On Video Game Addiction

article_imgA few months ago there was a discussion about game addiction over at Extra Credits. The argument was made that video games are not addictive, they are compelling. After a recent event with my kid, I would like to explore the idea of “game addiction”, as well as some stories and recommendations for anyone who might be interested. If as a happy side-effect this piece reaches the eyes of those who would argue that games are not addicting, then that would be fortunate indeed. However, I’m not writing this for them (if I were it would be posted on Extra Credits instead of here). And so, let’s jump into it – can games cause addiction?

The Core of the Post

Before making any sort of argument, it’s important to define terms. The most relevant definition of  compelling for the topic at hand is for something that is “arousing or denoting strong interest, especially admiring interest”. It is, largely, a synonym for ‘interesting’. Can video games be compelling? Absolutely. At least some of them can be. Anyone who has ever been curious about and then played a game has been compelled to play. As a kid, I was compelled to play Super Mario Bros. and Bubble Bobble. I was compelled to play The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Megaman 2. Those of you who listen to music because you find it interesting or likable are being compelled by these artifacts to pay them attention. Those of you who went to see The Avengers or whatever movie is cool now were compelled to see it. Heck, if you see someone across the room and find them interesting and approach them for a nice conversation over a cup of tea, that would be an example of finding a person as compelling. A lot of things can be “compelling”. It is somewhat of a broad term. However, not everything can be addictive. Some videogames (emphasis on ‘some’) certainly can be.

To explain how some video games can be addictive, we must first discuss a certain approach to game design that has proliferated mobile (tablet and phone) and browser-based games since around 2008 – the “skinnerbox” game design. This design is based on B.F. Skinner’s conditioning experiments. In the late 1930s, Skinner published the results of a series of experiments where he would ‘condition’ a dog to behave a certain way in response to stimuli. The short version is: Skinner would ring a bell and bring food to the dog. This would cause the dog to salivate. After a while, he would ring the bell but not bring food to the dog, but the dog would salivate anyway. The dog was trained to have a certain reaction. This, mixed with notions of reinforcement, has led to “skinnerbox design”. This approach to game design consists of rewarding the player for performing certain pre-determined in-game tasks at specified time intervals. The reward can be an achievement, in-game experience or gold, or simply a display of flashy lights. These games condition the player to come back to the game and perform tasks, much like the dog was conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell. It is worth noting that while the in-game task can be enjoyable, it doesn’t necessarily have to be. You can see this kind of design in games like Farmville and Mafia Wars (or any of their facebook / iOS / Android clones). Players will log on every so often to check on their crops, click a button, and get experience and gold, or to check to see if their energy has been replenished so that they can click on a button and go on another quest or duel another player.

That reminds me – give me a second while I go collect my crops…

… back.

My son is a big Skylanders fan. Ever since I bought (for him, of course) both Skylanders games, he has been enthralled with the figures. He takes them to school to play with his friends, has them crush the Lego cities that I built for him, plays “Skylanders the fighting” with me (you remember, back when there was imagination to go around and you would take two figures and pretend that they would fight each other), and engages in a host of other imaginative play. Every so often, we sit down and actually play the videogame (for some reason he won’t let me be the giants). When we finish playing, I turn the console off and he runs off to play something else. Sometimes, if he was good in school, I will let him play with his DS for 30 minutes. He’ll play Super Hero Squad or Wreck It Ralph or some other kid’s game with mild violence in it. These games don’t implement skinnerbox design. Instead, they have more straightforward mechanics. Instead of using conditioning to engage players, they use fun game systems where the reward is in the enjoyment of play itself. I know, I know, some of those DS games he likes are “quite bad”, but that can be subjective. People hated Final Fantasy XIII-2, while I found it charming and enjoying. When I tell him that time is up and he needs to give me the game, he closes the DS and goes off to play something else. This is usually when he’ll want me to read a book to him, or play “sword time” (smack each other with Nerf swords). He’s still the nicest kid you will ever see.

