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January 2011

What is Game Addiction?

Extra Lives Is pathological game addiction a real phenomena we should be concerned about, or something cooked up by the news services as the latest scandalous story to report? In this piece, I will take seriously the charges against digital games in terms of the destructive effects of pathological addiction, and offer a practical approach for dealing with this issue going forward.


Pathological Gaming

It is futile for anyone to argue that digital games are not addictive, given that for as long as we have been making them we have praised games precisely for their addictiveness – indeed, in the 1980s some videogame magazines used “Addictiveness” as one of their scoring criteria when reviewing games. But this flippant use of “addictive” is of the same nature as when we complain that processed potato snacks are “addictive” (after all ‘Once you pop, you can’t stop!’). We need to be as clear as we can about the distinction between compulsiveness and destructive addiction if we are to understand this issue, but to do so we run up against a major issue concerning the role of medicine in modern culture.

As Ivan Illich has criticised at length in Medical Nemesis (a book taken very seriously by the medical establishment), the medicalisation of life that has developed over the previous few centuries has transplanted the responsibility for life and death away from the individual and into the hands of medical professionals, whose decisions are afforded greater authority because of the role of scientific research in underpinning their attitudes. However, this perspective ignores a variety of problematic situations that result from individuals being disempowered from their own wellbeing and, as Illich forcibly argues, the medical establishment is quite capable of causing considerable harm in its pursuit of health.

This is not the place to pursue Illich’s arguments in depth, but it is important to the current discussion to recognise Illich’s point that as soon as life is seen in terms of disorders that differ from normal functioning we invite the creation of a proliferation of categories of dysfunction to be “treated” – the responsibility of the individual to take care of themselves is superseded by an assumption that when one is “sick” one must go to doctors for “treatment”. To question the merits of this perspective is not to dispute the power of medicine to heal disease or infirmity, but rather to challenge the assumptions concerning what we shall consider “sickness” in this sense. This issue is of crucial importance to the question of pathological addiction.

Considerable dispute exists over “whether game addiction exists”, by which people typically mean whether or not videogame addiction is a disorder that meets the criteria for inclusion in a diagnostic manual, such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association. But if we put aside our distinctions between one kind of game and another, we will immediately be forced to accede that game addiction is already a recognised pathological disorder, namely Pathological Gambling. The DSM-IV states that the criteria for this disorder is a minimum of five out of the following ten symptoms:

  1. Preoccupation. Frequent thoughts about gaming.
  2. Tolerance. Greater or more frequent gaming required to experience the same rush.
  3. Withdrawal. Attempts to cease produce restlessness or irritability.
  4. Escape. Gaming is used to escape problems in real life.
  5. Chasing. Big losses result in intensified gaming to try and win back what’s been lost.
  6. Lying. The extent of the habit is hidden from friends or family.
  7. Loss of Control. Attempts to reduce gaming are unsuccessful.
  8. Illegal acts. Theft, fraud etc. pursued to raise funds for more gaming.
  9. Risked significant relationship. Continuation of the habit even after risking or losing a relationship, job or significant opportunity.
  10. Bailout. Turning to friends or family for financial assistance as a result of gaming.

These criteria were written about gamblers, of course, and (5) doesn’t transpose well into digital games or compulsive board games like trading card games (e.g. Magic: The Gathering). Nonetheless, if you take the typical World of Warcraft “addict” then meeting five of these criteria isn’t exactly difficult. A student who drops out of University to play WoW fulltime almost certainly meets criteria (1), (3), (4), (7) and (9). Recall the speech in 2008 by Federal Communications Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate that declared that “one of the top reasons for college drop-outs in the U.S. is online gaming addiction — such as World of Warcraft”. The boundaries between gambling and gaming gets narrower the more effective we become at making our games “addictive”.

It is for this reason that I see it as an extremely dangerous move when news reports that focus on “videogame addiction” (i.e. pathological gaming with digital games) feature advocates trying to defend the medium by saying that there is no recognised medical condition for this kind of addiction (as Ian Livingstone stated in the recent Panorama report, and many others have done on different occasions) since this is to stake the status of the medium of digital games on the whims of the medical community. If the medical community changes its mind (as it does with considerable regularity) we could be left up a certain creek without suitable implements. Do we really want to gamble that the next edition of the DSM, due in 2012, will not recognise pathological gaming as a disorder distinct from pathological gambling?


