How Certain Game Mechanics Contribute to Game Addiction


During the rapid development of computer games, the issue of game addiction has always been hand in hand with shadow. In order to study this controversial issue from a more objective perspective, this essay will focus on games themselves, especially the game mechanics. Moreover, three key problems will be elaborated in this essay, including what game addiction is, which kind of games are addictive and how addiction works. In the end, an expectation to alleviate game addiction is put forward.


With the development of computer games, especially the development of online games in recent years, game addiction begins to be widely discussed by all sectors of society. However, such discussions are mostly based on the roles or the standpoints of the discussants rather than games themselves, only to reach extreme conclusions either that games affect physical and psychological health of adolescents or that games can develop intelligence and curiosity of the world. Game addiction has always been a controversial issue, and the aim of this essay is more in identifying game addiction from the internal mechanism. I will start with the history of games, and elaborate this issue with three questions below:

1. What is the definition of game addiction and how to identify whether people get addictive to games?

2. Which kind of games are more addictive than others?

3. How certain game mechanics contribute to game addiction?


All the people have both material and spiritual needs, while games are an important means to meet spiritual demands. In the book of Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga (2014) considers sacrifice, worship, war and contest in the field of games. Before books, music and painting came into being in the forms of art, games are the oldest recreational activities of human beings. In century-long history, humans keep inventing various kinds of new games to enhance their copious life. Go, chess, poker and mahjong are typical game types which we are familiar with. Moreover, almost all kinds of modern sports, especially football, came into being in the forms of games when it first emerged, not to mention the emerging electronic sports in recent years.

The invention of computers has greatly facilitated the development of games. In 1972, the first electronic game Pong was invented. About 45 years later, there are thousands of computer games launched every year. With lower and lower threshold of game development, making computer games are not the privileges of programmers or geeks. It is anticipated that everybody can make his own games with a little basic programming knowledge in a not too-distant future.

The secret that games or any other recreational activities are so appealing to human beings is the sense of immersion. Almost all the people have the experience of being immersed in something. To take film watching for example, if the plot of the film is interesting and compact, no one wants to stop to leave for bathrooms. In order to keep the audiences from being interrupted, cinemas require all the people turn off their mobile phones’ screens and set them to mute. Therefore, all kinds of recreational activities essentially create a zone in which people are temporarily isolated form the real world, and it is also considered as Magic Circle in terms of Huizinga (2014). There are fixed rules and restrictions in this circle which all the participants have to obey in order to avoid this zone from being influenced by the real world, and the activities will become boring in a moment once the rules are broken.

Everyone’s spiritual worlds are separated from each other. Participating in recreational activities, we leave our own real worlds and spiritual worlds to enter another world created by other people. With the exploration of the magic circle, we can obtain new knowledge and unprecedented experience and enrich our spiritual worlds. Compared with other recreational activities, interactivity of games is the most different feature. More specifically, there must be an opponent who played by another player or an artificial intelligence, and in multiplayer games, there will also be teammates for players to defeat the opponents through cooperation. Interaction between opponents and teammates can create more possibilities and many kinds of unexpected events, which can encourage and stimulate the participants to make more efforts in the magic circle. This kind of positive feedback is another reason why people enjoy playing games without exhaustion.

The mechanism of immersion and interactivity is still working in the long history of games. However, the invention of computer games, especially the emergency of online games, has given birth to a new problem, game addiction, which will be elaborated in the next section.


Whether game addiction can stand is left with many different opinions among game industry practitioners, public opinions, political circles, psychology and medical circles. Now it is a curious issue that all the discussions on game addiction are based on the values pursued by discussants or involved in economic and political interests. For example, for the discussion of game addiction legislation in Korea, the most popular news are basically the simple lists of values instead of the judgements on the facts. Compared with non-players, game industry practitioners and game players almost take the evasive attitudes and turn blind eyes to this issue. No matter from the perspective of emotions or material benefits, they tend to deny that they have a game addiction problem, just as Coca Cola Company is not willing to face the problem that high sugar in cola is likely to do harm to people’s health. Therefore, we need to dismiss our emotions and presuppositions before we carry out an objective discussion.

In order to identify game addiction, I draw on Sue Fisher’s DSM-IV-JV (1994) which is a set of criteria to identify pathological game playing in juvenile. Game addition must meet at least four of the following:


1. as video game playing progressed, became more and more preoccupied with reliving past playing experiences. studying video game playing, planning the next opportunity to play, or thinking of ways to get money to play.

2. needed to spend more and more money in order to achieve the desired excitement.

3. became restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop video game playing.

4. played video game machines as a way of escaping from problems or intolerable feeling states.

5. after spending money on video game machines, would often return another day in order to get a higher score (“score chasing”).

