Why do we crave ‘likes’? (Death Stranding)

With guest host Matthew Castle!

In post-apocalyptic hiking simulator Death Stranding, there is a weird holographic internet floating around in the air. See a nice bridge? Hit that ‘like’ button. You can even make a helpful structure other players will ‘like’ in return – a watchtower, a shelter, a strange mushroom. But why do we crave ‘likes’ in the first place? In this episode, we speak to neuroscientist Dr Ofir Turel about what happens to our brains when we spend a lot of time on Twitter, Facebook, and maybe even the weird world of Death Stranding.

Links and episode transcription below…


How ‘likes’ work in Death Stranding (video)

Dr Ofir Turel’s publications

An example of “technology mediated dangerous behaviour”


Special thanks to Professor Dar Meshi for advice and other useful information on the neuroscience of social media

SFX clips from Death Stranding by Kojima Productions, including BB’s Theme by Ludvig Forssell feat. Jenny Plant

Music: Daydreams by DreamHeaven, used under Creative Commons via Pixabay

Episode Transcription:

Dr Ofir Turel, neuroscientist: Even people who win the Nobel prize, you think they’ve reached their peak. There are actually four people who won two Nobel prizes. So even after you win a Nobel prize, you think to yourself: “Oh, what am I going to do to get the second one?”

Higgs (sound bite): The name’s Higgs. The particle of God that permeates all existence.

Brendan Caldwell: Hello, and welcome to Hey Lesson. This is the podcast where we put dumb games in front of smart people and we ask them: does that make any sense? It’s where we plan to underhandedly teach you things using popular video games, basically. Today we’re talking about post-apocalyptic delivery man simulator, Death Stranding, and why we feel compelled to smash the holographic ‘like’ buttons that appear all over it’s, uh, it’s weird science fiction landscape. So keep listening if you want to hear a neuroscientist explaining why you love to get liked. Uh, but first we’ve got a guest. It’s Matthew Castle from Rock Paper Shotgun. Hello!

Matthew Castle: Hello.

Brendan: You and I used to work together, which makes you a good person for me to talk to on this subject, but also you have played a lot of this game, Death Stranding,

Matthew: Oh, I’ve spent an awful lot of time roaming the wastelands and delivering boxes.

Brendan: For anyone who hasn’t played or hasn’t really seen much about it, could you explain, like, what is Death Stranding?

Matthew: So, you described it as a delivery man simulator, which is very apt. You are a character, a courier in a post apocalyptic future. You’re in the United States of America. There’s been an, an event of some kind, which has basically driven mankind into these sort of bunkers, sort of cities under the ground and all the kind of communication and travel networks have been shattered. So any connection between these bunkers now lies on the heads of, of these delivery men who have to track across, um, rather Icelandic looking scenery. It says it’s the States, but it’s got this, uh, very strange mountainous kind of vibe to it. And, uh, yeah, you’re a post man basically delivering boxes. You can pull them up and you’ve got this mad balancing stuff as you try and keep them stacked on your back. Um, but there is a wider story about kind of reuniting the United States and creating a new internet that connects, uh, one coast to the other.

Brendan: And is that all you do? Is that all you do, you just bring boxes from one place to another? Is there anything else?

Matthew: That’s your, that’s your job. But on top of this, there’s a layer of all kinds of strange things. I mean, there’s supernatural elements. So you’re trying to hide from ghosts who want to, well they don’t want to rob you, they just want to ghost you, as ghosts tend to do. Uh, there are, hilariously, there are other kind of couriers who’ve basically sort of gone feral and they’re so addicted to delivery that they just sort of mug, uh, the other couriers, try and steal their packages. So there’s this whole kind of gang culture of basically people addicted to being mailmen who are now trying to rob the legitimate mailman. So you’ve got to dodge them as well. Uh, and there is also a, quite a big building element, where you can build structures and that will help you in your quest, and potentially help other people. Because one of the interesting things about Death Stranding is it’s kind of this big, interconnected world so that things people build in their game may appear in yours. Likewise things you build in yours may appear in their world. So there’s also some other weird stuff. Like you can drink a lot of, uh, energy drinks and then you have to take a massive wee every so often because it has sort of simulated this mail man right down to his bladder, which is quite impressive.

Brendan: Um, it’s also, it’s quite a strange game as well. There are babies in jars, for instance, there are…

Matthew: There’s that, there’s that layer of it. That’s sort of the supernatural elements. Your connection to this world is a yeah. It’s is a child in a, in a jar that you kind of plug into your suit. Uh, and it gets really upset when there’s a ghost nearby then you have to sort of unplug it and sort of slosh it around, um, to, you know, in a kind of, sort of nursing motion to try and calm it. Um, there’s also a strange teleporting woman. There’s rain that ages you if it touches you, uh, there’s a man with a gold face, uh, several men with gold faces in fact, uh, yeah, it’s very odd.

Brendan: You said that there’s a building element and you’re trying to get roads back up and running for instance, or you’re trying, like, what are some of the other ways you can get around?

Matthew: Yeah. So it sort of scales up. So to begin with, you know, you’re purely kind of hiking this environment and the tools you have are like ladders for climbing up cliffs. And once you’re at the top of the cliff, you can pin a climbing rope and abseil down. So there’s a kind of a ‘snakes and ladders’, up-down kind of thing. Um, but as you begin to kind of power up society, you get more advanced structures you can build. So you can build little umbrellas that protect you from the time rain, you can build roads. So there’s a giant motorway, which basically connects one end of the map to the other, and you can build it in little chunks, but I mean, this is a considerable task. You know, putting a ladder up takes all of five seconds. Building a road, you’re pumping resources into a kind of a mass building project. This is also shared with other players. So you’re kind of as a collective, you’re rebuilding a motorway. You can build zip lines to help you get over mountainous areas or zip-line, you know, from the top of mountains down to safe ground. So it’s all like navigation stuff that makes the environment like a bit easier to get around.

Brendan: And these bridges and watchtowers and umbrellas and ladders and stuff, you can come across other people’s structures.

Matthew: Yeah. And that’s, that’s one of the big pillars of the game is that, you know, you’re often in this sort of environment, which is very, very stressful and you’re really up against it and there could be maniac postmen chasing you or scary ghosts. And then you turn the corner and you find out that someone has been in this area in the past and has placed the perfect ladder or the perfect rope, or has bridged a gorge, which then gives you an escape route you wouldn’t formerly have had. And so it feels like you’re aided by this sort of army of other invisible couriers. Um, so yeah, it’s definitely one of the highlights of the game, I think. Discovering the sort of surprises that other people have left for you in their game.

Brendan: To bring it to our topic, one of the things that you can do when you come across, like, one of these ladders or helpful structures, is you can walk up to it and a little thing will appear, and it’ll say ‘hit the like button’ and you can basically click like on a ladder or a postbox or a zip line. Um, so for this episode of Hey Lesson we want to try and ask the question: why do we keep clicking ‘like’? Or why do we want these likes? Because you can get, you can receive likes from other people as well, right?

Matthew: Yeah, absolutely. When you, you know, if they are using structures that you’ve placed and they like them in their game, when you then get back into your game, you kind of accrue those likes. It tells you people have been liking your stuff while you’ve been away. And it sort of feeds into your character.

Brendan: What do you do with those likes? Do they unlock stuff or is it just for prestige?

Matthew: Uh, they, they tie into your rank as a delivery man. And that improves various stats. Like how much you can carry, your balance, uh, your movement speed. So it’s kind of like an experience system in an RPG, except here it’s the likes which you’ve been given, either by other players or you also learn likes by doing missions in the game.

Brendan: Before we go a bit deeper into this system of likes and the, the internet side of Death Stranding, I wanted to ask someone who knew a little bit more of like, maybe than you or I, about what happens in the brain when we give or receive a like. So this is Dr Ofir Turel, he’s a neuroscientist from California. He’s been studying exactly that sort of thing, Matthew. So let’s, uh, listen to what he had to say.

Diehardman (sound bite): Remember Sam, every parcel is a promise made to a person in need. And they’re counting on you to deliver.

Brendan: Alright. So for the listeners, could you introduce yourself?

Ofir Turel: Yeah. My name is Dr Ofir Turel and I am a professor at Fullerton, and I have been doing research on social media and video games to some extent, or the last 15 years or so. I have conducted several neuroscience studies on likes and the effect of social media use on people’s brains.

Brendan: Just to explain very briefly what happens in the game. This is a game of traversing difficult terrain to deliver packages and cargo. If I build a bridge, someone in France or the United States can see that bridge, they’ll cross it and they’ll give it a little ‘like’. What I want to know from you is: what does getting a like do to our brain?

Ofir Turel: Okay, good question. So a ‘like’ is a form of social reward, which means it lights up reward systems in our brain. These are systems that signal to the brain or to the body that we enjoy something. So if I eat a piece of cake and I learned that this is enjoyable, the brain system, that processes rewards would light up and release dopamine in the brain. And that’s the neurotransmitter that makes us feel good, a sense of euphoria. And if I repeat this process, a couple of times, I learn to associate eating a piece of cake with reward. And for this, the brain sort of learns to crave a piece of cake and to react automatically the next time it sees a piece of cake. So when I see a piece of cake, the brain tells me: this is rewarding. Go for it.

[Twinkly “like” sound effect lol]

Ofir Turel: Of course, there are other brain systems that are supposed to tell me that’s not healthy for you. You should stop. And don’t eat this piece of cake, but it doesn’t always happen. So the same happens with likes. So likes are rewarding for the simple reason that humans are social animals, we seek to be related to others. So every time we get a ‘like’ it signals to us that we relate to others and that we have some sense of competence. Someone likes what we did or posted. These senses of relatedness and competence are expressed in terms of releasing dopamine in the brain. So the brain region that governs reward processing lights up.

Brendan: This is, this might be a bit of conjecture. But do you think getting a like in Death Stranding might have the same effect as getting a lot of likes on a Facebook or Twitter or…

Ofir Turel: Yeah, I think it’s reasonable to expect that a like is a like. It doesn’t matter where you get it, because it’s just an indication of social affirmation, right? So it just tells you that people like what you did, that you are competent in what you do. And as you relate socially – relate to other people – they sort of like you. So it doesn’t matter where you get it, you could get a like face to face, right? Someone could give you a thumbs up when they see you. And that makes you feel good, or a tap on the shoulder and say, good job.

Heartman (sound bite): Well, I never expected you to open up to me.

Ofir Turel: So, uh, all of these things have a common neural underpinning in that they make us feel good. And therefore they release dopamine to some extent in our brain.

Brendan: You’ve done a study which speaks about humans approaching likes as a sort of foraging activity. That’s it like animals chasing calories. Are we really that frantic online?

Ofir Turel: I think so. I think it’s a fair comparison. So animals need food for survival, right? So, um, they seek, they seek, uh, food to survive and they are engaging in risky behaviours when they are hungry. So when animals are deprived from food, they are willing to take more risks, like going into fields where they may be predators or trying to hunt at night, even though they don’t have good night vision. So they’re taking risks to forage for food when they’re hungry. Humans are the same, they have needs, but humans have more needs than just food or safety needs, right? So basic needs of humans include a need for relatedness, to feel that we’re connected to other people, a need for competence. Right? Um, so being acknowledged that we achieved something. And obviously there is the need for autonomy. This is called self-determination theory.

Bridget Strand (sound bite): But humans aren’t made for living alone. They’re supposed to come together to help one another.

Ofir Turel: There are many other classification of needs, but these needs are very simple to understand: need for relatedness and need for competence. And when humans (at least based on several experiments that I have conducted) when humans sense that they do not have enough likes or that others have many more likes than they have, they’re willing to engage in riskier behaviors, like posting private information, such as their birth date or posting, uh, posting images of themselves while driving, or in risky situations like standing on the edge of a cliff, trying to take a selfie.

Brendan: And in the video game, the faster and more efficient you are at delivering packages to places, the more likes you can get. But this might take you through like some dangerous territory. There might be essentially enemy postman who will attack you. Or there might be weird sci-fi ghosts. It’s very dangerous. Um, but you might do it anyway. For the excitement, yeah. But also for the likes?

Ofir Turel: It seems like a reasonable explanation. Why people would take risks in video games in part. I mean, this is of course not the only explanation but, in part, taking risks like the ones you described can be explained by the desire of humans to obtain more likes, especially if others have more likes. So, you know, we envy others. We compare ourselves to others. There is this process of social comparison that we always engage in as humans. We always compare ourselves upwards, to people who have more.

Mama (sound bite): A network that could unite everyone, where they could share, and share alike.

Brendan: You talk about the brain and being rewarded. Why isn’t it enough that we build that bridge? You know, that we see the bridge get built ourselves, or even to see, you know, a number of people have crossed it. Why do likes seem to give much more of a boost than a simple sense of accomplishment?

