Virtual Vice

How Virtual Reality Could Become Our Next Great Addiction

I have something embarrassing to admit: I am a Candy Crush Addict.

For a solid year I spent my free time hoarding color bombs and cursing the chocolate that would take over my screen. I would literally dream of crushing candies, always feeling a sense of unbridled joy as I watched them explode in all their shiny splendor.

I now regret the thousands of hours I wasted on the game, but the experience did give me a new understanding of how visual media can be designed to exploit our worst tendencies as humans. As we enter a new era of visual media — virtual reality — I began to think back on why this game was so addicting and how these lessons might apply.

The truth is that even in the depths of my addiction, I knew exactly how they were manipulating psychology to get me coming back time and again. I knew that the endless quest gave my lizard brain a sense of purpose and drive. I knew that the bright colors and lights activated dopamine loops that I craved. I even knew that the probability algorithms that determined whether the right candy would show up or not exploited the same tendencies that cause gambling addiction, but I played on.

Divine — more like hellspawn.

These are exactly the type of manipulative experiences that I don’t want to see in VR. I’m not saying that virtual reality by itself is going to be massively addicting. Instead, I think most people will be able to incorporate VR into their everyday lives by replacing and augmenting other forms of entertainment and communication.

But I do think some unscrupulous developers will design their games specifically to take advantage of the quirks and flaws in human psychology in order to get people to spend thousands of hours — and eventually dollars — in VR. If we want to ensure that VR doesn’t go the way of Candy Crush, Clash of Clans, and all the other exploitative phone games, we need to be aware of the risks of VR addiction.

The Power of Immersion

Anyone that’s tried VR knows that the immersive experience itself can be very addicting. It’s truly incredible to spend hours exploring worlds that we’d otherwise never get the chance to visit. Our brains crave novelty and virtual reality offers it in spades.

Up until the release of consumer VR at the end of March, most games have been simply demos. This means that they are usually time limited and they often have a clear end point when you take off the headset and say “Wow!” But if you’ve tried one of the few relatively open world games like Elite Dangerous or Windlands, you know how easy it is to completely lose track of time. There’s simply no end to new experiences to discover.

And maybe some you don’t want to discover.

This is compounded by the fact that virtual reality is unlike any other entertainment medium because it completely cuts you off from the world around you. Even when you’re in the depths of a PC or console gaming binge, you can at least still see the sun setting (or rising as the case may be!). In virtual reality, not only is your brain’s desire for novelty constantly being satisfied, there’s nothing to pull you back to the real world.

But it’s not just the novelty of virtual experiences that make them addicting — the experiences can be addicting in and of themselves. Right now the main use case for virtual reality is video games. While I personally love gaming and gaming culture, there’s no doubt that for some people playing video games can become a compulsive behavior. A meta-analysis of studies on video game addiction has found that about 3% of gamers are pathological players.

And we all know someone in that 3%. Image courtesy of Irais Esparza.

While this may not sound like a lot, this percentage increases when you add elements to games like social motivation and the ability to escape into an alternate reality. Social VR has already proven how effective social interaction can be in virtual reality and virtual reality is perfect for allowing people to live out their fantasies.

Video games also become especially addicting when you add new forms of interaction beyond simple button pressing, as evidenced by the overwhelming popularity of the Wii, Guitar Hero, and Rock Band. Virtual reality takes this even further with Vive controllers and Oculus Touch. Any exercise nut will tell you just how addicting it is to get your body moving. Virtual reality will combine our love of movement with our love of video games to form a potent cocktail.

Basically, VR is going to be addicting enough with all the innovative content we’re going to see in the next few years. But there’s a line between creating compelling experiences and creating experiences that are specifically designed to tap into the addictive parts of our brains. If instead VR goes the way of the app market and focuses on metrics designed to get people to spend as much time as possible in their experience, we could see an explosion in VR addiction.

Digital Drugs

When building a VR game, you have absolute control over everything the person is going to be experiencing. That means that developers can design the entire experience to satisfy our brain’s primal needs.

Right now, video game addiction works similarly to drug or habit addictions. When you perform certain actions that are tied to deep psychological needs your brain releases small amounts of dopamine, the neurochemical responsible for desire, into our brain. When our brain gets a hit of dopamine all it wants is another one, leading to a dopamine loop where we repeat the action ad nauseum.

Admit it, how many of these things did you kill?

With the rise of app games, especially those with microtransactions, there has been an increased focus on finding and exploiting these psychological triggers in order to start these dopamine loops on purpose. For example, built-in randomness tends to target the same parts of our brain that cause gambling addiction. Pathological gamblers tend to have low levels of norepinephrine, a hormone that is secreted under stress, arousal and thrill. In games where randomness plays a big part in determining outcome, this hormone floods the brain and causes dopamine levels to spike.

But randomness is only one aspect that developers exploit to cause dopamine loops. Many games have incredibly simple actions and win conditions especially early on to give players a strong sense of satisfaction. Time limits ensure that you’re never completely satisfied when you have to stop playing, causing a craving to play more. Pattern recognition, a fundamental part of human psychology, is used over and over again. Positive imagery and words help create positive feedback loops. Endless quests create artificial goals that make people think “just one more level.”

“I swear I’ll go to bed soon.” Image courtesy of Japanexperterna.

The thing is that these are just the tricks developers have found for games that take place on a tiny screen in your hand. Imagine how much more powerful these tricks will be when combined with the immersive power of VR. We already have stories of people blowing thousands of dollars on in game transactions or playing games till they, or even worse someone else, died of starvation. Imagine when these games literally separate you from the real world. A virtual reality game that’s designed to trap players in dopamine loops could have people around the world dropping like Goombas in Super Mario Bros.


One way or the other, virtual reality is going to be an incredibly powerful and addicting medium. But it doesn’t need gimmicks or tricks to get people to stay immersed in the experience. I want people creating experiences that are fun and valuable in and of themselves.

The problem is that if the incentives are set up so that the only way to make money from VR is by keeping people in VR for long periods of time, we’re going to get purposely addictive VR experiences. This was the problem with the app economy. People were unwilling to pay much if anything for games on their phone. The solution for developers was to give away the game for free but get people to pay for it on the back end through microtransactions.

We should have known this was the beginning of the apocalypse

The good thing is that so far the marketplaces for VR games like Oculus Home and Steam are largely built around one time purchases. But this is something we’re going to have to fight to keep. The tech world is obsessed with recurring revenue, something games can only achieve through subscriptions or microtransactions. These are the exact type of business models that encourage the development of addicting games.

The other option is to embrace the addictive nature of VR but use it foster creativity and learning. We saw this in the app economy with companies like Duolingo and Khan Academy but the potential is even greater with virtual reality. Using VR, we could induce flow states in people whether they’re learning biochemistry or designing a skyscraper. Addiction to virtual reality could end up being a boon for humanity rather than a hinderance.

We stand at a unique moment in the history of virtual reality. As early adopters we have the ability to set the norms for how this incredibly powerful technology will be used for generations to come. We get to determine whether VR will allow us to expand our horizons and improve the world — or whether it becomes just another virtual vice.

Matthias McCoy-Thompson is a co-founder and COO of AgoraVR. We create tools for companies, organizations, and individuals to present and share their ideas in virtual reality.

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