Romantic relationship roulette—On romantic love, gamification and addiction in the modern world

by | Feb 13, 2020 | Musings | 0 comments

Slot machines are evil.

We all know this.

They’ve ruined far too many amazing live music venues around Australia and turned hoards of older Australians into zombies.

In other words, people get addicted.

Why?

Gambling gives us a dopamine hit. The trickle of excitement of not knowing exactly what will happen next and then occasionally… BAZINGA! We win a small prize. Dopamine hit! Boom!!

It also provides escapism. An alternate reality of sorts where we can escape the complexities of the real world and focus in on just this exhilarating prospect. The next cheap or not-so-cheap thrill.

Games give us a clarity of PURPOSE, that is so relieving. We no longer have to face the existential questions (even subconsciously) of why are we here? And what’s our purpose? Inside a game, our PURPOSE and how we succeed at that purpose are black and white.

Even now (and I currently feel very clear and passionately about my purpose) I can feel the sense of relief wash over me. Any scrap of uncertainty disappears and I’m left with crystal clarity.

But also, I believe we are looking for a more predictable version of life. In some respects, even when the odds are stacked against us we consider this ‘fair’ because we understand the rules. It’s clear under which conditions we can win and what we put in and what we get out in return are somewhat predictable even though we know The House always wins.

This is comforting. As we know Trust = Consistency
Consistency feels good, even when it’s consistently sub-par.

The real world on the other hand often feels entirely too random. We put in consistent effort but aren’t always consistently rewarded. The rules that govern the real world are incredibly complex, wild and untamed.

This is also why computer games are so popular. They provide a world to escape into and tasks to perform. These tasks take mental and physical effort. You have to sit there for hours doing menial repetitive tasks in order to achieve a goal and level up your avatar (a representation of you as a hero in this world) and/or the gear (the things it owns) that it uses to perform better and carry out the tasks more efficiently or take on tougher tasks.

Let me repeat that: You invest hours and hours of time and effort to achieve a virtual goal and win a virtual prize. Usually these prizes just help you play the game slightly better. Sometimes these prizes are entirely cosmetic.

Why???

Same reason as gambling: Dopamine, escapism, predictable rewards.

And even though the rules of computer games have gotten incredibly more complex over the years since they first came into existence, they are not wild like they are IRL (in real life). In modern computer games, the rules are continually being tamed and ‘balanced’ by teams of game designers to ensure the dopamine hits are dispensed predictably and justly for all.

It seems ‘fair’, unlike life, which often just seems cruel and unusual.

So it’s preferable. In fact it’s more than preferable. It’s extremely addictive!

Many people lose themselves in game worlds altogether and invent ways to stay in as much as possible, becoming professional gamers of one sort or another. There are whole economies around the popular games and it is entirely possible to do this.

In my younger days I thought about it. I wanted to find a way to escape the real world and invest my efforts in a virtual one instead.

Had the virtual games from Ready Player One, or Sword Art Online existed or even the virtual reality game Roy from Rick and Morty, I would have been in, in a heartbeat.

Failing that, over the years I’ve indulged in my fair share of escapism through reading, TV, movies and computer games. These days I struggle to escape in this way and even struggle to watch TV (except for Rick and Morty, so fair warning all my pop culture references from here on will be sourced from there). And I could never do gambling, oh no, I wouldn’t do that. I’m not that kind of person!… Or am I?

In the modern age, gambling and gaming have also combined to deadly effect. There are many mobile phone games that sell ‘gems’ or ‘gold’ or ‘loot boxes’ or ‘character packs’ or some other form of in-game advantage. But these games are established such that to play the game effectively and achieve a ‘fair’ and consistent reward pattern, you must invest real world money. And you’re incentivised to invest real world money in an ongoing and regular pattern.

Although, at some point the game producers realised they could add gambling mechanics as a way to get even more money from players. In many games you now buy a ‘loot box’ which may or may not contain the in-game boost that you need. Sometimes you win big! Sheclacky!! It’s a MewTwo! But mostly, you spend the money and get very little of value back. So you have to invest more and roll the dice again.

But the result of doing so in terms of dopamine, escapism, and predictable reward is for many still… exquisite!

The games that do this extremely well also include a social and team-based element. So you still feel connected to people. And there is a social pressure then to not let your teammates down. So you keep playing and keep investing.

I’m not proud to say I have fallen prey to these games over the years.

One game in particular The Walking Dead: Road To Survival I calculate I invested in excess of $9000 over the course of a 12 month period playing the game. And god only knows how many hours I lost that year.

What?? Over 9000!!!? On a mobile phone game? Are you kidding?

Nope.

Are you mad?

Possibly.

As I say, not proud of it. But in retrospect: I had a problem. Through great force of will I managed to break myself free of the game. Cold turkey. And never went back. Which wasn’t easy. It was a large part of my life at this point, and the sunk-cost bias told me I’d invested heavily so I should keep playing (I mean the most I’d ever paid for a game prior or since this was maybe $90, which seemed pricey).

So how’d I get so hooked?

Easy. It provided that dopamine hit, the escapism, the somewhat predictable reward, the social element, and it was conveniently all available in my pocket to tap into whenever I had a spare couple minutes, or 20 minutes, or several hours to kill.

Which sounds familiar…

It reminds me of another common modern addiction. What about social media? Same thing right?

This technology! The phones! The gamified life!! What have we done??

We have taken every part of the human experience, even the most fundamental, critical and intimate parts of it and gamified them so they are a source of dopamine, escapism, predictability, social connection, and ultimately a source of revenue for whoever setup this particular corner of The Matrix.

Stop being so dramatic Andrew! The most fundamental, critical and intimate parts of life? Really? What are you talking about?

Well, that would be sex and romantic relationships.

Yep, they’ve been gamified too.

In 2020, dating has become so incredibly similar to playing a slot machines.

You pull the lever (swipe right) and weeeeeee! You’re off on another crazy adventure.

It’s predictably unpredictable at first. A wicked rollercoaster ride of fun and exhilaration. But then as a relationship matures and we take each other down off the puppy love pedestal, the dopamine hits aren’t as intense, and we start feeling the urge to go back and pull the lever again. Ready for our next hit.

And this has bled over into the broader dating culture whether you’re using dating apps or not. I’ve been in relationships with women I met in real life that exhibit the same sense of “don’t get me wrong, I’m in love with you, but I still wonder if something better might be out there and I’m kinda waiting for that next pull on the lever, that next initial rush of excitement and attraction”. And to be honest, I’ve felt the same myself. It’s insidious. It now thoroughly permeates how we do dating. This relationship doesn’t feel as great today as it did yesterday, ‘the one’ must still be out there somewhere then…

This is caricatured really well in Season 4 Episode 2 of Rick and Morty. Where an alien race launches an app called ‘Lovefinderrz’ on Earth that’s ridiculously good at matching you with your next soulmate and the whole world turns into a frenzied romp from one partner to the next every couple of days. The scary thing is, our reality is not that different.

We’ve traded commitment and security for this fun and funky gamified version of love.

I pass no judgement here. If that’s the game people want to play, then I won’t stand in anyone’s way. But I’m not sure we all really chose this deliberately. I think it has just emerged from this natural draw towards a gamified experience of life.

What I do know is for a relationship to work long term it’s a base requirement that both people quit their addiction to romantic relationship roulette, altogether.

There should probably be a 12-step program or 10 commandments or something. An article for another day.

Until then, I want to know if you’ve struggled with addiction and escapism? What did you do to break free? Is there anything you’re still addicted to that you’d like to shift?

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