The Good and Bad of Video Game Addiction
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Video game addiction is currently the hot topic among journalists and developers. With the recent WHO addition and discussions about loot boxes and monetization, there is a lot to go over. After a conversation with game economist Ramin Shokrizade, it made me think about how great game design is addictive, but in a good way.
From our video discussion linked below, Ramin and I talked about games that are designed to encourage monetization -- by targeting people who have poor impulse control who can become "whales."
The other aspect when it comes to game addiction, and one that isn't talked about as much, has to do with games that their appeal is about playing them for long periods of time. World of Warcraft, Sid Meier's Civilization, The Binding of Isaac, and many more, are games that you can keep revisiting for hours on end.
The best games out there are inherently designed to be addictive to play, and this can create confusion when talking about video game addiction. We are going to be discussing the difference between a video game being engaging, and when that engagement can become bad.
Games that are compelling to play are not examples of being harmful to people, and the reason has to do with the design of the experience.
Valuing the Player's Time:
There is a difference with a game that is built around a quality experience for hours on end vs. a game that is padded out to stretch a game's lifespan. Great video games are engaging from hour 1 to hour 100 if the player decides to keep playing for that long.
Respecting the player's time is keeping them in control as to how long they want to play a game for. Essentially the player should never be "punished" for having real-life commitments. Quality of life features like quick saving/quick loading can help in this regard, as well as avoiding explicitly designing elements build on real world timers.
This is also where we can talk about pay to win (P2W) elements, as they passively punish players for either spending too little time playing, or not enough money. There is a problem if someone who has been playing for months can be outpaced by someone who has spent more money.
Having elements that force the player to play the game or continue playing to avoid a penalty are not examples of good design. The only exception is if we're talking about competitive games like CS:GO and League of Legends, where everyone commits to a match for a specified period of time.
Weighted for the Player
There is an unwritten contract when it comes to developers and consumers. When a consumer spends money on your game, in return, they should get a quality product meant to entertain them first and foremost.
One of the big issues when we talk about F2P games and heavily monetized titles is the very fact that they are not designed around the player's experience, but to get as much money from them as possible. These games feature weighted elements such as gacha, loot-boxes, energy systems, "timed sales," and more.
Developers will argue that they need to have them in order to make money, but that doesn't make it any better for consumers. This has been one of the dividing points when traditional gamers look at the F2P market and compared it to a full purchase of a game. This is akin to playing slot machines and knowing that they are designed in favor of the house.
As we've talked about before, both "time" and "money" should be valued and respected by the game's design. One of the reasons why people love and support Warframe is that even though the game is built on a microtransaction model, the gameplay is still balanced in favor of the player progressing. You can certainly speed up unlocking new items by spending money, but progress is built on the gameplay, not bank accounts.
Before we begin to wrap things up, there is one important point I need to talk about. While being addicted to playing a great game is not problematic in of itself, there are people who are always susceptible to losing touch with reality; no matter the design.
There's nothing wrong with playing hundreds of hours of Civilization; there is something wrong if you are forgetting the rest of your life in the process. Earlier in this post I talked about World of Warcraft being an engaging great game, but even without having psychological pulls to keep people playing, that didn't stop unhealthy levels of addiction.
If you ever watched documentaries or news pieces about video game addiction, there is a common element to people who succumb. They will say something along the lines of, "I have always felt like an outcast, but here, I can do whatever I want." That escape from reality is a serious part of addiction, and is not limited to video games.
Any activity that triggers the pleasure center of our brain can be taken too far. I also need to clarify that the people who become addicted to video games could have easily fallen prey to any other activity.
Keep Coming Back:
The previous section has probably caused some confusion as to the message of this post, so let's sum things up. Video games by their very design are meant to be addicting and engaging activities, and there's nothing wrong with that.
However, when you have video games that explicitly target people who are susceptible to addictive behavior and build your game around that, then that's going too far. Monetization elements, no matter what people say, do not benefit the consumer; especially if they are being scaled against them such as with gachas.
If your game is good enough, then people will come back to keep playing them; trying to trick them to spend more money is when things go too far.