Traditionally, gamers describe interesting experiences that feature high replay value as "addictive." They intend it as a compliment, but the word generally has altogether more serious connotations.

Using the same word in such very different ways is problematic; in recent years, developers have begun trying to induce gamers into the more unsavory flavor of addiction.

Evidence from a number of high-profile deaths suggests that compulsion can manifest in a minority of gamers. These rare but dramatic incidents demonstrate the phenomenon at its most extreme, but anyone who has witnessed someone else in an intense World of Warcraft phase can at least imagine, if not support, an argument in favor of diagnosing video-game addiction as a legitimate condition — although any such recognition in the near future is unlikely.

With the explosion in opportunities for developers and publishers to profit from games beyond the first sale (monthly subscriptions, downloadable content, avatar outfits, etc.), the incentive to make games that appeal to compulsive personalities has increased dramatically. These days, it’s no longer solely about grabbing more first-day sales; it’s also about maximizing income from existing customers. That means getting more players intensely involved for longer periods of time.

 

I recently read a short blog post by Renegade Games director Peter Zaborszky. The folks at Renegade Games are responsible for SimRepublic. (From what I can gather, the game is a kind of cross between SimCity and FarmVille. The posting is really brief, so I suggest reading it. I’ll wait.)

It's important to note how the post bypasses addiction as it's used in gaming parlance ("addictive gameplay") and heads directly for the more conventional definition. Specifically, he refers to cigarettes.

Skinner box

The blog suggests that “to get players to come back, and to get them addicted to games,” developers should employ a system of repetition and reward that is similar to a Skinner box. Taken in the context of World of Warcraft, I assume this means grinding or farming. The argument appears to be that those mechanics are the most effective way to exploit a gamer’s potential for compulsive behaviors.

And this, supposedly, is good for everyone. Here's the claim:

In games development, […] it is important to think about addiction as well, because a game that someone is addicted to is more 'successful' I believe. In terms of monetary success, it is obvious, but also a game you are addicted to it [sic] more enjoyable as well.

I can not condone this point of view. I recently sunk a shamefully obsessed week into Game Dev Story, and I can't say I truly enjoyed it much past the first day or two. (See Chris Winters' excellent piece on the titles for more information.) That's not to say it's a bad game; it certainly isn't, but in retrospect, it simply did what all such games do: It appealed directly to the part of my brain that pushes me toward compulsive restarts.

I'm not accusing Kairosoft, the developers of Game Dev Story, of cynical design. But it’s obvious that Renegade Games isn't the only company aware of undergraduate-level psychology. Many larger companies almost certainly target the same types of personalities; they're just less likely to blog about it. For what it's worth, I think that's even worse.

At the time when our pubescent medium looks to be on the brink of adulthood — when it's on the verge of creating mass-market, crossover experiences that can truly speak to us about ourselves and the world we live in — the last thing we need is for shrewd executives to reduce the form to little more than a slot machine.

I wouldn't dream of suggesting that developers and publishers shouldn’t earn a good living from their work, but I do believe that the starting point for any meaningful pastime should be a desire to create experiences that will entertain and perhaps even educate.

Games have the potential to be the most immersive and adaptable form of entertainment that man has yet concieved, and we shouldn't let greed undermine their growing credibility by overlooking the willful exploitation of people predisposed to addiction.