Ender’s Game: Behavioral and Social [re]Conditioning (Part II)

Go To:  Part I – Video Game Compulsion, Part III – Prosocial Gaming

Gaming for Behavioral (re-conditioning) and Social Development

As far back as Plato it was wisely observed that “you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Gaming is also known for its cognitive, behavioral, social [re]conditioning and development use[s]. In recent years, we’ve all become familiar with the concept of “radicalization to violence.” It is a process whereby a person or group of people adopt a belief or ideological position that moves them toward extremism, violence and, ultimately, to terrorist activity. In the Fall of 2016 the Liberal government followed through on its election promise to consult the public before amending the controversial anti-terrorism Bill C51 introduced and passed by the Conservative government. The Green Paper Consultations inquired about possible ways to prevent terrorist activities and extreme radicalism.

It is not a crime to be a radical, nor to have radical thoughts or ideas. But as a society, the goal must be to prevent violence of all kinds, including violence committed in the name of radical ideologies or beliefs, and activities that support such violence such as facilitation and financing. Although steps have been taken to better understand how and why violent radicalization typically takes root, an additional question is asked: What more can we do to prevent people from becoming radicalized to violence? To this end, we must also examine and include the implications of criminality, addictions and the possibility of re-offending.

Amnesty International

Criminality, radicalization, cyber-bullying, and addictions can be a by-product of various types of social shunning and exclusion. All sorts of existing behavioral and social experiments are conducted throughout the internet, sometimes on unsuspecting individuals that would leave you preferring authentic human-to-human interaction and connections rather than spending time online thinking that you are “gaming”. Carried out usually in a multi-player game format, an individual could find themselves deliberately targeted, isolated and segregated because they do not fit into some “category” that is socially acceptable or you’re held suspect for personal, social (i.e. feminism), religious and political beliefs to the other side of the spectrum of radicalization, addiction or criminality.

People with high neuroticism are excellent candidates for these types of experiments especially for neuro-technology’s brainwave monitoring devices that employs the use of “neuro-nanite” chips. These devices are meant to monitor (or alter) brainwave activity in unison with brainwashing, social engineering attacks, and social conditioning propaganda video games, for it provides rich data from those who are susceptible to “emotional triggers’. The door is wide open for these types of human experimentation to take place, for as of today there are no firm rules, except for what one can interpret in our privacy laws and in our Charter, about what “brain information” can be gathered from people and with whom it can be shared with.

Role-playing games designed to promote conflict resolution have gotten special attention for their ability to allow players not only to envision but to take the first-person action from the perspective of two different sides of a conflict. For example, in the multi-award winning the Peace-Maker game, players variably take the role of Israeli prime minister and Palestine president, and both conditions they must choose strategies to make a “two-state solution” viable. The players have a choice to take conciliatory or hostile actions and pursue collaborative or one-sided initiatives. The games provide players with “real-life consequences” to political decisions and show how even small gestures can contribute to peaceful solutions. It incorporates real photos and video, which not only lend the experience authenticity but also engage players emotional (i.e. empathetically)

The makers of Frontiers, a 3D online multi-player game took the popular Half-life 2D games (a first-person shooter) and modified it into a moving and realistic immersion into the migration paths and borderlands inhabited by political refugees. Players can elect to play the role of escaping refugee or member of the border patrol. The game maker, a group of Austrian artists describe Frontiers as both a game and work of art that “aims to enhance the perception and understanding of the migrant’s situation above a casual level of catastrophic news.

“Hence, we can expect advanced versions of the behavioral economic and psychometric games that are popular research tools in universities today – “prisoner’s dilemma”, “social dilemma”, “ultimatum”, “dictator” and so on – to be employed to rapidly fathom human consciousness.” These are only examples of what type of role-playing scenarios can take place but not limited to story-lines with religious, social, political and psychological overtures. The door is wide open for the success of this category of technology yet there is a sense of caution for as of today there are no firm rules, except for what one can interpret in our privacy laws and in our Charter, about what “brain information” can be gathered from people and with whom it can be shared with.

Gaming Harassment and Research Abuse

Unfortunately, not all games are fun and play, instead, the gaming elements are often used as a cover for the original intent which is to inflict harmful, exploitative and torturous acts aimed at preventing an individual from advancing in life. A good illustration of this is the Hollywood film, Cabin in the Woods, “five college friends arrive at a remote forest cabin for a little vacation, little do they expect the horrors that await them. One by one, the youths fall victim to backwoods zombies, but there is another factor at play.  A team of researchers lead by two scientists are manipulating the ghoulish goings-on…”

“…some researchers argue that virtual worlds are an ideal environment for research that would be very expensive, difficult or unethical to conduct in real life research where participants are asked to harm another person or research examining people’s responses to serious dangers is not usually possible in traditional research environment but virtual worlds can also provide guidance to researchers of real-world phenomena….The interactivity that virtual worlds present, however, still presents many opportunities for users to antagonize one another.