Ofir Turel: I don’t think they replace the simple sense of accomplishment. That could also give you a boost, but likes are much more powerful because at first you see it immediately. You see how many people like your post or bridge that you built, and you have a reference to other people. Now you have some metrics that you could use. So my bridge got 50 likes. The other person’s bridge got 20 likes. So it’s easier to compare. And this comparison process is really, uh, built into our brains. We just learned as humans to compare ourselves to others. Unfortunately we always – I shouldn’t say always – we *tend* to compare ourselves upwards to people who have more. And this envy creates, some may say, a positive desire to do a better job, but it’s not always leading us to do a better job. It’ll sometimes lead us to bigger risks, to achieve what others have achieved.

Higgs (sound bite): Congratulations. You won the game.

Brendan: And it’s obviously not always useful to compare yourself to the rest of the entire world, or the rest of the people who play this video game, because there’s so many of them, right?

Ofir Turel: There are so many of them. So that’s one thing. In a normal face to face setting we can compare ourselves to whoever we see, the 10, 20, 30 people that surround us. But in social media and in a video game setting, we have a much larger pool of people. And there is always going to be someone with better scores than you, have more likes than you have. I mean, there is an interesting thing: even people who win the Nobel prize, you think, you know, they reached their peak and that’s it. They shouldn’t do anymore. But there are actually, there are actually four people who won two Nobel prizes. Four of them. So even after you win a Nobel prize, you think to yourself: “Oh, what am I going to do to get the second one?”

Sam (sound bite): After you make your connections and nothing happens, then what? I said then what!

Brendan: In the game, you can get likes for bridges, yes. But also for other, very ridiculous things. You can urinate in the video game, for instance, and a little holographic mushroom will grow where you’ve peed. And, uh, it may seem strange to a doctor like yourself, but you can… as a player, you can ‘like’ people’s pee mushrooms. Or other players can like your mushrooms. Do… my question is: do we risk getting a sense of inflated self-worth for the things that we are liked for on social media?

Ofir Turel: Yes. So likes are used as social currency. So they signal to an individual that they did something good and that they’re competent and that they have many friends. But this is a false sense of relatedness and competency, of course, because likes do not always indicate that a person is competent. As I mentioned, just by, you know, having more likes for one bridge or one mushroom, it doesn’t mean that this is a better bridge or mushroom, it just means that people just reacted, sometimes automatically, and placed these likes on these objects.

Brendan: So my pee mushroom that only got 200 likes isn’t necessarily worse than another person’s pee mushroom that got 2000 likes?

Ofir Turel: No, and it’s very subjective. So even if you get 2000 likes… you may initially feel good about it, but eventually you may feel bad about it, because you realize that someone else got 4,000 likes on their mushroom.

Brendan: Yeah. Oh, man.

Ofir Turel: It’s a complex process.

Heartman (sound bite): When you relieve yourself, a certain amount of chiral matter is flushed from your system…

Brendan: Your colleague, Dar Meshi, another neuroscientist, said that the feelings that you take away from time spent on a website like Facebook or Twitter (or possibly Death Stranding) depends on what you do on that website. If you are constantly consuming what other people are doing and looking at them and comparing yourself to them, you’ll come away feeling worse than if you went in and contributed something yourself. Is that correct? Is there… are there studies that show this kind of thing?

Ofir Turel: Yeah. So there is this distinction between passive use and active use, where passive is consuming. It means consuming other people’s posts and not being active. So that’s, that tends to be a more aversive type of use, where, you know, people tend to just see what others are doing and compare themselves and be depressed that they’re never going to achieve [the] other great vacations people have been taking, or dining at these fancy restaurants, or being at these great locations. People taking pictures at the edge of the cliff. So that’s, that’s the consumption part. When you start being more active, you become one of these people that actually accumulates likes. And therefore you become one of these points of reference for other people, which means that your self-determination needs – need for relatedness, need for competence – are better satisfied. So you’re going to feel better about yourself through the use of social media.

Brendan: So if I want to feel better about myself, when I play Death Stranding, I should be building roads. I should be creating. I should be building zip lines and watchtowers and doing everything I can to make my mark on the world.

Ofir Turel: With caveat! See, it’s sort of – I’m using an extreme term – it’s addictive. Or maybe I should use a softer term. It’s really engaging. So it can really suck you in. Of course, the first time you build a bridge and you get 50 likes, it’s going to make you happy. Now, next time you build a bridge, 50 may not be enough. Now you want 60.

Brendan: Yeah. I’m chasing the bridge dragon.

Ofir Turel: You’re chasing the – exactly.

Diehardman (sound bite): Damn addicts chasing a cargo high.

Brendan: You also said there, um, a second ago, when people were taking vacations or whatever, they’re posting their pictures, uh, for instance, a selfie on the edge of a cliff, This is something that you have, in particular, studied. You even have a name for it. These actions people take on social media that are actually dangerous or harmful in some way. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Ofir Turel: So I call this phenomenon “technology mediated dangerous behaviors”. So it’s the family of behaviors that are… these are risky behaviors that people engage in just to chase after more likes, trying to obtain more likes. I also studied people trying to obtain more birthday wishes just to feel that they’re connected and so on. So how risky are you willing to be in terms of obtaining likes and birthday wishes from your friends? That depends on how inferior you feel compared to other people on social media, in terms of the likes and birthday wishes that they obtained.

Brendan: So is the suggestion that I will become more desperate the more I yearn for likes, and I will take bigger risks the more I seek out those likes?

Ofir Turel: That’s a correct conclusion.

Brendan: So I definitely will run through a bunch of rival enemy postmen in Death Stranding, if I think it will get me 50 more likes?

Ofir Turel: “Definitely” is a strong word, but certainly you are more likely than otherwise to engage in this risky behavior.

Brendan: I know myself, I think I will.

Ofir Turel: For 50? Okay.

Mama (sound bite): Remote detonation grenade launcher.

Brendan: We’re going to haggle over likes now.

Ofir Turel: No we could. We could. But, uh, it’s a risky behavior. And, um, you know, the notion that people are to some extent like animals is not new. We learn a lot from animal models of behavior. So, uh, just adding the fact that on social media, we also behave like animals to some extent, by foraging for rewards, like likes and birthday wishes – it’s perhaps not surprising, but it’s an interesting observation that can teach us a lot about human behavior on social media.

Brendan: Dr Ofir Turel, thank you very much for talking with us on this topic.

Ofir Turel: Oh, thank you. I appreciate that.

Brendan: We’ve learnt an awful lot.

Diehardman (sound bite): You still with me, Sam? Check the terminal and pick up that order before you leave.

Brendan: All right. Uh, that was Dr Ofir Turel from Fullerton in California. Matthew, as someone who has wandered the charred wasteland for a long time, did you click like on people’s stuff a lot? Or was it just a pointless part of the game, or what?

Matthew: I did click like, because, well, like I said before, I was clicking like because I found the things genuinely useful and I’ve wanted to reward people with my likes. So, you know, if I found something to be very useful, I, yeah, I hit that button, mashed that button, in fact, cause you can hit it a lot and be like: like, like, like, like, like, like! Which in itself is just fun. That’s a fun thing to hear. So, um, yeah, I was, I think I was actually quite generous. Like, you know, it’s kind of like tipping.

Brendan: What like you use someone’s ladder to get over a chasm and you just go: tip, tip, tip, tip, tip, tip?

Matthew: Yeah, Because they’ve provided me with a great service, so I wanted to, you know, I wanted to reward them.

Brendan: There are in-game scoreboards for the postmen. Did you feel any compulsion to be a high scoring delivery man? Like did you want to compete with the other real players, and get more likes than them?

Matthew: I must admit, I did. The more I played it, I actually became quite cynical with how I was placing my structures. I wasn’t placing things, just willy nilly. It was more about, well, whether they benefited me straight away – because that’s one purpose of building – but I was also looking for opportunities to try and basically squeeze likes from other people… Take the example, you get to a massive hill that hasn’t been crossed, if you build a zip line there, you think, well, most people are going to go for that zip line rather than walk around the hill. So, you’re almost trying to stay a step ahead of what you think other people are going to need in any given situation, to basically create something they’re more likely to like as a result.

Brendan: When I was playing, there was a whole load of videos on YouTube about how to farm likes. It’s as if it’s… as if you’ve got a Facebook page for your band and you want to get a load of likes on it.

Matthew: Yeah. Well, like if someone had placed something useful, I wouldn’t place a similar object near it because there was no point, you know. There was no point also placing a bridge just down from a bridge that someone is going to get to first. There might be a case for, like, if someone’s placed a bridge, you think: “Well, can I place a bridge which is 50 steps closer, you know, to basically nuke their bridge because I want to undermine their whole like operation”. Um, which is a key way I’d say Death Stranding differs from other social networks, is that it’s quite hard to undermine people on Twitter or Facebook.

