When I was younger I used to play games a lot for hours. I would say I got addicted to them. Now I'm a software developer and was wondering if games are explicitly designed to be addicting?

Game developers are interested in keeping their users playing as long as possible. I've read about Operant Conditioning and Virtual Skinner Boxes. According to psychologists, most games use a fixed reward system to get the player hooked at first. For example, you can level up pretty fast in beginning. Then reward frequency gradually drops, but player keeps playing because they are hooked. In the end, you switch to variable reward frequency, which means rewards occur randomly and rarely. By this stage, the player might not even enjoy the game, but still play in order to get his reward fix and the resulting good feeling from it. This is very similar to how rats are conditioned in Skinner boxes.

Rewards can be in the form of social status recognition in the game world, working hard for a virtual item therefore giving it great value when acquiring it, feeling in control and power that are not met in the real world, escaping to somewhere else, being able measure progress to some goal and getting instant feedback. If the player abstains from the game, a punishment is applied, i.e losing social status or items. After a while, the rewards will be associated with the game itself and therefore even the sight of the game can evoke craving, much like in case of Pavlov's dog

In addition, there is another research which states that the immersive nature of video games, the rich visual stimulus from realistic graphics, the complex thinking required for playing, great autonomy and fast feedback loop can result in increased dopamine levels in the brain, and create a sense of flow. Combined with an effective rewarding system, games can stimulate the feel good centres of the brain. This means that after several sessions, the player needs to play longer in order to achieve the same dopamine levels as before. Some even experience euphoric feeling and relief from withdrawal when they play. They replace real world with game world and focus on in-game motivations only. Players may stop showering for long time, have reduced hygiene, become socially isolated, drop out of school, become overweight, withdraw from their family, have dreams about the game, think and plan about the game while doing other activities, stop doing non game related activities, have trouble concentrating.





Can a game be simply too fun to resist?

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    \$\begingroup\$ You probably mean to ask if games are designed to create compulsions. Addiction is a medical term which technically speaking requires a professional diagnosis; notably for non-substance addictions like games it must be a compulsion with negative consequences. For someone to admit a game is designed to create an addiction is to admit malfeasance. \$\endgroup\$ – user744 Sep 2 '11 at 0:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ Short "answer": games using only skinner techniques are usually bad games, creating compulsion not enjoyment. Games that increase dopamine levels, put the player in the flow etc - fun games for short - are good and enjoyable. I cant see any question here tho, just a rant/essay. \$\endgroup\$ – K.L. Jan 30 '14 at 14:09

Short Answer

Some games are designed purely to be addictive, without regards to any depth to gameplay or aesthetics/narrative. Other times well designed gameplay that naturally encourages "return customers" can be addiction forming to those with more addictive personalities, though such addictions cannot be blamed on the game itself.

Long Answer

In terms of games as a money-making industry, the design of a game vis-a-vis its addictiveness depends entirely on the payment structure of the game.

For instance, Zynga is a well-known producer of facebook games such as Farmville. Addictiveness to the product is very desirable for them, as they work off the freemium payment model, whereby you can play for free, but to speed things up or get the good stuff, you need to make a per-item payment. For them, the more you play the game, the more likely you are to give them money. Addictiveness is so important to this model that there are in fact credible rumors that Zynga has psycho-analysts on payroll to analyse and help increase the addictive qualities of their products.

On the other hand, consider a game like Quake. You pay to purchase the game. From that point on, you pay no more money, but the longer you play, the more you actually diminish their profits, via an increased maintenance cost (releasing fixes and patches) and server costs (for hosting the servers. I can't remember if quake had public-dedicated servers or only official ones, but you get my point). From their perspective, as long as you buy the sequel, if you bought it day one and didn't play it longer than an hour, mission accomplished.

However, throwing a spanner into the works is this idea of "community". If you keep people playing, but more importantly talking about your game, you can command a greater control of the mindshare. This is very important for selling merchandise, increasing hype and thus sales of sequels/spinoffs, and generating goodwill. Thus, the moderate costs of maintaining a game and it's community can lead to a massive payout for future endeavours.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Calling addictiveness a "happy side-product" is a bit creepy. Hopefully there's some irony there; some designers might consider addiction a goal, but I think it's possible to design fun, successful games and also be socially responsible. \$\endgroup\$ – Gregory Avery-Weir Aug 31 '11 at 4:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ In hindsight, yeah, it is. What I meant was, if a game is enjoyable enough people will keep returning it on that merit alone. \$\endgroup\$ – Jordaan Mylonas Aug 31 '11 at 9:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Surely in this context we can disambiguate between true addiction categorized by some psychological dependence, and compulsive gaming? Compulsive gaming neither implies dependence or social irresponsibility, so I don't see any reason why that statement would be considered creepy. \$\endgroup\$ – Rob Aug 31 '11 at 14:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Jordaan I heavily disagree about your take on Quake. First of the server software is and was available and thousands of people ran game servers. You also dismiss word of mouth marketing. What is better a person who plays a game once for an hour or a person who plays it every day for months on end? The person who plays for a day will likely say the game sucks if anyone asks him, and generally none of his friends will see that he plays. While if a person plays a lot, friends will see him, either RL friends or online friends, and he will tell them the game is good, which can create more sales. \$\endgroup\$ – AttackingHobo Sep 1 '11 at 1:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't follow your logic, Nick. Some sales models require addiction to be profitable, and thus games of that model are addictive by design. Other sales models don't require addiction to be profitable, and thus any addiction caused by them is likely incidental. In either case, creating an enjoyable game create a positive community attitude which is beneficial for future efforts. What part of what I've said here do you consider to be dangerous? \$\endgroup\$ – Jordaan Mylonas Sep 1 '11 at 10:57

Generally speaking, yes -- although that "yes" depends on the target market you're referring to. Any product a company develops for the purpose of generating sales is designed to be effective within that market. Do not be confused by the fact that many developers generate ideas and prototypes for games based out of passion and a love for their craft -- even indies must eat, pay the bills, and ultimately make a profit to move onto their next project. For games, effective = addictive.

