Video Game Addiction, Part Two: What Makes Games Addicting?

What video game addicts look like, according to many media descriptions.

You can find part one, on what addiction is, here.

People have tried to figure out what motivates people to play video games for a long time, with varying results. And honestly, it seems almost a bit like, well, common sense. Video games are fun. They let you get away from the humdrum of every day life and give you the ability to solve puzzles, connect with friends, fight glorious battles, fulfill desires, and many other things that we can’t necessarily get in every day life. Let’s face it: when’s the last time you saved an innocent man from confessing to a murder he didn’t do while simultaneously proving who the real murderer was? I did, the other day, in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. And damn, it felt good. Do I get that kind of opportunity in my everyday life? What do you think?

It’s nice to escape for a few hours. But what happens when those few hours turn in many hours, and those many hours turn into days’ worth of lost time to socialize, be with friends, and well, live in the “real world”? Why are some games easier to get hooked to than others? That question is difficult to answer, because, like I mentioned in last week’s piece, motivations for playing video games differ, and since motivations for playing differ, the traits that make games more appealing to certain people will differ. (Richard Bartle, the creator of MUD1, found four player “types” through his research: Achievers, Socializers, Explorers, and Killers.) However, it’s probably not inconceivable to find some common traits of video games that are known for being “addictive.”

I’m going to run down a list of some of the general traits that make video games appealing, if not addictive. Since people play for different reasons, though, this list is more than likely not complete, and I can guarantee the items on it won’t apply to every game, nor will all items have the same power as others do.


Achievements – This is one of the most addictive things about any game. People love achievements, whether that’s breaking their own high scores or dismantling long-standing champions. As a testament to the power of achievements, World of Warcraft has 1,352 of them in various categories: general (e.g. reaching a certain level), exploration (visiting different parts of the map), dungeons and raids, reputation (your standing with factions within the game), Player vs. Player (PvP), quests, professions (specializations you choose in the game), and world events. Some of them are really random; for example, one PvP achievement is “Make Love, Not Warcraft,” where the player has to emote /hug on a dead enemy before they release corpse. Another is “Can I Keep Him?” which is given when the character receives his/her first companion pet.

Leveling is another achievement-based quality. You ever meet someone who just sits and does the same thing over and over for hours just to get his/her character to the next level? You’ve met one of Bartle’s “Achievers.”

The important thing about achievements is it’s a reward, and more importantly, it’s a guaranteed reward. This isn’t like real life, where you try very hard to be a good girlfriend or boyfriend only to be unappreciated, or where you study for a test for five hours and still get a miserable grade on it. In a game, anyone can do x and they’re going to get y achievement. When you do 500 quests that you’re going to get the 500 quest achievement; the game isn’t going to say, “I don’t really feel like it right now,” and roll over to the other side of the bed, leaving you to wonder what you did wrong. You’re going to get your damn achievement.

WoW knows how to do achievements.

Quests – “Greetings, Babochka. I am Ilthalaine. My purpose in Shadowglen is to train young Hunters like you and to ensure that the balance of nature is maintained. The spring rains were particularly heavy this year, causing some of the forest’s beasts to flourish while others suffered. Unfortunately, the nightsaber numbers grew too large, and they will devastate the other populations if they are not culled. Journey forth, young Hunter, and thin saber populations so that nature’s harmony will be preserved.” World of Warcraft is filled with quests like these, with varying difficulty. Kill 6 young nightsabers, slay Anaya Dawnrunner, collect 8 Irontree Explosives from Irontree Cavern, weaken Impsy and use the Enchanted Imp Sack to capture him. Aside from the PvP aspect of WoW, this is all you do in the game. This sounds like it could be incredibly boring, but Blizzard Entertainment announced in October 2010 that they had reached over 12 million players worldwide.

That’s a lot of people. So why does it work? Well, the same reason achievements work. Think of quests as small achievements: you’re given a task (a goal), and completing that task (or, achieving that goal) is going to give you a reward, whether that’s better equipment or experience or money. For some people, completing quests eventually becomes a reward of its own. Most games even have some sort of side-quest or seasonal quest system so that there are special quests, thereby making them even more of an achievement to have accomplished. Oftentimes you’ll even get achievements related to quests, like doing quests for x amount of consecutive days, completing x amount of quests in a particular area, doing x amount of quests overall, making x amount of money from quests, completing all the quests from an event, or really anything you can think of. As of this writing, WoW has 129 quest-related achievements (of which I have achieved 12).

