Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

26 June, 2009

Why “addiction” is the wrong word
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 6:33 PM

Sometimes, computer games are a whole other world, and our terminology reflects that. Saying that a game is “addicting” is often meant as a complement. Yet, addiction usually has other connotations (NSFW) in the wider world. So, game developers should be careful about using the word.

Let’s take a look at what we usually mean when we use the word, and what it means for game players and game developers.

Addiction as game design

I decided to focus on this issue after reading Jeff Vogel’s articles on Addiction-Based Design in games. (Part two continues his thoughts and expands upon the topic.) Jeff talks about how giving players small, frequent rewards to get people to happily play the same content over and over. This is especially common in MMO game design, but also in the Lego-themed console games and achievements that games offer players (even before WoW mixed MMO and achievements into the ultimate in obsessive gameplay).

Using the word “addiction” to talk about game design makes me squirm because of the negative connotations I talked about above. This is fuel for the “think of the children!” crowd who are all to happy to accuse game developers of trying to corrupt children. So, while I think discussion of what Jeff is talking about is interesting, I’m hesitant to use “addicting” as a term to describe it. Even though gamers often use the term as very high praise.

What is addiction?

This is a good question. It’s not something that’s easily defined. Again, the connotation is that addiction is a very horrible thing. Some see it as a weakness in a person unable to resist something bad for them. Others see it as a corrupting influence harming an otherwise good person. There are more nuanced definitions, but they don’t dominate the discussion like these two tend to.

In any case, “addiction” and “children” are two terms that people don’t like to see together. Given that many people (often inaccurately) associate games with children, this makes things difficult.

I wrote a post several years ago talking about game addiction as defined by two people from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Their definition focused on how the behavior affects individual lives. If you have a game (or chocolate, or whatever) “addiction” but you still hold down a job, pay your bills, etc., it’s hard to see the harm in that. I think that’s a useful way to think about addiction as it relates to games.

Bad habits vs. addiction

While doing some research on addiction, I came across an interesting article on “soft addictions” on ABC News. The author interviewed in the article defines “soft addictions” as habits that started out as normal behaviors but that got out of control. This definition works well with the descriptions of addiction I mentioned in my blog post linked previously.

One person in the article couldn’t stop shopping. While shopping isn’t a bad thing, taken to extremes it can be harmful. And, since it was causing issues between the person and her husband due to her dishonesty, it was affecting her life in a very negative way. She was using shopping as a way to escape from the problems of loneliness she experienced.

Looking at games, we can see some parallels. Some people do get into games more than they should. Sometimes they have issues in their life that they would rather not deal with, and prefer to escape into a game instead of dealing with them. But, if it weren’t games, what’s to say it wouldn’t be shopping, or being habitually late? I don’t think it’s accurate to blame games for all the problems in a person’s life. This is one reason why the term “addiction” doesn’t quite fit.

A compelling experience

I prefer the term “compelling” when we talk about this type of gameplay. It’s not addiction, where a player will suffer withdrawl if they stop using, but the players are compelled to keep playing. “One more turn” or the equivalent is what keeps people playing these games. The reward they can see just over the horizon keeps them going ever onward. This is the allure of the design Jeff talked about: there’s one more goal we can accomplish in the game, and we keep chasing those mini-goals until we find ourselves staring at the sunrise outside our window.

I don’t think this is very sinister. Most people play games because they’re fun and entertaining. People prefer to have fun and be entertained, so it shouldn’t be surprising that a game where players can find these attributes are going to be popular. Yes, again, some people are going to immerse themselves in a game and ignore other obligations in their life, but a procrastinator is going to find any excuse to put things off, even something less interesting.

Burnout and responsibilities

One problem that seems to be more common to MMOs is when a player stays with a game too long. A lot of older games, including Meridian 59, have lifespans of many years. Market reports say that traditional games have lifespans measured in months. Of course, there are games that have longevity well beyond that time frame: games with multiplayer elements that keep people playing with each other, classic games that people revisit on a regular basis, etc. But, few of them have lifespans as long as M59 has had. All these years later we still have people interested in the game. I believe part of the issue is that the social elements of games can be really compelling, especially for those of us who aren’t always comfortable going out and making new friends face-to-face.

But, this longevity has a dark side. People eventually do get tired of the same type of gameplay. Some might become upset that they “wasted” so much time merely “playing a game” that encouraged so much “grinding”. They become outspoken critics of the game. Some might even feel a moral imperative to warn others so that they don’t throw away their lives on the game. Sometimes the thing the player was trying to avoid by playing the game gets resolved, and they feel angry that the game provided the outlet.

