Last month WNYC's Radio Lab had a show on Stochasticity which is a fancy word for randomness. The most fascinating story was about a woman who suffered from Parkinson's disease and suddenly became consumed by a frenzied gambling addiction. It turns out the dopamine-like medication that she took to control Parkinson's tremors also affected her impulse control, manifesting itself in pathological gambling. She lost hundreds of thousands of dollars over several years, her husband and alienated friends and family. Once she stopped taking the drug, she was fine again. It was a very sad story of a life wasted due to an extremely unfortunate side effect.
The story described the reward-response that slot machines trigger through the randomly occuring lights and bells. The addict wants to crack the random code to getting the reward and cannot tear themselves away from the machine until they do. But since the machines are random, there is no code to crack and so they play until they run out of money.
I started to think about my own addiction to Bejeweled and any gem-like game. Bejeweled 2 has sparkly gems beckoning you, plus they turn shiny with four in a row and swirly with five in a row. The whole premise of getting a big huge "Incredible" cascade is the same one as the slot machines. And with Bejeweled Blitz for facebook, you are constantly waiting for the 50k cascade that will put you over 100k in one minute (I, unlike some addicts, *cough* Momisodes haven't gotten to 200k yet).
The only two apps I had purchased for my iPhone before last week were Bejeweled 2 and Gem Spinner. And I only bought them to use up an iTunes gift card. But then I discovered Peggle (don't click this link, you've been warned). This seemingly simplistic game takes all its cues from slot machines. And it is i-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-y addictive. After playing it for a whole morning, and setting up my kids on two other computers at the same time, we all became total Peggle addicts (I am a terrible mommy when it comes to video games). Somehow, Doug is immune to shiny lights, bells and Ode to Joy.
The next day, we had to take a trip and in the car, I was fighting the urge to buy Peggle for the iPhone for a whopping $4.99 (Bejeweled and Gem Spinner were $2.99 each). I finally cracked only to find that you can't download apps over 10 MB without wi-fi. Whew! Saved for a few hours. But once I got home again, it was purchased.
So here's a peek into this maddening dopamine machine. You aim a ball that comes out of the top and click fire. That's the same as pulling the slot lever. There is ever-so-slight skill in aiming the ball, but after two bounces, it is pretty much random. You watch the ball bounce around and light up the blue and orange pegs and bars. Little beeps go off every time you hit them. The more you hit, the higher your score. If you roll down a slope correctly, you get the "extreme slide" and your score shoots up. On the left, there is a ball-o-thon meter. When you hit 25k, you get a free ball. Ding ding ding, flash, flash, flash - Jackpot! It is exactly the same premise as slot machines, even more so than Bejeweled. If you win the level, it goes into super slo-mo until you get into the last scoring bin, where fireworks shoot up and Ode to Joy sings triumphantly.
This game is so drilled into my dopamine response system, that I sometimes hear Ode to Joy when something good happens to me. And once, during a *ahem* pleasurable moment, I saw little blue and orange lights going off on my head. The game is insidious, I tell you.