For any game project, the level of effectiveness/addictiveness is a case of how much time you are able to sink into that aspect. Like any artwork, there comes a time when the artist must lay down his brushes and say, "I could do more, but there is no more that I could reasonably do." That decision is based on what your expected R.o.I. is, what constraints you have on project time due to pressures from investors who are paying for the project to live and breathe, and even how important the current project is as a stepping stone in your career. For this reason important to be exceedingly efficient in your technological choices, as this saves you time that you can spend on improving gameplay/addictiveness.

However for the most part games are designed to be addictive enough and no more than that. This makes development time commensurate with the return on that investment. For the general consumer market, over the last 10-15 years particularly, games have been developed with an average play-time incoporated into their design via the marketing plan that goes hand-in-hand with that design. On average, you are paying for 8-12 hours of playtime when purchasing most titles. Gradually this is changing, as games of a more procedural and free-play sort of nature are "renewing" the marketplace. Much of this sort of innovation hails from the indie market, whether self-published or not -- take World of Goo, Eskil Steenberg's Love, Crayon Physics, MineCraft as examples.

There are games from the hobbyist market that don't exist for the purpose of being addictive to any particular target market. Some exist as an exercise for a developer to prove what they capable of. There games designed to be enjoyable to the designer/developer, but not necessarily to anyone else -- you can always choose to go down this route, but don't expect to make a fortune, or even a penny. And then there are non-profit games that are developed purely as free educational tools, for instance. But all of these form fringes of along the body of gaming as a whole.

At an individual/subjective level, we are easily trained to grow more and more enamoured of a game, as you mention. Because games provide a very easy "single point of access" to (near) instant gratification which we often don't see in our real lives, they are a powerful way to keep us entertained. I agree with your first and second paragraphs, however its important to realise that a great many things in life are just this way -- we are forever psychologically trained to favour one thing, disfavour another, in varying degrees. It doesn't mean we shouldn't use that power irresponsibly. You can see this as a sliding scale between sociopathically manipulating people purely for your own gain (and possibly to their harm), versus on the opposite end of the scale, teaching someone that if they show you love and support, you'll offer them the same genuine love and support in return. Unconditional love aside, that is how strong relationships are formed. And again, it's also how con-men slowly condition you so they can take your money.

Go figure, Pavlov's dog.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good post, but I disagree with the conflation of effectiveness/gameplay and addictiveness. The traditional retail model doesn't really rely on addictiveness; it only needs us to a) buy the game, and optionally b) enjoy the game enough to buy sequels, and c) enjoy the game enough to positively recommend it to friends. This has changed a bit in recent years with DLC, and of course F2P/microtransaction-based games are a completely different story, but for the most part I don't think traditional games rely on addiction any more than movies, books, or music. \$\endgroup\$ – mrohlf Sep 1 '11 at 15:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ To some level, I agree. Yes, MMOs & F2Ps using microtransactions are a large part of what I was referring to. But I think that what you're saying about not designing retail games to be addictive, doesn't reflect the whole truth. Designers generally envision their idea as addictive, and will push for that during production (and so will the production teams if even half-motivated). But not every designer is born to be one. As the market grows more saturated, the effects are seen as sub-par games on retail shelves. And the market itself? They buy what we sell 'em, for lack of visible competition. \$\endgroup\$ – Engineer Sep 1 '11 at 15:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm admittedly coming at this from a limited perspective outside the industry, but I don't think I've ever seen "addictive" used by developers in dev diaries/postmortems and the like, and it doesn't appear to be a driving factor behind the design of single-player games like, e.g. Portal 2. I played through that game because I enjoyed the story, humor, and puzzles, not because I was compelled to finish it. Maybe we are just disagreeing on the definition? To me, addictive implies that the player is being compelled to play (somewhat) against their will or better judgement. \$\endgroup\$ – mrohlf Sep 1 '11 at 21:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think we are disagreeing on the definition. Anything I see fit to play the entire way through once, I would play again. Anything I don't, I wouldn't. I see addictiveness as a requirement in design, a scale between 0 and infinite, which marks how good/compelling gameplay is. Whereas others here seem to agree that a game can be "good" without it being "addictive". I don't subscribe to that viewpoint because I don't waste time on games that are less than "stupendous", having tired of the typical mainstream stuff 12 yrs ago. But this is about the market, not me. So I see the PoV you propose. \$\endgroup\$ – Engineer Sep 2 '11 at 7:23

Usually the nature of the games makes them addictive.In game goals, achievement systems really makes sure that the player thinks that he/she can achieve it with just a little more effort because otherwise no one will play.But actually its these small range goals that keeps on adding and they ultimately move towards the final big goal.Most of the time the gap between the short term goal increases as game progresses.

If the gameplay mechanics are simple and engaging then it leads to addictive gameplay as the users don't want to spend time learning how to play the game.

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