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Michael Chorost, Ph.D.
Michael Chorost Ph.D.

How I kicked my addiction to the iPhone game Angry Birds

Don't let Angry Birds happen to your brain.

After weeks of struggle, I've finally deleted Angry Birds from my iPhone. It is a fiendishly addictive game. The premise is simple: you "pull" back on a slingshot to fire a scowling bird at a structure with green pigs in it. The better your aim, the more damage you do and the more green pigs you kill.

Angry Birds

I've played a number of iPhone games, but this one was a masterpiece of addictiveness. Here's why.

1. It's simple. Absurdly simple. You pull back on a slingshot and fire. Sometimes you tap on the screen to make a bird in flight do something, like drop a bomb. And that's it. There's no learning curve. You're playing in ten seconds.

2. It's rewarding. When the bird hits the structure, things break. Glass tinkles. Wood splinters. Stone shatters. Pigs explode. It brought out the ten-year old boy in me. The same ten-year old boy who built random structures out of Legos and threw them up at the ceiling to see them explode all over the place. It gives you the primitive pleasure of blowing &%$! up.

3. It's realistic. The game's physics engine makes it look eerily real. Gravity works just as you would expect. Pieces of broken stone and glass fly in long arcs to the ground. Debris absorbs bird impacts. Towers topple to the ground and fly apart.

4. It's funny. The insane gabbling of the birds is a hoot. While waiting in line for their turn on the slingshot they hop up and down and do backflips in their fury. To me it was even funnier that their rage seemed entirely purposeless, like Iago's in Othello. I was disappointed when I later found there was a backstory: the pigs had stolen their eggs. I thought it was much better that the birds just mindlessly wanted to kill.

So the game's simple, realistic, rewarding, and funny. But it's also a terrific manpulator of the brain's dopamine system.

Here's why. While I was writing WORLD WIDE MIND I interviewed Steven Grant, chief of the clinical neuroscience department at the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda, Maryland. Grant told me that dopamine's mechanism kicks in when something happens that is typically followed by a reward. Like firing an Angry Bird at a green pig.

In other words, dopamine's presence signals the brain that there is a reward coming, like glass-and-wood houses deliciously flying apart. But the brain doesn't know how good the reward will be. Will the bird just glance off the top, or will it score a glorious direct hit? That uncertainty creates a tension, and the brain craves release. It makes you want to do whatever it is creates the release. Eat the food, drink the beer, pull the slingshot.

There's an ongoing argument in science circles about whether dopamine creates a good feeling (a reward) or creates the feeling of wanting the reward.

To find clues which way it goes, some researchers tried creating a strain of rats whose brains couldn't make dopamine. These rats would not seek out food, even when they hadn't eaten in a while. They would eat, though, when fed by hand. The question was this: did they lack pleasure in eating (no reward), or did they lack the desire to eat?

The way to tell, believe it or not, was to look at the rats' faces while they ate. Rats and human babies, it turns out, express pleasure and disgust with similar facial expressions. (Source for the image below: Berridge (2007), The debate over dopamine's role in reward: the case for incentive salience, Psychopharmacology v. 191, p. 395.)

Berridge (2007): "Sweet tastes elicit positive 'liking' patterns of distinctive orofacial reactions from [rats and humans]."

So if a rat is eating without enjoyment, its face will look different than if it is eating with enjoyment. The researchers fed the dopamine-free rats by hand while looking closely at their faces. (Some jobs you just can't get on Craigslist.)

And, as it turned out, they made the facial expressions associated with pleasure.

So the dopamine-free rats enjoyed eating! They just didn't seek out food. The researchers concluded that dopamine, when present, is what makes rats want to do things. (See Berridge & Robinson (1998), What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience?, Brain Research Reviews V .28, p. 350.)

This dopamine mechanism helps explain why Angry Birds is so addictive. The dopamine action in your brain makes you want to know, urgently, what will happen when you fire the bird. And it's extremely easy to get yourself in a position of wanting, because the game is so simple. It gives you intermittent but extremely satisfying rewards. So you pull the slingshot again and again and again. And again and again and again and AGAIN.

There's really only two ways to quit entirely. One is to somehow make your brain stop emitting dopamine in the parts that have to do with reward and anticipation. You would still enjoy Angry Birds, but you wouldn't feel a desire to open up the app and start playing. This requires either brain surgery or drugs that don't exist yet, so it's not a very practical way to go.

The other way is to erase it off your iPhone. To quit cold turkey and never play it again. And that is what I have done. I feel very proud of myself.

About the Author
Michael Chorost, Ph.D.

Michael Chorost, Ph.D., is the author of World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humans,.

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