Then my wife got an iPad. “What a great idea it would be”, she said, “if we could have a Skylanders game for the iPad!” So we went ahead and bought the iPad Skylanders portal (which I later discovered you don’t really need to play the Skylanders iPad games), and installed the three games – Skylanders Battlegrounds, Skylanders Sky Patrol, and Skylanders Lost Islands. Battlegrounds is an odd mixture of hex-based turn combat with RTS components to battles and Sky Patrol is a point and shoot game. They don’t really matter, as my son doesn’t play them often. His “favorite” game is Lost Islands.

Skylanders Lost Islands is a re-package of Farmville. Players will build houses that give them experience and citizens. Players will then use these citizens to build larger structures that give more experience and extra perks. There are energy pads in which players plant seeds that create energy, and this energy can be used to send skylanders on quests that give gold. The purpose of the game is to build the islands. As it is the case with these games, once the player reaches a certain level, they will have to wait for longer periods of time for a structure to produce experience. The game isn’t specially fun or compelling. It does, however, do a great job of conditioning players to come back at certain intervals to collect their crops. What is the result of this? Depending on the development stage of the brain, it leads to compulsive behavior (in adults) or mild addiction with withdrawal symptoms (kids).

Let’s define these two new terms and then revisit this claim.

Compulsive behavior is defined as (1) an overwhelming urge to perform an irrational act or ritual, (2) the repetitive or stereotyped action that is the object of such an urge, and (3) an uncontrollable impulse to perform an act, often repetitively, as an unconscious mechanism to avoid anxiety. Compulsive artifacts or behaviors, as opposed to compelling ones, cause anxiety when something is lacking. If you have ever felt the need to check your “Ville” crops while at work, or woken up during midnight because you remembered that the big expensive new wing to your farm was completed, you have experienced a game’s compulsion. As a rational, thinking adult, however, you can push that anxiety to the back of your mind and say “I’m working” or “sleep is more important”. Adults can do this because their brains are already fully developed.  Still, this compulsive behavior prompted by skinnerbox game design CAN lead to addiction.

Addiction can be defined as a persistent, compulsive dependence on a behavior or substance. Addiction, unlike compulsion, is a progressive symptom unless treated. Addiction is accompanied by mood-changing behavior, and if the object of the addiction is suddenly removed, it can lead to withdrawal symptoms which can range from adverse physical effects, such as headaches and nausea, to psychological symptoms such as the pathological retreat from interpersonal contact and social involvement. My claim, as previously stated, is that some video games, specially those that use skinnerbox design, can be addictive.

This brings us back to my son and Skylanders The Lost Islands.

Since he began playing Lost Islands on the iPad, I noticed that he began misbehaving at school. The teacher said that he didn’t pay attention and was more rowdy than usual. At home, he would only want to “play iPad”. When I asked him to play something else, or read a book, or even play “skylanders on the big TV”, he would say “no, I’m playing iPad”. That highly compelling and highly compulsive game altered his behavior. It wasn’t a big change – he was still himself – but to me, the change was noticeable, even if it wasn’t to less observant eyes. More importantly, and this is where his behavior changed quite markedly, I noticed that when I asked him to put the iPad away, he would throw a tantrum. Furthermore, some nights when, for whatever reason, my wife or I would leave the iPad in his room (he probably hid it under the bed and we thought it was somewhere else) I caught him playing Lost Islands at 11:00 p.m. – two hours past his bedtime. During that one week of iPad use, his tantrums grew worse and the frequency with which he would ask “can I play the game” instead of playing with the actual toys he has increased. Now, keep in mind the definition of addiction – a compulsive behavior that worsens with time and has withdrawal symptoms. My son’s behavior was playing the Skylanders Lost Islands game, his change in behavior was a form of social withdrawal, and the withdrawal effects were the tantrums. It is this kind of behavior that prompts many parents and media alarmists to say, sometimes due to the lack of knowledge or appropriate language and other times motivated by an agenda, things like “my kid is a video game addict”. In reality, it’s not addiction “to games” – it’s a kid not being able to cope with compulsive behavior prompted by one type of video game, which is manifested in addiction-like behavior, or addiction to a specific game – something that, as far as I’m aware, didn’t exist during the NES and SNES game generations and became a major problem after the discovery of skinnerbox design. It may be that this also changes the structure of the brain, but I’m no expert on neuroscience, so I will leave that question open to people who study such things.