Escape to Fiction

Two weeks ago, I wrote about The Power of Games, adapting philosopher Noël Carroll’s work on the success of movies as a medium to digital games. The two key points of discussion were the extent of widespread engagement (i.e. how many different people can enjoy the medium) and the intensity of engagement (i.e. how strongly the medium captivates attention). It is this latter issue which is of key importance to the topic of game addiction, since digital games can produce an intense engagement that far exceeds that of a movie, which Carroll notes is more effective at sustaining engagement than a book. But it’s worth noting that even a book can captivate addictively – we use terms such as “page turner” and phrases like “I couldn’t put it down!” precisely as a means of praising books, just as gamers applaud titles that succeed in being “addictive”.

Modern culture is addicted to fiction – or perhaps I should say habituated to fiction. We scarcely think twice about the amount of television or films watched, the number of novels or comics read, the volume of songs listened to, the sheer extent to which fiction occupies our attention and provides our most basic forms of entertainment. Since even sport can be seen as a kind of fiction, the cultural role of imaginary media is so vast we tend to be completely blind to it. Games, digital or otherwise, are another form of entertainment fiction that we can choose to enjoy, and as such, there is no cause for alarm when someone chooses to play a game instead of watching TV. All things considered, there are a great many games that are more educational, more aesthetically interesting, or more culturally valuable than a typical soap opera or some equivalently compulsive content in non-interactive media. We don’t panic when someone tunes into a reality game show every week, even though their interest in the show might border on the obsessive.

The problem with modern digital games isn’t that they can be as or more compelling than other media (at least for those players with the skills to tackle them), but that the duration of play can attain disturbing scales. A movie might enrapture you for a couple of hours, you might read a novel feverishly over the space of a few days, and a TV show might hold your attention for some twenty hours over a year, but none of these things are likely to disrupt your life significantly. Conversely, a World of Warcraft or Call of Duty player might rack up 20 or 30 hours a week for a year, or indeed for many years. It is because the volume of time that can be sunk into the fictional worlds of games approaches the infinite that destructive addiction is plausible for this medium but largely implausible for movies, television or novels.

This is not to say that everyone who plays these games will destroy their life – this is utter nonsense. Most players of online games live perfectly happy lives, and the time they spend playing merely constitutes a particularly enjoyable hobby. The vast majority of digital games for the overwhelming majority of players are utterly insignificant causes for concern. I played Pokémon for perhaps a hundred hours in what I am happy to call an addiction, but eventually I stopped. I may blame it for some insomnia, but it certainly did not cause any lasting harm (although I have been reluctant to play another title in the series since, simply because I don’t have the time). A handful of games, and a couple of MUDs at University, have tied up significant chunks of my time like this, but never in a way that has prevented me from living my life, and the same is true for millions of gamers.

We sometimes get into trouble when thinking about game addiction because of the tendency to think of things as being “addictive” (e.g. “heroin is addictive”), which misleads us as to what is actually involved in pathological addiction. True, heroin can be (as the comedians quip) “quite more-ish”. But plenty of medical patients receive equivalent opiates for pain relief without forming a habit. A serious drug habit develops not just because the substance being abused is physiologically and psychologically addictive but also because the person in question uses the drug to escape their situation – hence the prevalence of destructive drug habits among impoverished urban communities. So it is with digital games. Yes, they are addictive, but problem gaming doesn’t happen because games are dangerously addictive things, but because the player in question flees the real world for a better life in a fictional world. As Edward Castronova and Jane McGonigal have argued, if the exodus into fictional worlds demonstrates anything it’s that the real world is “broken”, although they don't necessarily agree as to what this should mean.

In 2006, a clinic opened in Amsterdam to treat compulsive computer gaming. It eventually closed its doors, claiming that ninety percent of the young people who seek treatment for gaming addiction were not addicted, and that compulsive gaming should be considered a social not a psychological problem. In a story reported by the BBC in 2008, the founder of the clinic, Keith Bakker, stated:

These kids come in showing some kind of symptoms that are similar to other addictions and chemical dependencies. But the more we work with these kids the less I believe we can call this addiction. What many of these kids need is their parents and their school teachers – this is a social problem.

