Addictive game design

by: Dylan Martin

Video game addiction is a real phenomenon. The reason why such an assertion must be stated is due to the stigma around video game addiction. It is often devalued, often seen as something that does not truly exist or is not as bad as other addictions such as drugs and alcohol. Without discounting the severity of those other addictions, it is important to acknowledge that gaming addiction has severe social, mental, and physical consequences. If you or a loved one you know suffers from gaming addiction, please seek professional help. If you are unsure if they are suffering from gaming addiction, look out for the side effects: 

  • Poor performance at school, work, or household responsibilities as a result of excessive video game playing.
  • Withdrawal symptoms, such as sadness, anxiety, or irritability, when games are taken away or gaming isn’t possible.
  • A need to spend more and more time playing video games to get the same level of enjoyment.
  • Giving up other previously enjoyed activities and/or social relationships due to gaming.
  • Being unable to reduce playing time and having unsuccessful attempts to quit gaming despite the negative consequences it’s causing.
  • Lying to family members or others about the amount of time spent playing video games.
  • A decline in personal hygiene or grooming due to excessive video gaming.
  • Using video games as a way to escape stressful situations at work or school or to avoid conflicts at home.
  • Using video games to relieve negative moods, such as guilt or hopelessness.

As with all mental health topics, please navigate the topic with sensitivity and care. 

This leads to the essential question: what makes video games addicting? Addictive game design is interesting because it is not exclusive to video games but to most games. For instance, gambling, more specifically slot machines and poker, is arguably one of the most predatory uses of addictive game design. Addictive game design capitalizes on the human desire for dopamine, and the natural acquisition of the hormone. Dopamine is colloquially known as the “feel good chemical”, often released in your brain to make you feel pleasure as a part of the brain’s reward system. Any number of things can cause dopamine to be released, but what addictive design attempts to do is capitalize on specific triggers of dopamine. 

Game designers are frequently looking for new ways to trigger the brain into giving the player a dopamine release, making the game feel “fun”. While dopamine can be released from a variety of things, the main trigger focused on during the class animation/screening was learning. The brain is designed to release dopamine when learning a new skill, a feature that has been pivotal to our evolution as humans. However, learning in games is different from learning in real life, as in games we do not have to face the severe consequences of our actions the way we must in real life. This may diminish the anxiety about the unpredictable nature of something new. However, the reason why we do not get bored after we learn how to play a game is because of the idea of looping. A looping design helps foster the need to consistently learn a new skill, as the player will need to continue learning and adjusting when faced with a looping game design. The loop does not have to be explicit or consistent, rather the opposite is true. There seems to be a “Goldilocks zone” when it comes to looping game design.  A loop must be ever-changing and challenging enough to keep the player engaged. A game that does not challenge the player, and remains constant without introducing new patterns of gameplay will eventually become stale and boring. At the same time, a loop much not be too complicated or unpredictable. A game that is too much for the player will become frustrating and push the average player away from the game.  

Moreover, a game can become addicting when it is entrancing. This is known as “the zone”. Famously, casinos are known to put and keep their customers in the zone. The zone is described as a trance-like state, where nothing exists outside of the player and the game they are playing. This is achieved by creating an environment that feels specifically designed for the player. This is famously done in slot machines. The mechanics of a slot machine are very simple and easy to understand, while the outcome is always shrouded in mystery. The risk per turn is relatively low, but the promise of a high reward allows the player to justify their continuous use. Many describe continuous gameplay as a means to stay within the zone more than a means to victory. The lack of time indicators also helps keep the player fully entranced in the game, not allowing them to acknowledge the passing of time. The use of tokens or points allows the player to lose any physical indication of how much money they are spending. 

Games are constantly evolving to keep the player more and more entrancing, stripping them away from a bleak reality and allowing them to obsess over a hyper-reality in which they can experience concentrated joy. The consequences of these developments are severe and should be enjoyed responsibly. 

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