By Ooi Teck Chye
I’ll begin with a disclaimer: I’m a gamer and I have been addicted to video games. When you’re a kid, it’s difficult to control your impulses. It makes sense to keep addictive substances controlled and away from children. But we don’t do the same thing with addictive media. I’m looking to further explore addiction in something I care about — gaming. But to deal with this, we must ask — what is ‘addiction’? And more specifically, what is ‘video game addiction’?
Let’s start with ‘addiction’. For the sake of simplicity, I did a quick google search which brought me to this definition from the American Psychiatry Association: Addiction is a complex condition, a chronic brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence. People with addiction (severe substance use disorder) have an intense focus on using a certain substance, such as alcohol or drugs, to the point that it takes over their life.
While commonly associated with substances like drugs, addiction can be associated with behaviours or activities as well (as anyone whose mom is obsessed with Candy Crush knows). Essentially, you have an addiction if you persist in the use of a substance or a particular activity despite harmful consequences. A person who spends all his time playing video games when he should really have studied for that math exam but didn’t and ended up failing it spectacularly is very likely addicted to video games (or just a serial procrastinator).
What is the point, though, of discussing video game addiction? Well, there’s a dimension of morality that we sometimes neglect when discussing video game addiction. Video games are sometimes, or potentially most of the time, designed to be addictive. And so, we may ask, should video game designers be morally responsible for addictive game design, and how so?
Building Addiction into Games
In the era of games like Pacman, Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong, video games were as much a technological endeavour as an artistic one. I use artistic not in the sense of “highbrow art”, but in the sense of “craft”. Game designers in that era were more interested in how far they could push their video game machines and how they could create fun yet challenging puzzles and tasks. Video games today form an industry worth nearly $100 billion globally, which is due in large part to mobile games and Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs). Incidentally, these are two genres which, anecdotally at least, have frequent reports of addiction. To a gamer, this comes as no surprise, because that’s how developers make money – by creating games that to make you want to keep playing.
While we can blame victims for becoming addicted to games, that doesn’t seem entirely right. Hard drug abusers do not just enjoy the act consuming drugs, drugs themselves are addictive substances (let me be captain obvious for a second). And attempting to quit cold-turkey can be lethal. Video game addicts face a similar conundrum — playing is addictive in part because games are themselves addictive. Quitting play draws someone away from something they both enjoy and feel compelled to do. And they feel compelled to do it because they underestimate just how addictive it can be.
Maybe I’m being hyperbolic, but modern game design is definitely intended to draw players in and keep them playing. Part of how this is done is through a process known as operant conditioning. To summarise, operant conditioning is the process by which an operant (an action that is intended to produce some result) may be conditioned to be repeated or abandoned in a particular subject, primarily through reinforcement. Basically, it’s how we teach behaviours to people/animals by doing things to them. B.F. Skinner is frequently associated with operant conditioning and he found, as we now intuitively think, that rewarding behaviour leads to repetition in anticipation of further reward. Conversely, punishing behaviour leads to extinction (i.e. a subject being less willing to perform an act, to the point of no longer doing it). This is straightforward.
Here’s the fun part: Skinner discovered that the frequency with which you reward rats (which have remarkable similarity in brain structure to humans) affects the rate at which they adopt a particular behaviour as well as how long they continued to do it. He created what is known as a “Skinner Box”, which is simply a cage with a rat and a lever in it. When the lever is pressed (the operant), a food pellet would be dispensed. Skinner tried varying the frequency with which food is dispensed when the pellet was pressed, and found that a variable ratio (changing how many times the lever had to be pressed for the next food pellet to be dropped, i.e. 3 times for the first, 2 for the second, etc.) resulted in the quickest adoption of the behaviour and the longest duration before the rat stopped pressing the lever. Random reward frequency, repetitive action for infrequent reward, and perseverance in fruitless endeavours might sound like madness, but it is also how World of Warcraft works.
