’s a recent example: a skin in the recently updated Overwatch 2 can easily cost X amount tokens, or… a real life amount of 20 (!) euros. For a single skin. I refuse to play Overwatch 2 for this reason.1
Here’s the kicker: that’s on PC and on console. Mobile games are much, much worse.
If we allow certain systems to exist and abuse our feedback-reward systems, we are going to end up being a slave to them.
The one that truly concerns me is what is commonly referred to as “the algorithm”, which is some system that causes certain content to be recommended and spread across any given platform.
How this system recommends video content influences real people on a global scale in a way that the companies themselves don’t entirely understand.2
I’m talking about platforms like YouTube and TikTok, which are currently the largest, most widely used platforms in the world at the time of writing. These systems seem to primarily focus on engagement. Similar engagement-driven systems are also present on other platforms.
If continued and constant perusal of the service in question is the goal, we will not optimize for quality of life. This may shape a population that overindulges and loses sight of what they really should be doing, instead preferring the hits of (unnatural, manufactured) dopamine rushes that have become the new normal.
In fact, a mix of outrage and a good positive dopamine hit is actually a great way to spark continued engagement: the dopamine hits generate watch time, and the outrage generates more (user-generated) content in the form of comments and more videos.
I’m not particularly concerned that folks can get addicted. Folks can get addicted to many things! It’s the fact that these services are not being used with moderation (i.e. “endlessly”) is the thing that worries me greatly, in addition to how these platforms are managed (who takes responsibility?).
Since most incentives for the builders of the product are money-driven, there is no need to take the good of humanity into account, sadly: I don’t see this changing anytime soon unless we impose a legal requirement.
To be clear: I’m not saying that YouTube or TikTok are bad for our children, like some older folks used to say about video games or even radio back in the day.
I’m saying that the new systems we’ve built to filter, organize and spread content (which is simply beyond abundant at this point) must be examined and carefully managed. To what degree that is even possible at this point, I do not know.
It may very well be too late.
This may turn out to be a non-issue (especially in the grand scheme of things, considering we have other future worries like climate change), but I fear that our younger generations will suffer from mistakes we’ve made in this particular field.
Making things endlessly repeatable is dangerous. As humans we are bad at moderation, especially if dopamine is involved: frequent dopamine hits train our bodies that a certain behaviour is desirable.
Whether it is confusing digital currency that can be endlessly purchased, content that can be endlessly scrolled through on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, or even more modern (social media) video platforms like YouTube and TikTok that are turning short-form content into an endless swipefest… my concern remains the same.
The best thing you can do for yourself today is evaluate two things:
- What (enticing) endless habit that does not bring (m)any long-term benefits should I end today?
- What (perhaps boring, but good) habit can I start today that will bring long-term benefits?
These two can be combined. Kill a bad habit and replace it with a consistent but boring one that will allow you to grow in the future. I promise you your life won’t be the same one year from now.
Previously, the developers and publisher behind Overwatch had opted for a lootbox-driven system, which also kept folks engaged in a particular loop, but it was less egregious than the one that is currently in place. ↩