Still, there are a few questions unanswered – namely (1) what is the difference between adult compulsion and a kid’s addiction to the same product? and (2) why does a kid become addicted to one type of game and not another? The answer to the first question is that, unlike adults, kids have not fully developed their cognitive capacities. Furthermore, they are still discovering the world. Having them engage in any naturally compelling activity that conditions them to engage in certain behavior-reward patterns (Skylanders Lost Islands being an example of such reward systems structure) will lead to compulsive behavior with mild addictive tendencies. Unlike adults, kids can’t readily reason their way out of compulsive behaviors – heck, some adults have a hard time doing so themselves. As for the second question, it is an issue of design. Games that have fun systems in them and don’t exploit skinnerbox designes are compelling (interesting), but not compulsive in that they don’t condition people to behave in certain patterns, as games that use these design mechanics do. This is why many people spend hours in front of a screen clicking away on CityVille and Sims Social instead of playing an engaging and compelling game like Journey or Unfinished Swan.

For Parents:

So, if you have a kid (note:  younger than teenager) that’s “addicted” to one of these games, how can you deal with it? Just take it away. Your kid will be fine. You might get a bit annoyed, as he or she will likely throw tantrums  and stay up whining for one night, but it’ll pass. Whenever the kid asks for the game that is the source of the addiction, offer something he or she might like instead. Whenever mine asked for “the iPad”, I asked him if he wanted to read a book with me, play Lego, go to the park, or play with the DS for a bit (if I was cooking or doing something else like that) instead. If you are going to replace a game with another game (play DS instead of iPad), remember to set a clear limit (when I finish cooking, for example). After a week or so, your kid will be back to normal. I should note:  “Normal” doesn’t nescessarily mean “a good kid”. My son happens to be a great kid, but I have seen plenty of loud troublemakers when I take him to the playground. Remember: “back to normal” doesn’t mean “back to being a good kid” – it might well be that your kid will go from being a CityVille addict to being a “normal” bully.

If you have a teenager addicted to a game, do the same – take it away. Now, in this case it’s likely that they’ll put up more of a fight. They might even go around you and find some sort of way to play the game (play in school computers or a friend’s house), but the only thing that you can do is your part. Once again, offer an alternative to the source of the addiction. After a few weeks, maybe a month, your teen will be back to normal.

For People Addicted to Games

If you are someone who is actually addicted to a game, you will likely have a harder time quitting than a kid or teen. The reason is that a parent can simply decide to cut a kid or teen off from a specific artifact. As an adult, however, you will have to do it on your own. Still, should you decide to do so, the same principles apply – cut clean from the object of addiction and replace it with something else.

For Everyone

Remember that the goal isn’t to replace one addiction with another, and the reason for the shift isn’t “to stop an addiction”. Some addictions can be good. I’m addicted to education, which is why I’m still taking classes in my 30s. The reason to quit a specific addiction is because you recognize and acknowledge that said addiction has had a negative effect on your life – whether it’s because the addiction is taking away time from other things or because you recognize that it’s adversely affecting your behavior. This is a call that only you as a parent or individual can make.


I am by no means making the argument that video games are addictive and therefore kids should be kept away from them. I am making the argument that video games THAT USE A SPECIFIC DESIGN APPROACH, games which are mostly facebook games and phone / tablet games, are addictive and adults should be mindful when playing them or letting their kids play.

Certainly, online games like WoW or CoD have elements that make them addictive, but this is something we can explore in future posts, as I’m tired of writing right now.

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About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on March 23, 2013, in Video Game Commentary and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Video games should at the very least by monitored and limited by parents who have children.

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  1. Pingback: Von Skinner-Boxen, operanter Konditionierung und Videospielen | Nachtfischers Subkultur

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