6. lied to family, or friends to protect and conceal the extent of involvement with video game machines.

7. committed illegal/unsocial acts, such as misuse of school dinner/fare money, and theft from the home or elsewhere in order to finance video game playing.

8. fell out with family or close friends and jeopardized education because of video game playing.

9. needed another individual to provide money to relieve a desperate financial situation produced by video game playing (a “bailout”).

The criteria of addiction can be simplified as the following three points:

1. have dependencies on games psychologically and physiologically.

2. cannot realize this kind of dependencies of his own, or cannot get rid of his known dependencies.

3. have been negatively influenced by this kind of dependencies (time, money and interpersonal relationship).

If we use the criteria above to judge game addiction, we may find that most of people cannot meet the criteria in game playing and even if the most avid game players can lead a normal life and carry out normal work. However, game addiction is possible to occur despite low probability. To take slot machines for example, slot machines can contribute to psychological addiction, which is a well-known fact to all of us. If we go into a casino, we can find that all of the gambling activities are some kinds of games in essence, but the rewards or the costs are real money. Even if they are changed into electronic version and real money stakes are replaced by virtual game credits, they can still make people get addictive. Although computer games cannot simply equal with gambling, some computer games borrowed elements from gambling make it easy for people to spend much more effort and money, so that people are seriously influenced in their real life and they meet the criteria of addiction as well. In general, most of computer game genres are not addictive and less likely to cause social harm like gambling. But some computer games borrowed elements from gambling may overly occupy players’ energy and money and cause game addiction. In the next section, I will focus more on the game genres which are more likely to cause game addiction.


In this essay, game can be divided into three genres, single player games, multiplayer online games for cultivation and multiplayer online games for competition. Single player games pay more attention to game experience. Just like other mainstream media including novels, TV programs and films, producers, or rather game designers try to provide high-quality and non-repetitive content to attract players. So long as designers create innovative content which can meet players’ expectation, players will pay for the copies of the single player games. However, that is not the case in online games. Nowadays, online games have developed two main branches. The one is at the core of cultivation. For example, World of Warcraft is a classic multiplayer role-playing game in which players can cultivate their characters by various raids and tasks. Another example is Pokemon Go, a monster collecting mobile online game. The more Pokemon the players collect, the stronger the players are likely to be. The other branch of online games is characterized by competition, in other words, player versus player, and Couter-Strike, Warcraf Ⅲ, League of Legends and Overwatch are typical representatives. To a great extent, almost all the online games cannot depart from the patterns of cultivation and competition. Moreover, all the commercial online games must follow two rules in order to maximize their benefits:

1. try to extend players’ online time.

2. try to lower the consumption rate of game content before the new content is ready.

It is obvious that these two rules contradict each other, because the longer a player keeps staying online, the more game content the player will consume, which determines the player retention of a game. The rapid consumption of game content has little influence on single player games, while it can cause serious loss of players for online games. Once an online game keep losing players, more players will choose to leave due to the silence of the player community, and such vicious circle is avoided by game companies to the best of their ability. Since the day computer games came into being, the production rate of game content has long been far from the consumption rate. For single player games, game designers should spend two to three years to create the game content which is likely to be exhausted with in dozens of hours. For online games, players will demand longer online time, so the contradict between game content and hours of gameplay become more urgent. In order to deal with the lack of game content, three principles are widely used in game industry:

1. repeat the game process and provide rewards. Most of the daily tasks are typical examples, including several kills of some monsters, collection of certain items and etc.

2. slow down the consumption rate of game content. More specifically, to raise threshold for promotion. For instance, most mobile games like Clash Royale have an energy/stamina system that players should wait for a period of time or they cannot take the next challenge. Another example is that players should complete a certain number of similar tasks to meet the criteria of the next level. This kind of game mechanics tends to encourage players to add credit with real money.

3. let the players create game content. The interaction between players not only meet their social needs, but also affect the process of the gameplay, and it will become a part of the game. Both the behaviors of opponents and teammates will get infinite variations and thus change the game content in every game. This is the reason why chess and card games or online competition games can appeal to so many players.

Based on the three principles above, we can figure out the fundamental differences among these three game genres. For single player games, there is larger space for game designers to create game content because they do not need to use these principles to extend the hours of gameplay. Meanwhile, many innovative game mechanics and rules tend to appear in single player games especially independent games. For multiplayer online games for cultivation, players are required to spend hundreds of hours in the games in which game designers cannot provide enough game content in a short time. Therefore, the first two principles become an essential part of this kind of games. In terms of multiplayer online games for competition, the third principle is indispensable. However, to design a competition game is much more difficult than to design a cultivation game. Not only because the game mechanics are much more complicate, but also the opportunities for player to pay are hard to design. In order to keep the game balanced, game companies can only benefit from character skins, advertisement during live-streams and e-Sports sponsorship.


