on game addiction and chronology

So it’s the second day of the blog and I’ve already decided to abuse the chronology of the entries.

I told you so.

So, here is an entry I wrote in a notebook, about game addiction. It refers to this roundtable discussion which was held at GDC this year (which of course I didn’t attend–I’m not a game developer yet).

March 9, 2007 

Game developers were discussing game addiction in a roundtable at GDC yesterday. Some mentioned making quests require less time investment. Another, playing Devil’s Advocate, asked what the difference was between an alcoholic drinking small glasses of alcohol several times a day versus larger glasses fewer times per day. Both are missing something.

Earlier in the session there was talk about how some people play games so much because of the solid sense of progress they have, which is seldom the case in real life. Is it not obvious that that is the element which compels many to continue playing? The level the player gains, the puzzle he completes, the quest she finishes… these give the player the good feeling (of accomplishment) that is the game’s “high.”

So making the game playable with a sense of progress in shorter time increments has the opposite effect of what these people are expecting. It makes the “highs” easier to get, more frequent, and the game becomes more “addictive.” How can all these people in the industry miss that?

It’s been a few years since games were designed with the intent of making people play long sessions (they were online games where the fees were charged by the hour). World of Warcraft was designed from the beginning to offer players a sense of progress in shorter time increments. This makes it more “addictive” than its competitors, and correspondingly it has a larger playerbase.

But recognizing this association is only identifying the problem, not providing any possible solutions. The game industry, like the pharmaceutical industry, is an industry, a type of business, and the companies that succeed are the ones that sell the most. I fear that finding the link between perception of progress, “addictiveness,” and sales will cause games to be intentionally made more “addictive,” rather than less. (After all, no one wants to play a game that isn’t fun, and the business is sales.) If games begin to be designed specifically to maximize “addictiveness,” and thus sales, then I really could imagine commercials for games being required to say, “Please play responsibly.”

Is there a happy medium which can be struck? Perhaps.

What would happen if a game had the player character progress, but in a way that was more subtle than the “ding” of gaining levels or the point meter increasing? If the skills of the player character improved in a way that was shown to the player only through the gradual improvement of what that character could do, rather than a meter on the screen? Would the game be less “addictive” but still compelling? Could story come to the forefront (whether a player-made story or a developer-made one)?

There may have been research done on this, but I doubt that comparing reactions to the same game with status indicators on and off would really be a good measure. I don’t think it would compare to what could be possible in a game which is designed from the beginning keeping in mind the idea of showing the player progress without numbers on a HUD. It would be like the character transformations in Fable, but taken to a greater extreme (Fable still had numbers on a HUD)… it would require damage to be visible on the character/vehicle/building models (there would be no damage or health numbers displayed to the player). It would require spells to have different looks for their different power levels (there would be no numbers indicating how powerful the player’s spell is). And it would require “hidden” skills to have noticeably different effects at various levels of proficiency. A daunting task, to be sure, but sooner or later I think it is inevitable that at least some games adopt this type of feedback system. It’s just another step towards more realism in games (one that doesn’t have to detract from gameplay), and as games become more and more advanced we may even find players demanding it.

And by the way, quite honestly, I think some teams already do design games to be intentionally more “addictive” (although I don’t have any specific examples to point to, I’m sure it happens).

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