📱 "The reality is: human beings, unfortunately, are giant babies in the virtual world"
A games developer's insight into human behavior online
Over the weekend, I read this article by Jay Peters on The Verge about the unique multiplayer feature of Journey, a video game that just celebrated its 10th anniversary.
Journey is a game where you eventually travel up a mountain. The multiplayer is “basic” by many standards: you can’t chat or text or even auto-reply to other players with canned responses. All you can do is stick together (which replenishes the energy you need to complete the game), and “speak” in non-verbal chirps. All of this is intentional.
But it was this passage that struck me:
The goal for Journey was to “innovate how it feels between people on the internet,” Chen said. “Can we invent the right environment, the right feedback, to bring out something that we’re more proud of? And to have an online game where people feel friendly and compassionate towards each other?” He elaborated further later in our conversation. “We want to see two people going through the journey together, [like when] in our life, we meet someone special, and we travel with them, and eventually, we might depart from each other.”
While it was a profound ideal, “the reality is: human beings, unfortunately, are giant babies in the virtual world,” Chen said. “No matter how old you are, even if you’re in your 70s, if we move you from Earth and into a virtual space, [that person] would become a giant baby. A baby doesn’t know what is a good moral value versus what is a bad moral value. The baby only knows: if I’m in a new environment, I’m going to try to push the buttons and see what kind of feedback I can get, and babies are great at looking for maximum feedback.”
This gets to the emotional center of how we are still adapting to such persistent use of the internet. Even though we may be cognitively aware that there’s another person on the other side of our screen, how we respond to them emotionally as we’re scrolling or surfing isn’t very complex.
That a game designer, who is tasked with creating cohesive & immersive virtual environments, would hone in on this is unsurprising. Games, especially FPS games like Halo, foster behavior like teabagging n00bs after a kill. But we see immature, “juvenile” behavior on every platform and in every age demographic, whether it’s Boomers sounding off in facebook comments, or millennials/Gen Z in Instagram and TikTok beefs.
It’s interesting to think of people’s behavior in online spaces in this type of developmental context/metaphor. Although an older person has had plenty of in-person interactions in their life and may have a level of emotional maturity about them in those interactions, does that translate to online interactions and places? How do factors like neurodivergence and mismatched abilities to read tone/style across generations work?
All of these, to me, are fascinating questions.
In the context of a game like Journey, it meant 1) limiting things like voice chat, and 2) enabling a game mechanic that encouraged players to become cooperative companions by re-charging one another’s energy when you came in close proximity to another player. Again, from the article:
The challenges of making those mechanics work affected Chen. “At the time, I was like, ‘Is humanity at its core just dark?’” he said. But a child psychologist helped Chen see things in terms of the way babies view feedback. “If you don’t want babies to do something terrible, give them zero feedback,” he recalled learning from her. “Don’t give them negative feedback because they will misinterpret that as positive feedback.”
That led to a change that would have a huge effect on the game: when you got close to someone, you’d recharge their energy. (In the final game, you use your energy to fly.) “And so that makes people feel like ‘Oh, I love to stay near someone because I don’t have to run to find the energy,’” he said. “So they end up sticking together, and they travel together, and they form a companionship. That was just one simple change. From assholes who want to kill each other and dancing around their corpse, creating hatred, to ‘hey, they’re all lovey-dovey, they’re helping each other, and they couldn’t leave each other.’”
I don’t know that this is applicable to other parts of the internet - in particular the “networked publics” of social media.But even if it helps to illuminate our own tendencies in how we interact online, that alone could be useful.
New Reading Option: The Substack App
I have exciting news to share: You can now read The Post-Evangelical Post in the new Substack app for iPhone.
With the app, you’ll have a dedicated Inbox for my Substack and any others you subscribe to. New posts will never get lost in your email filters, or stuck in spam. Longer posts will never cut-off by your email app. Comments and rich media will all work seamlessly. Overall, it’s a big upgrade to the reading experience.
The Substack app is currently available for iOS. If you don’t have an Apple device, you can join the Android waitlist here.
Check out other posts in the Shaped by Tools series here:
Here’s some of what I’m reading (disclosure: these are affiliate bookshop.org links):
All The White Friends I Couldn’t Keep by Andre Henry
Body Becoming: A Path to Our Liberation by Robyn Henderson-Espinoza
Digital Communion: Marshall McLuhan’s Spiritual Vision for a Virtual Age by Nick Ripatrazone
I hesitate to use terms like “nuance” which now carry a bit of culture-war baggage, but it may be somewhat appropriate, though “complex” feels moreso.
Reading Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, she highlights the stylistic & interactional preferences/defaults into different cohorts: Old Internet people (early PC adopters who used fora like Usenet), Full Internet People (Elder Millennials like me who came up on AIM and early Facebook/Twitter), Pre-Internet People (older generations and other people whose first foray into contemporary internet culture was Facebook, but who had developed styles while writing postcards and other formats), and Post Internet People (people born in the Snap/WhatsApp era and beyond).
“Networked publics” is a term made common among internet researchers by danah boyd and Mizuko Ito. See the introduction of It’s Complicated by boyd and other works by Ito, including Participatory Culture in a Networked Era by Jenkins, Ito, & boyd.