Addiction: A Designer’s Dream; a Player’s Nightmare


Meet Nicholas Kardaras and Natasha Dow Schull

The introduction of interactive media — especially video games, is a new phenomena.

So is the the debate over whether or not this broad range of experiences can promote addictive behavior that results in harm.

While many scholars argue that there is a distinction between drug and alcohol abuse and the video games, it nevertheless forces everyone to rethink how they define addiction. In this article, I analyze the multifaceted debate over whether or not video games are addictive, and the legitimacy of video game addiction as a diagnosable disorder. More so, I challenge interactive designers to help users find a balance between an enjoyable experience and a harmful addiction in what I call game-life balance. This may at first seem counterintuitive, because isn’t it a designer’s job to get people addicted to their games?

‘Master Chef’ Showdown

Undoubtedly, there are ‘master chefs’, or experts in the realm of addiction research and/or the gaming industry, who have vehemently taken a stance either for or against the legitimacy of video game addiction. In one corner, we have Nicholas Kardaras and Natasha Dow Schull, renowned researchers and scholars who argue that video games, and interactive technologies in general, have a menacingly addictive quality. On the other hand, Christopher J. Ferguson takes the extreme opposite stance, that video games are not addictive at all, and can even be beneficial for reducing real-world gun violence.

Dr. Nicholas Kardaras Ph.D, LCSW-R

Nicholas Kardaras

Dr. Nicholas Kardaras is a psychotherapist and an writer about addiction, who serves as the executive director for a rehabilitation center for teenagers with drug, alcohol, and digital addictions of all types.

In his article called “It’s ‘digital heroin’: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies” he warns parents that “your kid’s brain on Minecraft looks like a brain on drugs.”

In addition, his experiences have shown that kids can develop psychotic features after repeated and prolonged video game usage and too much screen time, even causing them to lose touch with reality. According to Dr. Kardaras, children can be saved from a future of digital addiction by withholding iPad usage entirely until the age of 10; putting effort into connecting with the child and fostering good relationships with relatives and loved ones also helps prevent video game addiction.

An article published online in The Washington Post details one family’s struggles with video game addiction, and how Dr. Nicholas Kardaras was eventually able to help the dissociated teen regain control of his life. At age 15 the teenager’s erratic behavior reached its peak, though it began in middle school. Most parents with children plagued by video game addiction seem to have a lot in common, in that their child or teen’s behavior spiraled out of control over time, and that, like any other type of addict, they began turning violent and disinterested in the rest of their daily life. Aside from his interactions with patients at his rehabilitation center, I wonder if Dr. Nicholas Kardaras has a more personal experience with video game addiction, like a daughter or son’s addiction, or perhaps his own?

Natasha Dow Schull

While Kardaras focuses his addiction research on children, Natasha Dow Schull has taken more of an interest in the addictive behaviors associated with adult casino gambling. Schull is an associate professor at MIT, is the author of Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, and has studied casino behavior for over 15 years as a cultural anthropologist. While slot machines and video games may initially seem unrelated, they can often have something in common: the “ludic loop”. The ludic loop occurs essentially when the gamer is uninterrupted in a user experience, they are able to perform repetitive actions in order to achieve small victories, have little to no distractions (such as intrusive characters and unnecessary tasks), and can “get in the zone”, so to speak. This phenomenon can force once-rational adults to spend their life savings at a slot machine on a casino floor. It’s apparent that this also occurs to many gamers while playing video games; Candy Crush is one such example of an addicting app. In many ways, the ludic loop can be seen as another component that creates addictive tendencies in video games.

Christopher J. Ferguson

Christopher J. Ferguson, Ph.D

Professionally, Christopher J. Ferguson is an associate professor at of psychology at Stetson University, and has made a career out of video games by conducting psychological research on the topic. Ferguson has a son, with whom he plays video games with often, specifically the Lego series. He has also written a book called Mortal Kombat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong, where he argues the benefits for society that violent video games offer.

