Games and addiction

Discussion in 'Game Design' started by Pyabo, Jun 2, 2009.

  1. Pyabo

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    I came across these two articles recently that touch on the same subject... albeit from different angles. Basically, game design that specifically takes advantage of human psychology and compulsive behavior.

    This one is from our old friend Jeff Vogel

    And this one entitled The Psychology Behind Item Collecting And Achievement Hoarding

    Just thought I'd share...
     
  2. Game Producer

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  3. AlexWeldon

    AlexWeldon New Member

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    For some reason all these articles focus on the idea of achievements and item collecting, but neglect what I consider to be an equally-important aspect to making a game addictive: granularity/stopping points.

    When stepping away from something, we naturally want to stop at a natural lull in the experience. If I'm working on a piece of art, I'll usually stop after finishing some object or area of the canvas. If I'm reading a book, it'll preferably be at the end of a chapter, but if the chapters are too long, I'll instinctively try to find a place where the end of a paragraph and the end of a page coincide, so I can start at the top of the next page when I come back to it. If I need to pause a rented movie for whatever reason, I'll wait until right after a particularly important scene.

    I think most, if not all, people play video games the same way. The easiest games to put down are ones divided into levels (or larger levels, divided into smaller waypoints), which take maybe 10 or 20 minutes to play. The decision whether or not to continue playing is thus broken into finite, significant, but manageable chunks. If there's something else we need to do, eventually we will decide that we don't want to commit to another 10-20 minutes, and it's easy to put it down because we feel we've reached the end of a chapter in the story, and the game is giving us permission to stop there and come back later.

    If you want people to stay glued to your game, rather than playing in such increments, there are two things you can do. One is to make the "chapters" longer, but this is a questionable strategy, as people will be less likely to come back to your game at all if they know they're committing to an hour or more before they reach a good stopping point.

    A much better, and more common strategy, is to make the gameplay either continuous, or make the bites so small that it's always possible to play "just one more round." This can be likened to the potato chip/candy phenomenon - no matter how full, guilty or nauseated the eater is feeling, they always find themselves reaching for just one more chip or gummi bear, since the commitment each time is so small. You can observe that the phenomenon decreases with something slightly larger, like a cookie, and disappears almost entirely with something on the scale of a cupcake.

    Many Flash games take this model. I played a very addictive little shooter on FGL the other day; instead of featuring levels and a win condition, the game was merely about surviving as long as possible - and, of course, offered achievements for surviving 15 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds, 40 seconds, and so on... With games rarely lasting more than a minute, the temptation to give it one more try is very hard to resist, no matter how many "one more tries" you've already given it.

    You can combine the two versions of the strategy, of course. The Civilization series is a good example. Games of Civilization (or its sequels) generally take so long that few gamers will play all the way through in a single session - thus, the primary stopping point is rarely reached. However, the game is broken into a series of turns, which usually do not take very long to play. Thus, the player is constantly tempted to play "one more turn" before saving and quitting. This is compounded later in the game by the fact that with so many cities and units present, there is almost always one that is on the verge of something exciting - one turn away from capturing an enemy city, one turn away from finishing a World Wonder, one turn away from a scientific discovery, one turn away from finishing the last unit needed to fill a transport ship and send it off to war...

    I'm not an MMORPG player myself, but from what I've heard, they also employ a mixed strategy in this way; the everyday grinding of monsters is a continuous experience, with the time commitment to seek out and kill one more foe being very small, and thus difficult to escape from. Meanwhile, raids are apparently a very large time commitment, and impossible to put down partway through - especially since there are other real human beings counting on you.

    In a way, this form of addictive gameplay is more insidious than the achievement/reward system. The latter, at least, gives the players something they enjoy - what's good for the developer is also good for the players, at least in moderation. However, decisions about stopping points are a bit trickier, ethically. As a player, I appreciate games that give me a convenient way of sitting down for what I know will be a finite and predictable amount of time. As a developer, on the other hand, I would love nothing more than to suck a player in, and have them spend much more time playing my game than they had intended.

