The Games We Play Online

Published on Fri Jul 08 2022Adhiraj Singh - Viral Spiral

We’re living in a world where the most popular means of interacting with other people online are proprietary games. Each interaction is tracked with metrics that trigger dopamine responses, leading to forming habits that loop back into doing more of those interactions. Follower counts, hits, views, comments, shares, ‘virality’ - the feeling of ‘success’ from these ties directly to our brain chemistry before they can even translate to any real world reward or effect on our lives.

Does that make them less real from any interaction we have in ‘real life’? Eric Berne wrote in The Games People Play that social interactions consist of ‘strokes’ - we stroke each other back and forth in small transactions of a subtle emotional currency that forms the atoms that make up any relationship. A friend listens to you at the end of a hard day, and you listen to them back. You say ‘nice shirt’, and they say ‘great haircut’. A reductive way to look at friendship, sure, but one that game theorists and analysts can easily understand.

The big difference between social media interactions and in-person ones is that, despite the appearance of casual, interpersonal communication, social media truly is SOCIAL. What we’re saying to each other, or simply thinking aloud, is being broadcast to a large number of people, not all who have the same intentions or context as us. Our social media actions are personal, but the consequences are collective.

Social media interactions make these strokes much easier to keep a track of - especially to ourselves. The neurochemical rewards we get are quantified very clearly - as they are in games. Our popularity, our ‘clout’ becomes how we rank ourselves among our peers. The big difference between proper games and social media is that there is no ‘winning’ in social media - you are only the ‘best’ in comparison to others, and there is no end to this comparison.

When we set out to create a game that deals with misinformation and fake news, we decided to keep this aspect of the media this misinformation is shared in at the forefront of game design. There are games that deal with misinformation by themselves, that educate by engaging players in identifying fake news and the effects it can cause. This is the foundation of Viral Spiral - to put players in the role of people ‘playing’ in a social media network, trying to win by having the most ‘clout’, and the effects and consequences of that on the players around them and the world they inhabit. In the real world we see these in influential, often dangerous ways. Through a game, we hope to have a safe model that reflects what could happen, and how it affects us all.

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