Sunday, December 5, 2010

Computer games may really be addictive

In the light of my post a couple of days ago about the newly-released computer game 'Call Of Duty: Black Ops', I found this article very interesting.

Computer games are dangerously addictive and contain powerful psychological devices designed to make some fans play compulsively, a Panorama investigation will reveal tonight.

A simple technique based on a 1950s study of rats feeding themselves by pressing a lever, which encourages repeat behaviour by rewarding it at random, has effectively been adapted for use in gaming and is feared to encourage addiction.

The situation is so serious that the industry body United Kingdom Interactive Entertainment is now calling for more research on the issue and promising to publish advice for parents helping them to look out for excessive and problem gaming traits in their children.

The programme, Panorama: Addicted to Games?, quotes award-winning computer games designer Adrian Hon, chief creative officer of SixToStart, who admitted that that the technique once used on rats was now common place in computer games.

He told the BBC: ‘In the 1950s scientists discovered that rats which had been trained to feed themselves by pressing a lever, would press it obsessively if the food was delivered randomly.

‘People have discovered that this works on humans as well. If you give people a lever or a button to press and give them random rewards, they will press it all the time’.

In computer games, instead of food, players are randomly rewarded with extra lives or extra in-game features. The idea is to create a compulsion loop that keeps them wanting to play on.

The technique, called the variable ratio of reinforcement (or operant conditioning) is simple but powerful and is thought to be one of the reasons people become addicted to slot machines.

Mr Hon added: ‘I think people don’t necessarily understand how powerful some game mechanics can be.

‘It’s one thing to think "OK, I’m playing too much," but it’s another to just stop playing, because some games are designed in a manner that you just don’t want to leave.’

He warned that more and more children and young people in particular could be affected because games are becoming much more widespread and much more powerful.

The arrival of high speed broadband, which is scheduled to be rolled out across the UK in the next five years, will also cause more problems because it will enable easier access to online gaming.

Online games - which allow people to play with and against each other over the internet - have been described by the World Health Organisation as a serious threat to the mental health of young Europeans.

Joe Staley, 21, from Nottingham was so obsessed with Britain’s most popular game, Call of Duty, he lost his place at university.

The game has an 18 certificate and allows people to play rivals online.

He said: ‘I wouldn’t move from my bed. My controller would be at my side table, I would turn it on, play, and then I would realise it was about three o’clock in the afternoon.

‘It could be up to a full 12 hours or more or overnight. I couldn’t physically pull myself away from the game, I could go two or three days without sleep just because I was playing a game, and that to me is an addiction.’

There's more at the link. Interesting and disturbing reading.

I know a great many people dismiss such concerns about computer gaming (particularly those who play them a lot!), but I'm not so sure. In counseling situations, I've frequently encountered individuals who were socially dysfunctional, their relationships deteriorating or collapsed altogether, because of the time they devoted to computer games, either stand-alone or online. Of course, some would argue that they were dysfunctional to begin with, and their use of computer games was thus a symptom, rather than the disease itself. That may or may not be true . . . but what I think is true is that computer games will aggravate any tendencies like that.

Food for thought.



tpmoney said...

People with addictive personalities will always find something to be addicted to. Ever read a book you couldn't put down? Ever work on a hobby and lose complete track of time?

I'm a particular fan of the scare reference to "operant conditioning" which is usually brought out any time someone wants to make you think something is brainwashing you. Every game, except those with predefined and identifiable patterns involves the same technique. Player does X, ad randomly good things happen. If the good things happen frequently enough (or pay out big enough) then the player keeps playing and we call it a good game. If the good things happen to infrequently, the player gets bored and frustrated and calls it a bad game.

Incidentally, I don't think there's an actual rise in "addiction" here, I think what's happening is that because games are becoming more popular and more main stream acceptable, the natural increase in the absolute numbers of people being addicted are causing the usual worry warts to get their panties in a twist.

Like most things, the problem is solvable by parents doing their jobs, and adults behaving like adults rather than bigger children.

Tam said...

I remember when it was Dungeons & Dragons that was going to cause the children of America to flock to the sewers as crazed fantasy-addicted loners. It's good to see that the professional hand-wringers keep up with the times.

I wonder who's more addicted? Joe Staley to Call of Duty, or the hand-wringers to that sweet, sweet grant money?

barbaraelizabeth said...

