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June 28, 2020

Dopamine Games

The inescapability of neural hijacking.

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As a child, I fell into a bad habit. Or rather, a series of them.

I washed my hands, then washed them again. I turned on the lights, then off, then on. I walked into a room, backed out of it, walked in again. Sometimes, I would find myself stuck in one of these loops for hours at a time. I would stand at the threshold of my bedroom, turning the lights on and off, hoping no one would discover what I was doing.

Sixteen. On, off. Seventeen. On, off. Eighteen.

When the number did not feel right, when the repetition did not give my mind the sense of reassurance it was seeking, I could only continue.

Nineteen. On, off. Twenty.

For a long time, I referred to these habits only as my "stuff," a series of rituals that, as a seven-year-old, I used to govern and protect the world as I knew it. To keep my family safe from harm, to guard myself against ill-health or bad luck, to avoid disaster of one kind or another, I had to finish the sequence. Even though I knew, on some level, that what I did had no effect on the things that worried me — this was a godless liturgy — I couldn't stop myself. After all, if catastrophe is a possibility, isn't every form of mitigation worth trying?

What I called my "stuff" was, of course, obsessive-compulsive disorder, a cognitive wrinkle I spent the better part of my twenties trying to iron out. One of the strange things about OCD is its relationship with dopamine. The neurotransmitter is associated with feelings of euphoria, and its ability to create habits. More specifically, dopamine produced in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) teaches us when to expect rewards, reinforcing pleasurable behaviors. From an evolutionary perspective, its goal is to encourage life-sustaining activities like eating, but it can be triggered by artificial means. Drugs and alcohol both produce dopamine, and its role in habit formation means it is a critical element of addiction.​

Curiously, OCD is alternatively believed to be associated with increased or decreased dopamine, which may not tell us much. What I remember of my compulsions was a surge of dopamine-esque satisfaction, of rightness, that was short-lived and possessing of a brutal half-life. Returns diminished with each repetition, and yet I was hooked.

Over the past few weeks, I am increasingly brought back to that sensation. Not through any battles of my own — I am fortunately far from such days — but because of that drug, dopamine, and its role in almost every aspect of our digital lives.

In his book, Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse delineates between the "games" that fill our lives. Finite games are those with discrete beginnings and endings, contrived to produce "winners" and "losers." Finite players are those focused on winning such games, on conquering opponents and receiving the titles that winning such games bestow. To win the title of "lawyer," one must win the game of law school. To win the title of "husband," one must win the game of finding a spouse. Each involves defeating opponents and surmounting challenges. Though we often think such contests are mandatory, we may leave finite games whenever we like, shedding jobs, relationships, conceptions of self.

Infinite games, by contrast, gesture in an altogether different direction. The goal is not subjugation of others but conversation, interaction. There are no rules, no boundaries, no set number of players. As Carse notes, "A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play." Art, life, love, these are infinite games if played correctly. There is no "winner" of music, no "champion" of love.

There is a third type of game. Or perhaps, a subcategory, that is seeping into our lives: the dopamine game.

Dopamine games govern our lives online. And though finite in scope, they dream of infinity. They are engineered to last as long as possible, hijacking our neurochemistry to prolong play.

The quintessential dopamine game is, of course, social media. But to think it is limited to the industry is narrow-minded. Dopamine games are ingrained across the internet.

One example has garnered particular attention this past week: Robinhood. The suicide of Alex Kearns, a 20-year-old user deeply in debt, has prompted an interrogation of the app's gamified UX, and addictiveness. Scott Galloway spoke of the "colorful Candy Crush interface." What I recall is the company's messaging in launching its cryptocurrency exchange: "Don't Sleep." The accompanying screenshots showed a Bladerunner-esque world of vivid color, seductive vitality.

Like social media, Robinhood is not alone in its guilt.

Other high-profile examples include Superhuman with its gamification of email output, Tinder with its love-sport, Uber and Lyft with their relentless wringing of time from drivers. All are dopamine games, driving users to compete for tokens and trophies, bonuses and bragging rights.

Even focusing on these companies is too limited. Each is its own world, and the truth is that dopamine games do not have boundaries. They chase us across the internet.

Intercom, with its cheery conversational pop-ups is a dopamine game. Grammarly, alternately censuring and praising, is another. Thanks to tools like Hotjar, Mixpanel, Heap, Looker and others, every site can engineer itself into a dopamine game with enough time and capital. These platforms have birthed a culture of optimizing for metrics like "time on site," irrespective of how that relates to a user's ability to achieve their stated goal. A canonical example is Facebook's introduction of the newsfeed in 2016. Despite users expressing hatred for it, they ended up spending more time on the platform. The newsfeed stayed.

The point is not to single out these companies or their tactics. Every builder of pixel and bits, whether they are crafting an email client or a dating app, faces the same dilemma: treat users with uncommon goodness and court failure, or exploit the vulnerabilities of the human mind and improve the chance of success.

This is no choice.

The genie cannot be put back into the bottle, and winning territory in a digital world, winning attention — the scarcest of asset classes — requires every trick in the book. If your competitors use such ploys, it is suicide to equivocate. You must throw pop-ups on your website, beg for notifications to be turned on, default auto-play and auto-enroll, all for the chance to manipulate and beguile.

What is the effect of such omnipresence? How are we effected by the unavoidability of dopamine games?

William Gibson, the science fiction writer, depicted the effect of dependency well:

Addictions...started out like magical pets, pocket monsters. They did extraordinary tricks, showed you things you hadn't seen, were fun. But came, through some gradual dire alchemy, to make decisions for you. Eventually, they were making your most crucial life-decisions. And they were...less intelligent than goldfish.

Fundamentally, the pervasiveness of dopamine games impacts our decision making. Our collection of "magical pets" define our choices, whether we are trading on leverage, messaging a potential mate, watching a video, or responding to a colleague. We are living on tilt every time we open our laptops or turn on our phones, flooding ourselves with dopamine in a manner that was not possible in life before the internet.

The consequences are visible at a macro-scale, too.

We have a polarized electorate, driven to extremes by algorithms, a sub-caste of 1099s working harder than ever but struggling to make ends meet, and surging mental illness among the young.

Further deleterious effects may lay ahead. The Medical University of Vienna argues that while too little dopamine is associated with Parkinson's disease, an excess of it may lead to mania, hallucinations, and even schizophrenia. What will a lifetime of excess do to us?

For all the pain it delivered, I am glad for my "stuff." In its ruthlessness, I believe I learned a certain endurance, a doggedness that has occasionally served me well. And if I have any originality of thought, some portion grew from spending more time than I should have locked in my head.

But I am glad I am not a child in today's world. When I think of the small boy standing in his socks, trying to solve the matter of the light switch, I do not feel optimistic about the effect technology would have had on his development. Would he have become more insular, shyer, more anxious?

I do not know. At least in his obsessiveness, in his compulsions, he would not be alone.