Game Development

5 ways which cause video game addiction

So, the news says that someone else has died due to video game addiction. Yes, it is Korea again.

I am not trying to prove that the video games are heroin. I remember that in this case the victim had a lot of problems in live. But, half of you know that the World of Warcraft sucks you into that and doctors consider the game addiction as a serious problem. So here's the big question: Are some games intentionally designed to keep you playing, even when you are not enjoying it?

Surely, they are.

5. Forming the habits (reflexes)


If you have ever been addicted to a game or known someone who was, then this article is really disturbing. It is written by Microsoft game researcher on how to make video games that attract players, whether they like it or not. This person has a doctorate in behavioral and brain sciences.
Each coincidence is a shuffle of time factors, activity, and reward, and there are an infinite number of ways to combine them in order to get a pattern of behavior that you want from you’re the players.
Notice, this article does not include such the words like "fun" or “pleasure". It not his field. Instead we see "the pattern of behavior you want".

His theory is based on the work of B.F. Skinner, who discovered the possibility to control behavior by training subjects with simple stimulus and rewards. He invented the "Skinner Box," a box that had a small animal that, for example, an animal presses a lever in order to get some food. Notice, I am not saying that Microsoft researcher sees all gamers as a bunch of mice in the Skinner box. I am saying that he presents his theory of game design using the pictures of mice in the Skinner box.


These thoughts inspired the researcher Nick Yee to call Everquest the "Virtual Skinner Box."

So what's the problem?

The games have changed over the time. Firstly, the game creators sold us a game for $60 dollars, and they didn't care how long we played. The major thing was making sure that we like it enough to buy the next one. But the industry is shifting ahead to the paid games like MMO's that they want us to keep playing and paying until the end of the world.

Now, it is impossible to create enough fascinating game in order to keep you playing for hundreds of hours in front of the screen, therefore they changed the mechanics of the game that the players would keep doing the same actions over and over, whether they like it or not. So, the game developers turned to the Skinner Box.

Now the game design is a big source of controversy. Creator Braid Jonathan Blow says, Skinnerian game mechanics are a form of "exploitation." These games can't deliver a pleasure. They’re designed to force the gamers to renew a subscription even if they don’t like it, keeping them in the Skinner's system, giving them the rewards.

Why would this work, even though the "rewards" are just digital objects that don't actually exist? Well...

4. Creating the virtual food


Most addiction game elements are based on simple fact:
Your brain takes the playing objects if they are real.

People agitate all the time ("You spent all that time for the sword that is not even real?"), they are stupid. If there were needed time, effort and skill to get it, that it has some value, regardless it's made of diamonds, binary code or dried meet.

Therefore the highest court of South Korea declared that the virtual valuables should be legally considered the same as real ones. Now the virtual valuables are the $5 billion industry in the world.

It is all right. After all, people pay thousands of dollars for diamonds, even though the diamonds do not do anything, but just look nicely. A gaming armor looks nicely and it protects you from virtual orcs. In both cases you're paying for an idea.

So what's the problem?

Of course, over the last 25 years each game implies the collection of things for successful passing of some level, there's nothing new or dangerous. But because the players take in-game things as real and valuable on their own, then the addiction games place you in endless running and collecting things even if they do not relate to the game's objective.

The developers target our natural collecting instincts, gathering for the sake of collecting. That thing works, just ask the guy who kept collecting things even while the naked boobies were just near. Boobies.

Microsoft researcher said, the developers know that they are using the virtual objects as the food in a Skinner Box. At that point it's important...

3. Making you press the lever


Let us imagine the mouse in a box or an adorable hamster. Perhaps, the hamster could talk, and is dubbed by Chris Rock.

If you want to make hamster to press the lever immediately, what would you do? If you will not give hamster food with every press, he will soon relax, knowing that he gets the food when he needs. No, the best way is to set up the mechanism that drops the food after each lever pressing. The hamster will start pumping that lever as fast as he can. The experiments could prove that.


