Addiction and the new generation of games

I’m an addict.

There’s a part of me that feels silly stating that; I suspect that the same part of me secretly fears that the people who claim gambling addiction is not a “real addiction” are right.  My addictions, after all, aren’t to crack cocaine or alcohol, but to things that, for most people, are harmless.  I don’t think I’d understand my addiction without the various pieces of art that discuss addiction to drugs and alcohol. I owe them a debt.

My addictions, you see, are to food and video games, neither of which gets great coverage in media – even Mike and Molly, which does a reasonable job of representing Overeaters Anonymous, fails in this respect. Alcoholics and drug addicts, by contrast, are “out” in the media, and popular representations of their plight have helped me to understand two simple, critical ideas:

I’m writing this post today because yesterday I had to start over once again at zero days played.  If this were tv, I’d be turning in my chip for both addictions, because I fell back into one addiction, and it lead me back into the other.

When I was around 7 or 8, we got a C64.  I played around with it, mostly playing games, but I remember seeing a sprite programmed by my older sister moving across the screen and I was entranced. I picked up a book on programming and typed their sample game into the editor line by painstaking line. I tried to run it. It did not work. I was too young, and perhaps too isolated, to understand that getting help was the appropriate next step, and so I abandoned programming for a long while.

Later, when I was perhaps 13, we got a 386. I played more games with names like Pools of Darkness and Mechwarrior and Buck Rogers.  Those games, more than anything before or since, established a lifelong love of and belief in the value of games as an art form. The experiences of vapourizing the head of an oncoming Battlemaster with twin PPCs and of navigating the body of a dead god are probably unmatched to this day. I see those polygons, those simple, wonderful sprites. I hear those MIDI bleeps. They are etched in my memory.

Today, games are everywhere.  The form is comparable to any other artistic medium, with a diverse range of experiences on offer. There are commercial juggernauts and game jams, indies and auteurs. The at-home interactivity of the medium gives it a tentpole, a unique dimension upon which to drape its experiments and cliches alike.

Interactivity, however, is also a pathway to addiction. Within the games industry, it seems like there’s a sub-industry whose machinations are dedicated to preventing the idea of game addiction from gaining currency. Some gamers are complicit in these efforts; I sometimes wonder if their outcry comes from their own unrecognized addiction.  It’s hard to separate the profoundly American imperative to put freedom first from the profoundly American imperative to drive profits even when they cause human misery.

The games that lead me back into misery are archetypal in this respect.  The age of ubiquitous internet and mobile means you can play games online and on your phone pretty much anywhere you go, but it has also driven the price point down so far that most games have to have what’s called a monetization strategy. That means, in a nutshell, that they have to strongly encourage gamers to spend money.

The thing is, the same mechanics that drive gamers to spend money seem, to me (and to others), to be the ones that are most addictive.

Allow me to draw on my own experience for examples. I played Supreme Heroes, Tyrant Unleashed, and Heroes of Dragon Age a while back, but I had to stop. They started to impact my daily life, robbing me of time better used for artistic pursuits and for accomplishing professional goals and for spending time with loved ones.  These games provide very light, simplistic, repetitive gameplay wherein progression can either be achieved slowly or bought quickly.

Tyrant is somewhat better than the other two in this respect.   Its surface-level gameplay, which sees players doing battle with cards a la Magic and its ilk, is deeper, which means that there is at least some enjoyment to be gleaned from simply playing it without engaging too deeply in the progression race. There’s always something special going on in the game, whether it’s a new set of missions to play through or a guild war, and individual battles can be extremely rewarding at times, since clever play is (at least occasionally) rewarded.

Heroes of Dragon Age, when I started playing it, was novel solely because its characters are drawn from the deep mythos of the Dragon Age universe.  The game’s core mechanic is high-level tactics – the player is challenged to compose squads of characters to tackle a variety of challenges.  Even with many powerful characters in one’s roster, there are going to be at least a few times when you have to choose a different group composition to achieve something.

It has also improved immensely since its inception, particularly by adding daily events to the game. Each event has a special rule that shakes up the playscape, requiring players to decide whether they should opt to use their most powerful characters or form a specialized group out of underutilized but temporarily empowered ones.  This adds a layer that the game desperately needed.

Events also give players a chance to amass various resources – temporary enhancements, gold, crystals (the game’s for-pay currency), and even special characters – and to compete for top prizes. I admire the changes immensely; they’re well-conceived and have much to recommend them to players looking for more Dragon Age or light strategy on their mobile devices.

