The Lucid Truth of Ludic Loops

Warren Buckleitner
May 23, 2018 · 7 min read

Chef: Natasha Dow Schüll; Ingredient: Ludic Loops

By: Matilda Zhang

[NOTE: I am posting this on behalf of Matilda Zhang. W. Buckleitner]

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Everyone’s been there. There’s a unique feeling of being trapped without being trapped, of being intensely focused without focusing on anything in particular at all. It’s a phenomenon that pervades us without our realizing, and it eats away at our lives without our even realizing it. It’s not quite addiction, though it shares many similarities with that state of mind. It’s a unique kind of hypnotism that occurs when we’re hooked into doing something that has no real reward, and the feeling of being trapped in that state of empty limbo becomes the reward in and of itself. This hidden power is what spurred a cultural anthropologist by the name of Natasha Dow Schüll to travel to Las Vegas — the gambling capital of the world — and observe victims of this phenomena for a decade before returning to publish her findings on a state of being she coined the “ludic loop”.

About Dr. Dow Schüll

Natasha Dow Schüll is a Cultural Anthropologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University.

Ms. Dow Schüll is known best for her research regarding the addictive power of electronic slot machines and how their very design facilitates and encourages the compulsive behavior of gamblers. She fostered a strong interest in the relationship between technology and the influence of culture in the human experience, resolving to discover what precisely made gambling a nigh-perfect means of escapism. Through nothing but a simple digital interface, these machines exploit their users’ desire for an escapist environment and a systematic isolation to cajole them into spending countless hours on an activity that ultimately has little possibility of paying them back.

She eventually boiled down the entire mechanical process of the gambler’s psyche to a key element of the mental process which she coined the “ludic loop”. The term is derived from the Roman word “ludus”, which refers to the semantic field of play, and that’s precisely the medium where the term is most often found and used.

Ludic What Now?

Ludic loops are powerful and mysterious things: by definition, the very concept doesn’t make sense. How could an activity exist where the reward for a cost is the cost itself? How can an activity exist where there is a certainty of attendance and participation purely through the power of fruitless immersion?

In her book, “Addiction by Design”, she cites the experiences of a woman she found sitting at a gambling booth who laughed when she was asked if she was going to win. The woman recounts her early experiences in gambling, where she played for the possibility of winning big — but over time, the allure of gambling, the feeling of there being nothing but herself and the bright flashy machine in the world, became the primary motivator. It didn’t matter to her that her cold hard cash was disappearing with each press of a button or pull of a lever; the very sensation of doing so was the payoff.

Why Not Welcome Our Machine Overlords?

The issue with allowing our devices and digital outlets to dominate our world is not the medium through which this influence is imposed; that is to say, the issue is not necessarily the electronics themselves. After all, as humans become ever more reliant on technology to maintain order and efficiency in our lives and to facilitate the sharing of information and communication, it is impossible to expect smooth integration into society for individuals that cast away technology altogether. The issue with this growing dependency on technology is its subtle — but nevertheless significant — alterations in the way people acquire knowledge and develop interactions with their world.

It is observed in the field of epistemology that there are a variety of unique ways to acquire knowledge: the first way is through perception, or what information is relayed to our brains through our five senses. A second way is through inference and our own innate ability to draw associations and conclusions — to take pieces of existing knowledge and combining them to reach new revelations. The third way is through revelations via a system of sensations and subsequent beliefs — namely pain, pleasure, and emotional resonance (typically done through spiritual influence or religion). The final way is through testimony and the word of other venues of knowledge, whether through the word of our peers, our authoritative figures, or through the media.

What makes the world of digital ludic loops a dangerous one is that constant engagement with the outside world solely through a news feed or a separate party eventually dulls our own abilities of perception and analysis. If everything we learn and everything we think is fed to us, and none of our own thoughts are truly of our own creation, we will eventually forget how to think.

Chilling thought, isn’t it?

