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Life, Addictive Game Mechanics, And The Truth Hiding In Bejeweled
by Erin Hoffman on 09/16/09 09:31:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

One of the occupational hazards of being a game designer is an obligation to play up-and-coming games, both to stay ahead of where the market is moving and to dig for signs of the One True Game Design, aka universal mechanics that move people. Lately there's been a lot of buzz around Bejeweled Blitz, so I dug in for a sample today.

Blitz takes the familiar Bejeweled mechanic, itself going back along the Columns lineage in games, and makes you play it fast. They bolt on a bunch of social features -- leaderboards and achievements -- making it massively multiplayer in a lightweight but fun way. No surprise it's sweeping through facebook, and a good time to be doing so.

Games like this, based on such simple and compelling mechanics, are on the one hand at the heart of game design and on the other inevitably raise the concept of "addictive" game mechanics. Because, man, that mechanic is addictive.

"Addictive" is a word we use in game development perhaps too lightly, though I would argue that there is no game designer who doesn't treat that term with a huge dollop of trepidation. Executives love to hear the phrase "addictive gameplay". Game designers, speaking for myself and those I know (whom I'm sure will correct me if they disagree), find the concept intriguing but simultaneously dangerous, even if we believe deep down that games don't -- even can't -- hurt people. And no one, from executives to game designers to behavioral psychologists, can give you an absolutely clear and quantifiable test for what "addictive" means when applied purely to a behavior or action. (As opposed to, say, a chemical. Chemical addiction is an equine of differing saturation.)

From a design analysis standpoint, Bejeweled's addictive elements are simple but profound:
1. The game is simple to understand; two clicks and you're in.
2. The game presents a clear problem with a clear solution (make rows of 3+ jewels).
3. The results of action frequently create cascading consequences.
3a. These cascading consequences have an element of randomness / unpredictability / intermittent reward.

There are further sub-elements, such as the vivid feedback (attractive effects and sound), persistent environment (it hits on this "let me poke this thing and see what happens" basic human drive) -- but those are the topline elements.

The simplicity of the game reduces the consequence of failure and the speed of re-entry. The clarity of the problem and solution fires our cognitive circuits without requiring the engagement of messier things like grey area judgment, ethics, social repercussion, or any of the myriad other complex elements we have to deal with in the reality of our daily lives. The reward system and its cascading consequences ensure that we achieve a variable but deeply satisfying result from our simple, clear action.

So I get why it's addictive. I play it, I feel the cognitive engine revv up, the little five year old in the back of my brain goes "Ooooh." I understand that I want to keep playing, and when this reaction fires in me my ethical brain also kicks in and goes, "hmm, what are other people experiencing when they play this, and what responsibility ensues?"

Then I had a little epiphany, one of those simple ones that feels very important. I realized that what pulls me away from playing Bejeweled continuously is that I actually want to perform the complex behavior I'm supposed to be performing instead (in this case, moving onto another task at work).

Addiction is not about what you DO, but what you DON'T DO because of the replacement of the addictive behavior.

The reason why what defines addiction for one person may not define addiction for another person, even given quantified equal stretches of time action or consumption, is because addiction is not about the action, but about the individual person.

This is why merely resisting addiction of any kind is not enough. This is why -- although some activities are more broadly compelling than others -- virtually any activity can become an addiction. What addictive behavior does is reveal underlying anxiety (and often depression, which itself is nebulous) and lack of desire to perform the things we're "supposed to" be doing.

One of the questions that I've asked before has to do with that "supposed to". It is a deeply existential and social question: to what extent are we obligated as individual human beings to fulfill the expectations of our peers, when they run counter to our individual desires? Is the 7-11 gamer more happy in his successful guildleader existence than in his blue-collar job, and if so, is it wrong, and who is allowed to make that judgment for him?

These are deep human questions that are difficult to answer. But the game, as always, is a mirror. It does not create in us behaviors that we would never have otherwise; it reflects back to us what is lurking beneath the grind of our everyday existence.

The solution is not to break the mirror, but to resist the urge to look away from what it shows us.

Truly compassionate addiction counselors understand this: that resolving an addictive behavior (which cannot be done, by the way, until the person who has the behavior acknowledges it and decides that THEY want to change their behavior) is more than causing the behavior itself to cease. It means addressing the lack of meaning in a person's life that leads them to pursue a simpler activity that may make them temporarily happy but not happy in the grand scheme of their life. (And the critical definition there is that only the individual in question can seek and define their state of relative happiness. It cannot be determined for them, not by family or anyone else. I've known people who think of themselves as depressed when really their only major source of unhappiness is that their families don't like or accept what makes them happy.)