Some game mechanics are designed to repeat the game process and provide rewards, and they frequently occurs in multiplayer online games for cultivation, such as spending time for leveling or spending money for new cards. According to Skinner’s box (1953), the reaction of the rat in the experimental box is considerably similar to these game mechanics. When the rat pushes the button, food may drop in the box by chance, which may occur every forty to sixty pushes on average. In this condition, the rat can insist on pushing the button for fifteen hours. At first, this simple behavior, repeating pushing the button, is a process of learning. Then, this process is combined with contingencies, so the rat cannot predict the consequences caused by its actions. Even if the rat is given nothing, it tends to imagine that it can get a reward with one more push. The rat will keep pushing the button unless the ratio of reward is extremely low or the rat is exhausted.

Fig.7 Skinner’s Box (Google Image)

Unlike other animals, people have complicate emotions which animals do not have. If computer games are just a probability problem, people will get boring soon after several repeated attempts. In order to keep players retaining in the game, game designers draw on the concept of sunk costs, including players’ money, chips, credits, time and any other thing that can be accumulated. Eyal (2014) has also indicated such kind of concept as the investment phase in his Hook Model, which aims to drive customer engagement by a habit-forming loop. Players often have two anticipations. The one is that they pretend their win rate to be raised in another round, but the win rate actually remain the same. The other anticipation is that players want to win more after they win, and win back after they lose, and it means that players will spend more and more on the games no matter they win or lose. From the perspective of psychology, the more a person spends on something, the more he is likely to invest in order not to waste what he has invested.

After analyzing the relation between the rat in Skinner’s box and the players, I can conclude with three phases which contribute to game addiction:

1. repeat the game process.

2. provide a reward randomly at the end of the process, which cannot be predicted.

3. keep accumulating sunk costs.

When computer games with certain mechanics which involve these three phases, they are likely to make players get addictive. If there is lack of repetitive process in the game, it is hard for players to develop a long-standing habit. If the consequences of actions can be predicted, or the rewards provided are fixed, players are likely to run out of motivation after exhausting all the possibilities. If there is no sunk cost in the game, or sunk costs are easy to be noticed, players may quit the game anytime without psychological burden. Among three game genres I mentioned above, multiplayer online games for cultivation are more addictive than the other two genres. On one hand, cultivation games are more additive than single player games, because they encourage players to fight again and again to get the legendary items or draw cards again and again to get the rare characters. The probability of winning is totally random so that players are never get bored with it. On the other hand, cultivation games are more addictive than competition games due to a larger range of sunk costs, including longer time required for a higher level, more emotional connection in game communities and more money investment in in-game purchases. In order to create reasonable revenue, competition games and even single player games begin to learn such kind of game mechanics from cultivation games, for instance, the task and achievement system.

Don’t Move is just an independent game which criticize this kind of game mechanics. It indicates that such compulsion loop keeps providing players with goals and forces them to perform meaningless operations to obtain higher levels, scores, experience points and medals. When the game is over, players can gain nothing but emptiness. Although computer games are possibly addictive, it should be emphasized that not all kinds of computer games are addictive, not all players can get addictive to computer games, and even the most addictive computer games are less harmful than gambling. For most of the addicted players, to understand what causes addiction must lie outside of games.

Fig.10 Indie Game Don’t Move (Youtube Screenshot)


To draw a conclusion for this essay, I try to answer the three questions mentioned at the beginning of the essay in a short word:

1. Game addiction is about physiological psychology dependencies on computer games. If someone is negatively influenced by computer games with excessive time consumption, money trouble or personal relationship breakdown, he is likely addictive to computer games.

2. Multiplayer online games for cultivation is likely the most addictive kind of computer games than any others, because this kind of games is so lacking in game content that game designers have to repeat the game process and provide rewards. Only in this way can the consumption rate of game content slow down.

3. The game mechanics which can be considered as a loop with three phases, including repeating the game process, providing a reward randomly and accumulating sunk costs, tend to make players get addictive.

In order to alleviate the issue of game addiction, not only should players learn to keep away from simple Skinner’s box satisfaction, but also game designers need to look for other better ways of fostering engagement.


Huizinga, J. (2014). Homo Ludens Ils 86. Routledge.

Fisher, S. (1994). Identifying video game addiction in children and adolescents. Addictive behaviors, 19(5), 545–553.

Skinner B.F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.

Hopson, J. (2001). Behavioral game design. Gamasutra, April, 27, 2001.

Eyal, N. (2014). Hooked: How to build habit-forming products. Penguin.