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Why Video Games Can be Addictive

There has always been a certain addictive quality to video games.  After all, the industry began as a scheme to get kids into arcades and empty their pockets.  Getting the high score in Pac-Man or Space Invaders was enough to sustain coin-operated games until home consoles and PC’s slowly made them obsolete, save for the occasional Dave and Buster’s.

Arcade games weren’t necessarily all that addictive.  Once you ran out of quarters you were kind of done with them.  It wasn’t like a slot machine at a casino, offering potential monetary rewards.  Instead, it was merely a way to pass the time until you ran out of money.

Once games moved from arcades into the living room, the “beat the high score” motivation became essentially meaningless.  Sure games like the Super Mario Brothers series still had “scores,” but no one cared because you weren’t playing against dozens of other opponents drawn from members of the public.  Instead it became about “beating” the game, or “beating” an opponent sitting next to you.

Early 8 or 16 bit games couldn’t handle a lot of complexity, so beating the game usually meant finishing a set of progressively difficult levels or puzzles.  Sports games employed “rubber-band AI,” which caused the computer to essentially cheat if you got too good against it.

This basic paradigm of gaming continued for quite some time.  The biggest problem was that if the game got too hard, a lot of players would simply give up on it.  I never beat the majority of my NES games because I just stopped trying.  If the top levels got too hard, it was frustrating to continue.

There were two exceptions to this – sports games and role-playing games.  Once NES games like Tecmo Super Bowl licensed the names and trademarks of real players and teams, the allure of sports games increased.  It no longer meant just playing against friends and siblings, it meant playing as the real players in a sort of fantasy world where you could win games 63-0 (at least until the rubber-band AI caught up to you).

Early RPG’s like The Legend of Zelda and Crystalis weren’t nearly as difficult as the average NES platformers.  However, the story and the ability to “level” up your character kept you engaged.  Often the two were intertwined.  For example, I would spend hours leveling up on Crystalis just to be able to get to the next part of the story.

That gives us five elements of an addictive game:

  1. Progressively difficult, but not insurmountable, obstacles.
  2. Fulfilling a common fantasy.
  3. Engaging with human players.
  4. A reward system, such as leveling up.
  5. A compelling story.

Not all addictive games have all of these elements, but all addictive games have at least one of them.  Arguably, MMORPG’s such as World of Warcraft have all five elements.  Likewise, popular cell phone games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush Saga may only have #1 and/or #4.  Therefore, a video game can become addictive if it has multiple elements, or if it masters one or two.

Anyway, the next time you wonder why you got sucked into a video game, that’s why.  Several decades of game evolution landed on some pretty straightforward rules to keep you playing.  Understanding those rules may help you pull yourself away.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe