Some Thoughts on Games Addiction

Some weeks ago, the phenomenal Mez Breeze interviewed me on the topic of games addiction. The full article, which ran in The Next Web, is available here, and I hope you'll click through and read it. Some great stuff there.

A lot of her questions were incredibly thought-provoking and I responded at much greater length than she could ever have hoped to use. Rather than let all of those words and thinky thoughts languish in the deeps of our email, I thought it might be interesting to let you have a peek at the full text of the interview. So here goes!

Can you briefly outline your professional background and how/if it relates to the concepts of addiction or gaming?

I'm a writer and game designer, with a particular emphasis on transmedia and alternate reality games. I'm also a lifelong gamer who has engaged in some addictive behaviors in the past.

Do you think contemporary game production companies are deliberately producing computer and Internet-based games that are geared towards compulsive or unhealthy game play?

Yes, at least some game developers are intentionally trying to induce addictive behaviors, without question. It's common for a game design spec to talk about making a game "more addictive" in positive terms, as shorthand for "highly engaging and fun to play." There's also rampant and intentional use of the compulsion loop, which is a term ultimately derived from Skinnerian psychology: You train a rat that something nice will happen when it presses the lever, in order to get it to keep pushing that lever again and again.

But as terrible as this sounds when you put it this way, there is a core moral dilemma for a game designer. Even if you don't want to be predatory, you want to produce the best, most fun, most engaging game that you can, right? So let's say you make an amazing game, purely as an exercise in art. People love it, they play for hours a day, they don't shower, they skip meals, they stay up all night. They fail tests, they get divorced and fired. Surely there is a point where you can't be held culpable for the behaviors of your players, who are, after all, responsible for their own lives. But at the same time you're not clearly NOT responsible, either, because you left the loaded gun lying around, so to speak.

It's a quagmire with no path through. No side of this debate about gaming and addiction is entirely right or entirely wrong. The solution can't and shouldn't be "stop making fun games," though.

In your opinion, are certain gaming platforms more addictive than others? What types of computer, console or device-based games are the worst offenders? Eg. First Person Shooters, App-oriented Social Games (such as those produced by companies like Zynga), MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games), Strategy Games, or Transmedia/Alternate Reality Games.

All of these are offenders, but the problematic behaviors each are likely to provoke can manifest differently. FPSes and MMORPGs tend to maximize length of play session; whereas Zynga-style social and casual games maximize number of sessions -- returning to the game as often as possible.

I do find the Zynga-style social, mobile games more evil, if you will, just because many of these games are very close to compulsion loops and nothing else. Not a meaningful sense of community or competition, not a narrative, not a sense of exploration. I'm playing a game right now called Jetpack Joyride (not a Zynga game!). In this game, you do the exact same thing every time: You ride a flying jetpack down a hall and avoid traps like lasers and missiles. The game keeps you playing by offering minor variations in the mechanic. After you play enough times, you can upgrade to gadgets that will make it easier to avoid some of the traps, or collect more coins along the way. And if you don't feel like playing that many times to get the next gadget you want, why, they're happy to take your money instead of your time. And the game is constantly giving you missions to fulfill to "level up": having close calls, going a certain distance with a particular vehicle, and so on.

But really, every single time you play it's the same exact thing: One or two minutes of the same randomly-generated hallways. There's nothing there but the loop.

Still, even games with nothing resembling an overt loop can produce compulsive behaviors. The Beast, an alternate reality game meant to market the film A.I., was my first step into transmedia gaming. And at the time, for all that I played and loved that game so much that it changed the path of my career, I wrote an essay lamenting how all-consuming it was. 

Playing that game was essentially an unpaid part-time job for me. The amount of content created for it was overwhelming -- but I don't think anything since has produced quite the same volume, and so as a result the perceived intensity declined, as well. These kinds of games tend to have limited active lives now, usually not more than a few months, and usually only a few hours a week (at most!) of new material to engage with. That's probably because it's expensive and difficult to make content at that pace, and not because of any moral superiority, but it's interesting to see that trend toward requiring a lower commitment from your players.

Do you view the immersive nature of computer games as similar to that encountered when gambling? If yes, what are the similarities?

The core appeal of gambling is the compulsion loop, too. And indeed, when B.F. Skinner was studying how to reinforce behaviors -- such as pressing the lever on a slot machine -- he found that a variable reward schedule resulted in much more compulsive behavior than a predictable schedule. So if you won every other time you played the slots, it wouldn't be as much "fun," and you'd be less compelled to keep playing.