Some of this has a personal note, I should acknowledge. I've had a couple of moments wherein I thought I was addicted to one game or another. In one case, I stayed home sick from school to play a game all day. Lame, I know. (I was otherwise a pretty good student; the notion of skipping class was a big deal.) It had nothing to do with the game itself, but the fact that I was sixteen and (as I perceived it) my life sucked, and the game presented me with power and simple solutions to simple problems that were a relief from the complex crappy things that existed in my reality. From here, thoroughly not addicted, I can look back on that time in my life and say, you know, things sucked, and I completely understand why I would have rather played that game than deal with reality. When I stopped playing it, it wasn't because the game changed, but because my circumstances did, and I no longer felt the need to disengage from meat life. And to this day the game evokes feelings of comfort, not danger, when I play it.

The reason why we, as game consumers and game creators, need to understand this, is because for many the solution is to break the mirror rather than understanding it. The latter is certainly more difficult. But we need to understand ourselves and our drives in as deep and thoughtful a way as possible not merely for our own individual benefit, but to solve the greatest problems that existence presents: the questions of why we live, and how we live. We need to understand what makes us human, and part of that is recognizing the value in the tools and art that we create to reflect ourselves back to us in the quest for that understanding. And what is so fascinating about these pieces of art is their universality -- that you don't need to consciously think about any of this to feel why Bejeweled pulls you. Our human nature is there whether we acknowledge it or not, and the rabbit hole runs deep and dark. There is a greater cause beyond mirror-breaking, more good that we can do through understanding and compassion, in fields where those who do play games more often than they should most often have to deal with professionals who have no understanding of what those games mean, or their genuine value, even to the addicted, after addiction.

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Ron Newcomb
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"Chemical addiction is an equine of differing saturation"

Er, wouldn't that be one of differing hue? Or are you saying chemical addiction rides a pale horse? :)

Word-nerd-isms aside, I recently discovered Peggle. Wow. I think any new(-ish) gameplay mechanics are, well, not addictive, but certainly absorbing due to the true novelty. I remember my first stealth game, Tenchu, was this way.

My [counter?]-point is, videogames are not and can not be addicting. The word has negative connotations due to the 80's War On Drugs, and when you use such a word in conjunction with the latest youth activity -- be it Elvis's rock n roll, Jimmie's Woodstock, or our videogames -- the simple-minded freak out.

Erin Hoffman
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Hi Ron, thanks for the comment. Yes, it probably is hue, and I typed that first before realizing I'd read that variation before. ;) "Grey" is a different saturation than "black", isn't it, and yet they're different colors? I'm going to get art nerds jumping all over me.

I agree with your counterpoint, and in an oblique kind of way my post is a counterpoint to that counterpoint rather than being an original point in and of itself. :) Although generally the game community (with the caveat that it's such a large group that it may be unfair to classify together) has shied away from any use of the term "addiction" for reasons I basically agree with, right now the reality we face is that it's leaving a discussion void where other people, not necessarily simple-minded but certainly uninformed, are having the discussion without us. When the APA talks about classifying a new mental disorder, they're using the term "video game addiction". They have, quite wisely (I think) so far, not made such a classification -- I agree with the statements made by some psychologists that compulsive behavior associated with video games is usually a symptom of a larger underlying cause rather than being a root issue itself, though obviously I'm not a mental health professional. But there is some argument for a medical classification of compulsive video game playing (let's call it that rather than video game addiction), because the effective treatment of that compulsion may differ from the treatment of other compulsions -- this is, some say, an argument in a patient's interest, though I think in reality it winds up being made by people who make their living telling compulsive video game players that they are ill. But I digress... at any rate, the term is already being used by the mental health profession, and I think it's dangerous to us and to our gamers to allow that to go on without our participation because of our aversion, however justified, to a word. I hope that makes sense.

And yeah, Peggle is one of those "absorbing" games, too. ;) I prefer it to Bejeweled, myself...

Jonathan S
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I'm sorry, I stopped at Bejeweled. I just couldn't go on.

Nintendo's Tetris Attack for the SNES had similar mechanics of "match 3" and it was far FAR superior to Bejeweled. I don't think it's possible to overstate this. Having played Tetris Attack, it's baffling to me how anyone could be addicted to Bejeweled. It's a cut above in every. single. aspect.

If you doubt my words then you need to seek out Tetris Attack and play it.

raigan burns
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@Jonathan: agreed! Just in case you weren't aware, there are GBA ("Dr. Mario&Puzzle League") and DS ("Planet Puzzle League") versions, so you don't need to be sitting at an emulator any more :)

Simon Fraser
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"Addicting" is technically not a word.