In many MMORPGs, as well as mobile games, there are “random drops” or some form of random rewards, commonly in the form of opening some chests or other virtual container, to encourage players to continue playing. Certain rewards are better than others, and these tend to be much rarer than the other rewards. In the case of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, this happens in the case of end-game ‘boss battles’. Random loot drops after the defeat of a boss. The best loot usually is a rare and powerful piece of equipment. In fact, some items have a drop rate of 0.03%, and so, on average, it takes many repetitions of a particular act to get just one of these items. World of Warcraft is a digital Skinner Box, and we are the rats. Incidentally, all of those mobile games people keep getting addicted to probably incorporate some form of a Skinner Box within them somewhere as well. The incentive for game designers to create as addictive a game they can is obvious. For a game like World of Warcraft, where there’s a monthly subscription fee, the more you play, the more game designers earn. For mobile games where you can pay to receive “treasure chests” that dispense random rewards, the more you want to open these chests, the more you buy, and… well, you get the idea.
There are, of course, other methods for building an addictive game: operant conditioning is only one way to foster addiction. The point of discussing operant conditioning is to highlight how video games are designed with the specific intent to be addictive, rather than being addictive as a crazy random happenstance.
The Ethics of Addictive Video Game Design
Here’s the problem though: why should or shouldn’t we hold video game designers responsible for addiction? Well, we’d have to look at how video games might differ from other addictive activities. First off, a close analogue to video games would be television. Before the era of Candy Crush, stay-at-home moms were more likely to be addicted to their daily soap operas. Soap operas were known for their dramatic plot twists, and cliff-hanger episodes, with each day’s episode simultaneously resolving some prior conflict and introducing a new one before ending.
Here’s the question though: would we blame the writers and producers of the soap opera for making purposefully addictive content? Probably not, because no one’s ever forgotten to shower for 3 days because they were watching a soap opera. Episodes end. After, there is nothing to do but to wait for the next episode. But you could play video games for hours, if you’d like.
Well, what about gambling? Obviously it’s a little absurd to blame the inventors of roulette for making the game addictive, but can we blame casinos for providing the services that allow a gambler to gamble? We might think, “no”. The casino aims to make a profit. And when they do so, they do not directly coerce players into using their slot machines. The same can be said of video games — designers make money by making games people would want to play. At no point are individuals coerced into playing; players are free to quit at any time.
Another way of looking at this is to say, well, video game designers don’t force anyone to play, but they influence us to want to play more, so it is kind of their fault. Sure, a gamer should have the mental fortitude to game responsibly, and should have strategies to help him deal with becoming addicted to games, but it is not entirely his fault if he ends up addicted. With recognised addictive substances like alcohol and drugs, people have their guard up and are careful to indulge in moderation more frequently than people may engage in “harmless” video games. It is this view that video games are harmless that leads many to throw caution to the wind when indulging in them, and it is the reason why people become addicted to Candy Crush: just one game wouldn’t hurt. Just one more game wouldn’t hurt. Just one more game wouldn’t hurt.
In the case of game designers intentionally building addictive gameplay into their games, perhaps it may be easier to blame them for irresponsible game design. What about cases where game designers don’t intentionally make their game addictive? Sometimes, game designers just want to make a game that’s fun, interesting and “cool” to explore, without any intention of getting people addicted. Yet somehow, these games end up taking much more of our time than we ever expected, but the designers didn’t intend for it to happen. Are they less culpable in such a case? One way to judge this is to say, yes, regardless of if they intended to or not, they did something that resulted in negative consequences, so it’s still wrong of them. This is a view close to consequentialism, which determines the rightness of an act based only on its consequences. That’s certainly an attractive notion, but note the implications of believing that we’re culpable for the unintended consequences of an act. Furthermore, consequentialists are fully willing to say that an act is right even if it has negative outcomes, as long as its positive outcomes outweigh those negative ones to a large enough extent that it still results in more good than the other options. Even more confusingly, we may want to separate culpability from moral rightness.