There is also the issue of how our games affect children who are very impressionable. A game designer who is designing a game targeting children needs to be more careful about the design. Although we may want to provide a fun and compelling experience to children, our society believes that children cannot make the same decisions adults can. Dealing with impressionable minds brings a lot more responsibility for a designer to deal with.

Having fun is normal

Ultimately, I think game designers should avoid the word “addicting” in favor of the term “compelling”. I think we do want to make compelling products, just like every other product developer does. “Addiction” tends to have a very negative meaning for a lot of people, which doesn’t help us gain acceptance for games as a legitimate hobby. Anyway, it’s not like gamers will do anything for $15 (NSFW); let’s not talk about what game developers do for their $15/month. *weep*


  1. Like anything that people find to be desirable for whatever reason, it’s easy to overdo it. The question in my mind is whether or not game devs have any sort of responsibility to reduce the admittedly grindy and overcompelling design elements.

    That’s one reason why I think MMOs should sell content rather than sub time; the sub model has a nasty tendency to bring out the um… compelling design in full force.

    Nice article, especially since it dovetails with something I’ve been working on lately. Thanks!

    Comment by Tesh — 26 June, 2009 @ 6:48 PM

  2. i wrote about this very topic last year as part of the project:

    “_Gamer Danger_: Addiction vs Synthetic Function
    Posted April 12th, 2008 by mez

    Addiction [as defined psychologically] is diagnosed when displays of compulsive behaviours are observed in any given subject. These dependencies are widely perceived as detrimental. It is assumed that a deregulation of a person’s operational actions occurs when they are classified as dependent and manifesting traits that indicate an Addictive Personality Disorder. Addictive tendencies are viewed as maladaptive and indicate a subject’s inability to balance the majority of their everyday activities along a socioscientific axis. Is Addiction an inappropriate psychological construct to apply to the majority of Synthetics [individuals participating in synthetic environments] and their networked interactions?

    Media channels have a tendency to label sustained engagement within synthetic environments in terms of this dependency paradigm. These reports also act to _monsterise_ Synthetics and their online participation via a condemnation of activity that results in parallel behavioural markers of Addiction. This type of _Gamer Danger_ response occurs when extreme cases of MMOE participation – and any negative consequences – are generalised as representational. These cases are often referred to as potential examples of prescriptive, as opposed to skewed, behaviour. This attempt to cast extreme synthetic interaction as the norm *encourages* the creation of fear-based assessments rather than alternative examinations.

    A recent study conducted by Dr. John Charlton [University of Bolton, England] and Ian Danforth [Whitman College, Washington] allegedly concluded a correlation between MMORPG addiction and Asperger’s Syndrome. On further querying, it was found that the study *suggested* that MMO games may be addictive for gamers displaying high Aspergian traits. This fear-filtered media coverage may be driven by a need to confirm the importance of the biological-dictated, Darwin-centric “1st Life” as concretely preferential in an evolutionary sense. That is, that flesh-based/ego-mediated phenomenology is given preference over synthetic states in order to maintain acceptable definitions of _Reality_. These definitions are further ratified via media focus on this type of adverse addictive potentiality, rather than any positive characteristics enhanced by engagement within synthetic environs.”

    Comment by netwurker mez — 26 June, 2009 @ 8:42 PM

  3. /AFK – July 5

    [...] takes a look at why “addiction” is the wrong term for what MMO gamers sometimes experience. A good addition to the whole games addiction [...]

    Pingback by Bio Break — 5 July, 2009 @ 6:20 AM

  4. That’s a really nice song and dance, but why should we put a positive spin on a negative thing? Standard MMO design “compels” people to spend hours in front of their monitors long after they’ve really stopped having fun, to the point that many find it difficult to function at work/school, if they attend such activities at all. You could also say that slot machines compel people in a similar way.

    Whatever you want to call it, it’s not good. Non-MMO games that are well designed offer more fun and less soul-sucking, and such a design philosophy is something that all MMO developers should aspire to achieve.

    Comment by Melf_Himself — 7 July, 2009 @ 5:47 AM

  5. Moral obligations of game designers

    [...] course, this has really been an issue since the first time someone used the word "addictive" to describe a game. If games are literally addictive, it puts us on the same moral equivalent of [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 13 April, 2010 @ 5:44 PM

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