Similarly, a report out of Singapore last week claimed that one in ten students in that country were “videogame addicts” but stated that the kids in question were already suffering from social problems that obsessive game playing simply exacerbated. One critic of the study stated it was probably measuring preoccupation not addiction, and touted the usual line about the lack of an acknowledged diagnosis for the disorder, but this is beside the point. Disputing that pathological gaming can occur shouldn’t be focal point of this debate, else we will cede our right to debate the issue to medical experts whose labelling of “disorders” can be extremely suspect, particularly when lucrative pharmaceutical money is on the table.

The last time I was living in the US, I was shocked at the way commercials for pharmaceuticals offering treatment for “restless leg syndrome” were repeatedly aired on television, encouraging anyone who had difficulty sleeping to ask their doctor to prescribe the relevant pills. Many doctors have publically criticised this kind of “disease mongering”, and castigated not only the pharmaceutical industry for lighting the fire but also the news media for fanning the flames. When “treatment” is big business, impartiality as to what constitutes “sickness” becomes difficult to attain, and medical categorisation loses any credible claim to objectivity. This is part of Illich’s critique of medicine that is as true today as it was when he wrote Medical Nemesis thirty five years ago. Similarly, when “play” becomes big business, the probity of companies that supply it needs to be subjected to scrutiny, but the news media’s penchant for melodramatics cannot be permitted to make mountains out of molehills.



We do not need and should not want doctors to render judgement on digital games as a medium, but we who work in the games industry do need to be honest and forthright about how the artworks we make can be abused. Just as poverty is the hidden cause of heroin addicts, social problems are the hidden cause of pathological gaming. Lonely, withdrawn, socially inept or phobic individuals, people whose lives don’t quite come together, or those who suffer a major setback, can all fall into digital games as a crutch that can become pathological, hiding away in fictional worlds from the situations they are fleeing from. These are real problems that isolated individuals are facing, and bringing in the medical community to police this issue isn’t going to help resolve them.

I am tempted to suggest that those of us that make games have a duty to help those who end up abusing them, but I doubt it’s practicable for us to do so. For a start, such people are by nature of their circumstances invisible. The very few incidents of online gamers dying under tragic circumstances were difficult to prevent precisely because the people in question lacked a supporting social network of friends and family. The erosion of community that has escalated over the last century has brought about serious issues that we have largely ignored, in part because of a tendency to think of problems in terms of diagnosis and prescription, not in terms of responsibilities, relationships and society. Illich’s critiques of the modern world have not lost their sting: when we hand over all our crises to experts, we absolve ourselves from any duty of care and turn a blind eye to our collective troubles because they we have decreed that they are ‘somebody else’s problem’.

We ought to think carefully about how we are using the escalating reward schedules that help create compulsive digital games, and in particular about creating games which can be played for indefinite lengths of time. Commercial success cannot be the only criteria by which we judge the medium of digital games if we want to be taken seriously as an art form, and neither can legions of doting fans be taken as absolution for marketing a game that can be all too easily abused as an escape from reality. When companies do not behave responsibly, the law is eventually called in to intercede. Because it is recognised that pathological gambling can be a problem, casinos operate under stringent regulations. If we do not want to suffer similar restrictions in the future it behooves us as an industry to be responsible about access to those game mechanics that we know can be addictive and that may lead to pathological gaming among a small minority of vulnerable individuals.

Agree? Disagree? Share your views in the comments!

To Vote or Not to Vote

Today I voted in the Game Developer's Choice Awards (good luck Minecraft!) and declined to vote in the 14th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards. This was because the latter event (unlike the former) would not allow me to abstain in any category - I had to pick a candidate to vote for in each category, even if my choice was between games I have not played and games I did not want to win. What am I supposed to do in such a situation - vote for a game I know nothing about, or pick one at random? Neither is appealing.

I'm afraid I tend to despise these industry award ceremonies because they provide trophies for games that have already acheived phenomenal commercial success. I have no interest in determining which 100 million dollar project gets a cup to go with their big pile of money. When the industry has an awards event which, like IGF, allows games to be judged on their merits and not on their notoriety sign me up as a judge. Until then, I will continue to register a lot of abstentions, and decline to vote when I am not allowed to abstain.

