Monday, February 17, 2014

Addiction In Games

by SandWyrm

Various sites are reporting today that Dong Nguyen, the creator of the iOS/Android game "Flappy Bird" has decided to pull his game from both app stores. Reportedly because he felt that the game was "Too Addictive". Not having heard about the game before seeing this news, I did some quick Googling. Which took me to some interesting IGN reviews that question whether this addictive game is actually any good or not. Which got me thinking about addiction in games generally.

(WARNING: This Article Might Be Uncomfortable To Read Or Think About)

The most interesting IGN video review, with a discussion between two commentators, is here. But it doesn't want to embed for me. So here's a different one:

Opening this subject up more generally, most 'good' games usually get labeled as 'addictive' too. But can we get addicted to games that, deep down, we really don't 'like'? Are the most successful games really just the ones that manage to push multiple addiction buttons in us?

In World of Tanks, for instance, I often find myself falling into a certain mind-state after playing for a while. Where I'm almost on auto-pilot. Move. Acquire target. BOOM! Move Acquire target. BOOM! Is that simply a sensory addiction? Is is good for me long-term?

In the game's garage-mode, I find my buttons being pushed as I look to 'complete' a tank's upgrades. It bugs me when I have a tank without a camo-paint job. It bugs me when I don't have one of every type of tank. Etc. When I get impatient, out comes the credit card. I feel dirty, but happy for a while. Then the same urges start gnawing on me again.

In the tabletop realm, a game like 40K, Fantasy, Flames, or X-Wing has multiple addictions too. Addictions to hobby/painting as a calming sensory experience. Addictions to praise for winning games or painting well. Addictions to endless list-building. Addictions for the collector who must have everything, or at least the special thing that only a few have.

We don't call it plastic crack for nothing.

This isn't confined to just games, of course. I avoided watching "The Walking Dead" and "Breaking Bad" for years because I knew that I'd get "hooked" on them. Losing days of potentially productive time to Netflix "binges". Which did happen once I finally gave in. Though I'm often able to "get through" them by half-watching the shows while I paint or play World of Tanks. What's that say about my real level of interest in either?

Obviously, nobody would start one of these addictions if there was no pleasure involved. But at what point are you just clicking to kill the next tank, write the next list, watch the next episode, or what have you. When does painting models for pleasure turn into a souless desire to complete an arbitrary set? Simply because you're compelled to see how the story ends, how the characters escape, or how high you can score?

Is spending a weekend playing a new video game in your underwear, eating nothing but hot pockets and Mountain Dew really all that different from what a chemical addict goes through during a binge?

Recognizing that these are addictions, and as a potential, if not an actual problem.... What we do about it? How do we define what an "ethical" or "unethical" addiction is? As a game designer or a TV writer, are there lines that shouldn't be crossed in creating potentially addicting games or stories? Or would the whole entertainment industry simply fall apart if we did?

Neuroscience will probably offer most of those answers eventually. As we continue to make progress in exploring how working brains function, we'll eventually be able to identify the effects of various stimuli. We'll also be able, eventually, to compare the neurological effects of certain addictions versus others. Labeling them 'good' or 'bad' according to which areas of the brain they stimulate.

Here's a good TED Talk on how games affect the brain:

All of this brings me to my final questions for the community: 

As I see local players dropping 40K & Fantasy, they dabble in this and that. But mostly they seem to be gravitating towards board games instead of direct 40K competitors like Flames/Dust/WarMachine.

Is this simply because they can't afford miniature wargames anymore? Or is it because they've recognized (consciously or unconsciously) that boardgames are more "honest" and less addicting (at least in a financially demanding way) than miniature wargames are? 

I see it as being potentially analogous to how a hard-core MMO player might get tired of all the online micro-transactions and switch to only playing boxed video games. Where you pay for the entire experience up front. Much as we once did with Diablo II or the original Starcraft years ago. Where, once you paid the developers your money, you didn't feel like your in-game progress depended on constantly paying even more money to continue the experience.

And if that is the case... Is the miniature wargaming industry, as conceived by GW and later imitated by others, a now-flawed business model? We know that the industry is in a general decline. But is that purely due to the various companies in that industry failing to offer a good value within that model? Or is it because, as we gamers come to grips with the science and consequences of our addictions, of a larger cultural shift away from leisure activities that are now seen to be exploitive in nature?

I don't know the answer to that question. Or maybe I just don't want to admit it.


  1. There is a lot of physiology that companies can take advantage of in marketing their products. CCG's and CMG's tap into that to make their games "addictive." It comes down to giving you a steady drip of rewards. Rewards that are never quite enough to satisfy you. Problem with 40K right now is that there's damn little about it that's rewarding.

