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Explaining Gaming Addiction and How It’s All in Your Head

July 27, 2015 Written by Jeremy Bibaud

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“Metroidvanias.” I am powerless to resist the formula. Their drip feed of discovery, player progression, and map completion is a cocktail I happily indulge in. The obsession started with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and titles like Guacamelee! and even Bloodborne, in many ways, continue to feed it. It’s a formula that works on me.

Despite technology lapping itself many times over in the last few decades, gameplay hooks have remained essentially the same. Developers have been capitalizing on our desire to achieve higher scores, grind our characters to level 99, see every possible part of a map, experience the gut punch of an emotional ending, or just maintain real relationships in digital worlds.

How do games keep us glued to our consoles if we’re essentially having the same experience over and over? Well, like many things, it’s all in our heads.

Gaming Obsession – It's All in Your Head

Fast and Formula

Every human being on the planet is hardwired to pursue reward. We work for reward, we love for reward, we game for reward. Once our brains begin to link a particular activity with potential incentive, we naturally desire to do that activity more. Psychologists identify several methods of reward, but the one that most readily relates to gaming is the Partial Reinforcement Effect (PRE). PRE concludes that a behavior that is rewarded intermittently will be carried on longer than one that is rewarded continuously.

Last week, I discovered the PSLS-lauded Rocket League. During one game, I used my turbo to blast myself into position for a well-timed (and perfectly executed, I might add) mid-air bicycle “kick” to direct the glowing orb looming above me into the net, resulting in a satisfying shockwave that launched all cars across the field. It dawned on me that I hadn’t been as excited about a real sport like this in a very long time.

Full disclosure: I’m Canadian. And yes, the majority of us are exposed to hockey at a very young age. We don’t all love it, but many of us do. I’m somewhere in the middle. Mainly because I’m a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs so I rarely have much to cheer about.

Rocket League is more interesting to me than hockey.

That sound you just heard was the collective shiver of an entire country.

But I do have one gripe with it – unlockables are rewarded after every match, win or lose. There is no resistance to their reward scheme and no discernible goals to achieve to unlock them and so there is little satisfaction when you receive your 18th set of rims for your rocket car.

It’s a good thing (a great thing) that the game itself is so fun because the unlockable metagame is just too easy. It isn’t employing Partial Reinforcement Effect to keep us chasing the carrot a few inches from our noses; it’s just giving us the carrot every time.

Gaming Obsession – It's All in Your Head

I Dream of Loot Caves

Franchises like Destiny and Borderlands employ loot systems that are continually tweaked to perfection. It’s important to remember that “perfect” does not mean giving the gamer what he/she wants. It’s about giving them just enough to keep them playing. Give too much, players will become bored. Give too little, players get frustrated. Both result in players not playing the game.

It’s no surprise that Destiny has an ever-evolving loot system designed to appease and frustrate gamers in equal measure. Working with Activision, Bungie has more than likely benefited from access to Blizzard and their decades of experience perfecting its own loot drop systems for the Diablo series.

Paul Hellquist, Creative and Design Director on Borderlands 2, wrote about the loot system Gearbox Software employs when determining how players are rewarded. The entire article is a fascinating look under the hood, but the piece I was most interested in was the concept of random vs. pseudo-random.

True randomness is a system in which all outcomes are possible and there is no knowledge of previous results to skew the favorability of a particular outcome. This is mostly the case for games like Borderlands 2. However, there are subtle subsystems at work that shift the balance to achieve certain results.

For example, while all results are possible, the game performs certain checks to avoid rewarding players with equipment they cannot use or to ensure ammunition drops when the player is dangerously low. Other than these types of exceptions to make the game more fluid and enjoyable, the loot system is random. Hellquist points out that the odds for a Legendary drop are 1 in 10,000. That means you might go 9,999 times without the drop you want, but it also means you can go 19,998 times and then get the item twice in a row. Math is fun.

This randomized reward system is a perfect example of the Partial Reinforcement Effect at work. And work it does, as both Destiny and Borderlands have large, dedicated followings.

Gaming Obsession – It's All in Your Head

Under Our Skin

All of these theories and formulas translate to a very real physical reaction in players. As early as 1998, studies have shown that when playing games that reward us, our brains are flooded with the mood-regulating fun juice known as dopamine. This sense of heightened pleasure becomes tied to playing the game and a neural link is formed that keeps us coming back for more until the rewards dry up.

Do you feel manipulated yet? You shouldn’t, really. Well, at least not disproportionately so. Games are not the only system to exploit this. In fact, pretty much all of society is based around this reward system. Jobs employ bonuses, promotions, and perks to reward positive behavior and results. Stores employ customer loyalty programs for the same. Why should our entertainment be any different?

The Dark Side of Gaming

Addiction is a scary word. It comes loaded with insinuations, stigmas, and stereotypes. But often gaming’s dopamine loop can work a little too well. I want to be clear that up to this point in the article, I have in no way been speaking to the unhealthy addiction to video games that has resulted in many shocking stories of neglect, homicide, and suicide in all parts of the world.

In 2007, the American Medical Association rejected a proposal to formalize video game addiction as a mental disorder. However, addictive behavior within the gaming community is visible. Whether gaming itself is the cause or a manifestation of other mental health issues remains to be seen. I want to mention this though as I feel it would be irresponsible not to differentiate between addiction and habit.  

I don’t want to end this article on a dark note, so let’s share some of the games that have healthily hooked us and kept us gaming long into the night. Here are my personal picks for PlayStation 4.

Let me know which games from the massive library of PlayStation titles have kept you coming back for more in the comments below.


Note: The view expressed in this article is solely that of the author’s and does not represent that of PlayStation LifeStyle and its entire staff.

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