Throughout my life I have always been fascinated by video games, the way they draw you in challenge your mind and your reflexes, it has always been a big part of my social life. I remember going to overnight parties where the basic idea was to stay up all night playing, 007: Golden Eye, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Tenchu: Stealth Assassin, and Halo. These were games that my friends owned, I was poor and was limited to the NES that my uncle had bought us for Christmas one year, the NES-101 or Top-loading model that came out in ‘93. Since the system was already old I could rely on the second hand Nintendo games I could find.
Since then this has always been more or less the way I have interacted with the gaming industry, and then the internet happened. All of a sudden the internet was not just a place where you could feel creepy in a chat room or send and receive email. When I was in high school I discovered the wonderful world of online gaming.
I foolishly started playing a little game called Runescape, a highly addictive but free online RPG, where the goal is simply to level your character get involved in the online community and joy the witty humor of the various Quests. This is probably one of the contributing factors in my slacking off in my studies in high school and once more time in college. Nothing kills the spirit of creativity for me faster than an addictive RPG. So safe to say I have gone cold turkey on the Runescape And games like it in hopes of improving my life. Not that it ever really took up that much of my time.
I would now consider myself a casual gamer since I don’t have the kind of fanatic enthusiasm for video games that lead some to spend whole paychecks on them, but I do enjoy playing some of the free ones, so much so, that I have become something of a connoisseur of free games.
There are obviously many free games available for the cheap/poor gamer, in this age of the Internet. From the more simple and, in my opinion, easier to move on from games like Fruit Smash or Magic Pen, but there are also a host of Free RPGs like Puzzle Pirates or Kingdom of Loathing, and none of these RPGs are so contradictory in nature as Runescape. Runescape is a strange beast because while, like I say, the Writing for the quests are silly and fun and the graphics are always making strides. the game play is really “farmville-esque” a basic point and click game; click to go here click to fish click to attack, click to craft armor, etc. The game becomes unbelievably tedious and yet I am drawn in and compelled to keep playing, and I believe that it is a dangerous combination of my particular personality type and the basic psychological tricks the game uses to to keep you engaged.
I am what the folks over at The Skeptics Guide to the Universe or SGU,(a podcast that I highly recommend to anyone who related to my post on Science) call a fantasy prone personality. Basically what this means is that, my first inclination in a situation is to believe the outlandish. While I consider this attribute to be an asset when watching movies since it is really easy to immerse myself, in many other situations it’s something that I struggle with. And specifically in the case of video games it can be a really dangerous trait, since in a RPG the goal is immersion, and unlike a movie there are no credits for, as a minimum, one hundred hours.
The other half of this gaming cocktail I find myself having to resist is the subtle psychological tricks that almost all addictive games implement. First I want to mention, because it’s my favorite, is the Skinner Box effect otherwise known as Operant Conditioning. This the idea that the choices you make can be conditioned and influence toward a specific choice or behavior. In this case that specific choice is to keep playing. This effect can be achieved using a number of techniques.
The first and most obvious is random loot drops, basically if you want some specific piece of armor or weapon and the only way to get it is to fight baddies until it drops, that could potentially keep you playing for hours and hours, without ever seeing any new content; dramatically extending the life of a bit of coding. Especially when the game is offered for free, meaning the they are probably relying on either advertisements or micro payments the name of the game is keep the eye balls here. They want you playing as long as possible for each quest and map, because the higher the ratio the more money they are making.
Other tricks they use are thing like, experience points, so that you can see your progress and feel a sense of accomplishment. They will implement time sensitive rewards, like come back in one hour and you can receive X amount of gold, making sure that you begin to schedule gaming in advance instead of relying on you to decide to play when you feel like it. There are others I could describe but the fact of the matter is just these few are enough to keep anyone playing longer than they intended to. I have found that the best way to help counteract these tricks and take back control of your time is to simply learn about them. If you can spot a psychological trick manipulating you, it drastically reduces its effectiveness. So that’s the general way I approach new games, carefully and keeping in mind what is more important to me, like my friends and family, work and project of mine like this blog.
There is nothing wrong with video games, as I said before, I love them. Video games can be fun, engaging, evocative, and compelling. But just like any other activity, if you give control of how you spend your time over to it, it will consume it all, at the cost of every other aspect of your life that you care about.
And that’s my take on addictive games.