    Of course, in describing games, players usually use "addictive" as a positive descriptor. At least on the surface, it appears that game addiction is a consensual relationship. The armchair psychologist in me wonders if this is really the case though, or whether it's actually a perfect example of post hoc rationalization: "I sat down to play this game for 15 minutes and ended up spending two hours instead. Therefore, the game must be really fun." Is fun something that is determined by the player's emotional state while engaged in the game, or by their tendency to play for long periods of time and/or come back for more? The two don't necessarily go together, especially when coupled with a personality type that is prone to procrastination and feelings of guilt for doing so.

    It's an interesting and complex issue, as evinced by the fact that Game Producer's link mentions a 122-page thesis on the subject. I don't know if I'll have time to read the whole thing, but I'm definitely tempted to try.
     
    #3 AlexWeldon, Jun 2, 2009
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2009
  4. Cevo70

    Cevo70 New Member

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    Interesting. I think my favorite part of the Vogel read was that while he was outlining the scary addivitive nature of World of Warcraft, I was surrounded by ads for it. "Free Trial!!" :)
     
  5. Game Producer

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    Good "summary" Alex.

    As for rewards: we can leard how addictions work from poker for example (such as Texas Hold'em - which is addictive :)). There you can play rounds that take very little time, and can get a reward (or even lose something). The rewards don't occur all the time: occasionally you get nothing, sometimes you lose, sometimes you win. (of course you can play "all in" but often these rewards are small and come in quantities).

    Some addiction theory suggest that giving small rewards instead of big ones can create addiction ("if you win 4M from lottery once, you really don't care to play any more..."). MMORPGs use this: you get to beat these "easy" enemies and get small rewards.

    Randomizing the reward also can enhance addiction: instead of giving predefined reward all the time, you randomize it. Sometimes killing a monster gives you bit of gold, sometimes nothing, sometimes crappy stick, sometimes (rarely) magical sword +1.

    It's an interesting subject... and means that we gotta also answer to the question if it's about "creating fun game" or "creating addictive game" (and are they different?). And... is it ethically right to creative game that can generate addiction?

    But anyway, this is interesting subject - and would certainly like to see more links & resources if you guys have any.

    P.S. Jeff's post indeed was excellent. Recommend reading it...
     
  6. jefferytitan

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    Personally I've avoided MMOs because I don't know whether they'd suck me in. However it doesn't take an immersive 3D experience to achieve that effect. In the past I've been hooked on some online text based games... levelling, buying items, fighting, all that stuff. It is curiously addictive. But it also left me pretty hollow when I got over them a couple of months later and realised how much time I'd sunk into making a bunch of numbers go up. I can only imagine how long it would take for a WoW player, and how bitter they would feel about all the social activites and time with loved ones they missed over the years.

    Personally I think that engineering any activity to last more than four hours a day on a regular basis is a bad idea. You need variety. However I wouldn't care so much how long someone plays if they're getting true value out of it. For example if a decent proportion of what players are seeing is new content or honing a skill. Not farming, not grinding. Few people would regret watching a dozen movies in a month, whereas many would regret the time wasted watching the same movie a dozen times. Alternately if there's depths to the gameplay that's good, for example re-watching a movie like Memento or Fight Club where new light can be cast on old material by re-watching.

    I guess my suggestion is that stickiness should be a by-product of making the game enjoyable, not a goal in and of itself (apart from making it sticky enough that people will give it the 15 minute try :p ).
     
  7. AlexWeldon

    AlexWeldon New Member

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    I lost a large enough portion of my teenage years to text-based MUDs that I've steered well clear of any MMO-anything since then. I know myself, and the dangers.
     
  8. Game Producer

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    You guys then seriously gotta try "playing" Progress Quest (Jeff Vogel mentioned this in his article) then:
    http://www.progressquest.com/
    It's a game that plays itself :D

    --

    As for MMOs, it's pretty strange that I feel textual worlds to be more immersive than the ones with graphics. It's bit strange (and in a way it isn't: I guess same goes with the books versus movies...).
     
  9. Game Producer

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  10. Junkyard Sam

    Junkyard Sam New Member

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    I'm sort of horrified by some of AlexWeldon's comments about "chapters" making a game easy to put down and end up not coming back to.

