Why Games Are Addictive

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“In the study of Game Addiction, or any addiction, it is always good to understand the hows and whys the addiction. I talked about it a bit before when I brought up the Skinner Box details, but wanted to go into further detail into that,” Drraagh says as he sets a button on the top of his desk. “If I were to tell you that pressing that button would give you food, you’ld press that button until you were stuffed and then stop pressing it. However, if it only gave you food at certain time intervals then you are more likely to press it more often. You might even press it indefinitely. This is the idea of the Skinner Box, which plays on neurochemistry, specifically Dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them. People with low dopamine activity may be more prone to addiction. The presence of a certain kind of dopamine receptor is also associated with sensation-seeking people, more commonly known as ‘risk takers.'”

“How the idea of dopamine works in a Skinner Box is interesting. One such example from Skinner’s work was where scientists put electrodes into the limbic system, or feeling centers, of the rat’s brain and sent a little shock to the area when the rat entered a particular corner. The theory was that if the shock was unpleasant enough it would cause the rat to stay away from the corner. Enough shocks and the rat’s brain would wire the corner with the aversive stimuli. However, a strange and unexpected thing happened when the electrode was placed in the nucleus accumbens, which is a dopamine pathway that is part of the limbic system, the rats did just the opposite. Instead of avoiding the corner, they went back to get the shock over and over and over again. Up to 700 times an hour! In fact, this was so compelling to the rats that they opted for the stimulation over food.”

Drraagh looks at the button and presses it, and then again and once more. “So, a desire that is greater than the desire for food. Sounds like addiction, doesn’t it? All this from a chemical whose sole purpose is to make us feel good for doing the ‘important things’, like getting into a nurturing relationship because it ‘feels good’. However, we have since been developed to put value on other things, such as independance, money, house, car, etc. When people cannot get that, they feel that they are not performing adequately and thus they don’t get that dopamine for ‘a job well done’ and have to find other ways to get it. Seems not all that far a stretch to seek it from something that is considered harmless, like gaming to fill those quiet hours? Especially when it is legal, obtainable over many easy to access channels and in some cases completely free.”

“The problem with just relying on the dopamine is that there is a limit where your body becomes desensitized to the stimuli it is getting. You might have seen this in the idea of exposure to things that you fear to help make that fear less because you then are not as sensitive to that stimuli anymore. The reverse is also true where overexposure to a specific stimuli with cause the body to feel like that is the new normal. If you wish to get that new high, you’ll need to push yourself further into that stimuli by getting more of it. This is why drug addicts need to get more of their drug more often to get that same reaction, because their neurochemistry is primed with it. If they were to wait a while, their system would reset itself and all would be fine for those small bursts. The problem is that once you’re addicted to that feeling you need to have it. Not getting that high, not feeling that rush, it can be quite a discomfort as we talked about in how the addict will likely either shut down further or be overly aggressive to anything that they perceive stands between them and what they want. Instead, by games only giving it to you randomly, it is known as a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement. A slot machine does this, which is one reason gambling is able to become so addictive. The payouts don’t happen at a calculable rate instead occurring randomly, making the player elated when they win and get a reward even if they have just come off a string of a hundred losses.”

“Since people enjoy the rewards,” Drraagh offers and taps the button again and then once more, a smile playing on his lips, “This is why games now have achievement systems, trophies, experience points and stats and other such bonuses. These are ways for you to achieve something even without directly winning in the game. It’s partly why some games will have achievements if you lose so many times, because they don’t want you to feel discouraged by that loss. It is the same why games will have mini-bosses, various reward states like the end checkpoints in a Mario world so that you feel that elation multiple times throughout your game. This is also why many of the most addictive games, like MMOs and mobile games will have ways built in to limit how frequently you can play, like an energy bar that refuels over time, rewards for being ‘rested’ like in Word of Warcraft, or even just having certain actions take time. These bottlenecks in the system are to make you keep coming back to see if there is something for you to do but it is also there to keep you from becoming too desensitized to their reward structure and needing to then get more of the rewards.”

“By limiting the playing sessions, the game is actually making it better for you. The reason for this is called the Hedonic Treadmill, and its concept is the tendency of a person to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite changes in fortune or the achievement of major goals. For instance, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. What this means is if someone gets rich by winning the lottery and then goes out and buys a whole bunch of stuff, sure they were elated at the win but now they are accustomed to their new way of life and it doesn’t make them any happier because there’s more stuff they want.  Rabbi Hyman Schachtel proposed that happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have, which can be counter to our consumeristing society but, the idea is if you can accept what you have instead of wanting other things then you will be able to experience joy rather than sorrow at not having something. So, when the game limits your playing you are not going to grow accustomed to it and feel like that is your new normal, instead it is something just out of reach but still obtainable so when you get it, you feel that same joy again.”

“Of course, let’s step away from the reward system for a while and focus on some of the other type of reasons for addiction initially. One reason to fall into games  specifically is that they are an active escape from reality. Reading books or watching tv is an escape from reality that is passive as you have no control over the storyline and are just along for the ride as an audience member. With a video game, you are the story. Where you go, what you do is the important part. Without your involvement, the princess of the Mushroom Kingdom wouldn’t be saved which makes you a big hero. In Roleplaying and Adventure games this is really big as you are the one who is solving problems and fixing things for everyone, quite a great escape for someone who feels they have no control or no impact on their own world. By stepping into a virtual avatar who has the power to make changes, they have become someone who can do things that they themselves are not able to do. Sort of a hero worship but instead of getting to watch this hero and wish they were this person, they get to become the hero.”

A few more taps of the button and Drraagh steps away from the desk. “With this submersion into gaming, the stresses that the person was escaping from are piling up for them to come back to. Debt, work not done, chores, relationship commitments, and so forth. This causes them more stress and need to sink in deeper into their escape because these are things they do not want to deal with. The cycle will never end until someone causes it to change, and this is usually an outside force like parents taking away the games or the bank taking away the house. This is why when I was talking about ways to deal with addiction I had stated counselling to resolve any deeper issues than just the addiction as taking away the game will not change their desire to escape from society.”