Why Are Addicting Games Addicting? | Digital Detox

Topics: Addiction, Technology

Do you know someone who seems to be sucked into some addicting games? Or maybe you find yourself saying, “Just this one more level…” for hours on end? Maybe it’s playing match after match of Fortnite or the seemingly impossible-to-put-down Candy Crush? What about people who get sucked into the never-ending realm of World of Warcraft? Remember the craze of the Facebook game Farmville a few years ago?

Video games seem to have a quality about them that keeps you hooked. Whether it’s a simple game on your smartphone or a full-fledged AAA game, these games seem to trap you just the same. What is it that makes addicting games addicting? Why does it seem impossible to step away from playing that infamous loop of “ just one more level”?

Video game addiction is one of many negative effects of technology. How do game developers keep consumers playing their games? Continue reading to learn more about what makes some games so difficult to put down.

The Formula Behind Addicting Games

At least 150 million people in America play video games. They offer a fun way to pass spare moments, relax at the end of the day, or spend time with friends. In the past, the majority of video games were confined to an arcade or a computer and consoles at home. Today, cell phones help bring games directly into the hands of a large portion of the population.

If a video game company wants to stay in business they need to make games that players don’t want to put down. Developers need to keep players playing level after level, day after day, week after week. They need them invested in the game’s world whether it’s a simple mobile game or a massive production AAA title.

Game developers knowingly make these games as enticing as possible to keep players playing. There are a few different methods that creators use to keep you opening their app or loading up their game on your computer.

Positive Rewards

We play games to enjoy ourselves and have a good time. Maybe it’s playing a few levels of a puzzle game on your phone to occupy time on the subway. Some enjoy playing group games like Mario Party when they have some friends over. No matter the game, they’re mainly made for players to have fun, otherwise they wouldn’t play.

Positive rewards are one of the main tactics developers use to entice people to play their games. In a game like Candy Crush, as you match lines of candies more candies come cascading down to create more matches. You’re rewarded with fun sounds, bright colors, and increasing amounts of points. Even these seemingly small animations trigger a response in your brain.

World of Warcraft plays on the positive reward system by offering items in return for completing quests. Players complete any number of small repetitions to get a cool new weapon or piece of clothing for their characters. Some quests are quick and easy to play on the brain’s desire for instant gratification. Others require more in-depth play to keep you working on them.

These positive rewards keep people coming back to play and keep addicting games addicting. Just like drugs and alcohol provide people with a mind-altering high, these positive rewards in-game trigger a release of dopamine in your brain. This dopamine release isn’t necessarily a bad thing on its own but can become a problem if you can’t stop playing.

Unpredictable Outcomes

Developers combine the tactic of positive rewards with unpredictable outcomes to keep players engaged for longer. They offer you a positive reward but they don’t let you know when you’re going to get it. If you know you’ll get a positive reward, or ultimately a dopamine release, at some point, but you don’t know when you get it, you’ll continue returning until you do.

One of the best examples of combining unpredictable outcomes with positive rewards is, again, in games like World of Warcraft. You receive items when you take down monsters in the game. Certain monsters drop certain items so you have an idea of what’s to come but you don’t know exactly when. This keeps you slaying monster after monster until you get what you’re looking for.

There’s a fine line of balance when using unpredictable outcomes, though. Game makers can’t hold back the positive reward for too long otherwise a player will give up and not come back. There needs to be just enough space between each reward, sometimes offering them sooner rather than later, to make sure you come back.

Social Motivation

Game developers employ many different methods to keep games social. Social motivation (and social pressure) is a great way to keep people returning. By nature, most people don’t like to let others down and they also enjoy competing with one another. Encouraging social interaction in games plays on both of these aspects.

Some games, especially Facebook games, offer a leader board that allows you to compete with friends. Developers base these leader board positions on any number of factors, such as the number of levels completed or points earned. It’s exciting to see your name at the top of the board above your friends so you’ll keep playing until you get there.

Other games provide an online world where you can interact with other real people in real-time. You can work together to take down in-game bosses and complete other tasks. Some people schedule times in the real world to meet up in the game and work on objectives. If you’re scheduled to meet with a group, you’re more likely to show up and play so you don’t let your friends down.

Providing an Escape

A lot is going on in the world today, from work, school, and family in our daily lives to the global scale of things. Games offer a quick (or long) escape from what’s going on around you. They offer you a positive reward at some sort of fixed interval when it seems like positive rewards in the real world are few and far between.

Developers make use of the need that people have to step away from reality when creating their games. Mobile games have a great chance to occupy attention because people almost always have their cell phones with them. Console and desktop games have the opportunity to create massive online worlds where players can lose themselves for a few hours.

Addicting games use the ongoing combination of positive rewards and social interaction to create a fun place for players to escape to. It’s not always a bad thing to take a quick break from the world and line up a few candies in a puzzle game. When you start sinking hours upon hours into games and they affect your real life, though, it’s a different story.

Making Players Wait

You always want what you can’t have, right? Making players wait is another tactic game makers use to keep people returning. If they gave you everything you wanted out of a game upfront, you would binge on it and get sick of it quickly. Instead, they encourage (and almost force you) to take intermittent breaks and make you put the game down for a moment.

For example, the massively-popular Farmville made players wait a certain number of minutes or hours before they could harvest their crops. You planted a certain number of crops then had to wait until they were ready for digital harvesting. Then, to ensure you came back, if you waited too long your crops died. Then you had to plant them again and start the countdown timer over.

Addicting games like Candy Crush offer a set number of lives or tries to get the level right. After you use up your lives, you must wait a certain amount of time before your lives replenish. Some games offer the ability to purchase more lives to keep playing. This also allows developers to make money off of the brain’s drive for instant gratification.

Making players wait also encourages a bit of balance between their game and their real life. Placing forced pauses in games gives players the chance to stop for food, a bathroom break, or some social interaction before returning.

Gaming Addiction

Games offer a way to take a break from the world and unwind for a few minutes or hours. The majority of the 64 percent of the game-playing population turns it off after they’ve had enough. You might stay home to play video games in your spare time instead of hanging out with friends. It’s not bad to miss a night out here or dinner there.

It’s not wrong to play video games as a fun way to spend time on your own. There’s a big difference between playing as a hobby and when it starts becoming an actual problem. A small percentage of the population finds themselves in exactly this position. An analysis of 33 video game addiction studies placed rates of pathological gaming at about 3.1 percent of gamers.

Researchers realize something separates these gamers from normal players but don’t quite know what that difference is. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders doesn’t recognize video game addiction as a true addiction yet. Instead, the American Psychiatric Association classifies it as gaming disorder.

Medical professionals still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding the impact of addicting games. In fact, the science of addiction, in general, is still in its early phases. Regardless of the impact, though, these games are here to stay and only becoming more enticing as time passes. If you can find a healthy balance between screen time and your real life, though, you’re still in the clear. Here are 5 tips to avoid checking your phone every 5 minutes.

Elliott Redwine

Author: Elliott Redwine

Elliott is a communications manager with Digital Detox with expertise on substance abuse and addiction recovery.