    Though addiction isn't the only part of it. There's something to say about the way people wrap war gaming into their identity. Look at the whole WAAC/FAAC debate that just won't die It's all about how people perceive themselves. If you based a lot of your adult life on being a minis game player, what are you when you stop playing? That's more of a factor than any dopamine reward circuit.

    Mostly I think the reason board games(and hybrids like X-Wing) are doing so well is cost. Both it terms of money and time. All while providing the same amount (or more) fun and challenge. Economic factors will tend to be more important to reasonable people.

    Another factor in favor of board games is that you only need the one copy to support multiple players. Miniature games need critical mass. Enough players available at any given time to have reasonable chance of getting a game in.

    Also board games come with about 85% less community drama.

    1. True. Miniature wargaming does seem to become much more a part of a person's identity than any other game type. Particularly when that identity gets tied up in WAAC/FAAC, or Pro/Anti GW. Probably because of the massive money and time commitment involved.

  2. Really interesting stuff. I particularly enjoyed the TED video and can definitely see how it applies to CCGs and mini-wargaming. Great post!

  3. *sigh* Yes, this was a bit uncomfortable.

    If all you're doing is baseless speculation, then sure -- go for it. But if you're trying to dig deeper because you're honestly curious, there are a couple serious problems that need to be addressed.

    (1) Yes, physiological and psychological are related. You're ignoring the issue of degree. Issues of degree and probability are hugely important when distinguishing between behaviors.
    (2) When speaking of addiction -- is there a dependence? Is there a build-up of tolerance? And are you clearly distinguishing between dependency/tolerance and expertise/rote-task? There's a reason there's a rather large body of literature around this issue. A good portion of that science is fairly well established.
    (3) Addiction and identity construction are related in much the same sense that touchscreens and computer keyboards are related: they have something to do with "computery-things" (or people's brains) and involve input. Please to avoid conflating the two.
    (4) TED is fun, but it is ultimately victim to any intro presentation on a topic in a limited timespan. It is SHALLOW. While a newly piqued interest is a great place to start searching, and finding connections, that's just it -- a speculative start. TED is shiny toys, and basically no explanation for how the toy works or how it is put together.
    (5) Neuroscience is still barely less of a pseudoscience than phrenology. Yes, in time, it might be able to answer more questions. But currently it's at the "let's scan brains and make guesses" stage of research, and has been stuck there for over a decade. Fancy pictures of brain-scans do not by themselves a relevant scientific discipline make. Boring ol' psychology and boring ol' biology are still the two places with the most meaningful stuff to say about all this addiction and brain stuff. Boring ol' sociology is still the place with the most meaningful stuff to say about all this identity and group dynamic stuff. Etc.

    1. this is an introductory article, not a PhD dissertation. We're applying some generalizations here for Laypeople.
      as laypeople, we're exploring and trying to discuss habit forming behaviors, identity, and emerging changes in our hobby arenas.
      it's a bit of interesting 'what if', and connect some dots.

    2. I wan't trying to equate addiction and identity construction. Only proposing it as an alternate explanation to gamer behavior. As in I don't think they are chasing a dopamine high, so much as rationalizing and justifying their existing behaviors.

    3. I also meant "psychology" in the first sentence of my original comment. I didn't notice that it got spell checked into "physiology"

      And I was really just going for the layman's term of messing with peoples minds.

    4. 2) Is there dependence & a build up of tolerance? I do think that the answer is ‘yes’ in a general sense.

      Putting aside nostalgia… Would more than a very tiny handful of video games from the 80’s earn anything at all if they were released today? Would anyone buy metal or plastic models of the quality that GW produced in the 1980’s if they were released tomorrow? Star Trek:TNG was the most expensive show on television when it premiered. Now? It looks like cheap crap. Nobody would release a Sci-Fi show today with those same production values.

      I see the continually-increasing production costs for all of these industries as a response to a spectrum of increasing tolerances in their users. What wowed us years ago will not wow us now. It has to be prettier, higher-res, more complex, and more readily available than what we were perfectly happy with before.

      As for dependence… I know that I personally *have* to have certain kinds of sensory input when I do certain tasks. When doing something visual, I need something auditory in the background. When I’m doing something verbal (writing, coding), I need music in the background. Without it, I get anxious and work stops. My parents and grandparents weren’t this way at my age. But my peers are.

      Is that *technically* a description of an addiction? Probably not, but it’s of a similar pattern, and the general population uses all sorts of drug terms interchangeably when describing their relationships to these products. So that’s my jumping off point for this discussion.

      4) Of course TED is shallow. How can it be anything else but an introduction to the topics it covers? It’s purpose is to get little-known ideas out there and get discussions like this one going.

