What Makes a Video Game Addictive?

Most adolescents like to spend at least part of their free time playing video games. But for some, what starts out as innocent recreation can become an addiction. Soon, friends, family, school, and even personal hygiene are neglected as nearly every spare moment is spent playing the game.

But what makes a game addictive? Are there certain characteristics that make some games more addictive than others? Why are some teens more susceptible than others to this kind of addiction?

Having a hard time getting your child away from the TV or computer? Read "Why Won't My Child Stop Playing Video Games?" for help on weaning your child from games and the Internet.

As with any addiction, video game or "gaming" addiction is usually a multi-faceted issue. For starters, video games are designed to be addictive. Not "addictive" in the clinical sense of the word, but game designers are always looking for ways to make their games more interesting and increase the amount of time people will spend playing them. There are Web sites devoted to gaming design where gamers try to answer the question, "What makes a video game addictive?" They want you - once you log in or pick up that controller - to never want to stop playing.

Consequently, games are designed to be just difficult enough to be truly challenging, while allowing players to achieve small accomplishments that compel them to keep playing. In that respect, the design of video games is similar to the design of gambling casinos, which will allow players to have small "wins" that keep them playing. There are several "hooks" that are built into games with the intent of making them "addictive":

  • The High Score
    Whether you've tried out the latest edition of Grand Theft Auto or haven't played a video game since PacMan, the high score is one of the most easily recognizable hooks. Trying to beat the high score (even if the player is trying to beat his own score) can keep a player playing for hours.
  • Beating the Game
    This "hook" isn't used in online role-playing games, but is found in nearly every gaming system. The desire to beat the game is fed as a player "levels up," or finds the next hidden clue.
  • Role-Playing
    Role-playing games allow players to do more than just play - they get to actually create the characters in the game and embark on an adventure that's somewhat unique to that character. Consequently, there's an emotional attachment to the character, and the story makes it much harder to stop playing.
  • Discovery
    The exploration or discovery tactic is most often used in role-playing games. One of the most popular online games currently is World of Warcraft, and a good portion of the game is spent exploring imaginary worlds. This thrill of discovery (even of places that don't really exist) can be extremely compelling.
  • Relationships
    Again, this is primarily an online "hook." Online role-playing games allow people to build relationships with other players. For some kids, this online community becomes the place where they're most accepted, which draws them back again and again.

Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) can be especially addictive because there's no ending. Unlike standard games like Super Mario Brothers, where you win when you save the princess, you can't rescue the princess in an MMORPG.

Another consideration is that some people are more prone to addiction of any kind than others, gaming or otherwise. Kids who are easily bored, have poor relationships with family members, feel like outcasts at school, or tend toward sensation-seeking are more easily drawn into video game addiction because it fills a void and satisfies needs that aren't met elsewhere.

In addition to the psychological addiction, it's now believed that there may be a physiological element to addictive game playing. Researchers at Hammersmith Hospital in London conducted a study in 2005 which found that dopamine levels in players' brains doubled while they were playing. Dopamine is a mood-regulating hormone associated with feelings of pleasure. The findings of this study indicate that gaming could actually be chemically addictive.

Though the debate rages on as to whether gaming addiction is a diagnosable disorder, the behavior undeniably exists. The combination of intentional programming by designers and the predisposition some teens have to addictive behavior means this is a real issue that parents, teachers, and friends should be aware of and take action to prevent.

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