Are intentionally addictive games really so creepy?

Yesterday, Cracked posted an article detailing five "creepy" techniques used by game designers to make games addictive. The article focuses largely on MMOs, which, as everyone knows, can be pretty damn addictive. Read it if you haven't, because it's fantastically interesting.

The author, David Wong, accuses MMO developers of using the principles of behavioral psychology to keep players playing (and paying subscription fees) despite offering little fun or competition.

Above: Despite all our rage, are we still just rats in
an operant conditioning chamber?

He argues that by manipulating players' actions with positive and negative reinforcement (the article describes the methods in detail), game designers hook them, much in the same way that slot machines keep people cranking levers (or pressing buttons, I suppose, since no one plays slots the proper way anymore).

But - to play devil's advocate for a minute - we're asking just how dangerous or "creepy" these techniques really are.

Addiction or "addiction"

Wong first mentions that he understands that victims of videogame addiction "had other shit going on in their lives." As with alcohol, gambling, weird fetish porn, and pretty much everything else that's fun - most people will simply enjoy games, and the minority will abuse them due to addiction.

Above: Mindless, addicted grinding, or just two guys havin'
a rollicking good time?

Very few so-called "WoW addicts" are likely clinically addicted. I drink a copious amount of booze, but I'm not an alcoholic (or so I keep telling myself). Like many hardcore WoW players, I may have a habit, but I'm not going to start whoring my body for shots of cheap whiskey (or a Murloc Space Marine, in the case of WoW).

But they're still designed to be addictive - how creepy is that?

Yeah, well, so are a lot of things.

It's not a surprise that game designers take behavioral research, especially the research of B.F. Skinner, into consideration when making games. Games require behaviors, so fundamentally, whether or not a designer considers the mechanics of those behaviors, the principles of behaviorism apply. Behavior, behavior, behavior!

Wong suggests that people play Modern Warfare 2 for the competition, because "everybody likes to win," but that they play WoW because it's a virtual Skinner box - a device designed to be addictive. But MW2 uses many of the same principles - it offers upgrades at certain levels, and then gives you the option to scrap all the upgrades and reacquire them for "prestige." It's not less addictive than WoW because no one considered how to make it addictive.

And the same principles apply to the design of the aforementioned slot machines, and...pretty much everything else. It's common knowledge that capitalists capitalize any way they can, and psychological manipulation isn't off limits.

But can games do it more effectively?

Games do seem particularly suited to the application of Skinner-esque techniques, and perhaps MMO designers really have honed the manipulation to a point. Though essentially they're just going with what works, which is to be expected. And "Skinner box games" can be entertaining as long as you aren't prone to unhealthy addiction.

Above: If Blizzard has done its job, he's wondering why the hell he's still playing (but continues playing anyway)

So what's the lesson?

Wong points out in his conclusion (and admits that Blizzard isn't an evil puppet master) that many players, even if not addicted, are using games to fill voids in their lives left by lack of satisfaction with activities like work and school:

"As shocking as this sounds, a whole lot of the 'guy who failed all of his classes because he was playing WoW all the time' horror stories are really just about a dude who simply didn't like his classes very much. This was never some dystopian mind control scheme by Blizzard. The games just filled a void."

He goes on to suggest that games are perfectly suited to fill this void, which they may be. However, plenty lose themselves in reading fiction or watching TV, so it's not as if MMOs are the only avenue of escape.

Above: The light soothes the pains of modern living

The root of the problem is all the void-causing, life-draining things that drive people to escapism. If you find yourself to be overly consumed with WoW, or any game, or anything at all (obsessively collecting toenails, perhaps?), you ought to take some time to examine your life, and probably seek therapy. They're never going to stop making games which can better distract you from reality, so it's probably best to become comfortable enough with it that distraction isn't necessary.

And if you still haven't read the Cracked article, go do that and tell us what your take is.

Mar 9, 2010


  • nikrusty - March 13, 2010 11:12 a.m.

    Never shoot the messenger! Games are not addictive or anything else. U have the addictiveness in you and externals are merely stimuli. Don't blame the world for the deep shit inside you. "life is nothing but a mirror and it aint pretty most of the time" - teaching of Yoga
  • philipshaw - March 11, 2010 2:34 p.m.

    Fair point and a great article
  • Cyberninja - March 10, 2010 10:57 p.m.

    i wouldnt ignore a girl for a game and those articles were both good
  • waynski1457 - March 10, 2010 9:35 a.m.

    This is WAY too f***ing meta for me. I started reading both GR and Cracked for these awesome articles, and now THEY ARE ONE AND THE SAME?!? Still great articASSUMING DIRECT CONTROL!
  • whiteknight1981 - March 10, 2010 5:36 a.m.

    *Looks up from his 26th hour of MW2* I can quit anytime I want! Ooo! I just unlocked FMJ for my SCAR-H! *Delves back into the world of pretty 1's and 0's*
  • Krauzer - March 10, 2010 5:25 a.m.

    As a Cracked Fan and a Gamesradar fan is great to see an articles written by one and followed by the other.. that said, Cracked's articles was really interesting, actually David Wong and the cracked columnists write very good game related articles, anyway good going GR...! (my captcha was "inserted all" ¬.¬ captcha always come up with stupid ((and sometimes kinky)) words..)
  • HyperPoweredHighFive - March 10, 2010 2:45 a.m.

    Loved the smashing pumpkins reference.
  • JackSkellingtonsSkin - March 10, 2010 2:08 a.m.

    I couldn't be happier at the first fail. LOL. But regarding the article, I often wonder do people know what addiction actually is. Playing games regurally or losing a full weekend to beating a single game, I usually see labelled as addiction. But, of course, if you want to know if you really are addicted then it should be obvious, if you're playing games for long spans of time and when you take a break is it only to prove that you're not addicted. If when you can't play them all you can think about is playing them. Odds are, if you're on this site when you have the option to be playing games then you're probably not addicted. Though internet ddiction is a whole different thing...
  • Heyexclamationpoint - March 10, 2010 2:01 a.m.

    Cracked is one of my favorite websites... well besides this one. As for the article, ehh. I play so little these days that it doesn't bother me and I'll probably never touch an MMO.
  • CaptBloodboots - March 10, 2010 2 a.m.

    darn....just slipped through me fingers..i'll get you First...oh yes...i will get you First
  • CaptBloodboots - March 10, 2010 1:51 a.m.

    first!!lol but seriously,nothing beats coming home from a hard day's work,popping a disc into your console and just shutting out the world around you for a good 5 or 6 hours my first first~my first first~my first~ recaptcha - opiate selected.....kinda appropriate lol
  • michaelmcc827 - March 10, 2010 1:43 a.m.

    I totally agree with games as a need for escapism. And face it, if it weren't games filling that void in people's lives, it could be something far more dangerous like narcotics or cashews. Great article (both of them)!

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