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Innovating for addiction, how modern games try to get you hooked

(Image Credit: Healthy Gamer)
(Image Credit: Healthy Gamer)
Modified 05 Jan 2021, 03:17 IST

A worrying trend in modern game design is the many ways games now try to encourage and exploit game addiction.

This is something that shows up time and time again, yet so few people seem to discuss it at all, let alone care enough to develop solutions. For many people, game addiction is something they may not even know they have, and they may need to find solutions to it on their own.

What is game addiction?

Some people take issue at the implication that games can be addictive, or that victims of game addiction even exist, but it should be made perfectly clear that an unhealthy addiction can be formed around almost anything. The core defining feature of an addiction is that an addict can lose their ability to function healthily without indulging in whatever their addiction is.

But a functional addict is still an addict. Video game addiction is often compared to gambling addiction, as both rely on a non-drug based source of external stimuli in order to trick the body into generating a large amount of dopamine which leads to the “rush” sensation experienced during gameplay.

Video game addiction has been a known phenomenon for years, but recently it seems some games have been actively encouraging addiction.


How to differentiate between gaming as a hobby and gaming as an addiction

From an outside perspective it can be difficult to tell a hobbyist apart from an addict, in much the same way that a functional alcoholic can be difficult to distinguish from a casual drinker. It’s entirely possible to be an addict and still be functional; addicts can hold jobs and maintain basic social relationships all while their addiction continues to grow. Oftentimes it’s up to the gamer to figure out whether or not they’ve become too dependent on gaming.

Anyone who plays games:

  • Because nothing else feels fun or enjoyable
  • Because not gaming feels stressful and irritating
  • Despite not even having fun

May want to seek out more resources about game addictions and what can be done about them.

How do games encourage addiction?

While it was always possible to become addicted to gaming even back when the industry was only just learning to crawl, the last decade has seen more and more games introduce addictive game design. Keeping gamers playing is the first way games aim to exploit their players, but it isn’t enough to play.

The second step in this process is to introduce features and mechanics that encourage addicts to give the game their money.

For many people, this became apparent around 2015 when lootboxes and microtransactions were present in multiple major AAA titles. It quickly became all too obvious that many AAA game studios were restricting content behind paywalls. This was the most egregious with EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront 2 (2017), but it seems its biggest flaw was simply being too greedy with this design technique.

Modern addictive game design is meant to obfuscate just how much the game wants you to become an addict. It doesn’t look like a pop-up advert telling you to spend money to keep playing, it looks like a friend that pretends to have your back while coyly suggesting that spending just a few more dollars wouldn’t hurt.

The goal isn’t to hold the game ransom until the gamer pays for it, the goal is to trick the gamer into spending money they otherwise wouldn’t.

Fear of missing out and punishing players who dare to say no

Though not exclusive to free to play games, free to play games rely most heavily on this kind of predatory game design. Part of the process is capitalizing on fear of missing out, and creating situations designed to make addicts who manage to resist feel bad.One of the most well known free to play games on the market, Fortnite, rakes in billions of dollars every year despite being completely free. 

While Fortnite may not be the worst exploiter, it is certainly one which many people have fallen victim to. Every year there are multiple headlines of someone spending an obscene amount of money on the game, often to the detriment of other parts of their life or family. In just the last two years, hundreds of couples filed for divorce citing Fortnite as part of the reason why their relationship ended.

It’s certainly fair to say that something in the game’s design is responsible for encouraging people to prioritize it over other aspects of their life. One of these aspects is the way Fortnite creates an artificial fear of missing out.


With the amount of skins and other digital goodies available to players, Fortnite players should ask themselves why it is that the game places arbitrary time limits on when players can buy them. The reason Fortnite doesn’t just open its entire shop and let players pick and choose what they want is because they can make more money off scarcity rather than availability.

These skins are digital, they will never go out of stock in a traditional sense. By limiting their availability to such a short time, players are encouraged to buy them and show them off as status symbols. These are sold to players as “self expression” and other things, yet their main goal is to create a system where players are encouraged to buy often and on time.

What can be done about game addiction?

It’s important to remember that gaming isn’t bad. Playing a game doesn’t make you an addict; wanting to get better at a game doesn’t mean you have a problem. However, there are many people susceptible to gaming addiction who would benefit from addressing it.

As with any addiction, the first step is admitting that there is one. There are a myriad of ways to help overcome an addiction, whether alone or with someone else as support.

And for everyone else, it’s time to start talking about it.

Published 05 Jan 2021, 03:17 IST
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