Whether Tetris Attack is better than Bejeweled or not has nothing to do with the subject of this article.

Ok, enough bickering (for one post)

I thought this was a great and insightful idea. It's not the behaviour that pulls you in, it's the rest of your crappy life that causes you to seek out these potentially compulsive behaviours. To some extent it's the same with real drugs - people may start using heroin as an escape, for example.

People who play WoW all the time might actually be happiest playing WoW all the time.

They still would benefit from learning more about themselves and their own potential - if they could discover for certain what their happiest possible path is in life. The only way to do that is to experience more. But that could be said for everybody - everyone should experience more if they want to find their happiest life.

I think when it comes down to it, human biology will dictate that anyone will be happier if they are social. This isn't based on research but seems to make sense: we're "social animals". I'm guessing that real-life social interaction is more valuable than virtual interaction.

Glenn Storm
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Fantastic article, Erin! Your observations about addiction in relation to games is parallel to the arguments raised by Jesse Schell in 'The Art Of Game Design: Book of Lenses' and by Csikszentmihalyi in 'Finding Flow'. (I just put those two books down, so they're fresh in my mind atm) (Psychological) Addiction is subjective precisely because it is a comment on what we believe we should be doing instead. I think Csikszentmihalyi offers the proper perspective on 'what we should be doing'. (which somewhat ironically can include activities like playing games, although it is clearly a very personal evaluation and choice) "Happiness" is another term without objective meaning, even to the self in the moment, Csikszentmihalyi concludes. (it is a reflective judgement)

I particularly like how you've carefully connected those ideas with the attractiveness of "addicting gameplay mechanics". Jesse Schell talks about the power game experiences have and 'with great power comes great responsibility', as a lead-in to cautions about how we handle addiction, violence portrayal, etc. Which led me to this (distracting, somewhat off-topic) idea for a game design challenge: Try to design "The Forbidden Game"; the game experience that actually attempts to do all the horrible things the rhetoric against video games have claimed: give the reinforcement to play, forsaking all other activities (cause addiction), while making connections between advantageous violent choices in-game to real-world choices (cause violence). It may sound either like folly or opening Pandora's Box, but I thought making an honest attempt at that goal, and then failing to even come close, might quell some of the irrational fears against games. [/ramble]

Thanks, Erin!

Reid Kimball
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Really enjoyed this Erin. Any action can be addicting for people when it calms them or pleasures them, so games certainly fit that.

I wrote about the benefits of purposely designing games that aren't addicting here:

Using games as a mirror has great potential. But one must be careful that it's a respectful reflection and not an insulting mockery of the player.

Kevin Maloney
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"One of the questions that I've asked before has to do with that "supposed to". It is a deeply existential and social question: to what extent are we obligated as individual human beings to fulfill the expectations of our peers, when they run counter to our individual desires? Is the 7-11 gamer more happy in his successful guildleader existence than in his blue-collar job, and if so, is it wrong, and who is allowed to make that judgment for him?"

This is a lot of the rub for those that are concerned about video game use and abuse. You kind of roughly can make an analogy to those that think smoking pot is okay and those that don't. People that smoke pot are chilled out and are less about hustle and bustle its a enjoyable thing to do. You *could* argue that that is because they get their good feelings from pot rather than say socially recognized achievement and this is fundementally wrong.

Back to games now I think that is why people think games are "a waste of time" you get achievement but it is not conventional achievement so its looked down on upon. With those with a lot of achievement in games say the WoW raid guild leader are looked down upon more.

Like anything else if it at the expense of your overall happiness, significant relationships, financial stability or health then yah its a problem and your reward structures and sense of achievement needs a check.

But if you would rather hustle home for some TF2 with your work pals rather than stay late and get a promotion at workplace you find trivial then by all means. Mindless persuit of cash doesn't make you happier anyway.

I am all for sophiticated dialogue as games take a greater role in our world and socitey thanks for the article Erin.

What was the game you stayed home with?

Jason Kapalka
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Very interesting article! Addiction is a tricky concept when applied to video games. Obviously it is possible to play a game when you "should" be doing something more productive, and taken to an extreme this behavior can be self-destructive.

But at the same time it's the core of game-playing: it >isn't< productive; it's not meant to be; and if it was, it wouldn't really be a game anymore. Oscar Wilde said, "All art is quite useless," and the same principle applies, I think, to games. Art and games are both in the strictest sense a waste of time, in that they accomplish nothing useful. But who would want to live a life where they only did useful things?

