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TV and the Gaming of Our Brains (F*CK Fortnite)

TV doesn’t just have to compete with social platforms, mobile screen time and them ad-skipping bastards. Now it has to compete with machine learning — brain-twisting engines tweaked to induce obsessions. It may not be considered AI, but it’s definitely software designed for addiction. 

Allow me to be sarcastic about an example: Fornite is SO GREAT! With over 70+ million active users in under a year, it’s the entertainment juggernaut, challenging Minecraft for dominance. Billions of minutes streamed every month, over $1 billion in sales of “skins” and “dance moves” for this multi-player, multi-platform game. Views to other people playing it was said to be  “beating cable on Twitch and YouTube” (CNBC) . GREAT, right? Watch out TV!?

On the one hand, this is capitalism at its peak. An innovative take on a simple shooter game sweeps the globe, starts churning out BILLIONS in dollars almost overnight. It’s the American Dream!

Credit: Nothing is Funny

On the other hand,  not everyone is psyched. TV networks know that between games like this and others, and videos about games like this, young’uns aren’t using the TV to watch TV programming where brands can sneak in not-so-subtle ads for sugary cereals. The TV industry has been losing young eyes since the 1990s, and video games have been addictive since day one. And let’s be real, gaming and game culture is defining every generation since and it’s only gaining steam.

But Fortnite feels different; rapid adoption, personalization, and socialized play is a different formula.

How the hell can linear storytelling and cliffhangers compete with that?

Also not excited: groups like those Christian Mothers taking to Facebook in droves with desperate pleas for help with this craze. Of course, they are no match for the tens of millions of kids who, when they aren’t playing Fortnite, are talking about it. If you’re a parent, odds are good you’ve had a Fortnite talk (maybe about the dangers of playing with random people, including creepos). 

Parental concern, admittedly, is not new. Parents have been concerned about the way kids disappeared into the basement for generations. But never before has such a gaming mania swept the world the way it has with Fortnite. When you add e-commerce engines optimized for (child) manipulation, you may be asking too much of parents to monitor every move, every “last minute bargain” for a skin. 

That’s not just creating addictive pathways in the brain, it’s doing so on a platform where kids in search of cash are paired with strangers in a game environment. 

Fortnite, of course, is simply the latest, most dramatic example of how computer programming– using some kinds of artificial intelligence and machine learning — are optimizing our content and our culture against these “performance indicators”:

  1. Time engagement
  2. Return visits
  3. Viral co-efficiency
  4. Monetization

Which leads to something very real we are dealing with at every turn: the ever-more sophisticated gamification of our brains. So many people talk about “when AI takes over,” a time when robots will shape our reality and make decisions for us —um, it’s happening right the F now!

If you hadn’t noticed, we are getting “gamed” at most every point in the attention economy. We are the pawns and the prize, the means and the end for profit machines. (Which, to be fair, does have some entertaining perks along the way.)

HT/ @THDonohue

Some blame Russians for meddling in our elections—”They put up fake content and put money behind it!”  But that only works because the segmented, optimized audiences got the fix their brains craved. AKA, the machines we trained to know us stuck us in groupthink. The very algorithms intended to keep us “tuned in” created a world around us that used content, fed to us via a drip system that was designed for addictive behavior.

And then as a by-product of these machine learning equations, a distorted “reality” is shaped for us. Billions of people literally have Facebook’s algorithms decide which friends, which information, we see.

Thankfully, some movements are happening to counter this digi-addiction. Perhaps acknowledging the casino-like experience, Apple’s Screen Time app now tells you just how hooked you are (picking up the phone 100 times a day, spending 6 hours across 7 or so apps, receiving over 100 push alerts a day, etc).

As my homies in AA will attest, admitting to your addiction is the first step.

To be clear, this isn’t a phenomenon we can avoid. Parents are not negligent for letting their kid use the phone or play the game. And taking a spin through social is a bad thing. The pros of gaming have been experienced by most all who use games– problem solving, strategy, collaboration.

This is the world we live in now and as it develops, perhaps we’ll develop greater control in what companies talk to us, when and how that happens. Until that time, the decisions aren’t made by us knowingly, they are made algorithmically based on our exhibited behaviors– and not just on social but at every digital step.

By reminding ourselves what these “personalization” platforms are built to do, and what the consequences are for overdoing it, we can hopefully make better decisions as a result.

That said, while it’s not the only platform using code to entertain us, nor  is it the worst of them all… on behalf of parents, TV networks and addicts everywhere: f*uck Fortnite! Not just for making an incredibly addictive cross platform experience but for deploying such a powerful platform without controls in place to help parents contain the issue.

And a big middle-finger to the “not my problem” asshat who is watching it all go by in their living rooms, with their kids spending untold hours completely unchecked.