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Designing Addictive Video Games

Creating experiences to be enjoyable is one thing, but building mechanics that deliberately exploit addictive behavior is another

Well, that’s kind of tricky question. Video games were born to be fun. Their origin lays in the sheer curiosity of the engineers that made them. They asked themselves whether they could make something fun from the boring machines of their time. And yes, they could.

But origin means nothing. Computers were made for processing data, but we now mainly use them for communication. Phones were made to make calls, and we now use for…well, everything. Every invention has its first use, but only in rare cases it remains the sole one as time goes on.

Games don’t have to be fun. I know this may sound stupid, why would anyone play a game if it isn’t any fun? But this is not the point. I’m not trying to say games should try to be boring. I’m just saying they shouldn’t strive to be fun. Or at least, not all of them.

To understand the point I’m trying to make, we need to look at video games from two different angles.

First, we have the monetary side. Games are (generally) commercial products. Companies need to generate revenue from them. No revenue means no more game production, at least professionally. I won’t seek to make war on capitalism and say artistic expression should always be the priority. But…

That’s exactly the second angle we need to look at them from. Games are an expression of those who make them, of how they perceive the world, of how they think humans relate, of the ideas that fly through their minds. And as such, I believe a game’s only objective should be to convey something to its players.

There is a natural tension here, of course. Two different contenders are squabbling over what a game should be at its core. When a game designer wears the commercial hat, as they usually must, their priority is to make money. But when they don an artistic/creator hat, their priority is transmitting ideas. Sometimes those two concepts dovetail beautifully and everyone’s happy. But in general, the tension remains.

Designing for addiction

So, how do you make a game more commercially viable? There are two main ways to do this.

The first one is making your game better. It’s hard to define what makes a game better or worse, so this is especially tricky. You can try to improve your graphics, improve performance, add new features, adjust the mechanics, etc… But after you’ve done all of those things, you may release it just to find out no one likes what you’ve made, and you’ve ‘wasted’ enormous amounts of effort and money.

Is it possible to make a game more successful without actually making it better, though? Perhaps. If you’re looking for more profit, especially in the short term, your goal is likely to drive up the number of people purchasing your game — and if you want more people to buy your game without actually making it better, this means exploiting players’ needs.

No smoker in the world would tell you smoking is good (hopefully), but every one of them would agree that it feels good or provides some kind of instant reward/gratification. It’s the same with games. Exploiting the mechanisms of our bodies that liberate dopamine doesn’t make a game good. In fact, the more you exploit them, the more your game sucks.

Photo by Mathew MacQuarrie.

Although this theory has one major flaw. Dopamine is our greatest behavioral motivator. Without dopamine, we would lay still and die (literally). So what’s the difference between a game that intends to produce dopamine and one that doesn’t consider it? It’s exactly that, intention. Dopamine should be naturally generated as we play. Not because the designer is forcing it, but because we are enjoying the experience.

We can reduce to two the mechanisms some games take advantage of. The first one is learning. Whenever we feel like we are learning something and improving our knowledge about a topic, we feel good. The second one is repeating a difficult action, like getting a headshot in a shooter. Each time we do it, our body rewards us because it thinks improving an ability may raise our survival chances.

Both of these mechanisms can be exploited. Games can keep teaching the player useless things to make him feel like he is learning, even if he isn’t. And, most commonly, games can make the player repeat certain actions that feel hard so he feels like he is improving when truly he is not. Excessive loot on games is one of the most common applications of this last one. Bombarding the player with objects makes him feel like he is achieving things and growing, yet it renders him no real value.

Exploiting our dopamine circuitry is not that easy, so generally games can’t do it unintentionally. If a game’s mechanics are sugared, that was most likely the intention of the designer.

Avoiding addictive mechanics

If you’ve been playing games for a while, chances are you’ve played some games with sugared mechanics along the way. It’s ok, you are not going to die from it. But should you try to avoid them from now on? Are they actually bad?

It depends. If you are sure it doesn’t affect you the slightest, you can keep playing addictive games and be just fine. But if you like me easily fall under bad behavioral patterns, you should stay away from them.

Games that aim to trigger those dopamine spots are usually very addictive. For most people, it won’t have dramatic effects. You probably won’t lose your job because you are playing the latest Call of Duty, nor will your girlfriend dump you, nor will you stop going to the gym, and so on.

The effects of mild addictions cannot be easily perceived. Your close ones might not even see a difference in your behavior. But deep down, you know you are playing just because of the sugar rush. You know you may not be destroying your life, but you are little by little deteriorating it. You go to the gym, but you arrive late because you were finishing a game. You pay attention to your girlfriend, but not all the attention she deserves because you are thinking about the game. You get work done, but just the bare minimum so you have a little more time to play.

I’ve been there, I know how it feels. You try to convince yourself it’s not a problem. You compare yourself with addicts to hard drugs and see the huge differences. Of course, there are huge differences; but if you need to compare yourself to a crack addict to think you’re okay, maybe you do have a problem. The good news is that since the addiction these games create is soft, it’s pretty easy to get rid of it. Just recognize it, once you acknowledge the problem, it will vanish as quickly as it appeared.

If you believe having fun should be the number one priority when it comes to games (which I find a rightful belief), just remember:

  • Having a constant urge to play is not fun.
  • Cutting up important things in your life to play is not fun.
  • Only being able to feel joyful when you’re playing is not fun.
Cover image by Chuma A.

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Sergio Abreu

Sergio Abreu

Being curious.

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