But ludic loops exist everywhere.

Come to the Dark Side, we have Candy

In a 1996 interview, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — the psychologist who first proposed the concept of “flow” — described ludic loops as the “dark side of flow”. Flow operates by setting a goal and having player experience simultaneous feelings of control and challenge in trying to reach that goal. It’s the same feeling of resolution that drives ludic loops, but without any meaning or mastery. As a result, once the initial happy feeling fades, gamblers don’t experience the self-fulfillment and feeling of achievement people experience in flow — they are instead left deflated and empty (in both their hearts and in their wallets).

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Ludic loops are surprisingly powerful things and by the time we find we’re in one, it’s usually too late. Aside from gambling machines, there’s a plethora of things in our society that function on the mechanics of ludic loops, and most are closer than they may seem.

The most famous example is Facebook, a site famous for making many (f not most) of its features reminiscent of ludic loops — the notifications that we get from the site, for starters. No matter the platform, Facebook can grab one’s attention and force one to address its inviting little dings, each one promising to show a user something interesting and definitely worth their time. Eventually there’s a feeling of satisfaction in receiving the notification by itself; one doesn’t even need to see what it’s of to feel that poisonous rush of dopamine.

A similar feeling exists in checking pictures. Is there any point to scrolling through endless queues of pictures? Is there any sense of accomplishment? Any degree of skill or mastery? No, of course not. But millions of pictures are pulled up on Facebook every second and billions are viewed per day nonetheless.

A more benign form of the loop exists in driving. The empty road beckons to many, and it’s easy to just let one’s mind wander just enough to keep the car going forward. I’ve been on many an open road drive where, in the shotgun seat, I could see a distant and distracted look on the driver’s face mixed with the faintest hint of a smile. They’re unaware, of course. They just find driving relaxing. They also don’t want to address the pointlessness of driving circles around town with no real destination. But this subtle addiction makes itself known anyway, and the hits of dopamine every time the landscape changes just the tiniest bit — indicating the shift in distance — make themselves evident.

Video games utilize ludic loops as well, though we often simply use the term “addiction” to describe them. One must be careful, however, to differentiate between the positive addiction in Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” and negative addition of Dow Schüll’s “ludic loops”. There is a certain addictive nature in achieving goals and reaching certain points of mastery for particular video games that transforms into feelings of fulfillment and accomplishment that mindless ludic loops do not possess, and this can be found in games like Candy Crush and Skyrim.

Candy Crush is a game saturated with bright colors and sounds to excite the brain, but there’s little stimulation beyond that. The 93 million users who play over a billion times a day in total don’t really achieve anything from the time the spend swiping candies around. But the game is encouraging, and fun, and flashy, and the high score number looks nice when it goes up. This, ultimately, is enough for its players. The game is inviting, forgiving, and happy enough to mask this dark mechanism — and that’s what makes this sort of game ingredient all the more malignant.

Skyrim is a game that practices ludic addiction in its world exploration feature. The player is given a whole world to walk around in, with few truly insurmountable boundaries. The game is, of course, designed with goals in mind. But as a Skyrim player myself, I find an undeniable tranquility of mind in simply exploring the world on foot, with no real target or goal in mind. I might waste countless hours with nothing but the occasional villager or dragon to interrupt my trek, and the entire journey to nowhere is only made more interest with its sparse events.

The simple solution to breaking out of digital ludic loops is to disconnect, to forcibly distance oneself from the tiny hits of dopamine that we receive every time we see check our phones, the subtle resolutions of the feedback loops that breed addiction. But as we can see from the 8.85 million generated in state and local tax revenues in 2016 and the 240 billion photos sifted through on Facebook in 2013, this isn’t something so easily said as done. It’s up to us as individuals to conquer the allure of the ludic loop and knowing more about them has made me more acute to their occurrence in my day to day life.

(But that’s not going to stop me from playing some more Skyrim.)


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