Supreme Heroes shut down earlier this year.  It was far and away the worst offender of the three; the “gameplay” consisted of a repetitive series of button clicks punctuated by beautiful but uninspired comic book panels and stories. This could have been a deep and rewarding game, I’m sure, but its makers opted for mechanics that robbed the player of opportunities for interaction and substituted a glorified VLT interface, occasionally dispensing a “jackpot” item in the way that a one-armed bandit might occasionally send out a cascade of quarters.

There’s a shop in all these games. In that shop there are two ways to buy things: the “main” currency, and the “premium” (ie bought-with-real-money) currency. All three games support(ed) a premium currency. Tyrant has my admiration because they have made theirs a truly premium addition; buying “War Bonds” is by and large very expensive, which almost certainly drives most players to play the game without spending much money. Heroes of Dragon Age is great in a somewhat perpendicular way – you can amass their currency simply by playing the game, albeit at a slow pace. I can’t explain how nice that is compared to some of the other options out there.

Supreme Heroes, however, made no bones about its mercenary nature. Currency was priced to sell, with allotments that did not align cleanly with the goods on offer, reminiscent of the various console market “points” currencies. It did have a series of ad-driven “free” offers for currency, but my experience with these was almost uniformly negative.

The thing about a premium currency is this: it only makes sense if you somehow limit players’ ability to acquire goods purchased with that currency. All three games – indeed, most modern games on the web and on mobile devices – follow a similar strategy in this respect.  Players receive a certain number of action points per unit time. Time elapsed is pegged to the real world’s clock rather than the game world’s.  Players may purchase extra actions using their in-game currency either directly or indirectly.  Their actions typically reward the “main” currency rather than the premium one (which is why HDA’s system is so refreshing). This main currency allows slow and steady progression items to be bought at the stores.

A triple-A game might offer premium items, it’s true.  But web and mobile games don’t simply offer them. They are designed to sell those currencies, in much the same way that VLTs offer just enough positive feedback to encourage players to continue to drop their quarters (and dollars and five dollars and twenty dollarses) into the slot.  Playing these games is like playing penny slots, a long play arc over which to spend money calibrated against a much smaller “win”.

If you’re an addict, it’s worse. That long arc ensures that you never hit a sobriety checkpoint. The lack of reward, perversely, means that you place your value on the things within the game, which triggers the sunk-cost fallacy. You start with one of these games, and maybe you’re smart and just play it at its natural rhythm, a few rounds a day for a few small rewards.  But at some point you might spend a little money on it, either because you respect the effort required of the developers or simply because you like a particular deal and besides, it’s not a lot to spend for all the entertainment value.

And then maybe you say well, if I’m playing this one game and I don’t get to play it enough to really enjoy it, maybe I should get another one to fill in the gaps.  But that one isn’t enough either, and so you search out more games to fill in the time between the other games.

Soon you’re playing Candy Crush Saga on your phone because your Under Fire factories are cooling down on Facebook after you ran out of mission and pvp points in Tyrant and HDA, and for each game you secede a little more time and headspace to the addiction. And you start to feel strung out, and it starts to affect your sleep and your work and your life, and that’s when you hit that sobriety checkpoint, and hopefully you notice as you pass through it.

It’s really important for me to understand all of this, because I want to make games. I’ve made certain assertions; not promises, exactly, but statements of intent. I have told people I care about that when I make games I will invite them into that exercise. And I don’t know if I can make games, because I can’t seem to play them in a way that’s healthy.

But.

I left one game on my phone. It’s called Gear Jack, and I feel safe playing it. It’s an infinite runner with diabolically difficult levels and gorgeous graphics.  I love playing it, but I can’t stand to play it for long because it, like many good games, derives some of its value from the sheer difficulty.

It’s a kind of difficulty that, I see now, is not on offer when the game needs to sell you something. There will be barriers to progress in those games, no doubt. But those barriers crumble once a player spends a little money or a lot of time grinding through the reward system.

I feel safe with Gear Jack.  I feel safe with Borderlands 2. I feel safe with the Mass Effects and Halos and Deus Exes of the world.  These games start somewhere and end somewhere, and they don’t ask me to p(l)ay in increments or follow the caribou fence of their reward systems.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I pay for these games at the outset.  Because they don’t need me to pay them in the game, they open up the play experience completely. I can glut myself if I feel like it. The larger work is divided into single slices, certainly, and locked away, but those slices and locks are artistically and mechanically coherent, and I feel like I can derive pleasure (and hence satiety) from playing and unlocking just one.

There is no such pleasure on offer from this new generation of games; they act as a syncopated distraction and offer a schedule of rewards to distract me from their paucity of gameplay. I respect some of them, and perhaps if I were less disposed to addiction I could enjoy them for what they are.

But I am that addict. I always will be. And I think – hope, perhaps – that I will be content to understand only those games that don’t trigger my worse nature. And maybe limiting myself in that way will let me yet fulfill those stillborn promises.