[Writer and researcher Neils Clark has previously covered the state of addiction in games for Gamasutra in a number of key articles, and returns to look at whether design can influence healthy play, and what his MMO analysis has to say on the phenomenon.]
Here we go again -- "the A-bomb". To just come out and say it, this article didn't go as planned. Originally, it was going to be a showcase of some different game developers speaking candidly about addiction -- most especially the subtleties that get missed by the popular press. Some devs bit, but not many.
This got the gears turning. Are we in an environment where anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of public opinion? Games have, after all, weathered a long history of emotional and anecdotal attacks.
This article looks at serious questions: where should game makers sit in discussions over game addictions, can design influence healthy play, and is silence still golden in 2008?
"I'm not a crack dealer
in real life," says Michael Wilson, CEO of There.com.
This is a sentiment that most game developers start with. It's the most obvious. So much artwork, sound design, programming and game design goes into the process that it doesn't add up for most developers when that gets equated to mixing chemicals in the basement.
It's a sentiment mirrored by Ernest Adams,
who wrote an article for this site way back in 2002 on the topic --
"Stop Calling Games Addictive!" His article is still one of
the most recognizable developer-written soapboxes on what's still being
called addiction. By and large he stands alone as one of the few developers
to offer an opinion, at the very least warning that a word used in the
wrong context helps the industry dig its own hole.
The public opinions among developers run the gamut. Some talk about unleashed gamers with a tinge of jealousy in their voice -- "The biggest problem in your life is that you get to play games all day? Poor you." Others view it with an air of caution, saying that addiction is, "Bad for business, and the industry knows it."
Last year's GDC sponsored two roundtable events to discuss gaming addiction, with results that were anything but conclusive. Early on, game addiction was compared to excessive book reading. Some developers raised the time-honored D&D defense; that attacks against gaming hearken back to the days when Dungeons & Dragons was pelted with accuasations.
We'll get back to that. The most
interesting voice in the roundtable was a programmer from Blizzard Entertainment,
who discussed some of the company's design discussions prior to the
Burning Crusade expansion for World of Warcraft.
He said that they wanted to distinguish between gameplay elements that might encourage all players to go overboard, versus those that caused problems for a select few. The idea was to keep the pieces that make the game enjoyable for everybody, but make sure that everyone's enjoyment wasn't punctuated by a design that required too much maintenance.
They didn't want to go overboard with changes, for obvious reasons, but the issue was on their radar. Other developers could do worse than to emulate Blizzard. The roundtable talk was cut off at the hour-long time limit, which was a shame because everyone in the room was rapt.
These are the kinds of exchanges that are seen all too rarely. While some onlookers might characterize silent developers as callous, too many subtleties get missed by the popular press and your average non-gamer.
Wilson brought up the TV show Friends, though any TV, book or radio show would work for this example. We form relationships with the people in these different reveries; we get excited for our favorite characters, disgusted when they make nice with our least favorite characters and shocked when any kind of tragedy befalls them.
In wholly new ways, games open up the playing field for these fictitious relationships. Beyond the gameplay, the stunning graphics or anything else, we're a main character. Sometimes we're even playing shoulder-to-shoulder with other main characters; social worlds can take interaction and kick it up a notch.
"The thing about social worlds, there's nothing to do," says Wilson. "We make things to do." And developers do. Oh, how boring the either a real or digital world would be without games.