Well, after reading the above comments and the article, I'd just like to say--I'm 61 and have always liked video or computer games, but didn't have the resources or want to commit the resources until I saw World of Warcraft, WOW, on a friend's computer screen. The graphics were very beautiful. I started to play, and soon was playing a lot, more hours than I had to devote to a purely recreational activity. I'd say up to 7 a weekend day. It was an engrossing world, with many rewards given and I advanced to a very high level 63 of 80 possible. I wanted to limit my play, but it's very attractive. I won't say addictive, but . . . I stopped cold after a five day spiritual retreat. Coming back "pure", a fantasy world had no appeal. Take care all!

Silver the Evil Chao said...

*sigh* I am really, really sick of seeing my favorite childhood hobby demonized.

My mother had hundreds of books (despite our financial circumstances) when I was a kid, and was always reading. A friend of mine would always read in class in grade school, and would have "backups" for the books that would get taken away in class. Should books be considered "dangerous" because people find them addictive?

What about clothes? It's really easy to find girls out there who will gladly forgo more important things for fashionable clothes. What about celebrities? Alcohol? Let's get rid of those, too, they're ADDICTIVE and LIFE-DESTROYING!!

Tam said...


At least nowadays they're not complaining that Pac-Man Fever is making kids skip school and hang out in arcades where they sell pot to make the money to feed into the Pac-Man machine...

Peter said...

OK, Tam, I'll concede that those who've BTDT can play these games with a good understanding of all that's involved. However, that doesn't mean that most of the players don't have the faintest idea about the reality of combat, so I think that in general, the comment holds good.

Jenny said...

Tam - :)

However, for what it's worth, one of the guys I used to work with at a Silly Valley talked a couple times about his senior year thesis, in the psychology of reward behavior - a subject he avidly pursed because he wanted to build "the next Everquest." He went on to design some of the most popular browser-based games in the industry.

He's a GOOD honorable man - I've met precious few as scrupulous about maintaining their character. I love him to this day.

.... but don't ever think the ones designing the reward mechanisms in modern MMORPGs and such don't know *exactly* what they're doing.

-'cause they do.

LabRat said...

However, that doesn't mean that most of the players don't have the faintest idea about the reality of combat, so I think that in general, the comment holds good.

Well, no. I suspect the generation that grew up with the glut of war movies during and post World War II didn't understand the realities of combat either, and if anything were subjected to far more blinding and destructive notions such as "people with fully developed personalities are immortal, fatal gunshot wounds are tidy, machine gun fire is merely noisy and annoying, openly challenging your commanding officer will win you respect", and so forth. Didn't seem to hurt them.

Or... wait... I may have just come up with a conspiracy theory for how we lost Vietnam.

Jim said...

WoW is a little too utopian an environment, looking back on it. It was a hard habit to kick, but I'm glad I didn't waste any more time playing (and paying for) it than I did.


Tam said...


"However, that doesn't mean that most of the players don't have the faintest idea about the reality of combat, so I think that in general, the comment holds good."

...and most flight sim players have never sent a man hurtling 18,000 feet to his death, trapped screaming in a burning plane. Your point?

As LabRat points out, did the kids watching Rat Patrol and shooting at each other with BB guns when I was a kid understand the horrors of war?

Tam said...


"... but don't ever think the ones designing the reward mechanisms in modern MMORPGs and such don't know *exactly* what they're doing. "

I sure hope so. I'd hate to waste my money on an unrewarding game.

On a Wing and a Whim said...

Is "interesting and disturbing reading" with the link provided an endorsement?

Frankly, even Call of Duty has far less to do with combat than with playground tag, or dodgeball. It's not supposed to be a realistic combat environment, it's supposed to be an interesting and rewarding competitive game! Confusing that with anything to do with real combat is confusing the issue.

Frankly, I find the reading neither interesting nor disturbing. It's the same song, sixtieth verse, from the same people behind "reefer madness", "AD&D will turn our teens into devil worshippers!", and "gothic music and clothing is turning our kids into school-shooting killers!"

So it has a few new buzzwords - it's still the same people, same song, with the same solutions and hand-wringing. If you want more of the same, consider the population bomb/global cooling/acid rain/global warming / climate change crowd, with the same solutions for the latest way the world is going to end now.

DaveG said...

Wow, news flash: "Games are fun, so people like to play games" combined with "some people are irresponsible consumers of fun things."

Who knew?