Addicted to the game

By Marie Rogers

The typical video-game player is often imaged as a teenage boy sitting in his bedroom playing on his games console with the curtains drawn. But more recently the market for games has widened, with people from all age groups playing what are known as “social casual games”. This includes smartphone games such as Flappy Bird and Candy Crush, as well as online games such as FarmVille.

These games are fascinating because they are so simple and yet many people play them compulsively. They are often described as ‘addictive’, in the sense they are hard to put down, rather than in the medical sense. Some psychiatrists have reported cases of pathological video game addiction, although its status as a ‘real’ mental health disorder is controversial.

The psychology behind compulsive playing, like the games themselves, is surprisingly simple. In the 1940s and 50s the psychologist B.F. Skinner conducted a series of famous experiments in which rats pressed levers to get food rewards. In these experiments he found that the rats were much more motivated to repeat a behaviour if the reward was unpredictable.

playing candy crush

Casinos have long been putting this into practise, for example slot machines intermittently (and unpredictably) give out high returns, which causes compulsive playing and the desire for “just one more go”. Video and smartphone games are also carefully crafted to balance success with challenge and thus keep up the desire to continue playing.

We get nothing out of these games except arbitrary in-game rewards such as ‘levelling up’, and yet they are so compulsive. This may be because of the way in which the brain’s reward system works. The neurotransmitter dopamine is a chemical which sends signals in the brain. It is often described as a ‘pleasure chemical’, but it would be more accurate to say it is involved in the feeling of ‘wanting’. It is highly connected to a sense of desire and a motivation to perform certain behaviours, even if the end result is not that pleasurable. It has been found that there is an increase in the amount of dopamine released when playing a video game.

This distinction between ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’ is present in many theories of addiction and explains why, for example, a smoker can crave a cigarette without actually finding any pleasure in the act of smoking itself.

This article is not intended as a criticism of gaming in general. There are many examples of video games having beneficial applications, such as helping people with dyslexia learn to read. It is important, however, that we understand, and are wary of, how games are carefully designed to make them as ‘addictive’ as possible.


NHS page on getting help for addictions, with a section on computer addiction