It's that tension of knowing you might get the treat, but not knowing exactly when, that keeps you playing. The player develops an unshakeable faith, after a while, that THIS will be the time I hit it big. THIS is the time it will all pay off, no matter how many times it hasn't so far. Just one more turn. One more minute. But it's really never just one more.

From a game developer/game theorist perspective, what do you consider factors that contribute to compulsive or addictive game play?

A number of factors all combine, of course. Low perceived effort and high perceived reward are the foundation. At any moment, the ask has to seem fairly modest; just a few minutes, just a few dollars. You don't tend to rationally step back and recognize that the cumulative cost to you in time, money, or energy is much, much higher. Another factor is a steady flow of easily attainable goals; that's why you see missions in Jetpack Joyride, or various kinds of badges and achievements in most other kinds of game. They create the feeling that you can accomplish something if you keep playing that one... more... minute.

Zynga and other Facebook games in particular add on the feeling of opportunity cost. You get so many action points per hour, but you have a cap on how many you can have at once. That means if your action timer completely fills up in four hours but you're spending eight hours at work -- why, you're losing four hours of potential play! So maybe you should check in from work at lunch, just for a minute, just to use up all of your action points... It's one of my least favorite game innovations of the last several years.

This one isn't used as intentionally, but there's also some element of peer pressure. When you're playing a multiplayer game with a bunch of friends online, you dont' want to be the first one to leave to break up the party. And in an MMO, if you play four hours a week but your friends play forty, pretty soon you're not going to be on par with your equipment, ready for the same areas, or looking to accomplish the same things anymore. This was my problem when I played EverQuest, long ago; in order to keep up with my friends, I had to commit an unreasonable amount of my life to playing. In the end I just gave up playing entirely.

Do you see any ways to prevent gaming addiction, or have suggestions as to how to best deal with the consequences of compulsive game play?

In order to check my own problematic behaviors, I really prefer games that you can win, so there's a clear-cut end point to them. That means a lot of narrative-based games, like Dragon Age. I also like shorter and episodic games, like Journey or the Telltale Games list. No matter how much you love a narrative game, they're harder to pick up and fool yourself it'll only be for ten minutes... and eventually the game is over.

For the most part, I steer clear of multiplayer situations, MMOs, and so on because I just can't trust myself. With narrative games with an ending. I know I'll binge-play them, so to avoid the fallout of missed sleep and deadlines, I don't even start a game like that unless I have a good solid week with no serious commitments.

Casual browser and mobile games are easier for me to put down, but probably because I went clean through a very heavy Farmville phase some years ago. Nowadays I play a casual game only really until I feel like I understand it, I've seen all there is to see to it, and then they're no fun anymore. For a game like Angry Birds that might be "seen all the levels." For something like Jetpack Joyride, it's hard to say; I think I have the flavor of it in just playing for a couple of days, and I don't feel like I need to actually buy all the gadgets to feel like I've gotten everything I could out of it. Once you see the naked compulsion loop for what it is, it loses most of its appeal.

Are there any positive ways to harness the potentialities of addictive games?

There have been some interesting efforts in that direction, particularly in the way of fitness games. It's interesting to note that Dance Dance Revolution absolutely incited compulsive behavior in me -- and along the way, I probably became the fittest I'd been in years. Usually, though, the effort involved in actually getting exercise makes the loop harder to invoke. I can play just one more two-minute song on Dance Dance Revolution, but a mission on Zombies, Run! is going to take me at least half an hour. It's engaging, to be sure, but not in the same way.

There are also a number of habit-forming or breaking games out there. Health Month is one, and it aims to create a gamelike shell around things like flossing your teeth and eating less sugar. Again, though, this fails the effort-to-reward ratio to create an active compulsion loop. It would take a lot to make flossing your teeth an addictive behavior for your typical person.

Frameworks like Rock Band could be used to teach real music skills, too, so there are definitely educational applications lying untapped. Skinner himself was looking for educational applications of his research, you know. And the compulsion loop isn't a bad thing in and of itself. It's a fact of human nature, and we use the force of habit and patterns of rewards to do everything from teaching toddlers to use the toilet to studying. Sticker reward charts are a recommended tactic in parenting!

So the underlying issue here isn't "games are bad because they create addictive behavior." It's more like "humans are susceptible to having their behavior shaped by these frameworks of incentives." And now we know games are an effective way of creating those frameworks, whether we mean to or not, and we have to decide what we can do to make sure the lives of our players are left the better for experiencing our games, and not worse.

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