Describing something as "addictive" is often innocuous, even if the word can have wildly different meanings. Saying that nutella is addictive is not the same thing as saying that a drug is addictive, for example. One of those is meant as a compliment, the other...not so much.
When we're talking about games, describing them as addictive is how many of us laud compelling design decisions that make it difficult to stop playing.
When I say that Call of Duty is addictive, for example, what I'm really talking about is how thrilling twitch-based shooting is, and how remarkable the game is at providing constant adrenaline rushes. That also explains why it often sounds like we're describing a drug: you can't get enough of it, and in some way, that feels seductive.
The most recent example of our obsession with the word would have to be SimCity, a franchise that is known for being addictive.
"I've been playing SimCity since late last week, and, like every previous version, I've found it to be unyieldingly addictive," writes Slate.
"If addiction is a freight train, then SimCity is the roaring locomotive pulling you into the night," writes Polygon.
We know what they mean, right? "Addictive" means it's a good game—because that's what we mean when we say something makes us lose track of time, when something refuses to let us go.
I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that conflation. For one, we are celebrating compulsion. Sorry, that's gross.
Addictive is a business imperative more than anything now, and it's one that we've embraced with open arms.
Furthermore, defaulting to the word is too easy. What about not being able to put a game down is good, exactly? The clincher isn't that you weren't able to put the game down. That's merely the effect of a worthwhile design choice.
Something isn't worthwhile because you can't stop doing it, after all. What's good about Hotline Miami for example is that the levels resemble short puzzles, the music puts you in the zone and, similarly to Call of Duty, the quick pace is invigorating. You might die in a few seconds. Or, you might kill everything in your path. You play to find out.
The inability to put the game down? Hardly the thing that makes Hotline Miami worth playing. Though in this specific case, if we did talk about the game in the context of it feeling like a drug, that would be thematically congruent with the game as a whole.
Further, knowing that games are often engineered with the explicit purpose of being "addictive" feels uncomfortable. Because let's not mince words here, game developers like it when we can't put their games down—and that's not just limited to developers who make Skinner-box-like social games.
The more you play, the more you might buy. Welcome to the world of games-as-services, DLC and microtransactions. Addictive is a business imperative more than anything now, and it's one that we've embraced with open arms.
When we like to measure a game's worth in relation to how many hours of playtime it can give us, our approval isn't surprising. The more hours a game allows us to sink into it, the better. That hour-to-dollar ratio has got to be just right, else it's easier to feel that a game has cheated you. Which is stupid, because time and time again short games prove they can be worth your money.
And what of the ethics of an addictive game? I suspect most people would, without hesitation, say that a developer should not be held accountable for the unhealthy habits a player forms...while ignoring that it's likely a game was built with the explicit purpose of being too compelling to put down. To what degree can we absolve developers of their own potential responsibility over the works that they create? I don't think the answer is as clear-cut as some would assume.
Regardless, something curious happens now that I've realized too many games try to dominate my time. I play lots of multiplayer games, and these are titles that I've put in an absurd number of hours into—often, because they're designed so that that happens.
Endless levels—everything has an effing level. You have a level. Sometimes your gun has a level. There are typically weekly/daily challenges, and sometimes even those challenges have levels. There's also always a new map pack on the horizon. Double/Triple XP weekends. Cosmetic unlocks.
Let's not forget the most absurd part of this all: sometimes, we'll willingly erase all of that progress with "prestiging." All of these come together as if to say, "Play some more, why don't you?"
No, I think not. More and more often, likely in the wee hours of the night after a gaming binge, I'll look up in a daze from my screen. I'll put my controller down.
Play some more, why don't you?
I'll look at whatever game I'm playing and go, you know what? I'm not interested in a game that wants to monopolize my time. I don't want a game that is equally as enjoyable on the thousandth hour as it is in the hundredth.
Screw the addictive games. Note that I'm not saying "screw the good games;" of course I want good games. But I think I'd rather play a game that is okay with letting me play other games, a game that feels enough confidence in itself and respects me enough let me have a life outside of that specific game.
We should want more games that know how to package what they need to communicate to us in a sensible number of hours, not games that make it hard to ever let go.