Five Ways Games Cause Addiction

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If you search on the web, you’ll find a lot of news about people who suffer and even die because of gambling and gaming addiction. We’ll cover both topics as one in this article because they’ve got much in common.

What the…? I’m not trying to convince you that video games are a sort of heroin. I understand that victims might have had a lot of troubles in their lives. But I’m sure you know that playing World of Warcraft is addictive and psychologists treat gaming addiction as a serious problem. The question is, are games designed to cause addiction on purpose to make you keep playing even if you don’t enjoy it anymore?

The answer is YES!

5. Emergence of reflexes
The games have changed. In the past time, the main goal of game developers was to sell a game. They didn’t care if a player spent 10 minutes or several hours playing their game. They only wanted to make sure the player liked their game enough to buy the next one. But the industry is developing towards paid games like MMO and others. They need to make players keep playing and playing their games till the end of the world.

Today, it is impossible to create a game with such story which will keep you in front of the screen for hundreds of hours. That’s why the game mechanics were changed to make you repeat the same actions for multiple times regardless of your own desire. Nick Yee, a researcher, named Everquest ‘The Vitrual Skinner box’.

Nowadays, game design causes numerous disputes. Jonathan Blow, developer of Braid video game, says Skinner game mechanics is a sort of exploitation. These games can’t bring any fun. They are designed to make players buy additional subscriptions even if they don’t enjoy these games and don’t want to repeat same actions for multiple times. Skinner system holds them with thoroughly planed encouragements system.
How can this system work and how can it hold players with virtual objects which don’t exist in real life?

4. Virtual feed
One of the most captivating elements is based on a simple fact: Your brain thinks that virtual objects are real. They are real, aren’t they?

People may be always undermining you (Have you wasted all that time to get this sword which doesn’t exist in real life?) – they are just stupid. You have spent your time, efforts and used your skills, which means this sword is valuable for you. Doesn’t matter if it is made of diamonds or binary code, even of jerky, it is all the same.

That’s why South Korea Superior Court declared that virtual valuables should be treated the same way as real ones. Today, virtual distribution is a world scale industry with the turnover of more than $5 Million.

And it’s just ok. After all, people spend thousands of dollars for diamonds. Don’t forget these things have no utility but shine.

What’s the problem?

Almost any game released in the past 25 years includes gathering as a part of gameplay. There is nothing new or dangerous about that. But now, people treat virtual things like real ones and are bounded to them. Captivating games send you to endless run in the sake of gathering even if it is not the main goal of the game.

It is vital for developers to awake our fundamental gathering instincts; gathering in the sake of gathering. And it works, you can ask that guy who was playing when there was a naked girl at arm’s length from him. Naked girl.

Game developers know they use virtual items as feed in Skinner box. On this stage it is most important to…

3. Make you push the handle
Imagine a mouse it its box. And simply because I am a player as well and I don’t like thinking of myself as of mouse, imagine a cute hamster there. Probably, he can speak with Chris Rock voice.

What will you do to make it push the handle immediately? If you are giving it feed with every push, it’ll get relaxed very quickly as he will know that he can get his feed easily. It is much better to make a machine which will be giving feed but not always, there will be some odds for it. Very soon the hamster will be pushing the handle as fast as it can. The experiments prove that.

See that? The proof.

It’s known as Changing odds award and this is the reason why so many people try to roll things they don’t need in World of Warcraft. It works exactly the same way as in slot machines. You may surrender right now and let the next man win. Or the next after him. Or some other.
Dat was so close!

In my opinion, ZT Online, Chinese MMO game, uses this system in the most non-trivial way. The game is filled with chests which may or may not contain random items, but you need keys to open the chests. Where do you get the keys? Of course, you buy them with real money. The same as chips to play slot machines. But wait, this is not the best part yet. ZT Online has gone much farther than casinos: the one who opens the biggest number of chests per day gets a special item.
I guess, this is not the most stupid thing about this game.

Let’s return back to casino part of the game. Thousands of players compete daily to find out who is the craziest about the chests. A woman said she had been opening chests for the whole evening, thousands of chests. But still she failed to get the prize. There was someone crazier than her.

What’s the problem?

Can you imagine her watching her character standing in front of a chest pressing the same answers in dialogue boxes and watching the same animation for hours?
If you hadn’t known the story you would think she had some sort of dementia.

Skinner knew how to achieve this result. He called this ‘formation’. Little awards step by step like links in a chain. It is you who decides whether to build Tier 10 armor in World of Warcraft or not. You need 5 parts in order to get the complete Tier. 5 parts can be obtained by gathering 400 Frost Emblems, you get them when you beat certain enemies several times. After that you’ll need to upgrade each part with Marks of Sanctification and after that again with Heroic Marks of Sanctification. You’ll have to redo the same missions multiple times sitting at your computer and clicking the whole days long.
Can it still be named a game? Now it is more like a rash you keep scratching and scratching. And it's getting worse.

2. Keep pressing…forever
It is worth mentioning, that the main difference between this hamster and a man is that a man can get feed anywhere. If this game hadn’t had anything but endless chests we would have switched for another game. People need long-lasting goals and the world of games is ready to offer them. For example:

Games bring relief

Make the feed fall out rapidly in the beginning and slower and slower in the end. That’s why it is much easier to get levels and achievements in the beginning of a MMO game but as you proceed you need more and more efforts to get awards. If a player feels excited when leveling in the beginning of a game, this excitement will raise with the raise of leveling requirements at top levels. The more levels a player gains the higher his desire to play is.

