Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2019/ Addiction Capitalism

Addiction Capitalism

One of my many bad habits is video games. Other than Spider Solitaire, I don't play video games, but I watch gaming videos on Youtube, and I follow the Twitter accounts of competitive players. There is a lot to write about this culture, but today I want to focus on pscychological manipulation.

In the corner of the gaming world I observe, there is an occasional showcase called the "Summit Series". Because it is evil, I won't link to it, but you can find it online easily enough. The Summit Series takes a videogame that is currently popular and gathers some of the top players together to have a "Big Brother"-style tournament, where players and commentators engage in activities and then compete against each other for the big prize.

There are lots of video game tournaments, so maybe this is not so unusual, except for how the participants are selected. A certain number of players are "invited" -- they get to participate without further work. A couple of players gain admission by winning qualifying tournaments. The remaining players are voted in.

Everything about the voting process is rigged to keep you engaged and liberate you from as much of your money as possible. It is a textbook example of psychological manipulation:

In other words, this is a multi-round auction, and just like other auctions it is intended to make people spend more than they feel comfortable spending. If your favourite player is near the top, you want to drop some cash to push them over and win the auction. However, fans of other players are doing the same thing. But in a real auction, only the winning bidder has to pay money. Here, you pay to vote regardless of whether your preferred player gets in or not, so you spend even more to avoid the sunk costs of the money you have already spent.

The operators of this scheme are clever. They are transparent about the process. But they also sell hope. Their website contains statements like "Make an Impact" and "4 players chosen by YOU will join the 10 invited players" (their emphasis).

But it is the competing players who do most of the marketing. They say things like "small amounts add up" and "help me get to the summit" as if you can make a difference. But you cannot make a difference, unless you are rich. Enter the "bomb", which is terminology (derived from DragonBall Z's "spirit bomb", I think) for individuals with lots of cash dropping a lot of money at the very end of a voting round to push particular players into the summit.

Players who campaign hard and develop loyal followings make their fans believe that people can work together to vote their favourite player in. But you don't need many loyal followers. You need one loyal follower with a lot of cash. In the last round I witnessed, two donations totalling over 16k votes pushed the winner into the tournament. For perspective, that same person had received 14k votes up to that point.

This entire process makes me deeply uneasy. It does not help that I have been reading about diabetics who put up GoFundMe pages for their insulin, fail their fundraising goal, and die. Admittedly, that is a stupid thing to feel uneasy about given that I live in luxury and there is so much poverty in the world, but this juxtaposition creeps me out anyways. In both cases people are putting forth pleas for donation, and in the video game case people are willing to donate $7000 while in the other people die for lack of funds.

The purpose of the nomination phase is to get you emotionally invested.

The purpose of nominating players is so that they will campaign on behalf of the organizers.

The purpose of having multiple rounds is so that the organizers of this summit can milk you again and again. Each time you think that maybe your favorite player will make it, and each time he doesn't you keep trying. It is incredibly manipulative.

Who gets the proceeds of this racket? Some of the money goes to prize pools for the players. A tiny fraction of the money goes to players who were nominated but were not voted in. A large fraction of that money (27%, as of this writing) goes to the "tournament organizers", and another 36% is labelled as "fulfillment of shop items", which I am guessing also includes a cut for the organizers. This organization is raking in tens of thousands of dollars.

Of course, the organizers would defend themselves by stating that they are entirely transparent about the rules and even about how they are splitting the income. That is true. They are not honest about how they have carefully crafted the system to maximize psychological engagement. My guess is that there are a good number of participants who are spending money they cannot really afford on this. The organizers would say that nobody is obligated to contribute, and they are doing so of their own free will. I disagree so hard, the same way I disagree that I should bear the burden of defending myself against every psychological trick others use to manipulate me.

The other thing the organizers are deceitful about is the reality of this game. It does not matter how much individual members contribute if they are not rich -- this is capitalism, and the people with the most money get the most votes. But the organizers depend upon the "little people" to inflate vote counts so that the big spenders have to cross higher hurdles, and the organizers want as many people -- rich or poor -- spending money in their shop as possible. The organizers pit player against player and fan against fan (which has dire consequences -- friends become enemies), and they reap the rewards no matter who wins. That is capitalism too.

How does this turn out? At the end of each round there is a mad rush for people to outspend their opponents. Somebody drops a big bomb and wins, and that player's fans cheer. At the end of the process there are a lot of people who threw money at their favourite contender and maybe have some hats or hoodies to show for it, if they were smart and bought merchandise instead of contributing dollars directly.

What makes me so angry about this process is how vulnerable I am to it. I am completely sucked in. I am so grateful that I do not have a credit card, because I have thought seriously about contributing money to this thing, and I can't even afford my living expenses this year. I have spent far too much of my mental cycles with this contest in my head, and I resent that a lot. As each voting round draws to a close I know full well I will be glued to my computer screen watching the bombs drop. And I hate it. I hate everything about this process. I don't WANT to have this contest stuck in my head. I don't WANT to have any stakes as to which players get in and which do not. I am not even going to watch the stupid summit. There are many many other tournaments I can watch -- tournaments which have open registration and where anybody can enter and win. The premise of a pay-to-play summit disgusts me even if it shouldn't (open tournaments are not exactly meritocratic either when you factor in travel and hotel costs).

This process is designed to grab me right in my addictive personality and squeeze every dollar it can out of me, and it is working. I am not strong enough to resist it, and that frightens me.