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More Thoughts on Designing Addictive Video Games

By Andrew Cullison
22 Aug 2014

A few weeks ago, Brian Crecente asked me to comment on whether or not I thought video game designers had a moral obligation to think about how they design games in light of recent evidence that some video games seem to be addictive. You can read the full article here, but here’s what I said:

I do think game developers have a moral obligation to think about their game design in light of recent evidence we have concerning the addictiveness, he said. It’s easy to dismiss abuse of a product as a personal choice of the consumer, but as evidence of addiction for any product grows — it becomes less clear how much choice is involved.

What’s more troubling about this phenomenon, is that the business model for games has changed in two important ways that make it very tempting for developers to try and create a game that is addictive. In-app purchase and subscription-based models are more lucrative if the consumer can’t stop playing, as are free games that rely on cost-per-click advertisements. You only make money off your users if they keep coming back to play, and the more addicted they are to the game, the more likely you are to make money off their clicks…Making an addictive game is the obvious choice for maximizing revenue in these new ways….so, I’m worried that we’ll not see developers shy away from actively trying to create addictive games.

That article generated some interesting discussion, and there were three objections that seemed to come up more than once. I thought I’d say something about those three objections. Here they are, followed by my replies.

Objection one: If you think there is something wrong with designing addictive video games, then you must think there is something wrong with developing any kind of product that people become compulsive about. People play golf more than they should. People drink soda more than they should. Are golf ball manufacturers and soft drink companies doing something wrong?

Reply: My short answer to the last question is, “No, I don’t think merely manufacturing something that you know has the potential to be addictive is wrong.”However, there is an important moral difference between designing a product you know might be addictive and designing it so that it is addictive, with the intent to exploit some feature of a person’s compulsive psychology. Imagine a baker intentionally included an ingredient that made his cakes addictive. And he included the addictive elements solely for the purpose of increasing sales. That’s importantly morally different from someone who makes a cake, because they are delicious and people like to eat delicious things.Video games, of any kind, provide a leisurely activity that people might have a hard time walking away from. But the kind of activity, I’m talking about isn’t merely making video games. It’s intentionally designing the games so that they include the addictive elements, specifically for the purpose of hooking people.

Objection two: Calling video games addictive is medically naive and displays a lack of awareness about the true nature of addiction. Real addiction is characterized by adverse physiological effects and withdrawal symptoms that exert pressure on a person’s will

Reply: I am well aware of this distinction, and I readily admit that there there is a big (physical) difference between someone addicted to caffeine and someone addicted (in the broader sense) to gambling (or in this case video games). However, there still likely is a big difference in the psychological makeup of someone addicted to gambling (or video gaming) and someone who is not. There is something that exerts pressure on the gambling addicts’ will that a vast majority of other people don’t experience. That difference is the morally relevant feature. So even if we shouldn’t call this “addiction”, there is something present here that deserves serious moral attention.

Objection Three: Calling video games “addictive” just serves to shield bad behavior. People can hide under the label of addiction and ask society to take it easy when judging them. These persons should still be held accountable for the negative consequences of their behavior.

Reply: I agree. But I can agree with that, and still consistently maintain that we ought to think twice about our design plans, especially if we feel ourselves tempted to include an element simply because it’s addictive.

Ultimately, it still seems clear to me that designers should examine their own intentions when developing game elements. The temptation to include elements because they are addictive is very real, and something we should all be concerned about.

Andrew Cullison is the director of the Cincinnati Ethics Center.
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