InHEN CHINESE the government censors books, bans “married men” from television or spoon-fed the dogmas of the Communist Party of Schoolchildren, liberals agree that its behavior is shockingly repressive. But when in August he banned children from playing video games for most of the week, liberals who happened to be parents were on the mind. Yes, the restriction of children under 18 hours of play a day, only three nights a week, was quite drastic. But maybe it will be good for them?
The Chinese government claims that video games are addictive. This fear is not new. Two decades ago, players of Everquest, an early online game, regretfully named their hobby Evercrack. Gambling addiction clinics have spread from China and South Korea to the West (the posh British Priory Clinic treats gambling addiction as well as basic products such as sex, shopping and cocaine).
Now the World Health Organization (World Health Organization) supported China’s position. The latest edition of the International Classification of Diseases was published on January 1 (ICD), a benefit widely used by physicians and health insurance companies, comes into force. For the first time, he recognizes a disease he calls a “gaming disorder.”
It is tempting to dismiss all of this as another moral panic over a lucrative form of entertainment. Twenty years ago games were condemned for forcing players to violence when there is no evidence of what they are doing. But the argument matters, and not just for parents annoyed by the preference of their offspring to “Fortnite” over math or old-fashioned social interaction. Newzoo, a consulting company, estimates global video game revenue at $ 170 billion in 2020, well ahead of music or movies and growing rapidly.
The idea that computer games can be addictive stems from a change in how psychologists understand addiction. For years, this required a physical substance, such as nicotine or morphine, that the patient could be addicted to, says Rune Nielsen, a psychologist with IT University of Copenhagen. This began to change in the late 1990s, with the idea that people could become addicted to pleasant behaviors as well as drugs.
For one such behavior, this definition is quite incontrovertible. “Not many people today dispute the idea that you can become addicted to gambling,” said Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at the University of Nottingham Trent. But, he says, this line of thinking also “opens up theoretical gateways” to define all sorts of other entertainment activities as “addictive” in a way that expands the understanding of the term. In addition to games, Dr. Griffiths studies addiction to exercise, sex, and work. One work, published in 2013 (not written by Dr. Griffiths), interviewed enthusiastic tango dancers and found that about 40% could qualify as “addicts” under the new paradigm.
In addition to gambling, which is already included in ICDvideo games are the only behavioral addiction World Health Organizationlist ‘s. Diagnosis is based on compulsive use and adverse effects. Like other addicts, those who suffer from “gaming disorders” put their next blow above most other activities, even if it harms other parts of their lives.
With some players developing unhealthy relationships with their pastimes, it seems hard to argue. Psychologists describe gamers who give up sleep, offline relationships and work. Rows with families are common. Many call themselves drug addicts and try to get rid of their habits. Hillary Cash, Clinical Director re THE BEGINNING, a gambling addiction clinic near Seattle, says many of its patients arrive after being expelled from school or university, after games overcrowded their school assignments. The vast majority, she said, are men. “I get calls from people who say that video games have ruined their lives just like gambling,” says Dr. Griffiths, who says the evidence of video games is much stronger than for other behavioral addictions such as sex or work. .
But the concept is still unclear. And even researchers who agree that games can be addictive in a medical sense disagree on how common such addiction is. Dr. Cash estimates that 10% of Americans may meet certain diagnostic criteria. Dr Griffiths says even the 1% rate is definitely too high. “If it were right, there would be a clinic in every city,” he said. Rune Menzoni of the University of Bergen in Norway believes the games are likely to be addictive, but he worries that some diagnostic questionnaires are based on downloaded questions. “Sometimes you are asked if you play a game to take a break from negative thoughts and feelings,” he says. “But for other entertainments such as drawing or exercise, this will be considered completely healthy behavior!”
One possibility is that obsessive-compulsive disorder is a symptom or a mechanism of struggle, not a disorder in itself. “At least half of those who have gambling problems have depressive disorder. Another third are worried, ”said Andrew Pszybilski of the Oxford Internet Institute. “There have always been people who are uncomfortable in society and interested in systems, not other people,” says Dr. Nielsen. In the past, they could play chess or the model railroad, he says. This is not to say that any activity in itself is addictive.
