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, andsince you can't eat videogames, they don't qualify.
Having said that,it's generally accepted that gambling, eating, shopping and watchingTV – under the right circumstances – can generate compulsivebehaviours among a minority of people. Whether you call it addictionor 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 becausedesigners can use a suite of techniques to make their games morecompelling,” he insists. Some you may have heard of, such as variableratio reinforcement (similar to slot machines, where playersreceive rewards on a random schedule) and avoidance (where players are punished for not playing enough, as seen inFarmville's withering of crops).
Others, like the compulsion loop,rely on providing players with a never-ending sequence of new contentand goals.
There's nothing secret about these techniques – they're frequentlydiscussed in games conferences and textbooks – and, in principle,there's nothing wrong with using them to help guide and encourageplayers through difficult parts of a game.
In some ways, they're noworse than using cliff-hangers in soap operas or penny dreadfuls toencourage audiences to keep coming back [a point raised in MCV in our reaction to tonight's Panorama].
But the simple fact is thatthey are more powerful, and they have the capacity to createincredibly compulsive behaviours, even if the game itself isrelatively small and empty, and afterwards you feel like you've wastedyour 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 behaviourin games is that the subject has been buried under a mountain of moreserious (yet also ridiculous and unsupportable) assertions, such asthe notion that games cause violence or rot young brains,” Hon continues.
The gamesindustry has rightly opposed these neanderthal-like ideas, butunfortunately the battle with the media has created an adversarialrelationship and caused gamers to become incredibly defensive –despite the fact that everyone who makes and plays games knows that inrare cases, they can lead to compulsive behaviour, but no one reallywants 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 asmanipulative as games with their incessant cliff-hangers, but a showwith cliff-hanger every 30 minutes pales in comparison to gamescontaining ‘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 itfor four hours or 40,” he claims.
But if you're making a persistent online gamethat relies on subscriptions and microtransactions, then it's verymuch in your financial interest to keep people playing as much aspossible, for as long as possible. With investors and shareholders'demands for constant growth, it's hard to resist the siren call oftechniques 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, andthey're not about to go away,” Hon concludes. But like everyone else, developers havecommercial as well as artistic motivations, and in the race to createthe next cash cow game, it's possible that a small minority of playerscould be harmed by the very techniques that keep people playing. As asociety, we need to be aware of that, and we need to be responsible.”