Playing Responsibly: Game Addiction
Is game addiction a legitimate problem? The GDC roundtable discussion about game addiction raised more questions about the issue as opposed to providing any solid answers.
“The problem of understanding game addiction is more fundamental [than people realize]. The conception of ‘addiction’ is so bad now… What does it mean [for a game] to be addictive?” asked researcher Neills Clark.
The term “addiction” would seem appropriate to describe a behavior in which somebody simply couldn’t stop doing something, such as playing an MMO. But now developers and behavioral experts are shying away the term.
“Addiction is not a clinical term,” said an attending psychotherapist, who believed “compulsive” is more accurate. Yet others describe over-gaming as a “dependency.” Developers are trying to use the word "engaging" instead. The group however seemed to agree that in order to effectively address game addiction, a clear, agreed upon definition would have to be established.
Just. One. More. Quest.
With interactive entertainment being such a young medium, people are unsure why game addiction takes place. “As a new media, people need to [either] learn how to self-regulate in this media revolution—or there is something inherently [addictive] with gameplay itself,” said one attendee.
Although the argument was made that someone could be a compulsive reader, Clark said that being addicted to games is different than being addicted to other forms of media. He argued that games, particularly MMOs, provide an alternate reality that engulfs players more so than other forms of entertainment. Plus, MMOs can be essentially indefinite, so gamers can potentially come back repeatedly until the game’s servers go dead.
Another attendee said that the implementation of goals and rewards keeps people coming back to games over and over again. Many times in real life, people are often not rewarded for work or life in general. Many times, neither have easily identifiable proof of progress. In a game like World of Warcraft, however, you level up, so you get the feeling of “going somewhere,” which fills a void in some people, he said.
Northumbria, UK senior lecturer Dan Hodgson argued that “Just because a game is engaging doesn’t mean that you have to play it for [long sessions],” rather a game can be designed so that it can be played in shorter sessions.
One behavioral expert also said that making shorter quests in MMOs—maybe one or two hours in length—could help curb compulsion. When a person gets to the end of a two-hour quest, in theory, he or she would have the option to end the session and feed the kids, or go on and spend another hour or two in the game.
Playing devil’s advocate, moderator Dmitri Williams of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign replied by asking what the difference would be for an alcoholic to drink smaller glasses of alcohol several times a day versus drinking a couple big glasses less times a day.
Should devs take responsibility?
Another question that arose was whether or not game developers should shoulder responsibility for game addiction. Would Blizzard have to eventually air commercials encouraging gamers to “play responsibly?”
And how would developers even go about making a game less addictive? Daniel Greenberg, a freelance game designer who’s worked on games such as The Lord of the Rings Online and Crysis likened game addiction to work addiction. “Say you’re addicted to work,” he theorized. “[To get you to stop working too much], should we say ‘work’s bad?’ Should we make work shorter, less compelling, less fun so that people don’t become addicted to it?”
Of course, if you apply the analogy to games, developers and gamers will answer “no” to all those questions. Everybody wants a compelling gaming experience. So is there any way to curb game addiction from a developer’s standpoint? Should developers play big brother, monitoring gamers and cutting off the addicts?
An innocent goal
When Blizzard designed the expansion World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, the company heeded complaints that the game required too much time. With the base WoW, rewards were based on how much time you invested relative to other players. Now the rate of rewards is independent of other people, and it’s potentially not as time-consuming.
So it seems that developers are aware of the issue of addiction, but it’s kind of in the background during the design process. “The idea is to make games that are fun, to make games that people want to play. It’s an innocent goal,” said an attending Blizzard developer.