An ex-Singaporean once explained to Lee Kuan Yew he gave up a good job in Singapore so he could work half a day in Perth and spend the afternoon fishing. Our founding father was taken aback- he could not understand the man's motivation and considered it an illogical decision. Lee must have been even more outraged by the many who choose to while away their lives playing videogames.
Perhaps it's the dystopian feel to the sight of someone sitting in a darkened room chained to a glowing screen that gives videogames such a bad reputation. Somehow, a videogame will make a hyperactive kid sit hunched, captivated by a screen and ignoring everything else around him. And he'll happily stay in that condition for as long as he can.
An interest in videogames is viewed negatively, unlike music, botany or art. At their core, games are a way of passing time that people engage in for fun and enjoyment. However, unlike other pastimes, playing a videogame offers little real-world benefit. Players spend hours each week but at the end have little to to show for it but a few savegame files and some virtual points. Most games don't teach useful skills, allow you to create something or improve your health. Videogames offer the illusion of mastery without actually imparting real skills. Playing Kerbal Space Program or The Sims does not make you a capable pilot or manager.
Games are produced by profit-maximising corporations which specifically design them to entrap players, making it difficult to step away. "Hardcore" games like Skyrim and Mass Effect do this by creating a rich and immersive experience promising hundreds of characters to interact with and entire realms to explore. Others like Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto offer intricate game mechanics and freeform gameplay that make for thousands of hours of replayability. Recently, this more complex and immersive gameplay has been brought to mobile devices as well, in the form of Mobile Legends and Clash of Clans. They're designed to provide feedback for every action you take and reward completion of every stage, providing you with a "kick" that you slowly begin to crave.
Just one more turn...
Casual mobile games like Farmville and Candy Crush are just as manipulative. Instead of setting a high upfront cost that many players would balk at, game developers now offer in-app purchases to monetise individual parts of the game. Small $0.99 payments are much more palatable than a traditional $20 price tag. This is the heart of the free-to-play business models: suck players with the promise of a free game, ramp up the difficulty till they feel inadequate and shame them with a highscore board. And when they're feeling the most frustrated and can see their friends are far ahead, display shiny perks and upgrades for tantalisingly low price tags. Here they apply common retail techniques: price anchoring where "normal" prices are marked up so "special promotions" seem impressive or short-lived offers with a ticking countdown that target users' fear of missing out.
Games employ behavioural psychology to incorporate the right mix of challenge and reward into gameplay, conditioning players to enjoy the repetitive slog of "grinding" and even feel obliged to continue so as to maximise the time spent playing. One common tactic is to take advantage of the Partial Reinforcement Effect (PRE) where a valuable reward is only granted some of the time, at random. This leaves players continuously clearing levels hoping that special weapon or treasure is just around the next corner.
Simple but impossible.
The most addictive games are easy to pick up but difficult to master. They operate on a simple premise with a very gentle learning curve and gameplay is uncomplicated, but with a high skill ceiling. Mastery can only be achieved either through dexterous gameplay control as in Bounce or Doodle Jump or a deep understanding of the game's mechanics as in Clash Royale and Plants vs Zombies. Furthermore, there's no clear conclusion to a game. Death isn't a show-stopper in the gaming world and most games are explicitly designed to be replayed endlessly.
It's not just the game itself that has staying power. Players are also drawn into a gaming community as they interact in related forums and subreddits. These provide players a space to propose & debate strategies and comment on recorded games. Over time, a large proportion of their social circle may consist of other players. Quitting therefore means leaving this social circle and dealing with the fear of missing out.
*"The International 2014", an eSports Dota 2 competition.*
Sports romanticises gaming, and suggests gaming can be a career unto itself. In fact, FIFA 2017, Multiplayer Online Battle Arena and Real Time Attack will be sporting events at the 2022 Asian Games. Daryl "iceiceice" Koh, a Singaporean Defence of the Ancients player has reportedly won more than USD $1 million playing the game, rivaling sporting stars Joseph Schooling, Fandi Ahmad and Feng Tianwei. Young players can and have begun telling themselves gaming is fine, if they drop out of school they'll just turn professional and become a Youtuber or something.
Gaming is a slippery slope. Many people game whilst in line or on public transport but just as have probably told themselves "five more minutes" or "just one more game", only to look up and wonder where time has gone. It's fun, it's often social and it can provide a much-needed break from stressful and frustrating reality but we need to do so in moderation, especially given the host of problems they've come to be associated with- health issues, promoting violence, stunting social development, reinforcing stereotypes and encouraging criminal behavior. As much as we enjoy our time in our simulated paradise, we should never forget that's all it is- a simulation.
With the odds stacked against them, it's no wonder gamers turn addicts. About 1 in 10 Singaporean gamers are "pathological" gamers, averaging more than 37h a week and with gaming causing severe disruption to their regular lives. Like their drug counterparts, game addicts suffer withdrawal symptoms, become agitated when they are unable to cut back and have skipped work, meals and sleep to play. Several studies have suggested game addicts develop a dependence on dopamine and that changes in their reward circuitry resemble the effects of substance dependence.
Fortunately, the majority of players aren't addicts. We spend a bit of time now and then but hardly have trouble stopping. The worry for us isn't that gaming will drive us to an untimely demise but instead where the time we spend gaming is coming from. 56% of Singaporeans have not read a book in the past year, and the top reason was "lack of time". The same reason was given for sleep deprivation and lack of exercise in a separate survey. Time is limited and there is a substantial opportunity cost to spending that 1 hour gaming. There are many more productive activities we can be doing instead: learning financial literacy, honing our culinary skills or simply reading. Even better, we should take transplant the addictive design of videogames to healthier, more productive pursuits through gamification. Taking advantage of our desire to collect and the PRE, Pokemon Go has sent over a 100 million players on wild goose chases searching for elusive Mewtwos and Dragonites. Players increase the their number of daily steps by 25% on average making the game one of the most successful fitness apps created. If thinking about your life as an RPG works for you, you might want to look into gamifying the other tedious but wholesome things like picking up a new language or lifelong learning.
In that way videogames are like social media, but that's an article for another day. ↩︎
Carpal tunnel syndrome, myopia and an array of neck, back and spine injuries. And obesity. ↩︎
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