This blog article is a substantial shift from my normal remit, whereby I am more focused on a philosophical perspective on mental health and human interaction in today’s technology-driven society. Here I will be targeting a select audience, that of video game developers, discussing their responsibility towards potential video games addicts. This piece is an excerpt from my upcoming book, but after writing it I realised the ethical benefits there could be to making this particular, niche section of the book more widely available. I would hope that this article may also prove interesting for anyone interested in addiction, video games or both.
This post centres on a difficult question – is a good video game the same as an addictive video game? If a studio creates the best game they can are they, by definition, making the most addictive game they can? Certainly World of Warcraft would seem to suggest a ‘yes’. This has been the dominant game in subscription-based gaming for years whilst also being the game that is linked to video game addiction more frequently than any other.
Griffiths on Session Time
Mark Griffiths, a leading researcher in the field of video game addiction, moved us closer to answering this question by citing a number of features of gaming as being correlated with video game addiction: character progression, rapid absorption rate and multi-player features. This came out of a series of interviews with video game addicts in which they prioritised the features that they felt were most important to gameplay. The difficulty here is that these features are integral to certain genres of games – we can’t simply label them as ‘bad’ without writing off whole swathes of the industry – chiefly all roleplaying games and all online games. I would argue that these features, while they might be closely linked to addiction, are a clue towards what makes an addictive feature, rather than features that are, in themselves, addictive.
Understanding that these suggestions are too broad to take action on, Griffiths went on to pick out a single, more specific feature that could be altered to have a positive effect on how people play games – reducing the length of quests. To explain this further – all games are played in, effectively, sessions. The length of these sessions, while typically decided by the user, are to some extent determined by the game itself. Some games can be played in very short sessions, such as most social network-based games, such as Words With Friends, and cannot be played for much longer than this. Conversely, some games, notably MMOs such as World of Warcraft, often require the gamer to partake in group quests whereby leaving inherently involves letting down other players. These quests, by their very structure, impose a time commitment of several hours that requiring the gamer to play to unhealthy levels in order to avoid the recrimination of his team-mates. This practice is both detrimental to its users as well as relatively easy to avoid. While some players and groups may choose to overdo their gaming session, they should be able to complete a game session without playing for excessive lengths of time.
Kelly on Random Rewards
Game designer and blogger Tadhg Kelly addresses the question by taking a more particular issue with the slot machine style of game play, directly relating games’ use of random rewards for empty, skill-less actions as being guilty of creating addiction in users rather than engagement (the term he uses for a more healthy compulsion to keep playing).
Kelly points the finger at Mafia Wars for providing the user with rewards without actually providing them with any form of meaningful play; players are required to do little more than attend and click in order to make progress with no degree of skill or learning required. Kelly feels that games such as this focus the user on simply hoping that they get lucky rather than forcing them to evolve and adapt their own skills.
Blow on Reward Scheduling
Jonathon Blow, creator of Braid, similarly argues against the use of Skinner-esque techniques in gaming. Specifically, Blow makes the excellent point that it is the scheduling of rewards that is indicative of how unfairly addictive the game is attempting to be. Reward scheduling is a somewhat complex concept and bears explaining here.
Nearly all video games involve rewards of some kind. Doom gives you ammo, new levels and most importantly bigger and bigger guns. Real Racing gives you money to spend, new races to take part in and access to newer, faster cars. A complex and involved game such as League of Legends has an intricate ladder of rewards, including new characters, new levels, runes, league promotions and currency. Importantly, gamers are never given all these rewards all at once, unlike many non-video games, such as chess or football, where everything you will get to use throughout the game is given to you up front; you do not have to score your first goal in a match in order to upgrade your team from 10 to 11 players, for instance. In most modern video games these rewards are drip fed to the player according to strict and carefully balanced ‘schedules’.
As a designer, scheduling the rewards in a game is a massive task that needs to be carefully worked, reviewed and reworked. The aim is to plot out an accurate estimation of how much gameplay or money players will have to invest in order to get the next reward. The desired outcomes of this scheduling are as follows:
- To ensure that new players are constantly getting rewarded (creating the rapid absorption rate that Griffiths talked about above) and thereby become quickly engaged and invested.
- To ensure that long-term players have to wait increasing lengths of time between rewards (effectively guaranteeing that they invest the most amount of time/money for the content they are rewarded with).
In my own time as a game designer, I would conduct the reward scheduling by laying out large timelines against which we could compare all the various milestones of player progress. These charts would enable me to ensure that we were being duly generous to the new user in order to hook them in before relying upon, in retrospect, the ‘tolerance’ aspect of addiction to allow us to become increasingly stringent with players while retaining their commitment.
Jonathon Blow’s point is simply this: if you take a game and strip it of the reward schedule, is it still fun? If the answer is ‘yes’ then you have a game that is fun in a healthy way: if the answer is ‘no’ then you are looking at a game that is largely designed to addict players and offers them little else. With this proposal Blow highlights, very effectively, how certain games rely upon constantly tantalising the user with the next reward at the exclusion of giving them quality gameplay. Controversially, he then goes on to cite World of Warcraft as an example of a game that relies upon its reward scheduling over the quality of its gameplay.
Considering Blow and Kelly’s thoughts in light of what we have already considered, it becomes clear that a game that relies more upon providing the user with expectation rather than actual meaningful, learnable and challenging experience is a game that is unfairly tapping into the addictive nature of its users. Games such as this, particularly where there is no quality mechanic at the heart of the game, are constantly telling players that ‘things are about to get good, ‘ without ever getting good. Advances in neuroscience would show us that this kind of shallow experience that points to some ever-vanishing nirvana of gameplay is the perfect breeding ground for harmful levels of gameplay; this is game design prioritising ‘wanting’ over ‘liking’, which is the ultimate trap of all addiction.
In my opinion, a game that typifies this prioritising of expectation over experience would be Rage of Bahamut – a game that is a constant treadmill of chasing rewards and individual battles that play themselves with the most basic of preparation required, thereby offering very little depth of experience. Conversely, Super Hexagon is a game that, while having a basic system of rewards, uses the fantastically gripping experience of the gameplay as its reason to return.
These three considerations of gameplay outline a crude system of thought that game designers can use to establish how they can make an ethical game that puts genuine engagement ahead of unhealthy addiction. Griffiths suggests that we ensure that session times be controlled such that players are never forced to over-commit in order to take part. Kelly advises that games that refrain from using slot-machine-like rewards should only do so if it is at least matched by the presence of sklll-based, learnable gameplay. Finally, Blow asks developers to ensure that their game does not rely upon its rewards; that its basic gameplay is fun without having to tempt users with the next carrot.
These ideas suggest that a good game is very different from an addictive game, which is positive news, as it allows us to make a separation between ethical and unethical design models. Potentially this will harm the revenue of the gaming industry; although if that is the case then it goes some way to proving that certain companies and models have been profiting from harming certain individuals’ mental health, albeit unwittingly. Should this be the case, then the sooner that we can close down these practices and move on towards better and less harmful games.