World of Warcraft does the quest thing well. I noticed when I was playing that I quickly went from having one quest to having six or seven at a time. I think right now I have about ten quests waiting for me to complete them. If you have any perfectionist traits at all, this may happen to you like it did to me (I’m a big perfectionist): You’re going to see yourself saying, “Well, let me just finish this quest tree, and then I’ll log off for a bit.” This would work, if you only had one quest tree. But when you have three or four, and they’re all happening in the same area, it doesn’t make sense to focus on the quest where you’re killing x amount of monsters when you could also be collecting those herbs that the other guy needs, and looking for that boss that you need to kill. And then maybe two quest trees will go to one area, and the other two quest trees will go to another area, and you decide, “Okay, I’ll just go to this first area and leave the other one for later,” but then when you get to that one area, someone else wants you to do something for them, and sooner or later you realize you meant to get off two hours ago. The scary thing is: I have pretty good time management skills. I can’t imagine what kinds of trouble people who don’t manage their time as well get themselves into.

Social support – If you find yourself playing a game because you love the people on the game, you’d be classified as one of Bartle’s “Socializers.” Socializers sometimes use the online world as a testing ground for their offline interactions. Psychologist Nicholas Yee explains: “Environments like ‘EverQuest’ can help a person if they’re shy or have trouble forming social relationships. They have this environment where they can safely try new things out. They can experiment with being more vocal, or they can try out a leadership role, which may not be an opportunity they have in real life. Especially for teenagers, it lets them try out different roles and identities at a time when they may be really struggling with those kinds of issues.”

It’s a lot easier for some people to make friends online, because you get to choose where you hang out. People can’t choose who they go to school or work with, and depending on the population of the area they live in, they may not have that much of a chance to explore hobbies they may have. But online, you can Google “Full Metal Panic!” and find a community of FMP! fans. You can talk to people about cars, sports, travel, food, belly dancing, whatever your fancy. You don’t always have the opportunity offline to build the kind of relationships that the online world offers, which makes it very appealing. These relationships mirror those found offline, where people divulge personal information about themselves, get into arguments, and support one another, sometimes even falling in love.

But when dependency kicks in (as it sometimes does), the offline social network suffers. As Keith Bakker, director of the European video game addiction clinic I mentioned last week, states, “We have kids who don’t know how to communicate with people face to face because they’ve spent the last three years talking to somebody in Korea through a computer. Their social network has completely disappeared.” This can potentially start a downward spiral: you interact better with online friends, which causes your offline social networks to suffer, forcing you to retreat to online networks. This dependency doesn’t just stem from inside the user, though. If your guild members tell you they need you to be there, you may start to feel guilt. At the same time, it may be flattering that someone needs you that much. This causes mixed feelings. And sometimes, it goes too far: In Rachel VanCott’s “Ghost at the Machine: Internet Addiction and Compulsive Computer Use,” psychoanalyst Shavaun Scott recalls a patient that received a call in the middle of his therapy session (he was in for compulsive game play) from one of his guild members, lamenting the fact he wasn’t online and reminding him that he was expected to be on four days a week. When other people are pressuring you to play as much as they are, it’s easy to see how this can be problematic.

Sexual Fulfillment – Speaking of problematic… Sometimes the relationships formed online take a sexual form. The online world allows us to be whoever we want, and therefore it’s nice to be able to openly talk about our sexual desires, or to roleplay them in order to try different roles on. Sex in this realm is all pleasure and no morning-after moments of doubt, and hey, it can be whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want, however you want, with whomever you want. As one participant responded in Nick Nobel’s “Aesthetics and Gratification: Sexual Practices in Virtual Environments,” “It’s easy, hassle free, risk free. I can try fetishes and ignore all the downsides of them, focusing only on the positive parts. I can switch gender/species, again focusing on the positive and ignoring all the negative drawbacks. It’s not as good as real-life sex, but in RL [real life] I can’t just have someone teleport to my house when I feel horny, fuck me, and then kick them out the door.”

This can be problematic whether or not you have a love life offline (but especially so if you have an offline significant other). If you’re in an offline relationship, this type of behavior could be considered cheating. Even more problematic is when one person finds it to be cheating and the other doesn’t. And this isn’t a conversation that comes up in most relationships, either, so it gets awkward really quickly when the offline partner finds out. It’s weird to be jealous of someone neither you nor your partner have ever met. And jealousy isn’t an offline-only phenomenon either. Online relationships can get really messy, especially if one partner decides to end the relationship. Real emotions tend to come out of these relationships, and feelings can get hurt.