Brendan: Oh, I don’t know.

Matthew: But like, it’s quite hard if there’s a successful tweet, it’s quite hard to somehow siphon off success from that tweet.

Brendan: There’s a lot of patter thieves.

Matthew: Oh yeah. There’s patter theft, but that’s, I’d say that’s slightly different because, like I want them to choose my bridge and I have a… I can impact that outcome by placing it cleverly. I mean, I don’t see two bridges and I’m like: “one of these is a patter thief”. You know, I don’t roll my eyes at a stretch of motorway. Like “oh yeah, I’ve seen it before – a road.”

Brendan: Did, did you… what was your most liked thing? Do you remember?

Matthew: Yeah, it’s a network of zip lines that basically take you over quite a large mountain base. If you’ve played the game, it comes about a third into the second big, airy region where the map really opens up. Uh, it was a purely cynical move. I’ll admit because I saw this mountain which was like, visually, it’s really imposing. And everyone’s going to look at it like your eye is drawn to it. So if I put the zip line here, people are going to sit in the zip line, they’re probably going to use it. It was a very, very, very calculated move. It took ages. It was hard work. So I felt like I earned their likes. You know, I had to climb up a mountain, you know, the baby getting kind of mardy the whole time, because it’s getting sloshed about. I had to basically deconstruct everything I could find to get the ingredients, to build this stuff, you know? So I’d destroy a bridge of mine, which was well-liked to try and aid my new project.

Brendan: Imagine doing that online, taking down a joke on Twitter, or like a really popular Instagram photo, so that you could feed those likes into another upcoming photo.

Matthew: “Oooh, I’ve got a better version of this joke. So maybe I’ll try that.” Um, yeah, it’s very much like that. Um, but that was a lot of hard work. Like I actually felt like I put in… I say a lot of hard work – it probably took me an hour. But in the context, that’s an hour I could have spent doing other fun things. And anecdotally I did see that zip-line appear in like other reviewers coverage of the game.

Brendan: Really?

Matthew: Yeah. Yeah. I saw of screenshots of it in other people’s stuff.

Brendan: So you felt proud of it. You felt like you’d helped.

Matthew: I did. Something like: that is my legacy. That zipline? I conquered that.

Brendan: That’s what Dr Ofir Turel would call active participation in the social network. You didn’t just sit by and lurk and look at other people’s watch towers. You got involved.

Matthew: Yeah.

Brendan: Did you ever get hurt in the middle of liking somebody else’s thing?

Matthew: I didn’t ever get hurt in the middle of the liking something. In the actual process of just hitting ‘like’ you know. It isn’t too much of a risk, and maybe if I was running away from a ghost, likes are not at the forefront of my mind, I’m more focused on the ghost, uh, to be honest. But I’d say that would be the same with Twitter. You know, if I was using Twitter and being pursued by a ghost, you know, I’d focus on the ghost. But I definitely, within the game’s missions, took risks to try and improve my mission standing. If that makes sense. You know, the likes that I’d get at the end of a mission, you try and get as many of them as possible, by doing it as fast as possible, which often means a shortcut across a field, which is often where they place the evil mailmen. So I weighed into that quite regularly out of a desire for likes.

Brendan: About those evil mailmen, uh, the mules. Do you feel like this idea that people can get “addicted” to likes is far-fetched? I’m using “addicted” in quotes because I know that the scientists who talk about this stuff know that that’s a controversial term, but do you think that that’s a silly idea?

Matthew: The idea of being addicted to likes?

Brendan: Yeah.

Matthew: I wouldn’t say I was addicted… it’s… it’s tricky. Cause some of it is just what video games ingrain in you, you know, like they’re about efficiencies. So I don’t know how much of it is just me applying my natural desire for efficiency in a video game. And it just happens to have this like system kind of wrapped around it. You know, like, I wouldn’t say I took risks for higher grades. You naturally want higher grades in games. And most people try and pursue them. I definitely registered the like system in Death Stranding in a way that I was surprised, because I knew the system was in there going in, and thought “Oh, I don’t really care about that kind of stuff.” But then I did start building things that I wanted to be a success. And when I reloaded the game and it said “you’ve earned 2000 likes since you last played” – that was exciting. Because you were like, Oh great. I know I did some good work. Also, uh, rather cynically… if I’d see a structure that I knew was good, but I was jealous that someone [else] had that idea, I wouldn’t give it a like out of spite.