Perhaps then we’d backpedal and say, “well, okay, I guess if they didn’t intend it, it’s not really their fault.” More specifically, we might say that intentions are the determining factor in deciding whether actions are moral or not. Immanuel Kant certainly thought so. Kant believed that the only thing that was absolutely and inherently good was a good will, and good will is a will that is determined by the moral law. He viewed morality as a duty that one has. If one commits a good act because it produces a warm fuzzy feeling, the act is not actually good. If one commits an act out of adherence to moral duty, then the act is actually good.
How might this apply to our video game design case? Well, we might say that as long as the video game designers didn’t violate their moral duties, then they can’t be blamed because they did nothing wrong. The game designers who intentionally designed a game to be addictive so as to exploit gamers to earn their money have violated their moral duties, according to Kant, because they regarded people as means (to earn money) and disregarded their autonomy (in Kant’s words, “not treating people as ends in themselves”), which is a big no-no for Kant. The video game designers who were simply trying to make a fun game would, according to Kant, be perfectly justified in doing so. But perhaps the video game designers who intentionally make an addictive game aren’t disregarding people’s autonomy after all, since they make games with the understanding that gamers freely choose to buy and play their games, and still retain the ability to decide when to stop playing.
There is something missing from this interpretation though. At the very least, do we not think it was somewhat negligent of video game designers to not realise the addictive potential their game might have? If an engineer makes a car that explodes and kills its inhabitants, even if he didn’t intend it, we would certainly blame the engineer for being negligent. If a video game designer makes a game that is addictive and causes people to neglect their life, but didn’t intend it, should we blame him?
This problem is further compounded by the concept of a game. A game that is fun must, on some level, be addictive to a certain extent. If, after playing a game, I no longer feel like playing it, well, that’s not a very good game is it? It’s like good food: eating some of it just makes you want to eat more, and that’s how you know it’s a good dish.
Ultimately, moral theories can only take us so far. Notice that moral theories can be bent to justify both sides of an argument, and ultimately how we judge the morality of video game designers depends very much on how we choose to interpret the facts and how we choose to interpret the moral theories themselves.
In my opinion, the obvious solution is a balanced approach: it is both the fault of designers and gamers. As designers who create and market a piece of interactive media intended to play a part in someone’s life, one has a responsibility to make sure to mitigate the negative repercussions of that creation. As gamers who interact with media, who indulge in an experience, we have a personal responsibility, to ourselves and the people around us, not to allow it to consume our lives, in the ways that alcohol or drugs can. Perhaps, practically speaking, this is not possible – video game studios are horribly understaffed, overworked, under-budgeted, and never have enough time to even make the desired version of their game. To ask them to consider these aspects of gameplay might simply be too much, considering that they’re also required to make a game that’s fun on top of it. And addiction is insidious – it creeps up on you, and there is a never a line where on one side there is addiction and on the other, healthy gaming. Addiction is a spectrum – it’s always one more game, one more quest, one more raid, one more treasure chest, and before you know it it’s 3am and you owe your editor an article.
Addiction is a very real problem, whether it be gaming-related or otherwise. While it’s important to recognise the responsibility of service providers that enable addiction, it’s also important to recognise individual responsibility in becoming addicted. But more importantly, it’s important to recognise that responsibility doesn’t necessarily imply blame. It’s at least partially our responsibility that we become addicted to video games, but people who are addicted are victims just as much as the people they affect. It’s counter-productive to simply tell them to “straighten up” or snap out of it because they’re no longer entirely in control anymore: that’s what an addiction is. We can help those who are addicted by being understanding, and coming up with strategies to help them manage their addiction, or refer them to professional help.
Video games have come a long way since the era of Italian plumbers jumping on mushroom people, and many of today’s games have addictive mechanics built into them. In this article we looked at how operant conditioning is used to make games addictive, and also examined some reasons we might or might not hold video game designers responsible for their addictive game design.
Image credits: Famouspsychologists, H+ Magazine, Next web