Points of return elimination

The easiest way to eliminate the points of return is to push back save points and make missions longer (like raids in WoW). Once you start a mission you can’t quit it without loss in progress.

Some people may be disappointed with that so there is another approach, like in New Super Mario Bros. on Wii, where it is very easy to complete levels and the game itself resembles chips eating. They are small and a player can take one after another until he finishes the pack.
You'll find a princess and evil dragon in this pack.

By the way, for the same reason a man who hates reading long articles do it willingly when the article is divided into several parts.

Pay and lose

Here is a little more interesting question. Why would you give awards to the hamster pushing the handle? We will do it in other way. We will punish him every time he doesn’t push the handle.
Behaviorists call this ‘avoidance’. They change the cell construction so that the hamster is being electrocuted if it doesn’t push the handle for 30 seconds. The hamster learns very quickly to stay at the handle permanently. Forever.
Get back to Excitebike!

Why is your mother watering flowers so hard in Farmville? Cause they will dry up or rot if she doesn’t. Your house or castle will collapse in Ultima Online if you don’t visit it regularly. This is the highest invention of game developers to make a player click endlessly just not to lose what he earned.

Interim findings

All these methods have their own disadvantages that’s why in order to achieve maximum force of attraction they are getting combined as much as possible, including slot machine features mentioned above. Try to count how many methods are used in World of Warcraft while the hamster is running from one handle to another.

What’s the problem?

We have already asked if gathering, aka endless clicking, can be called a game. Here comes another question: what can be called a game?

People play games to satisfy subconscious demand for skills improvement even if consciously they realize it is totally useless. Games help us to improve our brains (especially for children) and to try ourselves without being afraid about the consequences. That’s why our brains award us with feelings of happiness when we play.

That’s why I didn’t mention Guitar Hero in this article. It is addictive as well but everybody realizes how you get addicted to it. It is only natural to enjoy something where you can improve yourself. The same as a game like Modern Warfare 2 – it is only a sport for those who can’t win in real life sports. It’s not a secret everybody likes to win.

That’s why some writers criticized Blizzard when they introduced achievements system several years ago. There are achievements which make you complete pointless quests again and again (for example, catch 1000 fishes). No new items, no development or exploration tools were introduced. Only routine and nothing more…
...or a hamster wheel.

Obviously, the developers (and commentators, I know) will say that nobody forces players to get those achievements. Why would people voluntarily change their lives with our hamster? The thing is…

1. Make you call Skinner box your home

Do you like your job?

Taking into account, that the majority of you are reading this article at working place, I suppose that the answer is No. Here we arrive to addiction in general. It is so hard to overcome it.

A somewhat scary story about a boy who wasn’t visiting his classes because he was playing WoW all that time is just a story of a boy who didn’t like classes. It’s not a scary movie where Blizzard steals his brain. It’s just a way to fill the emptiness inside.

How does this emptiness emerge? To enjoy your job it has to meet 3 criteria (I believe that at least 2 of 3 is too much for the majotiry):

  • Autonomy (you control what you do day after day);
  • Complexity (don’t forget, it’s not a rehearsal);
  • Connection between effort and award (for you to see the results of your job).
You don't need pants to enjoy your job.

Many people, especially gamers, don’t have anything of that in their lives. But many trap games are designed to give us 2 or even 3 things at a time…or an illusion of that.


It is you who chose which seeds to plant in Farmvilles. Needless to say, you chose your body, species and tallents.
You know how to annoy you friends with your news, don't you?


Players are involved in monotonous levelling because they don’t treat it as leveling. Remember that complex dance a player had to perform to get Tier Armor/Frost Emblem which made the game so addictive to the player.

In the same place comes connection between effort and award:

Worth it. When you get a new level in WoW this golden lighting penetrates your body.
It is something that many of us never have in their lives – quick to get, sufficient awards. It’s not just a short-lasting satisfaction but an overwhelming feeling of completeness. How much harder would you work in your office if you could measure your progress in the same way? Games use these tools as weapons. When leveling in World of Warcraft you do it to get better awards in the future. Leveling gives feeling of completeness but you get it a bit later. And when you finally get it, it helps to overcome guilt of missed school or job.

What’s the problem?

Erin Hoffman, a game designer, 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 Bejeweled, a simple flash game, and about how attractiveness of the game depended on unwillingness to complete job opened in another window.
Hey! Wait! What was I talking about?

The bitter truth is that many people are begging for Skiiner box to get inside and never go outside as real reward system is much more violent and works slower than they expected. Here games work the same as other form of brain relaxation, like sport or moonwatching.
Heroin? This syringe is filled with WoW.

It is dangerous because games have become so effective in delivering of feeling of completeness that people have to interrupt their study or careers because of that. We don’t say that games are destroying the world. But we are getting the generation which will be working in Starbucks for their lives though their brains can do much more. They won’t be satisfied with their lives cause they wasted their youth for videogames and they will be playing more to escape this feeling. Escape. Repeat.

And last thing. If you think WoW is addictive, check games in 10 years. They will do the same things they do now very effectively but much better.

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