The guilt that seems to associate with "addictions" to things like games (or tv programs or whatever) seems tied to the idea that the player is somehow doing something bad by wasting their time with something they find merely fun rather than, oh, chopping wood or knitting an afghan or working in an office or some other productive, useful activity. But would the same guilt apply to more "elevated" art? Would you be "addicted" to English literature if you neglected your day job to read Oscar Wilde? If you prefer to watch Ingmar Bergman films rather than re-upholster your couch, you might be lazy, or shiftless, but I doubt you'd be called a Swedish art film addict and sent to a deprogrammer.

But in any event, it's always a pleasure to read interesting critical thinking about games (especially your own). Thanks!

JB Vorderkunz
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Specific Cue Reactivity on Computer Game-Related Cues in Excessive Gamers. Behavioral Neuroscience, 2007, 121(3), 614–618.

The above article makes the case that games can become chemically addictive (in terms of the dopamine response cycle they generate), but in a VERY small number of players. Like Erin I'm not a neuroscientist or a mental health professional, but there has been no outcry as to the validity of the findings of the above paper. It's a counterpoint to think about...but again, the number of gamers exhibiting an actual addiction was VERY small (and their sample included a large number of gamers who played a whole bunch).

Erin Hoffman
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@J -- a good point. The difficulty with articles such as that one -- or, since that's not fair, better to say what is DONE with articles such as that one by others -- is that it isn't what they're saying that's the problem, it's what they're not saying. Small numbers of excessive game players do show dopamine/norpinephrene response in a similar, but much smaller, model than what we see with chemical addiction -- but so do baseball fans when at a baseball game, and religious people having a religious experience in church ("Physiological Mechanisms Involved in Religiosity/Spirituality and

Health"). What I am not clear on, and my understanding is that the psychiatry community is not yet clear on, is the way in which these reactions differ, if they do. Olsen and Kutner, who completed a $1.5m study on the effects of video games on children and compiled their findings into _Grand Theft Childhood: The Truth About Violent Video Games_, _are_ mental health professionals, and their position is that the danger of applying a separate addiction state to video game behavior is that it masks underlying problems, usually depression. It's a way of blaming the behavior and not dealing with the underlying cause. As far as I know, there has not been a case of a person who exhibits "video game addiction" and does not exhibit any other underlying psychological issue. But you're right, the current and future research is certainly worthy of attention and understanding.

@Jason - Thanks for your comment!

@Kevin - agreed. The challenge that games are up against to some extent is that a person who is happy working a regular 9-5 job and coming home to play video games is not accelerating the capitalism machine. ;) And the game was DragonRealms, which also later became my entrypoint into the industry.

@Reid - Thanks for your thoughts, always appreciated. Very interesting post, and interesting to me that we're kind of thinking about the same thing at the same (or at least a similar) time, if in different ways. I definitely agree that games can and should do more than what they currently do, but I think that will always be the case. And one thing that I think is a necessary counterpoint to the goal of games with a social mission (which I'm certainly all about, and I think it's interesting to think about the game experience in terms of single play -- it's certainly a different kind of game design) is the acknowledgment that even a highly replayable "addictive" game is providing benefit to the person who plays it. It isn't a purely negative energy sucker. That feeling of stress relief and simplicity that we get when playing these games, the feeling of ease and steady cognitive engagement, actually provides a mental health benefit to us. This is separate from the other benefits of simple "addictive" games -- memory, cognitive function, "Brain Age" type stuff -- the kind of thing that has had doctors prescribing Tetris for older patients for over a decade. This doesn't mean there isn't a lot more we can and should be doing, but I think it taints the cause to disavow or refrain from acknowledging the benefits that games provide.

@Glenn -- thanks for your comment, and yeah, I love how Jesse Schell thinks and expresses himself. The actual "lenses" that go with his book may be the single greatest game design tool that exists today. And I saw him speak at LOGIN this year on something similar to what we're talking about here. He baited the audience with some leading questions about whether they thought video games could influence people's behavior, then socked it to them with thoughts on how games could be helping people more than they do. It was a fantastic keynote. I haven't read _Finding Flow_, but will stick it the list.

@Simon - Thanks for your comment! I think it's safe to say _most_ people are happier being social. But as our technology continuously reveals, humans can find a remarkably wide array of ways to be social without even being in the same physical proximity. For instance, leaving comments on a Gamasutra blog! And I agree completely about broadness of experience making a happier human. But I do think that digital dragonslaying can be an important part of that experience set.

Bart Stewart
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I fell into a similar state when I discovered computers and programming. Knowledge of programming conferred the power to *create my own worlds*. I'd stay up for days at a time cranking out code, then collapse for only as long as necessary until I could get back to the keyboard.

Fortunately I had understanding friends who kept me relatively social, or I would have spent all my time exercising my new-found powers of creation. The addiction was extreme.

