Hundreds of hours in you think it’s fun; it’s really addiction.

When I first downloaded Fallout Shelter for my iPhone 7, I played it almost two days straight. I was obsessed with getting out of the initial crawl, where food and water were scarce, the lights occasionally went out, and people could barely last minutes out in the wasteland. I found out you could manipulate the in-game clock, basically getting rid of wait times. I eventually downloaded the game on Steam and was hooked up to a consistent dopamine drip for a few more days on a bigger screen.

I could go on about how I strategized my shelter growth, got everyone to max level with excellent gear and terrorized the wasteland for days on end, how I eliminated the worry for power, food, and water. Really though, let’s look at this for what it is: sad.

What are video games for? Most would probably tell you they’re for fun, or that they’re an art form that occasionally has a message, like how Celeste tackles depression. Most would probably not tell you that the purpose of gaming is to fuel addiction, or to exhaust your adrenal glands, or to exacerbate depression when that addiction takes its course.

A cocktail of experience

Video games are pretty packages that combine lots of elements. A good game can be wildly fun, or wicked smart, or challenging. They combine visuals, music and sound effects, using ones hands to manipulate characters and environment, gameplay, challenge, competition; I’ve seen many a grown man bask in the glow of such splendor in dark rooms at late hours. Addiction in this case is rather simple: it’s no wonder that this cocktail of experience makes people feel good. People will do things that make them feel good, sometimes in lieu of everything else.

What many gamers don’t see, or at least don’t understand, is the reward system that many games now utilize to keep people playing. In 1996, Quake was the big shooter. You jumped into a match, killed people (if you could), and then the match would end with your kills and deaths on a scoreboard. The simple fact that players wanted to be at the top of the scoreboard caused many to play way too much. I’ll let you decide what is “way too much”. If you loved soccer, would you play it for two days straight? Should it be any different for video games?

The reward system

Fast forward to 2007, and the critically acclaimed Call of Duty: Modern Warfare adds in rank-ups, awards, weapon and attachment unlocks, and perks. This is arguably a lesson they took from the role playing game genre. Reward the player, and they get a dopamine spike. Utilize some other reward ploys, and keep them playing for an unhealthy amount of time.

One ploy is to stagger rewards. Rather than rewarding the player at the end of a match, which is still pleasurable but not as manipulative, a match may look something like this:

35s in: First blood! [get a badge and +50 XP] 54s in: You get a kill. +10 XP 1m20s in: Headshot! +20 XP 2m in: Double kill with a grenade! +40 XP [Rank up! You’re now a Sergeant] End of match: Your team won! +100 XP You unlocked a laser sight attachment for your M4

As you can see, the rewards are steady. Some happen at the same time, like scoring a headshot which causes you to rank up. This is just like an RPG where a player might use their special ability to kill a difficult enemy, netting a lot of XP and causing the character to level up. Add loot boxes to the mix and you’ve got a salivating hamster in a hamster wheel.

Loot boxes

Loot boxes are nothing short of gambling. In Battlefield 3 you complete a match and get a loot box. You have no idea what’s inside, and that’s the point. The not knowing is like the rat that will keep pressing the lever to see if it gets a food pellet. To add insult to injury, allow players to buy loot boxes, and watch the madness of disappearing paychecks and credit card maxing commence. Fortunately, Belgium has had the sense to ban them.

At least you have to actively play these games. There are no shortage of games on smartphone app stores where there is very little in the way of gameplay, challenge, or messaging, but plenty of loot box and reward mechanics to get you hooked.

Grinding

If you’re a non-gamer, perhaps the most absurd thing to witness in this community is a player who will log into World of Warcraft (or the aforementioned lootbox smartphone game), and complete a repetitive task for hours and hours in the name of getting a rare item or to level up. I have done this in WoW and in single player games and it is fairly easy to explain. It’s a combination of the above factors:

A cocktail of sensations: visual, auditory, using ones hands to manipulate characters and environments, gameplay, challenge, competition A reward system with manipulative mechanics like staggered rewards Loot boxes, or, gambling

So was I playing Fallout Shelter for fun? Or was I simply spiking dopamine? I’d argue a little of both, but mostly the latter. The game is largely telling people to do things and then waiting. How much legitimate fun could I have had doing that?

Designer responsibility

So what can be done? Can video game designers be held responsible for implementing these manipulative mechanics? I’m not sure if the politics or legalese of enforcing this would be pretty, but there’s an issue of integrity going on here.

If you can play a game and start to see the manipulative mechanics, then it’s reasonable to assume that the people who spent hundreds of hours designing and implementing those features know that they are manipulative. If this is true, the motivation is clear: companies want people to keep playing their games. Companies don’t want you to play for a reasonable amount of time, have some fun, and then get bored or decide to move on. When players put hundreds and thousands of hours into a company’s games it makes the company look good and improves sales and reputation.

The problem is that many gamers are not familiar with the psychology of addiction. The reasoning for many I’ve talked to only extends to, “well, it’s fun!” No distinction is made that fun and addiction can go hand in hand. A person can have fun while playing a game, log off, and then be depressed that they haven’t spent any time with other human beings, or horny but don’t have the social skills to find a mate, or mad that their mate in disappointed in their lack of presence, or broke because they spent the time they could’ve been using to develop a skill or work playing a game for 12 hours.

Developers can and should be careful with how they make their games. They should actively work to make a fun experience while not implementing features that they know to be addictive or manipulative. Loot boxes are a prime example of this.

As for the mindful gamer, you can decide not to purchase these games. We can do better.

If you suffer from video game addiction or know a friend or family member who does, check out Game Quitters. I have no affiliation with them but I’ve talked with the founder, Cam, and the website has helped me to reduce my game time.


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