Addiction is serious. Time management is serious. Doing something with our lives is important. Why then do so many companies knowingly and intentionally exploit human psychology to foster addiction, and why do gamers just let it happen? Note: I've no intention of writing a proper research paper on a personal blog, so while I'll be referencing various facts and percentages, I'll only be posting embedded links to my sources as they are used.


            At the end of the day, just about anyone can develop an addiction to something. Advertisers do their best to exploit this in television, print, and online. Some companies have an easier time of it, much like Big Tobacco (though regulation and public opinion have greatly curtailed this). At the end of the day, no one is truly safe, as addiction is incredibly easy to fall into. American adults consume nearly 13% of their daily calories in sugar, well over the recommended daily intake, as "according to brain scans, sugar is as addictive as cocaine." So as we can see most everyone is addicted to something. The question is: for how many gamers is this an issue?

            I suspect the number is lower than you might think, and 'addiction' less bad than might be insinuated. Not too long ago it was insinuated that 8.5% of children "between the ages of 8 and 18" are addicted to gaming. This is a no doubt alarmist study, and other studies, who have approached the issue not in relation to such silly questions as "I think about gaming when doing other activities" and have instead focused on whether or not gaming was interfering with a person's life, believe the number to be closer to 3% (out of the total gaming population). Regardless, that means 6.3 million people are potentially playing at a level deemed 'pathological' by the Journal of Psychiatric Research.


            At the end of the day anyone could be addicted, after all, as earlier established, it's quite easy to become addicted to just about anything. We've all heard horror stories from time to time, and while cases such as the man who left his wife and daughter when his wife told him to "get off the computer or get out" or the man who played for "27 days straight, subsisting only on instant noodles in an Internet cafe, until he died from cardiac arrest," but we understand such cases are rare.

The more common issue is amongst youth and others who are spending less and less time on productive things (socialization, exercise, reading, working, etc.) and an increasing amount of time on games and other less active pastimes, leading to potentially stunted psychological growth. In just the last five years alone, "the time that America's 8- to 18-year-olds spend watching TV, playing video games and using a computer for entertainment has risen by" over an hour to a total of seven hours and thirty-eight minutes, daily.

That's more time than many people sleep! While by no means all of that time is spent on gaming, it is readily apparent that spending a significant portion of your time performing non-productive sedentary activities has been strongly correlated with lower grades, decreased in-person social skills (shockingly, Facebook doesn't actually make you better at talking to people), lower physical health, and more. Of course, while few people play games to that level, for those who do, it is a nefarious and somewhat insidious activity, as it slowly consumes the entirety of their free time.


            While it's entirely unfair to lay the blame for this entirely at the feet of gaming giants like Activision-Blizzard and EA, there is no doubt that companies like these not only stand to gain from fostering addiction, but also actively attempt to induce addiction in their customers.

'Coercive monetization' is a strategy endemic to the free-to-play market, but found also in subscription based models, and most games that incorporate an in-game cash shop. In it, gamers are coerced into making purchases using a variety of strategies. One way in which pressure can be put on the player (as well as fuel time spent gaming) is by "putting the consumer in a very uncomfortable or undesirable position in the game and then offering to remove this 'pain' in return for spending money." Moreover, "the target audience for these products is those under the age of 25," since those in this demographic's brains have yet to fully develop in the realm of decision making, making them particularly susceptible to ploys of this nature.

Of course, before this can necessarily occur, they need to get you hooked. In this, they've invested quite a bit of money in how to create the best compulsion loop. No one has it mastered quite so well as Activison-Blizzard with their enormously successful MMO, World of Warcraft. They've implemented it through their use of random drops, by giving gamers the "tension of knowing you might get the treat, but not knowing exactly when," in turn getting them to spend more and more time on their game. In response to allegations of nurturing addiction in players, Blizzard responded that "players are able to jump into our games and accomplish appreciable and fulfilling goals, such as competing in matches, completing quests or matches, purchasing or selling equipment for their characters, hunting monsters, and socializing with friends, in a short amount of time, making our games enjoyable with minimal time commitments." I find this quite disingenuous, as the majority of activities they describe take far more than a 'minimal time commitment,' some almost certainly consuming a minimum of several hours.

Even the design of leveling systems in games, or in the case of Steam, a user profile, is inherently designed to be addictive. Steam has been enormously successful through its use of fire-sales and the fact that it has implemented "chatting, achievements, events, a robust community, and groups" not to mention the fact that "you can even gain experience and level up just like in an actual video game." This has been so successful that Steam is now able to truthfully say that their "users spend more time buying games than playing them!"


           Simply acknowledging the problem is help in and of itself, as this helps those who are truly addicted by allowing them to see that society doesn't simply laugh off attempts to get help. Obviously, the problem isn't particularly widespread (and extreme cases are very rare), even the most alarmist of gaming detractors are forced to admit it's a minority of gamers that are affected to any great extent by gaming addiction, when they're confronted with the facts at least. More reasonable sources (as mentioned above) place the figures even lower. Nonetheless, just because a problem is a small one, it doesn't mean that it's not a problem. A pebble in your shoe is still pretty darn uncomfortable!

            As gamers, we can further combat this by voting with our dollars. Don't buy games that particularly incorporate the concepts of addiction! Complain about such measures to the companies involved when you run into them. I'm not saying to go rant about how you think Battlefield 3 has a terrible unlock system or how TERA is holding you back with its random loot drops. What I want is for each of us to notice the subtle ways in which games are designed to fuel addiction, determine to what extent they're influencing your gaming, and determine what you believe to be the best action to take based on your conclusions. If the answer is that you should quit playing a particular game, or not buy it in the first place, then don't hesitate to stop.

            While a small problem, addiction is a problem, and all too often I see the gaming world ignoring, or else reacting with ridicule to any and all implications that it exists. While detractors certainly exaggerate the problem, it shouldn't be overlooked, and those responsible for making games shouldn't be allowed to take steps to make their games as addicting as possible without backlash from the community. We shouldn't dismiss a problem simply because we don't like to hear about it, or just because people we don't like tend to bring it up.