Do you see? Here is proof.

This is called the "Variable Ratio Rewards" in Skinner theory and this is the reason that a lot of enemies drop valuable things at random order in WoW. This is addictive in the same way as the slot machine. You can't just stop playing now, because the next person could be the winner, and so on.


We almost won.

The Chinese MMO ZT Online use this system the most nontrivially. The game has a lot of chests that may or may not contain an optional thing and to open them, you need a key. How do you get the keys? You must buy them with real money, just like coins for the slot machine.
ZT Online does something that the casino does not: They give a special item at the end of the day to the player who opens the most chests.


It is hardly the most idiotic part of the game.

Now, in addition to the casino element, there are thousands of players in competition with each other, to find out who could be the most compulsive about opening these chests. One woman admitted that she spent her all night opening these chests (over a thousand) to try to win a prize.

She didn't win anything. There was always someone else more obsessed with the game.

So what's the problem?

Could you imagine her sitting there, watching her little character in front of the chest, clicking dialogue boxes over and over, and watching the same animation over and over, for hour after hour?


If you didn't know prehistory of this article, you will think that she has some mental problems. How could she get to the self compulsion state as the Rain Man?

B.F. Skinner called this process "shaping". Little rewards, step by step, like links in a chain. In WoW you decide whether you want to get the super cool Tier 10 armor or not, which requires 5 pieces. In order to get the full set, you need more than 400 Frost Emblems, which are earned a couple at a time, from certain enemies. Next you need to upgrade each piece of armor with Marks of Sanctification. Then, again you do with Heroic Marks of Sanctification in order to get all that you should re-do the missions and sit, clicking and clicking your mouse forever.


Once it gets to that point, can you even call that activity a "game" anymore? It's more like scratching a rash. And it gets worse...

2. Keep pressing it... Forever


It is worth to say that the big difference between our hamster and human is that people can get their food everywhere. People need long-term goals, and the world of addictive gaming has something to offer us. For example...

Easing the games:
At the beginning, set the food to come fast at first, and then slower and slower during the game. This is why in MMO you earn rewords (or level up) very easy at the beginning, but later it gets harder to get it. If the gamer got fun from levels at the beginning of the game, then further increase of requirements will scale up the pleasure of the higher levels. The same Microsoft researcher found that gamers play more and more proportionally as they get to a new level.

Killing the returning points:
The simplest way is to move the save points away, or engage the gamers in the long missions (for example, WoW) that, once you started, it is difficult to get out of game without losing progress.

But that could be some disappointment for the players, therefore you need to take the opposite approach of a game like New Super Mario Bros. Wii, where you get levels easily, and so it reminds eating potato chips. They're small and player can get easily one more level, and soon a player has eaten the whole bag of chips.


Play it or lose it:
This is very interesting question. Why does reward the hamster for pressing the lever? I have better idea, what would happen if he fails to press it, we punish him?

Behaviorists call this "avoidance." They offer a cage that gives the hamster an electric shock every 30 seconds until an animal presses the lever. It learns very fast to stay on the lever, all the time, hitting it over and over. Forever.


Get back to Excitebike!

Why is your mom watering her crops in Farmville? Because, they wither and rot if she doesn't do it. In Ultima Online your house or castle would start to crumble if you didn't return to it regularly. In Animal Crossing the city grows over with weeds and your virtual house becomes infested with cockroaches if you don't log in often enough. It's the top achievement for the programmers to keep the player clicking tirelessly just to avoid losing the stuff they worked so hard to get.

Short summary:
All these techniques have disadvantages, so to get the ultimate addictive game you have to combine as many as possible ways including the "slot machine” (count how many of these techniques are in WoW). They have the hamsters running back and forth from one lever to another.

So what's the problem?

We already asked if the item collection through obsessive clicking could be called the "game". It raises the question: What is the game itself?

