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Thought Experiment: Games and addiction.

Watching the presentation about how playing WoW for sixteen hours a day, every day, is fine, presumably at DenialFest. Enormously annoying. Yes, games - as a new media - are attacked simply because they're new media, the same as all new media throughout all history. Yes, the Daily Mail profits off their constant scare-mongering, and pretty much the whole media follow it. Yes, parents can be shits who lack responsibility for rearing their own kids. Yes, MMOs are primarily social environments and the relationships forged within are as valid as any other (bar the usual horror stories). Yes, that games offering achievable goals is one of their primary attractions. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

But how on earth does that have anything to do with a sizeable number of people deciding to retreat from their normal lives and choosing to pretty much solely to exist in a fantasy world being something someone might be right to be concerned about? It actually doesn't matter whether games are actually addictive or not - utilitarianism demands us look at its actual effects ("Utilitarianism" - man, I better get some gags into this post quick).

That said, it did remind me of an old thought experiment I ran, which I thought I'd share.

If, by choosing certain mechanics, a developer could make games bona-fide chemically and/or psychologically addictive... would they do it?

Worth noting that it's not as far-fetched as it may initially seem. While Derren Brown's amazing acts of mind-control are almost certainly primarily cleverly rebranded illusions, there's still some odd quirks of the human mind stimulus can effect. From obvious stuff like how a yawn passes across the room to patterns of light inducing fits in the sensitive to sounds producing vomiting, to the more subtle. After all, art is all about presenting stimulus to humans and provoking a desired response. Art's fasutian child, advertising, uses the tricks to induce people to buy their products. And those of you who'll claim advertising doesn't effect them at all out there - and I know you are - that distant noise you hear? That's a multi-billion dollar industry chuckling at your naiveté.

So - if they could make a game actually addictive like Heroin, would they?

For a game with a monthly fee, of course they would. Or at least, some of them would, and they'll be the rich and successful ones.

In fact, if they were a publicly owned company - or owned by one - they would be legally required to do so, to fulfil their requirement to maximise their shareholder's revenues.

Of course, if it were actually directly equivalent to heroin, laws would be relatively swiftly passed prohibiting it in some way. But until then, yeah, the gaming world becomes the equivalent of that period in bristol when most houses had a third tap to pump in all the tasty skag.

That's an extreme case though. What about if games were only slightly addictive. That, by applying certain techniques - say, having green and orange baddies at a certain ratio or playing a sound that goes bandy-bandy-bandy at a certain pitch - that you could seriously increase the length of time people play the game for. Say, it doesn't effect 40% of the players at all, but for 59.999% of the players, it increases the amount of time they play from 2 hours a day for three months to four hours a day for six months. And, for the remaining 0.001%, they quit whatever jobs they're doing and play it for sixteen hours a day.

Then it becomes less like dealing heroin, and more like sending a car out with a design flaw that they know, inevitably, will cause people to hurt themselves. Or, alternatively a landlord knowing that some of the people are going to end up alcoholic, and he's going to profit off their descent.

The second case seems, to me, a closer analogy to the state of the MMO than addiction. It doesn't matter if a MMO is bona fide addictive. Grinding techniques aren't much fun... but they're incredibly compulsive. Games based around this sort of small, achievable goals plug into a part of mind which likes that stuff, and give the dopamine kick. Compared to how difficult achievements are to get in the real world, the constant knowledge you're getting closer to one of your desires is incredibly comforting. And that's a primary difference between most MMO and the real world - the certainty of the reward.

For most people, there's no problem with MMOs. Playing even for hours every night isn't a problem in a world where no-one blinks at similar time is spent crashed in front of the TV by mainstream society. It's fun, it's social and great, for all the reasons described by our gentleman in the film above.

But people making a MMO on these techniques must know that some people are going to be screwed up by their game. And while I wouldn't say it was their fault - everyone's aware that people who fall into these traps have something else seriously wrong with their lives they're trying to avoid - If I were them, I suspect I may feel slightly like an enabler. And I suspect I may not like that and not want that on my hands.

Now, developers have pretty much fell into the world of these marathon-gamers. But I suspect they're going to think about it more. And I suspect that sooner or later a developer is going to realise they want to do something to try and reduce the casualties while keeping the key compulsive nature of the genre.

Or, at least, I hope so.

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Kieron Gillen


Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.