People who review games, from users to professional reviewers, often call games they like “addictive.” Publishers and developers love to add the word to the description of their game or to the back of the box. Making an addictive game is often seen as a great game design accomplishment.
I find this use of the word “addictive” problematic.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines addiction as: “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly : persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.”
I can’t see why I’d ever want to associate my games, or games that I like, with that definition. First of all, and most obviously, I have an issue with using a word that in day-to-day life is most often used to describe people with serious problems, often in relation to chemically-addictive drugs. “Addictive” does not seem like a word we, as a community, should want to reclaim. It’s an extremely negative word that describes tremendously destructive behaviors.
My second, perhaps less obvious point is that using the word “addictive” in a positive manner opens the door for questionable design practices. If “addictive” is a positive trait, game creators might as well design for addiction. If addiction is a good thing in games, developers can focus on creating games that keep the player hooked. While I have no doubt that we should all be trying to design games that are engaging and satisfying and wonderful, the practice of designing for addiction has sadly become an accepted practice in game development these days.
Ever-changing online games such as MMOs and Facebook games are without a doubt part of this change. With their ability to track players at an unprecedented level and their “service, not product” business model, designers on these games are now expected to think about keeping players hooked like never before. This is surely not a brand new development in videogames – design for addiction has been around for a long time, but lately it has become a more central part of game development.
Let me take a step back at this point and try to separate an addictive game from an engaging game. My definition is without a doubt a subjective one, as I can’t see a way to objectively separate addiction from engagement. I find games addictive when I play them so much that, when I put them away, I regret the time I spent with them. I have often stayed up until 4 AM playing a game and, when I wake up the next day, felt great about that experience. In that case, I’d argue that the game was engaging, but not addictive. On very rare occasions, though, I have played a game so much that I have lost track of time and later regretted that decision. I have stopped playing the Civilization series because of how often it has given me this negative feeling. Its implicit design choice of always having a goal in the horizon that you are about to accomplish, while at first engaging, can end up leading to negative, addictive behavior. When a game becomes something you cannot put away even when you are no longer enjoying it, it has become an addiction.
I try very hard not to be moralistic about game design, so I’m not quite ready to say that designing for addiction is wrong or evil. I’m glad to, however, claim that I find designing for addiction terribly uninteresting. Maybe there is a designer out there who finds artistic pleasure in creating addictive games, but it seems like most design for addiction is done not to create a better game, but to create a more sticky game, one that makes the player really want to give you her money. As designers, it can be difficult to separate engaging design from addictive design, and there is no question that there is a fine line between the two. I just hope that when developers make design decisions, they are thinking about creating wonderful, engaging games. Addiction is a negative response that even the most wonderful games can trigger, but not something that we should strive to create.