Do video game makers owe it to players to keep them from getting addicted?

August 7, 2013

(nicolasnova/Flickr)

Video games might seem like harmless fun, but three British researchers blame them for problems that are deadly serious.

A new paper published in the journal Addiction Research and Theory, the researchers argue that game companies could still afford to take more responsibility for preventing "pathological" gameplay.

"One-off cases of warning messages on loading screens and trivial game design modification are not enough," the authors write.

Are video games addictive? The medical evidence we have so far on that point is inconclusive. It's clear that at least for 7 to 11 percent of people, depending the studies you look at, compulsive gaming is a problem. One South Korean man famously dropped dead in 2005 after completing a 50-hour session with the game Starcraft. The British researchers said that some gamers have been known to play for between 60 and 90 hours.

They argued that more meaningful changes in game development — particularly for publishers of massively multiplayer online games — might include making missions shorter or increasing the value and usefulness of randomly generated in-game items.

The idea would be to limit the need for performing the same, joyless, endless set of tasks that a player needs to complete in order to level up in such games — a process known farming or grinding.

Another proposal would be to eliminate some of the crazier achievement badges that games have developed to keep people glued to the screen. Lest you think publishers would react with horror to an idea that would lose them money, Blizzard Entertainment, which makes the popular World of Warcraft series, took down an achievement that was awarded to players who made it to level 80 — the highest level in the game.

Whether game publishers will act against their financial interests is an open question. But even if they do take the altruistic route, there's nothing to suggest that the nudging will actually work. If games wind up stimulating our reward centers more frequently than they do now, and as a result we discover we can pack more accomplishments into the same amount of play time, it doesn't give players an added incentive to step away.

That's all another way of saying that assigning blame for video game addiction might not be the most useful place to start.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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