As a self-proclaimed video game nerd, Christopher J. Ferguson strives to prove that video games are not addicting; in a recent article in The New York Times, he said, “[gaming] is normal behavior that, while perhaps in many cases a waste of time, is not damaging or disruptive of lives in the way drug or alcohol use can be”. According to American Journal of Psychiatry study, 99% of video games do not have addictive qualities, and other compulsive activities like gambling are far more addictive. Ferguson’s main argument is that video games are no more addicting or intrusive than other hobbies used to unwind, like knitting or watching sports. In addition, “by treating the immoderate playing of video games as an addiction, we are pathologizing relatively normal behavior”, which can further compound the issue.

Overall, Ferguson largely disagrees with both parents and existing research on the biochemical and behavioral potential for video game addiction. Though he doesn’t officially state a personal definition of addiction, it’s fairly safe to say that Ferguson likely adheres to the traditional definition of addiction, which limits the qualifying substances to drugs and alcohol. Behaviors such as video games are seen more as hobbies than potentially addictive behaviors.

“Just One More…”: Defining Addiction

When people think of addicts they most likely picture a bug-eyed junkie with a heroin needle sticking out of their arm, living on the streets with every familial bond and relationship broken after years of discourse. People don’t necessarily picture an un-showered teenager playing an online multiplayer video game for days at a time, surrounded by empty bags of chips and Mountain Dew, but what if they aren’t so different? In order to better understand the possibility of video game addiction, you must first redefine how you see addiction.

According to Psychology Today, addiction can be defined as “a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (e.g., alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continuation of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary responsibilities and concerns, such as work, relationships, or health”. By this definition, excessive video game use can qualify as an addiction, so long as the behavior becomes disruptive to the person’s life, health, and/or relationships. Playing video games for prolonged periods of time can prevent an individual from sleeping, eating regularly, using the restroom, attending a job or classes/school, visiting with friends or family, maintaining romantic relationships, or can even cause death in the most extreme cases.

In 2012, Chuang, a Taiwanese teenager, died after playing Diablo 3 for almost two days straight; following 40 hours of continual gameplay, he collapsed and died on the way to the hospital. In September of 2015, Kirstie McCrum reports the death of a Russian teenager known as Rustam, who allegedly played video games on his computer for three continuous weeks; medical explanations of his death point to thrombosis, from not moving around enough. The 17-year-old’s “drug of choice” was Defense of the Ancients, an online multiplayer mod for Warcraft III. Video game related “overdoses” are few and far between, not nearly comparable to the mortality associated with methamphetamine or heroin, but they nevertheless add to the evidence for the addictability of video games.

‘Addiction’, a YouTube video produced by Kurzgesagt — In a Nutshell, captures the most realistic and comprehensive definition of addiction through storytelling and examples; simple experiments show the root causes of addiction as a lack of social connectedness. When faced with trauma and stress, some individuals turn towards drugs, pornography, video games, gambling, or other isolating behaviors. Do video games not offer the same sense of worldly escape as methamphetamine or heroin?

The issue here is that escapism often causes problems of its own, and can lead to an over-reliance certain substances or behaviors — addiction. A bigger issue is that, technically, it is the interactive designer’s duty to successfully transport users to another world, to escape reality, and to do the impossible, but how far is ‘too far’? In the next section, I give suggestions to designers as to how they should do their job to the best of their ability without sacrificing the well being of the players.

The Role of the Interactive Designer

“Don’t hate the player, hate the game”….right? Well I’m saying don’t blame the player, blame the designer. To people who are predisposed to developing excessive reliance on video games, certain gaming experiences literally make the controller impossible to put down. As a designer, I would imagine you would NEVER be told to make an interactive experience less appealing, but at a certain point, the most brilliant user experiences become dangerous.

Obviously, it’s the job of the interactive designer to create a brilliant and breathtaking experience, one that makes the player want to keep playing, but at what point does the designer do his job a little too well? Probably when “just one more” turns into a 40-hour binge session. I’m not ignoring the responsibility that the player has to maintain a sense of self-control, or the responsibility of parents to do so when the player is incapable, yet I am encouraging designers to be proactive in solving this connectivity crisis.