    I'm conflicted on this because as a gamer I can't stand games that leave me no "chapter break." For me, it's really satisfying to complete a "chapter" and then come back to the game later. EVERY game I've played through to the end was like this.

    On the other hand, EVERY game I've partially completed was a result of "completing a chapter" and then unintentionally being away from the game long enough that I don't feel it would be easy to get back into it.

    I said "horrified" because as a game designer -- are there times when what makes the highest quality product doesn't make it the most addictive? I guess an addictiveness is the highest value of all in designing a game.

    But regarding chapters - FORMAT is important to mention, too. It's critical for mobile games to have chapters so people can play in chunks...

    And going back to the links Pyabo mentioned I think it's good to make those chunks/chapters visible, too, so the player can get that addictive feeling of progress and accomplishment by completing them.
     
  11. jefferytitan

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    Let's rephrase this... is the best kind of food:
    A. Tasty and nutritious, you feel contented after eating it, you tell your friends all about it.
    B. Something you can't stop eating, even if you know it's bad for you.

    Time spent playing is not the be-all-end-all. If people are happy after playing your games and want to buy more of them, isn't that good enough?
     
  12. AlexWeldon

    AlexWeldon New Member

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    Yes... but don't underestimate the power of post hoc rationalization. As I said in my original post, people tend to rationalize addictions by convincing themselves that they just really like whatever it is. Cause and effect are often hard to discern in psychology; people think they can't stop doing something because they like it... but in actuality, they may simply be convincing themselves that they must like it, because they can't stop doing it.

    Conversely, if you have a game that's a lot of fun, but is just too long, many people may come to believe that it wasn't actually that much fun, because they didn't end up playing the whole way through.

    That's not to say that I think we should all strive to make games that are more addictive than enjoyable - that's evil. We just have to understand that the amount of fun people think they've had is a function of more than just how much fun they actually do have.
     
  13. jefferytitan

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    That's quite sad, but also quite true. I wonder if more people would go to the gym if they had a HUD telling them when they level up? :p
     
  14. Grey Alien

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    Great thread and articles and very good analysis by Alex. Thanks all.
     
  15. Junkyard Sam

    Junkyard Sam New Member

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    jefferytitan - funny you mention that. I would LOVE a hud with improved progress meters for working out. As it is now progress is too slow to notice.

    AlexWeldon -
    This is so, SO true for me anyway... I stopped buying big epic Xbox360 titles not because I didn't like them, but because they were $60 a piece and took forever to get through. And now that I think about it - I wouldn't even play them for free because the fact is I won't have time to complete a game.

    In this day and age people are SO busy, it would be nice to have epic quality gaming in bite-size chunks --- Small games that a (hard!)working adult can actually complete.
     
  16. bbjones

    bbjones New Member

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    Actually... a lot of modern workout equipment doesn't have a HUD per se but certainly does give you immediate feedback about progress and achievements. Either in terms of distance run, time spent or calories burnt etc, plus they will also be able to store personal profiles so your workout progress is tracked and updated on a regular basis.

    Not that I find any of that addictive like a good MMOPRG :p

    Maybe hi-tech free weights of the future will incorporate more technology to keep the person motivated?

    I personally don't understand why a long game, that can be digested in pieces, is somehow undesirable. If it is entertaining, a long duration is actually more desirable for me since once I get into a good story/game I want it to last as long as possible.

    Same applies to a good TV series. I won't stop watching a good TV series becuase there are 500 episodes.

    Also with books, when I go looking for a new fiction I will always try to pick something that is a series.

    Regarding the addiction, I for one actually and knowingly like being addicted to a really good game. I'm a successful ex-smoker so I have spent a fair amount of time learning about my own addictive personality so I do have some perspective here. But, I use games as an escape from reality. A place to go for immersive entertainment. The more addictive the better because that to me indicates I'm completely absorbed by the game (movie/book whatever).

    Talking about books, how is this really any different from a well written book? Go read Game of Thrones by George Martin. The first half of the first book is served out in little bite size chapters that I found highly (addictive, engaging, couldn't put it down).

    However, I did avoid WOW for the first couple of years for the typical reasons of not wanting to lose all my free time for a year. Luckily by the time I tried it out it simply didn't appeal to me (as most recent MMO's don't).
     

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