New rules of the game
While psychologists are arguing about terminology, one should look at stimuli as well. Previously, buying a video game was a one-time transaction. The developers did not know how or even whether customers play their games. But nowadays, many of the most popular games are based on the business model “freemium”, in which the game itself is cheap or free, and the money comes from in-game purchases of things like extra lives or virtual clothing. Newzoo estimates that 73% of the industry’s revenue in 2020 came from free games (see chart).
This model links revenue directly to game time. That’s why many such games are designed – often with the help of professional psychologists – to be as convincing as possible. Designers talk about creating games by stacking and layering smaller “game loops”. These are quick-shooting tasks – such as shooting at an enemy or building a new building – that reward players with points, items in the game, or even a simple glow of fun.
Developers extract psychological literature for understanding. One well-known result, first shown on rats in the 1950s, is that semi-random rewards (when a task can sometimes yield nothing, sometimes small payouts, and sometimes large ones) are more convincing than predictable. This understanding is used in almost all game designs. Candy Crush Saga, a popular pattern matching game, gives players additional rewards for finding unusual combinations on the board, providing an unpredictable but enjoyable reward when the tiles fall in the right place.
A more open tactic is to punish players who are not regularly logged in. “Adopt me”, a game in “Roblox”, in which players take care of virtual pets, gives benefits to the game to players who are logged in at least every 15 hours. At Farmville, players who neglect their virtual crops will see them wither – although they can be revived for the price.
Other tricks are designed to convince players to convert game time into purchases. Virtual items are bought for in-game currencies such as gold, or crystals In-Bucks used in “Fortnite”. Studies of people who use foreign currency show that dating helps them spend more freely. (This is one of the reasons, says Dr. Mentzoni, why casinos use chips.) Players who have ended their lives in “Candy Crush” can wait half an hour before playing again, or pay money to dive right away. In 2018, King, the developer of “Candy Crush” told the British Parliament that one player spent $ 2,600 on life and other privileges in the game in one day (although, in fairness, digital sweets he had seven months).
The analogy with gambling can be seen most clearly with “luteboxes” – virtual treasures that contain a randomized range of in-game goods. «FIFA”, For example, offers a mode in which players build a football team from players they find in virtual packs of cards that can be bought for real money. Dr. Menzoni estimated that, assuming average luck, the 2018 edition of the game would take about 10,800 euros ($ 12,200) to assemble the best team.
Some firms load bones with user compliance. In “Hearthstone” from Activision-Blizzard, a major game publisher, players collect cards again, this time representing dragons, orcs and the like they are fighting. The unlucky players odds will be adjusted behind the scenes to increase their chances of future purchases.
What’s more, all of these features can be customized using analytics data obtained from game players. Developers can experiment with everything from complexity curves to prices for various items in the game, and see the impact on user content or profits. King praises the use of data to help “make our titles irresistible.”
Of the few not of the many
Hard data is hard to find. But for most players the impact of this psychological engineering seems limited. Most freemium players spend nothing. Documents from a recent lawsuit show that 70% of Apple’s App Store revenue came from games. Much of this, in turn, comes from a small cohort of great spendthrifts. And the video game industry is hardly the only one using psychological hacks to increase sales. “It’s no coincidence that milk is always in the back of the supermarket, and chocolate bars at the checkout,” – said one of the veterans of the gaming industry.
However, politicians – and not only in China – are beginning to worry. Belgium and the Netherlands have announced that luteboxes should be regulated as gambling. The new rules in Britain, the world’s fifth-largest market, require protection for players under the age of 18. World Health Organization Recognition is likely to enhance the diagnosis of a gaming disorder, regardless of its true prevalence, because it provides physicians with an official diagnostic code for its recording.
Several developers have quietly admitted that they are concerned about how their products work. Speaking at a game developers conference in 2019, Dr. Przybilski of the Oxford Internet Institute was concerned about the industry’s defensive strength and warned his audience to prepare for new rules, sin taxes and fines. He argued – with limited success so far – that gaming firms should give scientists access to inside data, hoping it could resolve the question of whether games can really be “addictive” in a medical sense.
In the meantime, there are indicative efforts on self-regulation. The American trade organization Entertainment Software Association points to parental controls offered by smartphone companies such as Apple and Google, which can limit game time or costs. Great Britain Interactive Entertainment, another retail organization, is running an educational campaign called “Understand GAME“. The problem with self-regulation, of course, is that it can be interpreted as acknowledging that at least a few customers have problems. ■