Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Continuing the theme of your brain playing tricks on you, since I noticed more Kotaku posts about video game addiction recently, I feel compelled to share some of my own thoughts.

I was lucky to get into the games industry young (19) and make a good 15+ career out it. I like to joke about my college experience as "studying games before they had a program" because I flunked out of school. I was a different person then, and didn't know what I wanted out of school, and I wound up spending a lot of time playing MUDs. I mean, a LOT of time playing MUDs. Like, sleep-on-the-floors-of-the-computer-lab-and-get-to-know-the-janitors-LOT, or declare-a-chemical-engineering-major-because-they-had-the-coolest-computer-lab-LOT. And an interesting thing about being so addicted to MUDs was that the worse off school was going, the more I played.

Dissecting my own gaming addiction(s!), I have a hunch about the brain that explains why certain games are so addictive. Namely, that its reward center has no effective way to distinguish between a virtual and real-life success.

Nut Gathering
I'm fascinated with the idea that with each piece of loot that drops from a monster, or gold earned in the auction house, or with each increase in social standing for doing well helping a group kill a monster or building up a guild, my brain feeds me the same chemical rewards it gave ancestors to help them "keep doing those successful things," and breed. Poor brain; it means well. It just has no way to tell that all of the progress I'm making collecting and hoarding likely have no actual bearing on my real life, and may only help me to breed with someone equally hooked on these games. And I'm quite the same rule applies to other super-addictive games, too. (Diablo 3, I'm looking at you...)

(...Greedily, because I want a taste. :P)


  1. Which is why it is our responsibility as game designers to create games which reward things that can actually be useful to a person in life. Otherwise we are just exploiting their flawed brains, and probably leaving them worse off than we found them.

  2. I'm always curious about that responsibility because I know I can be flippant about it. Many people -- myself included -- get addicted to WoW, yet have no regrets about that experience, or being addicted to MUDs or Diablo. And they may have given me a greater mastery over life's distractions, or opportunities to create stronger ties to real-life friends, or helped me explore the social dynamics of groups, group roles, and even betrayal and trust.

    I find myself asking, then, if it was more responsible of Blizzard to never release that experience (and having experienced it), how does the thought of it never existing make me feel? I dislike the thought, though perhaps there's an alternative I'm missing for not actively seeking it...

  3. Well, it's really up to each of us to define these things for ourselves, and the things which may end up being useful to a person in life depend on the person. Ultimately, I don't think there is one set of ethical guiding principles for all of game design... except perhaps for this one rule (which is still my opinion, so everyone's free to ignore or reject or agree with it as they like):

    Consider the consequences.

    By that I mean to consciously think about not just the consequences of a specific design decision for the game, but consider the consequences of the existence of the game for the world, and for people's lives (players and non-players alike). It's up to you to decide whether the consequences you foresee (and you're not expected to foresee everything) are acceptable or desirable, and obviously that will vary from person to person.

    Really, this applies to everything you (and when I say "you" here I mean me and everyone else, too) do in life, not just creating games. I'm not claiming to be perfect or that I always fully consider consequences of every action, but it is something I strive for.

    Regardless of the conclusion you reach when considering consequences, it can't make things worse. And I think the world would be a much better place if everyone did this.

  4. Awesome followup and well-formed thoughts. I appreciate them. Out of pure curiosity, do you think you personally would have thought about Everquest users and addiction if you were tasked to design WoW?

  5. Yes. : )

    These ideas have been coalescing for me for a while (certainly influenced by Jonathan Blow, and also A Theory of Fun and other less game-related stuff). I don't know if I would've thought much about those consequences before now (i.e. before all these things had come together into this philosophy for me). It has changed/solidified my ideas for games I feel will be worth working on.
    But I was coincidentally already thinking about game addiction on my own when I came across Jonathan Blow's comments on the subject, so maybe I would simply have come to these conclusions sooner if things were different. Who knows?

    But I am slowly but surely working on things that will live up to this ideal, for me anyway.

  6. I'm partly curious because I know when I played WoW, it seemed like they had considered it too. I didn't /need/ to invest as much time (gathering groups, collecting corpses, camping spawns) as I did in EQ, and they had things like double XP on resting, which seemed to imply a "you've had enough, why not rest?" mentality. And oddly enough, it kinda made it more addictive (quicker, more constant uptime on fun, and playing multiple characters to have double XP, so I had double (2x characters) the progress incentives).

  7. I was actually considering mentioning both points when I wrote my last comment. I played WoW for a while, and I do think they considered it. But I think some lessons on game addiction can be learned from the results of that--that making it seem rewarding in smaller chunks can make it _more_ addictive rather than less, etc.

    Honestly given the choice, I don't think I would want to work on an MMO at this point. The foundational concept of an MMO seems to be at odds with some of my current ideals about what an ethical game should be. Specifically, the desire to have people online all the time so there's a community, and to sell stuff to these people (with microtransactions or subscription fees) runs counter to the desire to add to people's lives rather than taking as much as possible of their lives away.

  8. That's not to say that I think those are 100% irreconcilable... I don't know about that. I think maybe Love, from the way Eskil Steenberg writes on his blog, will be less focused on getting players hooked. It's not a game I would make, but I think it's awesome that it's being made.