Take for example the following research study reported in the Society of NeuroEcomonics (2016):

The Computational Basis of Moral Devaluation

Researchers: Elisa van der Plas, John Clithero, Jenifer Siegel, Anne-Marie Neise, Molly Crockes, Founders, Centre for Cognitive Neuro-imaging, Pomona College, University of Oxford

Objective: Recent work has shown that the subjective value of money depends on its moral consequences. Money gained immorally is subjectively less valuable, and evokes lower responses in value-sensitive brain regions, than money gained decently. Here, we used cognitive modeling to investigate:

The computational mechanisms underlying the devaluation of money by moral transgressions and; If the devaluation of money can be mitigated if the money is donated to a good cause.

Cabin in the Woods

Method: Forty deciders were asked to make 164 decisions in which they chose whether to accept a higher amount of money in exchange for increased pain (in the form of electric shocks) delivered either to themselves or an anonymous receiver. The money at stake was for the deciders own profit on half the trials, and for a charity on the other half, for a 2×2 within-subjects design (pain for self/other x money for self/charity).

We modeled participants’ choices and response times (RT) using a hierarchical dri{- diffusion model (DDM) with free parameters describing the accumulation of value driven by money and pain modulated by their recipients (self, other, charity), and used model comparison to determine how value accumulation differed as a function of these factors. We hypothesized that harming others would degrade the value of money, but that donating the money to charity would mitigate this effect, and this would be reflected in a differential accumulation of value driven by money gained from harming others versus self across condition.

Prison cell of monsters – Cabin in the Woods

Results: participants required more money to inflict pain on others than themselves, but this difference vanished when the money was donated to charity. Consistent with this, RT data revealed that participant were slower to inflict pain on others than themselves for profit, but not for charity. Model comparisons supported these findings, where the most parsimonious DDM showed the rate of money-related value accumulation was sensitive to harming others for profit, but not for charity. Specifically, money-related value accumulation was slower when profiling from harming others relative to self, and this slowing predicted higher costs on harming others than the self at the individual level.

Conclusions: An aversion to inflicting pain on others for money was reduced when the money was donated to charity, suggesting charitable donations can “launder” the devaluation of money gained immorally.  Our model captures this process in the accumulation of value driven by money, where harm to others slows money-driven value accumulation, but only when the harm is difficult to justify.

Although this particular study used a predictive model using computational mechanisms and methods, overall some may find the study particularly disturbing. In a not so distant past, some may have conducted this experiment in its literal sense, a barbaric practice in comparison to the game(s) employed only by the elite, and that is somewhat akin to, hunting humans for population control back in the day. Charities stake their reputations on ethics, to accept money from unethical practices, will result in losing their charitable status. What if the tortured person is someone the game players actually know? Taken out of context, it’s a perfect recipe for a game of revenge-taking and avoiding recourse because it’s “academic research” AND it’s for “charity”. Though in its literal sense, it’s unethical and for a variety of reasons, criminal.

“Never Again!”

World War II, among many things, gave us the birth of the computer, Artificial Intelligence, and the Nuremberg Codes. In terms of the Codes, the whole world was shocked by the revelations that came before the court at Nuremberg. The most shocking incidents of research abuse were the revelation of the research being done on unwilling prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps. The racial dimensions of the research added to public outrage, in fact, it was sort of watershed or beginning in the modern concern for the welfare of subjects of medical research. So important was the experience that the template for modern codes of practice for ethical research was developed from the courts’ judgment in the case against the Nazi physicians who carried out the experiments on prisoners in concentration camps.

The Nuremberg Code is the most important document in the history of the ethics of medical research. This Code established the requirements for informed consent, the absence of coercion, properly formulated scientific experimentation, and beneficence towards experiment participants. The Common Rule is a 1981 rule of ethics in the United States regarding bio-medical and behavioral research involving human subjects making it the most important influence on U.S. Law governing human medical research.

In Night, Elie Wiesel wrote this eyewitness account of what he saw as a prisoner at Nazi concentration camp:

“Not far from us flames, huge flames were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: Small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this with my own eyes…children thrown into the flames (is it any wonder that ever since then, sleep tends to elude me?”

“This moment as the stench of burning human flesh rushed up into his nostrils, was a turning point for humanity. The turn is not yet completed but here it began… It was a turning point because, after the despicable acts of the 1930s and 1940s, humanity collectively bound together in 1948 and said: “never again!” Humanity decided to create a new system of rules for those who govern, a new agreement that would not allow such acts to happen again. “Never Again!” was the goal, not only for Jewish people but for all humanity. With the 1948 beginning of a 100-year turn [in human rights] etched in our minds let’s now consider what it will be like at the end of the turn in the year 2048.

