Moral cheating, part 1: Breaking the Compulsion Loop

Devel­op­ers of video games or gam­i­fied sys­tems use com­pul­sion loops to oblige con­tin­ued use of their prod­uct. A com­pul­sion loop is a iter­a­tive process that instills in you a new habit. Con­ve­nient­ly, your new habit nor­mal­ly makes mon­ey for some­one else.

Com­pul­sion loops cre­ate the illu­sion of val­ue, as South Park stat­ed bril­liant­ly in S18E6Freemi­um isn’t Free.

If you must exploit human psy­chol­o­gy to keep users, then your prod­uct lacks intrin­sic val­ue. If it weren’t for com­pul­sion loops, some­one should still find rea­son to stay with you.

But we live with com­pul­sion loops, and those prone to addic­tion arguably suf­fer the most. Addicts end up stuck in com­pul­sion loops on a down­ward spi­ral for the next dopamine hit. Take Runescape, a MMORPG by Jagex Ltd. designed to keep you play­ing regard­less of your mood or health. I don’t even need to men­tion World of War­craft. I’ve played both games and had fun, but not because the games were fun in them­selves. Because the games had no intrin­sic val­ue, I had to rely on friends and the antic­i­pa­tion com­pul­sion loops offer to tol­er­ate the grind.

This is not to say com­pul­sion loops are bad, just that they are pow­er­ful. We can only hope to get stuck to com­pul­sion loops that make us want to diet, exer­cise and keep the house clean. Unfor­tu­nate­ly busi­ness­es are excel­lent at pro­gram­ming your habits to suit them before you set your­self up for suc­cess. Neale Mar­tin, author of Habit: The 95% of Behav­ior Mar­keters Ignore, helps busi­ness­es shape their own cus­tomers in this way.

I am a staunch oppo­nent of bad com­pul­sion loops. This is not to be tak­en as an active and hyp­o­crit­i­cal push to make peo­ple behave dif­fer­ent­ly. Rather, I would hope to guide peo­ple out of com­pul­sion loops them­selves if they want out but are strug­gling to leave.

If you know­ing­ly choose to stay in a loop and main­tain the cost, more pow­er to you. My favorite self-pro­claimed alco­holic come­di­an Doug Stan­hope has more to say on that sub­ject.

Stan­hope says (like­ly in jest) that addic­tion doesn’t exist. Even if that were true, the pur­pose of this arti­cle series is to break an addict’s spi­ral and com­pul­sion loop so they can find more con­trol and enjoy­ment that ben­e­fits them more.

For con­ve­nience I will refer to both gam­i­fied sys­tems and video games as “activ­i­ties,” because we should talk about when it’s okay to cheat them both.

But why cheat? It’s not the only way to fight addic­tion. You have cold turkey and habit sub­sti­tu­tion, so why pick this more con­tro­ver­sial approach?

We need the rewards from cheat­ing to cheap­en the val­ue of our own work. If you were banned from a game for cheat­ing or sim­ply went cold turkey, you still have antic­i­pa­tion for reward, which is one of the dri­vers keep­ing you in a com­pul­sion loop.

In my expe­ri­ence hav­ing spent more time and mon­ey than I want to admit addict­ed to games, cheat­ing breaks a com­pul­sion loop so emphat­i­cal­ly that you feel no antic­i­pa­tion, pur­pose or dri­ve to con­tin­ue. When you run iddqd in DOOM or max out all of your stats after run­ning a bot, you start your last joyride. With noth­ing left to antic­i­pate, cheat­ing means ruin­ing the game for your­self. You won’t play it again for a long time after the nov­el­ty of god-teir game­play runs off.

The Compulsion Loop has its own darkness

This is why cheat­ing ruins games for the play­er on an indi­vid­ual lev­el. Now, if pulling the lever in the Skin­ner box for a food pel­let takes more away from you than the pel­let can ever give back, then cheat­ing is an under­rat­ed detox pro­gram that breaks a down­ward spi­ral. Cheat­ing becomes the right thing to do. You WANT to ruin the activ­i­ty for your­self before the activ­i­ty ruins you.

Even if you enjoy some addict­ing activ­i­ties and wish to keep doing them, you should learn how to cheat as a way to con­trol your habits and the influ­ence that com­pul­sion loops have on you. If some­thing changes in your life and the habit starts to take its toll, you need that out.

I can’t cure addic­tion, but when pos­si­ble I can teach addicts to cheat as a means to regain lost con­trol. Next in the series we will dis­cuss GUI automa­tion with Sikuli to cheat our way to fake points on Khan Acad­e­my, a gamei­fied edu­ca­tion plat­form. Our goal will be to break the com­pul­sion loop in Khan Acad­e­my so that only the peo­ple who val­ue edu­ca­tion for it’s own sake will con­sume its con­tent.

Addendum: What about the other players?

Cheat­ing in games that involve mon­ey and com­pe­ti­tion rais­es one sim­ple ques­tion: Is it ever right to cheat if one play­er can gain an advan­tage over oth­ers that play legit­i­mate­ly?

It’s nev­er right. That’s an easy answer because this ques­tion assumes a cheater is com­pet­ing. There’s a dif­fer­ence between using a mem­o­ry edi­tor to win addic­tive sin­gle-play­er games and using a bot to win a Rock­et League sea­son.

Cheat­ing in com­pet­i­tive envi­ron­ments must stop imme­di­ate­ly because the reward for the obvi­ous cheat­ing harms oth­ers. Oth­er­wise, cheat­ing sab­o­tages addic­tive activ­i­ties, which is a good thing.

Morals become grey for me when cheat­ing hurts only the activity’s own­ing busi­ness. Mobile freemi­um games or MMOs might cre­ate a per­fect storm where busi­ness­es wins at the expense of addicts.

Design­ers should allow play­ers to cheat so long as the cheats don’t affect com­pe­ti­tion. Revert­ing a char­ac­ter to a point before they start­ed cheat­ing is a good approach. This gives seri­ous play­ers an incen­tive to grind and train legit­i­mate­ly, and gives addicts an out.

Games like Runescape won’t allow this because real-world cur­ren­cy is tied an in-game mar­ket. Any cheat­ing would vapor­ize their busi­ness and reduce the game to blind rage and lia­bil­i­ty issues. If Jagex could cap­i­tal­ize only on the com­pet­i­tive nature of the game, maybe they wouldn’t be in this mess.

Despite the harm it would do to Bliz­zard, Jagex, etc., cheat­ing their games frees addicts. Addicts can­not make lucid or informed con­sent. Busi­ness­es should not take mon­ey from addicts because those trans­ac­tions aren’t legit­i­mate.

Giv­ing addicts an out so that they can invest more in them­selves is the moti­va­tion behind this series. That, and encour­ag­ing for intrin­sic val­ue in prod­ucts once again.

One Reply to “Moral cheating, part 1: Breaking the Compulsion Loop”

  1. Pingback: Moral cheating, part 2: GUI automation on Khan Academy • Sage Gerard

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