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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.