Given that we live in a world with real and destructive addictions–drugs, alcohol, thievery, and even sexual addiction, I have to wonder if we ought to cast games being “addicting” in a positive light. And yet we often hear this line repeated, “you HAVE to play this game, it’s so addicting, you won’t be able to stop!” I understand why game companies design systems that will keep players coming back–they want to give people a product that will provide lasting entertainment. But should we not be a little more critical about games’ “addictive” qualities? While acknowledging the value of games keeping our interest, should we not also not also be wary of systems that are designed to sink their hooks into us a little too deeply?
With these considerations in mind, I read Russ Pitts review of Sim City for Polygon today and was struck by how glowingly he spoke about the game’s addictive qualities.
From the pleasing sounds of every various button press, to the satisfying way various parts of your city connect, then come to life (then die and come back from the dead), every element of this game has been perfectly and patiently engineered to engender an endorphin rush of accomplishment. . . .
In a nutshell, it is the heart and mind of the SimCity games of days gone by, but more beautiful, ready to seduce away your hours until you are a rotted husk of the person you used to be. If it charged by the hour, you’d sell a kidney. I wish I was joking.
There is very little concrete study these days about “videogame addiction” and most often when people talk about being addicted to a game they really just mean they like it a lot. Whenever I have spent too much time playing a game, I have blamed myself–I thought I was too invested or I was too lacking in self control. However, that isn’t the way Pitts talks about Sim City. He says every element of the game “has been perfectly and patiently engineered to engender an endorphin rush of accomplishment” and to “seduce away your hours until you are a rotted husk of the person you used to be.” Having found Pitts to be a thoughtful critic, when I saw the title of his review, “Engineering Addiction,” I assumed he was simply referring to how compelling the game is. That clearly isn’t the case. Pitts was praising the game for it’s design being so addictive that it negatively affected his daily life:
As for how satisfying the experience is as a whole, take this example: I missed a meeting. And it was my meeting. During the course of one play session, I literally became so absorbed in the experience that I lost all track of time and played through an entire afternoon, oblivious to the fact that a meeting I had scheduled approached and then passed. When I returned to my work station many, many hours later, I greeted my overflowing email inbox and the raft of polite (but concerned) inquiries as to my whereabouts with a serene, self-possessed calm. As if, whatever troubles the world might throw at me would be of little concern next to the travails I had experienced in West Pittssex.
Then, after a brief, but furiously energized bout of desk work, I went back to SimCity and did it all over again.
I would hope that we would all agree that missing a real life meeting that one is in charge of is not a “good” thing. I am not saying that Sim City is to blame, but I do think the way we talk about games needs to change with regard to “addiction.” As JP Lebreton pointed out in a tweet, if a friend were to say “hey you really need to try this vodka, it is SO addicting,” we would be concerned for our friend and maybe even a little reticent to try that particular brand of vodka.
Perhaps it’s time to come up with other words to describe what makes games like Sim City so interesting that we want to keep coming back to them, but more importantly we should consider whether we are willing to explore the ethics of systems designed to usurp our time. When game critics hear about people dying at internet cafes after playing inordinate amounts of League of Legends or Diablo 3, we talk about setting personal limits, the necessity of self control, and importance of involved parenting, but we rarely talk about the design of the games themselves. Perhaps this is because we want to protect games from government regulation and want game makers to be free to design how they see fit. I think we, as critics, are too protective of our medium, too afraid that people who “don’t understand” games are going to ruin them for all of us. This fear is keeping us from doing our jobs. As it stands, we as critics are encouraging developers to keep giving us games that take more from us than they give.
At the very least, talking so glowingly about a game violently getting its hooks into us can’t be entirely healthy. Pitts gets paid to play and write about videogames, so he can tell the people who waited for him to show up at that meeting that he was busy “working.” But for the vast majority of people, missing a meeting could mean missing out on a promotion, losing a job, or worse.
I once wrote about how Minecraft sunk its hooks into me in an unhealthy way–I didn’t get enough sleep, was late to work a few times, and was inattentive to the needs of my wife. I blame myself more than I blame Minecraft, but I have heard enough similar stories about people who got really into Minecraft that think there is something about that game’s design that that made it fertile ground for “addiction.” We as critics could serve our readers by simply making them aware of that possibility. When one of my best friends told me he was thinking of getting Minecraft, I told him two things: it is a fantastic game and be careful.
Sim City should be praised for piquing our interest and engaging our mental faculties but we shouldn’t rejoice when it takes more from us than it gives in return. The older I get, the less interested I am in replay value. I want to know whether a game is going to add value to my life. If a game is going to take up large portions of my time, I want it to challenge my thinking, educate me, or teach me empathy for others. I want it to do something for me not just to me. But if a game is merely exploiting my lack of self control, I just can’t get excited about that anymore. I suspect there are a lot of people out there who feel the same way.