“Addictive” was once high-praise paid to an absorbing game, but over the last several years it has become much more conflicted. This shift reflects a change in the way games are designed, purchased, and played. The meaning of “addictive” is colored by the growing suspicion that game addiction is no longer a figure of speech, or the byproduct of good game design, but the point of the entire enterprise.

This suspicion was a focal point of the Game Developers Conference this past March, an event that Soren Johnson described, without too much irony, as “Fear and Loathing in FarmVille.” Confronted by Zynga’s success with FarmVille, game designers and intellectuals debated the ramifications of a videogame culture that is increasingly driven by rewards, and whose most lucrative products mine the time and attention of ever-increasing numbers of players. The central question for many game developers is not “How can we?” but rather, “Should we?”

Jonathan Blow sounded an early warning in a 2007 “Design Reboot” talk. “My concern is that the game designers of today lack discernment when we’re thinking about whether our game is good or bad,” he said. “The way we evaluate a design, usually, is by looking at whether or not a lot of people want to play our game. If they play it and they report that they’re having fun, we’re like, ‘Hey, that’s a good game.’ … As designers, we don’t tend to care why people want to play our game … And I’m going to claim that means that we don’t show concern for our players’ quality of life.”

With more publishers adopting subscription and free-to-play (F2P) business models (where players can access most or all of a game’s content for free, but must pay for convenience items or special content), “hooking” players on a game grows more important. It also introduces a raft of ethical complications that retail game designers did not have to address.

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“Games with a tangible finish line have an easier time being ‘ethical’ because the addiction can only ever be temporary,” Soren Johnson explains. “In fact, I often felt a certain release when finishing a game like Civ that one can never get from an MMOG like WoW. Persistent games will always have a problem with people who just get sucked in with no hope of release.”

As the industry has grown more enamored of F2P and the power of a game like World of Warcraft to produce seemingly endless revenues, fewer games have clear finish lines, and more of them employ addictive mechanics. These mechanics can muddy the issue of whether or not players are actually enjoying themselves.

“Generally speaking, any sort of unlock is a very addictive mechanic,” Johnson says. “In Civ, this comes across as ‘just one more turn’ to discover gunpowder or finish the Pyramids or whatnot. Many games have taken this dynamic and moved it to the meta-game – a racing game where you unlock cars over a series of races, for example. It’s an open question whether this system is making games better or just making people feel like they need to play more. Can we tell the difference between people playing more because they are enjoying themselves or playing more because they feel compelled to?”

For the publisher of a subscription-based or free-to-play game, however, “fun or compulsion” might sound a lot like “win-win.” If profit is the only motive, it does not really matter how or why a game gets players to keep playing and spending money. It just matters that they do.

While it would be easy to characterize this as business corrupting game design, it is important to remember the context for many of these developments. In a November 2008 piece for Game Developer, Johnson pointed out that the rise of F2P models owed a great deal to widespread piracy. If DRM was the stick that publishers were using to wring money out of software pirates, the F2P game was an elaborate system of low-cost carrots.

“Designers have to balance making free content fun enough to engage first-time players but not so much fun that they would not yearn for something more, something that could be turned into a transaction sometime in the future,” Johnson wrote. “Every design decision must be made with a mind towards how it affects the balance between free and paid content. Thus, the true cost of piracy is that the line between game business and game design has become very blurry. [emphasis in original] As games move from boxed products to ongoing services, business decisions will become increasingly indistinguishable from design decisions.”

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That shift necessarily changes the relationship between the game and its audience. The contract with the typical videogame has been: “You like this game and want to play it, so you will buy it.” The subscription or F2P business model depends not on your desire to play the game, but on your desire to keep playing it, and to play more of it. The player has ceased to be a patron and becomes a resource.

This is not an idle fear; it’s already happened. In an astonishing piece about ZT Online, a popular Chinese MMO, Southern Weekly revealed how the game uses a number of highly exploitative mechanics to convince players to increase the amount they spend on the game. The entire game is structured like an elaborate trap.

Getting good equipment requires feeding cash into pay-to-open treasure chests, a slot-machine mechanic that never quite pays out. The very best equipment goes to the player who opened the most treasure chests that day. Players race each other to the top of the treasure-chest ladder, desperate to improve their characters. Equipment trading was banned between players, so class-specific equipment could not be swapped. Gear upgrades would frequently, and randomly, destroy all the gear and the upgrade materials. The gameplay of ZT Online forces players and factions into confrontations where better equipment (i.e. higher levels of monetary investment) predetermined the outcome. To make progress in the game, players had no choice but to open their wallets.

ZT Online might be a worst case scenario, but it’s representative of how and why a bad game might be a good business. Ideally, bad games would be swept away by better ones that could provide gamers with real fun and rewards, but that’s not necessarily what occurs. ZT Online, after all, emerged into a competitive market and quickly drew players from more traditional MMOGs. People abandoned other games for what they found in ZT Online.

We are all vulnerable to misjudgment when it comes to evaluating a game and its rewards. As Blow and Johnson have both pointed out, game designers have a narrow metric for gauging the success of a design: do people keep playing, and do they say they are having fun? That is probably how a lot of us judge our feelings toward a game. However, those questions assume that we are able to assess our enjoyment accurately, and that’s where we get into trouble.

Blow cites the latest entries in the Mario franchise as examples of how reward mechanics can obscure how intrinsically interesting a game actually is. For him, coins, extra lives, and many other trappings of the classic Mario game no longer serve much purpose beyond convincing players they are having more fun than they actually are.

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“[Nintendo has] gone to great lengths to make the game playable by a variety of difficulty levels but also to make it so that, really, lives do not matter. And you can just keep playing the game until you win it,” he explains. “But there’s still this huge Byzantine structure around lives … to maintain this kind of fiction that lives matter, even though, when you play them, it’s clear that they don’t. They totally don’t matter. And why is there all that structure in there still? It’s because it’s providing the reward system. And it’s a reward system that’s actually lying to the player in a way, because none of this is really important. But it’s pushing that little ‘reward button’ in the player’s mind every time they pick up a little gold coin and get a one-up.”

Blow suspects that the games would not hold up as well if you stripped out these elements, and that is the problem. If the game is not so intrinsically rewarding to players that they can enjoy it without these meaningless and outmoded collection mechanics, is it really that much fun?

He explains, “The core value proposition of that game, without that reward structure around lives, isn’t valuable enough to people to sustain their time playing the game. So what’s happening is that the reward system is being used to get players to play much further through the game than they normally would.”

Manipulations like this become a lot more troubling in MMOGs, with millions of players whose time in-game is measured in weeks and months, not hours and days. In fact, players are even more susceptible to misjudging how much fun they are having when playing something as packed with reward systems as an MMOG.

Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke and MIT and the author of the forthcoming The Upside of Irrationality, says that reward systems are a very easy and effective way of getting someone to continue performing a task. When I broached the subject of game rewards, he immediately brought up B.F. Skinner’s behavioral psychology experiments.

“Imagine that you’re a rat,” he says, “and you have two types of possibilities. You can either press a hundred times on a lever and then you get a piece of food, or it could be random. It could be anywhere between 1 time to 200 times, with an expected value of 100. And the question is: which one of those is more rewarding?”

The fixed reward offers many advantages: it’s reliable, you always know where you stand with it, and you know how long until you get your next reward. But its motivational power paled next to a random reward.

“What Skinner found out was that the random schedule for reinforcement was more motivating,” Ariely says. “And in fact, this became particularly salient when he stopped giving the rats any reward. And under those conditions, the rats kept on working for a really long time if they were in the random reward condition.”

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The comparison between the situation of the rat in the random reward group, and the player grinding for random loot drops, is not hard to see. What matters is, despite this manipulation, whether people are still having fun. Is it unethical to use a well-understood psychological manipulation if people actually like being manipulated?

Ariely has his doubts. “I would be very cautious about trying to maximize the fun people have,” he says. “There was this paper by George Lowenstein in which he analyzes books which have been written by people who climb mountains. And these people are miserable every moment of the experience. It’s painful, it’s cold. They lose toes. Right? Very, very miserable. And at the end of it, if they reach the top, they want to go ahead and do it again. Now if you ask them, ‘Are you happy? Are you satisfied?’ they would say, ‘No, no, no, no.’ But they would then want to do it again.”

Rob Zacny is a freelancer writer living in Cambridge, Mass. More of his writing can be found through his blog.

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