2018 marks the 75th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights and although there are significant exceptions, few technology professionals have begun adding user well-being to their brief. In fact, just try mentioning happiness or well-being at a seminar for software engineers and you’re guaranteed some eyebrow-raising (or that special breed of academic heckling). In his book Texture, Richard H. R. Harper (2010) attributes pragmatic and behaviorist mindset that dominates HCI to the early influence of Alan Turing, the creator of the computer and artificial intelligence during World War II, and Norbert Wiener:

Alan Turing

Turing believed he was inventing a new discipline, one that dealt with algorithms. But this vision also included a view of the human. As it happens, Wiener thought that the science he was inventing, cybernetics, was all about people, even though his science was enormously mathematical, and hence quite close to what Turing thought he was doing. But the worldview that these individuals have produced is one in which people – the users – turn out to be not very human at all. They have human-like capacities and human-like behaviors to be sure, but they are so reduced in their sensibilities that the humaneness has been taken out…Those who adopt Turing’s view assume that what goes on inside the [human] machine itself is not only invisible but also somehow tricky and best avoided.”

Harper makes no claim to being immune to this influence, and he shares insightful examples of technology development projects that failed to predict actual human use: “we recognize that issues of human action were relevant here, but our instincts were to avoid them; Turing’s aversion to moral overtone encouraged us away.” He goes on to add that the public has likewise learned to think in the same way about themselves: “people think of themselves as machines…and worry about optimizing their performance.” [Positive Computing]

“These ‘griefers’ derive pleasure from acts that inhibit other users’ enjoyment of virtual worlds which may include cheating and other instrumental exploitation or simply consist of harassment. While much-griefing consists of minor and silly interruptions, others are more offensive… virtual worlds can place limits on player activity and provide users with the tools to prevent and report griefing (for example by blocking communication from a griefer and submitting the griefer’s name to the virtual world’s administrator), the open and interactive atmospheres that virtual worlds strive to provide will probably always leave them open to this type of abuse.” [Virtual Lives, 2012]

The race is on to create a predictive system of the human mind, which in this case the Nuremberg codes is very much applicable.  In creating the final product we must remain diligent in abstaining from research that relies on abuse of a psychological nature. From simple tracking methods to, persuasive technologies, to downright social engineering attacks to get inside your mind to “predict” how you think and will act – then create to mind-files (units of cyber-consciousness).  No one as yet claims these current predictive systems are “alive” or conscious.  But no doubt, the race is on and time will tell who will win …how and at what cost.

Go To:  Part I – Video Game Compulsion, Part III – Prosocial Gaming


1. The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential. This means that the person involved should have legal capacity to give consent; should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, over-reaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion; and should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved, as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision. This latter element requires that, before the acceptance of an affirmative decision by the experimental subject, there should be made known to him the nature, duration, and purpose of the experiment; the method and means by which it is to be conducted; all inconveniences and hazards reasonably to be expected; and the effects upon his health or person, which may possibly come from his participation in the experiment.

The duty and responsibility for ascertaining the quality of the consent rests upon each individual who initiates, directs or engages in the experiment. It is a personal duty and responsibility which may not be delegated to another with impunity.

2. The experiment should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society, unprocurable by other methods or means of study, and not random and unnecessary in nature.

3. The experiment should be so designed and based on the results of animal experimentation and a knowledge of the natural history of the disease or other problem under study, that the anticipated results will justify the performance of the experiment.

4. The experiment should be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury.

5. No experiment should be conducted, where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur; except, perhaps, in those experiments where the experimental physicians also serve as subjects.

6. The degree of risk to be taken should never exceed that determined by the humanitarian importance of the problem to be solved by the experiment.

7. Proper preparations should be made and adequate facilities provided to protect the experimental subject against even remote possibilities of injury, disability, or death.

8. The experiment should be conducted only by scientifically qualified persons. The highest degree of skill and care should be required through all stages of the experiment of those who conduct or engage in the experiment.

9. During the course of the experiment, the human subject should be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end, if he has reached the physical or mental state, where continuation of the experiment seemed to him to be impossible.

10. During the course of the experiment, the scientist in charge must be prepared to terminate the experiment at any stage, if he has probable cause to believe, in the exercise of the good faith, superior skill and careful judgement required of him, that a continuation of the experiment is likely to result in injury, disability, or death to the experimental subject.

[“Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law, No. 10”, Vol. 2, pp. 181-182. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1949

Read more: Positive Computing: The Next Generation (Forbes)

Go To:  Part I – Video Game Compulsion, Part III – Prosocial Gaming