Brainworm: What Makes People Play Farmville?

Sometimes you can’t get that stupid song out of your head.  It just keeps going around and around, and you don’t even like it.  It’s called an earworm. Everyone gets them and no one really knows why.  It’s probably just a cognitive bug in our auditory cortex… nothing to worry about.

Our brains are full of bugs like that, and we’re often not aware of them.  Our minds evolved for gathering berries, hunting rats and holding grudges.  We now use our minds in an environment and context much more complex than that.  The behaviors we need to stay alive today are more complex than hunting and gathering.  The groups we interact with are larger and more interconnected than our pack or tribe.  Our brains are simply not built for the work, loading the software of the 21st century Wikihivemind on a system that still has the firmware for the Savannah.  It’s like trying to fly an A-380 with 386 electronics.  It’ll probably work, but you must expect some crashes.

Many of these bugs are well documented and understood, like the clustering illusion, where we see patterns where none exist, or the gambler’s fallacy, where we fail to grasp that five heads in a row doesn’t change the odds of the next coin toss.  Often these fallacies are quite rational.  If you are a monkey in the jungle, the clustering illusion helps you pick out predators and keeps you alive.  In the 21st century, it makes you think the aliens shot Kennedy.  Monkeys don’t have coins.  If something happens five times in a row in the jungle, it’ll happen the sixth time.  Not so in Vegas.

But there is another, more dangerous bug.  We have a tendency to pick up behaviors that have no obvious survival advantage, but that somehow get into the furniture of our minds and make themselves comfortable.  We can’t quite shake them, even though we know they make no sense.  I call them brainworms.

Take Farmville, for example.  Farmville is a fundamentally trivial game.  You plant imaginary crops, you harvest them.  Anyone over the age of ten can figure out there is no deep strategy or challenge to it.  It’s just click click click.  And yet over 60 million people have played it, more than any other previous computer game.  Why?

Farmville exploits a simple bug in our thinking.  We tend like small, steady rewards.  It’s compelling.  That’s what kept our forebears picking up and eating termites with sticks, a dozen at a time, all day long.  Every stick full of termite was only a few calories, but if you can do it all day, you’ll keep your belly full and live to tomorrow.  Farmville gives us that same slow, incremental reward, click after click.  There is always another level or small reward, just a few clicks away.

But Farmville is a doubly infective meme, because it uses social bugs to get into our brains.  We evolved to live in groups, and to be finely tuned to the expectations and approval of others.  If your boss or spouse plays Farmville, they probably gifted you a cow.  It’s a worthless thing, an icon representing a few electrons on a disk drive you don’t even own on the other side of the world.  But we keep playing, because our brains evolved to understand that gifts are an important social currency and must be repaid.  So we give them a worthless banana tree the next day.  We’re hooked.  Even though we know the game is pointless, and futile, millions of us still spend time on it.

Farmville is an infective meme.  It’s taken advantage of our monkey brain’s cognitive heritage and taken over some of our conscious thinking time in order to spread itself to others.  It’s a cognitive virus — a brainworm.

Once you realize what they are, you realize these things have been with us for a long time, steadily gaining ground, and they are everywhere.

Our ancestors had very limited capacity for brainworms.  Locked in an oral tradition, brainworms couldn’t spread themselves or persist beyond one person’s memory.  There wasn’t enough substrate for them to grow, and not enough spare brain power to hijack.

Music, dance and story were their ancestors.  Tribal dances serve clear purposes to do with displays of fitness, status and group coherence, but they also did something else.  The rhythm and belonging connected with us at a level beyond that.  The dance grew above and beyond the strictly functional requirements.

It wasn’t until the age of radio that the brainworm took it’s truly modern form: the soap opera.  Much of our minds evolved for keeping track of the doings of our tribe, such as who begat whom, or which clique is rising or falling.  Radio soaps plugged right into that.  Suddenly, we were immersed in a tribe of imaginary friends, and our minds demanded to know who was who, and find out what happened next.  One day, we found we all cared about who shot JR as much as if he were our own uncle.

As time went on, we got more discriminating.  Some of us learned to filter out crude story lines and cheap melodrama.  But the writing got better, with ever more compelling and engaging characters and stories marching into our minds, their infective power measured in Emmys.  We might not have cared who shot JR, but we wanted to figure out Lost.

Sports are brainworms too.  Monkeys love to watch a fight.  Who’s going to win?  Can the beta male pull it off?  Which clan will come out on top?  For monkeys that’s really important survival information, and it’s why we think the score from last nights game matters.  Structured, almost formal challenges between tribal cliques easily evolve into team sports where we cheer on our own faction.  The system evolves, and suddenly we find ourselves cheering for a sports team composed, effectively, of mercenaries with whom we have no real ties.  It’s a pointless, self-replicating behavior — a brainworm.

In pre-industrial societies brainworms had little scope to get traction and spread, let alone evolve.  A typical person wasn’t going to be exposed to very many new ideas or things in a day.  The chance for one of them to be a truly compelling brainworm was slight.  If they happened on something (chess, for example) there wasn’t much time to pass it along.

Now, in the internet age, our world is awash with distractions.  Every day, new services, tools and diversions spring up to compete for our limited attention.  Fad and fashions flare and die as we grow weary of them, but now there is a thriving ecosystem.  Successful brainworms can evolve much more rapidly, in a much larger and more connected environment than ever before.  For the first time, this gives them the capacity to evolve much faster than we can learn to brush them off.  It’s harder to turn off the TV.  It’s harder and harder not to try the next cool thing.  Repeated exposures wear down our defenses instead of building up our immunity.

Brainworms differ from memes in a fundamental way.  The concept of a meme, as conceived by Richard Dawkins, is just an idea that spreads from person to person.  Some ideas spread and evolve, others don’t.  A brainworm is more than that.  Like a virus, it uses our existing ways of thinking and behaving to hijack substantial proportions of our brain’s thinking time as well as spread itself.  Memes are not, in and of themselves, dangerous.  You hear a new idea.  You think about it a little.  Maybe you think it’s bad, and it dies there.  Or maybe you think it’s cool and you tell someone else, and maybe tweak it a little.  There is nothing harmful in the process itself.  A brainworm actually hijacks our thinking and flicks us into patterns of behavior that, if not harmful, are not productive.  Like watching soaps, or click clicking through Farmville levels.

Many people gave up on Farmville after a few days.  It just wasn’t compelling enough, and we had other things to do.  But Farmville is only a handful of iterations into an Internet accelerated evolution.  How long will it be before something evolves that is so good, so compelling, so tightly tuned to the firmware of our inner monkey brains that we can’t walk away?

And yet, the brainworm is part of what makes us human.  Much of our best work — the art, the music — is perhaps the product of these strange and meaningless compulsions.  These brainworms, too, are a life form of sorts, evolving and developing while using our minds and social networks as a substrate.  Perhaps they represent a higher, purer life form, devoid of a crudely material body.  Maybe the next stage in human evolution isn’t even human, organic, physical, or even intelligent, but some sort of hyper-brainworm.  Perhaps the things that might destroy us are also what make us human.

Rob Cosgrave blogs about the Future of University Education at:

See Also

Kraken Rising: How the Cephalopod Became Our Zeitgiest Mascot


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