The designer whose claims in tonight’s Panorama that some games developers are deliberately employing psychologically addictive techniques to keep users playing their games has elaborated on his argument.
Adrian Hon, the founder and CCO of Six to Start and former director of play at Moshi Monsters creators Mind Candy, points out that not all engagement with games is positive.
“Does this mean that games are addictive? In a strict sense, no,” he writes in the Telegraph. “Addiction refers to the ingestion of substances that directly alter the brain’s chemistry, and since you can’t eat videogames, they don’t qualify.
“Having said that, it’s generally accepted that gambling, eating, shopping and watching TV – under the right circumstances – can generate compulsive behaviours among a minority of people. Whether you call it addiction or not doesn’t change the harmful effects.”
Hon, who confesses to having annoyed his girlfriend by staying up all night playing Civilization V, then argues that games are indeed a special case.
“Games are unusual, both because they are relatively new, and because designers can use a suite of techniques to make their games more compelling,” he insists. “Some you may have heard of, such as variable ratio reinforcement (similar to slot machines, where players receive rewards on a random schedule) and avoidance (where players are punished for not playing enough, as seen in Farmville’s withering of crops).
“Others, like the compulsion loop, rely on providing players with a never-ending sequence of new content and goals.
“There’s nothing secret about these techniques – they’re frequently discussed in games conferences and textbooks – and, in principle, there’s nothing wrong with using them to help guide and encourage players through difficult parts of a game.
“In some ways, they’re no worse than using cliff-hangers in soap operas or penny dreadfuls to encourage audiences to keep coming back [a point raised in MCV in our reaction to tonight’s Panorama].
“But the simple fact is that they are more powerful, and they have the capacity to create incredibly compulsive behaviours, even if the game itself is relatively small and empty, and afterwards you feel like you’ve wasted your time.”
This, arguably, is where Hon’s stance begins to weaken. The science behind his models of behaviour is fascinating, but the lack of any concrete evidence about the effects of games addiction means that most criticism of it always falls back to the same thing – games are ‘different’. In this case Hon argues they are “more powerful” and “have the capacity to create incredibly compulsive behaviours”. Where’s the evidence for that?
“Part of the reason why we don’t hear more about compulsive behaviour in games is that the subject has been buried under a mountain of more serious (yet also ridiculous and unsupportable) assertions, such as the notion that games cause violence or rot young brains,” Hon continues.
“The games industry has rightly opposed these neanderthal-like ideas, but unfortunately the battle with the media has created an adversarial relationship and caused gamers to become incredibly defensive – despite the fact that everyone who makes and plays games knows that in rare cases, they can lead to compulsive behaviour, but no one really wants to say or do anything about it.”
Though Hon concedes that cases of video games addiction are incredibly rare, he again argues that games must be differentiated from other media such as movies or TV.
“Yes, TV shows are driven by commercial motives and try to be just as manipulative as games with their incessant cliff-hangers, but a show with cliff-hanger every 30 minutes pales in comparison to games containing ‘mini-cliff-hangers’ every 30 seconds,” he argues.
However, he then tries to claim that titles such as Gran Turismo or Grand Theft Auto have no active interest in manipulating the gamer to carry on playing.
“If you’re making a boxed game like Gran Turismo or Grand Theft Auto, making your game incredibly compulsive doesn’t necessarily help sales, since you get the same amount of money whether your customer plays it for four hours or 40,” he claims.
“But if you’re making a persistent online game that relies on subscriptions and microtransactions, then it’s very much in your financial interest to keep people playing as much as possible, for as long as possible. With investors and shareholders’ demands for constant growth, it’s hard to resist the siren call of techniques like compulsion loops and avoidance. The question of ‘fun’ becomes incidental – what matters is making money.”
Of course, online games have an added incentive to encourage heavy use. But to say that console titles have no such remit is ludicrous. Were Gran Turismo not a compulsive title would people still be buying the game five iterations down the line? Would GTAV be awaited with such enthusiasm had punters not enjoyed GTA, GTA2, GTAIII or GTAIV?
And what of digital content? If you didn’t play GTAIV for long then why on earth would you consider dropping 2400 Microsoft Points on the post-release DLC?
“Games provide fun and amazing experiences for billions of people, and they’re not about to go away,” Hon concludes. “But like everyone else, developers have commercial as well as artistic motivations, and in the race to create the next cash cow game, it’s possible that a small minority of players could be harmed by the very techniques that keep people playing. As a society, we need to be aware of that, and we need to be responsible.”