Well, people play games because they satisfy subconscious need in mastering a skill, even if it seems pointless in terms of our life goals. They help us develop our brain, especially in children. Therefore, our brains reward us with the sensation that we call "joy" when we play it. Well, even dolphins do it:

This is why I haven't included games like than Guitar Hero, Modern Warfare 2 and so on in this article. They're also addictive. There's no secret, everybody likes to win.

But these like "hit the lever until you pass out from starvation" gaming elements are completely different. As it was mentioned before, the point is to keep you playing long after you've mastered the skills, forcing you forget about real life. Clicking a picture of a treasure chest with your mouse a thousand times cannot be named “pleasure”.

This is why some writers criticized Blizzard after introducing a new "achievement" system a couple of years ago. There are rewards that obligate to do the pointless tasks, over and over again (for example, fishing until you catch 1000 fish). There are just some routine activities and nothing more...


…Or the hamster wheel.

Of course, the developers would say that nobody is making the gamers do it. Why would people voluntarily want to be a lab hamster? Well, it's all about...

1. Making you to call the Skinner Box the home

Do you like your job?

Considering that a half of you are reading this article at work, I dare to guess not. It brings us to one thing that makes the gaming addiction so hard to beat.

It is as shocking as sounds a story about some "guy who missed his classes, because he was playing WoW at that time", he just simply didn't like his classes very much. This is not anti-utopia where mind is controlled by Blizzard. The game just filled emptiness.

Why do we have emptiness in our lives? Because according to an expert Malcolm Gladwell, in order to be satisfied with your job you need three things, and I am sure that most of you don't even have two of them:

•Autonomy (you have an influence on what you do day to day);
•Complexity (remember, this is not repetition);
•Connection between effort and reward (you can see the results of your work).


Most people don't have this in their jobs or in everyday lives. But the most trap-games are specifically geared to give us all 3... or at least the illusion of all three.

You choose your daily tasks, and so on. You even pick your own body, species and talents.


Annoying your Facebook friends with updates is a really talent.

The players will do monotonous grinding, because it doesn't feel like grinding. Remember, this is the complicated Tier Armor/Frost Emblem dance that kept our gamer clicking earlier.

Here is a connection between effort and reward:
This is worth of that. When you move by one level up in WoW, then the plume of golden light shoots out from your body.


This is what most of us don't get in everyday life quick, tangible rewards. It is not an instant gratification and it is more about a sense of accomplishment. How much harder would we work at the office if we got this, and could measure our progress toward it?
The beauty lets the games to use the boredom as weapon. As we considered somewhere, it is a tendency “work to earn the right to play" aspect of World of Warcraft, where you earn the gold for the right to do the cool stuff in the future. It also helps to scale down any sense of guilt you might have had about neglecting school, work or household chores to play the game. After all, It made you happy.

So what's the problem?

The game developer Erin Hoffman said: "Addiction is not about what you DO, but what you DON'T DO because of the replacement of the addictive behavior." She was talking about how the attraction of a simple flash game like Bejeweled depends on how badly you want to skip the work that you have open in the other window.


Wait, wait what was I talking about?

The terrible truth is that a lot of people beg for a Skinner Box in order to get in there and stay there, because the real system of rewards is so much slow and cruel than we expected it to be. This is the mutual point between other forms of mental escape, such as sports, moonshine watching, and so on.


Heroin: It's pretty much WoW

The danger lies in the fact that these games have become so efficient at delivering the sense of accomplishment that people force to quit their education or career. We do not believe that gaming will ruin the world, or that gaming addiction will destroy youth as the earthquake ruined the cities in the 90s. But we may get a generation working at Starbucks when they had the brains and talent for so much more. They will not be satisfied with their lives, because they wasted their youth playing the video games, and the will seek for the satisfaction by playing more video games.

Let us face the reality; if you think that WoW is addictive, wait a little until you will see the games in 10 years from now.

David Wong is the Editor of and the author of the comedy horror novel John Dies at the End, currently banned in 72 countries.

Via David Wong
KlauS 21 february 2012, 18:08
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