The Disturbing Ways Our Video Games Addict Us

Have you ever spent so much time playing a video game that you felt like a caged rat? That means it's working. Cracked's David Wong takes a serious look at how and why our video games won't let us go.

Cracked.com isn't a place I normally turn to for serious business, but Wong's "5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted" called to me, partly due to my own battle with video game addiction, and partly because there's a link to my story in it that uses the word "boobies." As I regularly Google "Mike Fahey"+boobies, it was only a matter of time before it came up.

Having said that, I do not need to be convinced that video game addiction is a real thing, but I felt it was mainly a failing on my part that led to it. After reading David's article, I'm not so sure.

A recurring theme in the article is that of the "Skinner Box," a behavior control experiment created by BF Skinner. The "Skinner Box" was a cage containing a small animal, who could be trained to press a button in order to receive food pellets. Gaming has changed.

It used to be that once they sold us a $50 game, they didn't particularly care how long we played. The big thing was making sure we liked it enough to buy the next one. But the industry is moving toward subscription-based games like MMO's that need the subject to keep playing—and paying—until the sun goes supernova.

Now, there's no way they can create enough exploration or story to keep you playing for thousands of hours, so they had to change the mechanics of the game, so players would instead keep doing the same actions over and over and over, whether they liked it or not. So game developers turned to Skinner's techniques.

That's the first of Wong's five ways, and it links to the rest. Number four involves creating the food pellets themselves, in video gaming's case virtual items, creating a perceived value in the players' minds so they will continue to hunt for them.

Then there is the "Variable Ratio Rewards" system. A rat in a box will eventually figure out that if he presses the lever, the food is always going to be there. The trick is to have the food come at random times when pressing the lever. Think random item drops in any massively-multiplayer online game you've ever played.

It's the same principle as the slot machine. You don't win all the time, but you win enough that you'll keep coming back for more.

Utilizing these sorts of principles is diabolical enough to make even the most novice evil genius bent on world domination perk up and pay attention, but it gets even worse. Once they establish that clicking the button over and over again leads to random rewards, then it's time to make sure players don't stop clicking.

Imagine a carrot on a stick. As you get closer and closer to the carrot, the stick grows longer. Maybe the carrot turns into a piece of cake, or a wallet full of cash. Hard and hard to acquire, but so much more rewarding. This is how MMO titles generally work. The higher level the more you work, with the rewards growing in power to keep you eagerly playing, even if its the same content you've played over and over again for years.

Wong concludes that, when it comes right down to it, it is our fault we're inside the "Skinner Box."

The terrible truth is that a whole lot of us begged for a Skinner Box we could crawl into, because the real world's system of rewards is so much more slow and cruel than we expected it to be. In that, gaming is no different from other forms of mental escape, from sports fandom to moonshine.

The danger lies in the fact that these games have become so incredibly efficient at delivering the sense of accomplishment that people used to get from their education or career. We're not saying gaming will ruin the world, or that gaming addiction will be a scourge on youth the way crack ruined the inner cities in the 90s. But we may wind up with a generation of dudes working at Starbucks when they had the brains and talent for so much more. They're dissatisfied with their lives because they wasted their 20s playing video games, and will escape their dissatisfaction by playing more video games. Rinse, repeat.

5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted [Cracked.com]
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