      5) Biology is a science, of which Neuroscience is but one long-established branch. Thanks to modern imaging technology, we now know more about how the brain and nervous system work than ever before. We’re even to the point where many aspects person’s basic personality can be judged accurately with a functional MRI, and discoveries have been made that shed light on the neurological basis of disorders like psychopathy and autism.

      Psychology, on the other hand, is not a science. Rather, it’s a descriptive discipline with no objective tests for the disorders it identifies. Nor does it even attempt to explain the physical mechanisms that underlie its concepts. In the grand scheme of history, Psychology will be seen as a pseudo-religious discipline that filled an unavoidable gap between our formal recognition of various mental thought patterns, and our understanding of their underlying physical basis.

    5. Farmpunk: Speculation is fun, speculation is awesome. Google is also awesome. Point is, there are already answers for many of these questions.

      Caulyn: Why apologize? You're right that psychology & physiology are related. I'm cautioning Sandwyrm that degree is important.

      Sandwyrm: (2) Fashion and media demonstrate that "new" is cyclical. What is "new" and "novel" is not historical, but rather experiential. This is insight from psychology that dates to the BC, and restated in modern psychology in the late 1800s.

      (5) Your contempt for psychology is surprising, and your faith in fancy machines endearing. Your explanation for what you believe psychology to be, helps explain both. Do you believe "descriptive disciplines" to be non-scientific? Do you share similar contempt for geology, or understand that biology is very similar? Regardless, this is far afield, and an on-going theme -- expressed interest in science, but contempt for the actual sciences that might be able to answer the specific questions you pose.

      Best of luck waiting for neuroscience to get around to confirming what sociology, psychology, psychiatry, and biology have already "described". I anticipate they'll have fairly conclusive answers for you in the next two or three decades, assuming they actually embrace science (and not just the trappings). Or you could ask a scientist in a different field, who might have several decades of both descriptive and experimental evidence and a fairly well-supported set of answers.

    6. Neither Neuroscience or Psychology deserve to be brushed off. They are both working the same problem from different directions. There's good and bad science being done by both. Neuroscience has given us lots of great knowledge about how our brain develops and operates. The use of new imaging technology is only a branch of the field. There's a lot of work done at the studying the cellular level as well. More traditional stuff with microscopes and lab mice. There's just more than a little bad science journalism that makes outrageous claims about what scientists are discovering using brain scans.

      The only criticisms of neuroscience I've ever seen are mostly either due to the aforementioned bad journalism, and philosophical positions that seemed to be very bothered by a materialistic explanation of the mind. I've not seen any evidence that the the men and women in the field have abandoned the scientific method wholesale. Honestly, I don't get how you can call the scientific study of the nervous system un-sciency. Especially when we are talking about a blanket term for a multi-disciplinary field. Apparently clinical and cellular neuroscience are TOTALLY useless.

      Both fields are working the same problem from different directions. And a 20-30 year time frame for unlocking the secrets of how the brain functions is not a bad time frame to be working with. We've had the human genome mapped for like 15 years, and we're still figuring out what it all means. Probably will for much longer. Was it not science when they where just doing the sequencing then?

    7. 2) “New” may be cyclical in certain areas with fairly static technology. Like houses, clothing fashions, or cars. But it’s absolutely not cyclical in the audio/visual aspects of movies, television, and video games. Where technology is always advancing, and every new product requires a higher level of audio/visual impact than previous ones. Even if you’ve seen the same basic plot or gameplay many times before.

      If you study the history of cinema/TV, for instance, you’ll see a clear progression. More cuts. More camera movement. More color. More visual resolution in the image. More and better sound. More stunts. More visual effects. More sex. More availability on more and more devices.

      It’s not enough anymore for Superman to have a bus thrown at him by the villain. Now half of a major city has to be razed to have an impact on the viewer. Batman can’t just stop simple robbers anymore. Now he has to fight multi-national secret societies with the ability to take over an entire city and hold it for months. It’s not enough anymore to have one episode a week of a TV series, now you have to be able to binge-watch an entire season over the course of a few days on your own personal device.

      Back in the early 90’s I gave up TV for a year and a half. I know what that withdrawal feels like, and it’s very similar to coming off of a drug. I also discovered that more than a few people would literally rage at me if I happened to mention that I didn’t have a TV anymore. In the same way that an hard-core alcoholic will rage at someone that mentions that they don’t drink. Other people I’ve run across have related similar stories to me. So I know I’m not alone in experiencing this.

      Which is not a phenomena that anyone could meaningfully study in the 1800’s, when the tools to produce these kinds of high-frequency stimuli barely existed. Let alone the tools that could be meaningfully used to study their effects.


out dang bot!

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