These boys were competing in a Guitar Hero competition at the Whitaker Center for Science and Arts in 2009.

Competition – The flip side of social support, perhaps, would be competition. You don’t need to get along with people to enjoy the game. If your goal is to kick ass and look good doing it, you’re one of Bartle’s “Killers.” Competitive gamers spend hours improving their skills, weapons, and stats. If you want to be the best, you’re going to have to spend hours on it, doing quest after quest and fighting as many monsters as possible. VanCott’s article discusses one case, Josh, who “spent hours, days, sitting and staring at the screen, deftly clicking away while his avatar fought and killed virtual monster after monster so that he could collect their hides. Some play sessions lasted for twelve hours straight.” It’s easy to get addicted to success–we see it both online and offline. But maybe MMORPGs aren’t your style. That doesn’t mean the competition aspect goes away. There are tournaments for all kinds of games, like Super Smash Bros Brawl, FIFA ’11, Mortal Kombat, and Pokemon, among others. Competition is a very motivating factor, especially when achievements, reputation, or money are involved. People take competition seriously, so games that offer that are bound to be popular.

Fantasy Worlds – Ah, the lure of going somewhere, anywhere other than where you are now. Fantasy is probably the most mentioned addictive quality when discussing video game addiction. But why would people care so much about a fantasy world when they have this one? Don’t they have anything better to do? As Howard Rheingold of The Virtual Community puts it: “One honest answer to the question ‘Don’t these people have a life?’ is that most people don’t have a terribly glamorous life. They work, they subsist, they are lonely or afraid or shy or unattractive or feel that they are unattractive. Or they are simply different. The phenomenon of fandom is evidence that not everyone can have a life as ‘having a life’ as defined by the mainstream and some people just go out and try to build an alternate life.” In other words, most people have shitty lives. Fantasy gives us a way to escape that shittiness.

Another part of this is control and power. In some games, you’re asked to do things that no one in reality can do, but you’re going to do it anyway. In Civilization, for instance, your task is to create an empire that will “stand the test of time.” Well, so far, no one’s been able to do that. But you can! In this game! And you get to control everything, including where to build new cities, who to go to war with, and what technologies to explore. No one has that kind of power or control in real life. One Everquest player has commented, “I’d say the most addictive part for me was definitely the gain of power and status. The way in which as you progressively gain power you become more (of) an object of awe (to) the other players … each new skill isn’t enough.”

In more modern video games, it gets even better, because you have even more control. You get to decide where the player goes 99% of the time, whether you’re going to accept a quest or deny it, what order you’re going to do everything in, if you’ll go on a raid or join a guild or talk to someone, what you’ll specialize in, what you look like, what race and class you are, and well… just about everything. We don’t have that kind of control in real life. We’re limited by genes, money, time, who we know, and other circumstances, so of course it’s going to be appealing to actually have that kind of control and worry about what you want to worry about instead of stupid stuff like bills, your health, whether that guy or gal you’re with actually likes you or is just putting up with you, what’s for dinner tomorrow, etc. If exploring that new world is one of your favorite parts of playing the game, you’d be one of Bartle’s “‘Explorers.”

Personas – The first thing you do in many games now is create a character, or at least be identified with the character. As the game progresses, you will probably end up identifying with your created character or heavily empathizing with the person/animal/thing you’re playing as. People will put a lot of time into developing their character into its ideal form, and if that means hours at a computer or in front of a television, so be it. People take their characters seriously. Cosplay is immensely popular, which can be expensive and time-consuming. Never mind actual in-game purchases people make for their characters/profiles, Blizzard allows you to buy in-game pets for WoW for $10 a piece, FarmVille allows you to purchase virtual money in order to get exclusive items, and a girl in Wisconsin accidentally spent $1,400 on Smurfberries in Smurf’s Villiage. People actually buy these items, even though they’ll never hold them or gain anything from them but the satisfaction of having that item online.


Different people have different goals when they play, and thus are more likely to become addicted to different types of games. Achievers are going to focus on games that allow them to compete (whether that’s with themselves or others) and complete quests. Socializers will like games that allow them to play with their friends or make new ones; anything with a chat feature will be more appealing. Explorers will be attracted to games that allow them to build new skills or visit realms different from their own. Games that allow for a lot of variety will be appealing. Killers are in it for the competition, so they’ll want games with the ability to battle or compete against other players for high scores. These are the people you’re likely to see at arcades and tournaments. But no matter what the gaming style, given the right circumstances, addiction is possible.

Join us next week to see what steps can be taken to avoid having gaming habits that affect your life in a negative way.


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