Brendan: Oh my God.

Matthew: Cause I don’t want other people to be successful… I would say that is quite true of my Twitter behavior. If someone, if someone’s on a roll with something, I often don’t want to help them with it because I think, well… why should I help them? I want, I want likes, not them.

Brendan: So whenever our neuroscientist friend talks about people comparing themselves on, on social media and how they shouldn’t, they should try not to compare themselves up. You’re doing that, but you’re doing that with a sneer and just refusing to press the like button.

Matthew: Yeah. He’s… it’s true. Like, the idea of once you hit… once you get past a certain target, all you do is set eyes on the next thing. Which is, which is definitely true. It’s definitely true on Twitter. Maybe I felt it less here because it’s harder to… there are fewer elements in the landscape that felt like they belonged to people. You know, it’s harder to get a sense of, you know, seeing like certain names reoccurring across the wasteland, you know, the way the game actually kind of brings different structures together. It’s not the same as having like a hundred friends who you see on a daily basis, and you can basically rank yourself on Twitter with those hundred friends. Um, here it’s just a big mass of strangers. But you can have little, like, there were individual names that popped out when I was playing Death Stranding that I learned to kind of hate, because they were clearly better at Death Stranding than I was in this regard.

Brendan: This is a Hideo Kojima game. The guy who works on this, or rather the director of it, is known for making games that… they don’t muck about. So it’s basically one giant cudgel of symbolism. You know, the characters are called things like “Diehardman” or, uh, “Deadman”, or “Heartman”.

Matthew: “Fragile”.

Brendan: You know, Heartman has a heart condition. Fragile is someone who’s got a weak body. He doesn’t mess about. Uh, and the message of this game really just seems to be: “the network will bring us together.” If we can connect everyone to high speed broadband, life’s going to be okay. Do you think this missed addressing the darker side of the internet that we should be aware of?

Matthew: I think with regards to the likes, I actually think… the like system here created quite a positive communal spirit, which is probably the thing that surprised me most about the game and that I liked. I think it’s fundamentally a very positive-thinking game, you know, in terms of… it basically says, the more connected we are, the more we work together, the better everything is. Which is maybe a bit of a simple message. Um, yes. I mean, I don’t think it was digging into that dark side mainly because it would counter that, that larger message, you know. I don’t think he wants you thinking about, you know, what comes next after we’ve united society – we’re back in the place where everything can fracture again, which is what inevitably happens. Um, but he’s made plenty of other games about that fracture. In terms of where you go from a place of disunity, I actually think it’s – while a bit on the nose – it delivers that message in quite a mechanically interesting way, you know. It’s not just relegated to cut scenes, the things you’re doing in the game spread that message, that if we work together, things are okay.

Brendan: All right. Well, Matthew that’s sadly all we have time for. You have been listening to Hey Lesson with me, Brendan Caldwell, and my guest co-host this time, Matthew Castle. Uh, thanks. Thanks very much for joining us.

Matthew: Thanks.

Brendan: Yeah. And lending us all your, uh, knowledge of the inner workings of the like system, and for all your cynicism too.

Matthew: I’ll tell you what though. Our expert was definitely right about cake. I am very much driven by a love for more cake.

Brendan: If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please consider supporting us. You can recommend us to friends. If you want Hey Lesson to keep going, please consider throwing some dollars into our tin at Patreon. Patreon subscribers get regular goodies, including unabridged interviews with all the experts that we chat to. So if you want to hear more of, for instance, what our neuroscientist friend, Dr Ofir Turel said, for example, you can hear that. Those chats, they’re always cut down. They’re usually much longer than the 15 minutes that appear here. So a lot of interesting stuff has been edited out. You’ll also get bonus episodes, video updates, and some other stuff for subscribing. So please, if that sounds good to you, click the link in the show notes or head to patreon.com/heylesson, or just Google “Hey Lesson Patreon” – whatever. We are an ad-free show. And we’d really like to keep it that way. We’re also a very young podcast. So don’t let us whether on the vine. Leave us a review on iTunes, if you can. If you have any suggestions or comments you can email us, the address is in the description. And of course, above all else, please smash that like button. Thank you. Goodbye.

Diehardman (sound bite): Won’t be long before we’re able to send all kinds of things through the wire.
Sam: Yeah, Except, anything original.