Later on I encountered this quote from Joseph Weizenbaum in his book, _Computer Power and Human Reason_ (1976):

". . . bright young men of disheveled appearance, often with

sunken glowing eyes, can be seen sitting at computer consoles,

their arms tensed and waiting to fire their fingers, already

poised to strike, at the buttons and keys on which their

attention seems to be riveted as a gambler's on the rolling

dice. When not so transfixed, they often sit at tables strewn

with computer printouts over which they pore like possessed

students of a cabbalistic text. They work until they nearly

drop, twenty, thirty hours at a time. Their food, if they

arrange it, is brought to them: coffee, Cokes, sandwiches. If

possible, they sleep on cots near the printouts. Their rumpled

clothes, their unwashed and unshaven faces, and their uncombed

hair testify that they are oblivious to their bodies and to the

world in which they move. These are computer bums, compulsive

programmers . . ."

The intense attraction some of us feel to computer-based dynamic/interactive simulations is not new. On the contrary; it appears to be as strong as ever... which suggests that the addictiveness lies not in our computers or computer games, but in ourselves. There's just something about being able to exert control over some computer-mediated microworld that's tremendously satisfying in a way that messy real-world life generally isn't.

Fascinating essay, Erin.

Glenn Storm
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Really cool point, Bart. And I love that quote. :)

Vlado Jokic
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Great Point, Bart! I'd just to add onto what you're saying there, and to tie it into Kevin Maloney's point about achievement. If you look at a game like Bejeweled the fact that it's massively played in the workplace, doesn't itself seem at all surprising. As Erin points out, there's a clear goal, clear and limited set of rules, and there's that random factor that makes things interesting every time you play it. Empowering, yet not completely predictable. It gives you what you want, but keeps you on the edge, and I think of the random factor as the lucky draw in gambling.

Most people in any given workplace need to spend months or years trucking along within their company's structure only to be recognized for their achievement. Once they've put in the time, or once they've done extraordinary feats that have made more money to their superiors only to get little return themselves for their sacrifices, they'll be recognized and awarded.. hopefully. I'm sure we can all agree that this reward hardly ever justifies the amount of effort that went in, so why would anyone really bother putting in the extra hours and the effort to get to the same place they'll get anyway with seniority in most work places (provided they don't lose their jobs in the meantime). They could sacrifice more of their time and livelihood making someone else a happier person (their superiors), or they could have fun themselves while doing a bare minimum.

It sounds depressing writing about it, let alone experiencing this for many years of one's life.

They could instead sit at work, play Bejeweled where they feel some sense of power and control, which they themselves feel are lacking but may not be aware of it, and let the all-mighty workplace system do its thing that it'll do anyway. I think a lot of people have lost their inner fire and curiosity through their young lives by being told not to do things, not to take risks, to play it safe, and to do what's right. By the time they reach their adulthood they simply don't care since they're conditioned to think that the world is a much bigger place than they will ever get to experience. The ambition is dead and they see that any real change or control they'll have of their surrounding environment will take immense strength which by now they feel they don't have.

Bejeweled fills the gap, gives the person something to look forward to when they go to work, other than the BS work they'll have to do, and helps them get through another day. Another day, another dollar, another fix.

Raymond Grier
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A point often neglected when discussing the truth of game addictiveness (* a real word I think) is obsessive compulsive tendencies. Nearly everyone has them to an extent and not just in a 2-tone range of negligible and excessive. So called addicitve games are often relying on this as are games that require the player to replay again and again, such as Super Smash Bros Brawl or the LEGO Star Wars games. I recall another article from months ago where it was written that or someone presponded to it saying that the player feels compelled to collect everything but that they aren't necessarily having fun. in fact I myself sometimes find myself desperately trying to unloock something by means which are repetitive and not just not fun but often frustrating to the point of angering me. This does not quite seem addictive itself but remember I am doing to collect one of the many achievements that most games are now littered with. Many games nowadays seem to be more about these 'objectives' than actually doing something fun. An article comparing these behaviours and relating their cause and effects would possibly be helpful in understanding both behaviours better.

Raymond Grier
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Going back to my point about LEGO Star Wars, the game is alomost entirely about collecting studs, the other activiteis in the game are incidental and not very engaging...without movie licensing there would be no interest in playing LEGO games at why do we play them.

Tonio Barmadosa
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"my life sucked, and the game presented me with power and simple solutions to simple problems that were a relief from the complex crappy things that existed in my reality"

you escaped from your crappy life into the game. However, if you didn't game, maybe you would have been forced to confront your crappy life and improve it. That would have been harder than playing games.