Clearly, video games and other types of interactive multimedia are meant to be enjoyed in moderation, yet it’s hard to ignore the fact that designers, developers and game franchises innately encourage users to play as much as possible. Designers, I’m not saying you shouldn’t continue to produce amazing games with intense graphics, smooth interfaces, and crisp navigations. I’m not saying designers should hold back when it comes to remaining competitive on the global market. I’m not saying designers should have to return to creating clunky games that become unappealing the users. It’s simple, designers: give the players a way out, and give them the tools to succeed at game-life balance.

Yes, I just coined the term game-life balance. Similar to work-life balance, game-life balance refers to an interactive multimedia user’s ability maintain a healthy physical, mental and emotional state while enjoying gameplay. For game designers, this includes avoiding creating games with what I’ll call ‘addictive ingredients’, and incorporating additional aspects of the user experience that helps gamers make better choices.

Addictive Ingredients

Continual Play: Games where “sessions” or “rounds” begin automatically allow players to fall into the trap of playing for hours on-end. Similar to how Netflix episodes automatically begin after 13 seconds, there is not enough time for players of these types of games to make a responsible decision to take a break. Worse even, are games with continual play that has no interruption at all. This is most common in online multiplayer games such as Defense of the Ancients (DotA), as mentioned previously in this article (the game one teen was bingeing when he died). Please note how there is constant action, the player’s “job” is never done, praises and texts for accomplishments continue to flood the player’s vision, and there is no information about the real-world time of day in this gameplay video that’s over 30 minutes long:

For games like Call of Duty, rapid and successive 5–10 minute rounds pass quickly, and players may not realize that after playing a few rounds an hour has passed. Before they know it, the sun is rising on an exhausted gamer who has been playing since 6PM the night before.

The massive success of certain smartphone and iPad apps such as Temple Run and Temple Run 2 also show how these design tactics make a game impossible to resist. Players gradually get better, then feel the need to become the best — the best of their friends, the best in the lobby or chat room, or even the best in the world.

Temple Run and Temple Run 2

Note how easy it is for users to Run Again… The achieved distance seems so taunt the user, because they know they can do better.
YouTuber and Temple Run 2 enthusiast goes on a streak for over an hour
Safeguards: Games in this category should include built-in reminders to take a break after an unsafe amount of time. In the extreme case, customizable clock settings where gamers can administer their own ‘cut-off’ points might prevent ‘tragedies’ such as missed work and academic deadlines and could help sleep schedules remain more normalized.

Oversimplified In-Game Menu/Screen: Most designers would consider this a “nice touch”, the cherry on top of a great user experience. On the other hand, this limited display leaves the gamer with a lack of information about real-life happenings, such as what time it is. I have a 17-year-old brother of my own, and he would often spend all day during the weekend locked up in his bedroom playing Rocket League or Overwatch; when I went up to confront him, he had no idea he had been playing for eight hours straight without pausing for a meal.

Rocket League

Rocket League gameplay image. Note the lack of menu entirely. The only information the player gets is the score, the time left in each round, and how much boost they have.

Overwatch

Safeguards: Games should present the player with certain information, such as how long they’ve been playing. Including a small real-time display showing the current time and date in the gaming menu would help players realize how much of the day they’ve spent playing the game, since this information is usually only accessed once they’ve closed the game on their console.

Conclusion

This article presented both sides of the debate over video games as addicting (or not), but most importantly it focused on the designer’s perspective. Examined were some ethical concerns for designing “addicting” games, and how designers can avoid certain ingredients that cause users to become “users”.

About Me

My name is Shelby Kuster, and I’m a recent graduate of The College of New Jersey, Class of 2017. As an undergraduate student, I studied Psychology, Interactive Multimedia, and Spanish. This project was part of an undergrad course, IMM 370: Dust or Magic: Psychology of Interactive Design. My entire Interactive Designer’s Cookbook can be found here. You can reach me by email at kusters1@tcnj.edu.

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