The Grind Mystery: Escalating Reward Schedules

levelup Given the tremendous volume of psychological research that has been conducted on reward schedules, why is it that the most basic form used in digital games – that behind the grind in every computer RPG, and many other games beside – does not seem to exist in the literature?

I’ve written before about reward schedules in games (also known as schedules of reinforcement in the psychology literature), and as many will know these are considered for the most part to have four basic kinds: fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval and variable interval. (If you are unfamiliar with these terms, please follow the previous link for an explanation, given in the second set of bullet points). In the past, I’ve suggested that the levelling mechanics from RPGs (now present in a growing majority of blockbuster commercial games) can be understood as a fixed ratio schedule. But this overlooks an important question.

If, as psychologists maintain, these four schedules are the basic effective forms of operant conditioning (that is, training for behaviour), why is it that the RPG levelling structure – which originated with Dungeons & Dragons – doesn’t use a fixed ratio at all, but in fact a ratio that gradually increases over iterations? For instance, a typical D&D experience point curve goes 0, 1000, 3000, 6000, 10000, 15000, 21000 etc. Let’s call this an escalating ratio schedule for convenience, or an escalating reward schedule. If psychologists are correct that the four basic schedules listed above are essentially fundamental, it seems quite anomalous that games (which are the example par excellence of reward schedules in action) should prefer an escalating schedule, and equally queer that the academic paperwork seems (as far as I have been able to ascertain) to completely overlook this form as significant.

What’s more, it’s not that the effectiveness of escalating schedules is unknown outside of game design, since animal trainers (as I discuss in the post on Positive Game Design) use escalating schedules as a matter of course to teach behaviour, giving jackpots for the first success, then rewarding every instance, then rewarding with decreasing frequency, before eventually rewarding at random. In the context of animal training, this is largely seen as starting with a fixed ratio (e.g. reward every time) then changing to variable ratio (i.e. random reinforcement). This fits with the literature, but it doesn’t fit so well with what is common in game design. Either the way escalating schedules function in games is maintained solely for reasons of tradition, and games would do better to use fixed followed by variable schedules (which I doubt, except from a certain perspective I’ll discuss shortly) or the escalating schedules are themselves significant forms of operant conditioning that are overlooked in the literature because the prior paradigm (established by B.F. Skinner et al) encourages psychologists to interpret in terms of its pre-existing ‘boxes’.

From my own experience of both animal training and game design, the escalating reward schedule is the ultimate form of operant conditioning when you want to motivate continued interest. It produces the same “post-reinforcement pause” (e.g. slightly reduced interest after levelling up) of a fixed schedule, hence the tendency to consider them under this banner, but they don’t allow the player to just repeat the same activity, because of the escalating requirement for the next reward (e.g. level). This helps maintain interest, since the player is encouraged to actively think about what they’re doing, which is itself rewarding. (It’s less clear to me why this should matter to my dog, who is less likely to be thinking in these terms, but still learns behaviour far more effectively with an escalating schedule).

It seems as if the merit of the escalating schedule is that in the early stages, the rewards come regularly, which helps the habit set in, while later on the rewards come further apart which gives more time to focus on the nature of the activity rather than having the activity overshadowed by the reward. Hence, in the case of teaching my dog to fetch, the rewards at the outset get him interested in what’s going on, then when the rewards come less frequently the activity itself (running after a ball or frisbee in this example) starts to become its own reward, and the food treats are merely the icing on the cake. In the case of players, the low experience point requirements for levelling at the beginning of a game (or the low target values in the case of Achievements) generate a high awareness of the rewards, then the escalating schedule increases the space between rewards to provide more time to think about how to achieve the goals or enjoy the process of attaining them.

It’s striking that almost all games using escalating schedules use an end point. Hence Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft and almost any other RPG you’d care to mention with an experience system has a maximum level and/or a point at which the next level has a fixed value rather than an escalating value. The escalating schedule becomes counter-productive beyond the point that the player maintains interest in the next reward (e.g. level) – if, for instance, the amount of work required to reach the next reward seems insufficient to motivate proceeding. It is at at this point that the experience of escalating schedules ceases to be addictive fun and becomes grinding. Precisely how this term is used is as a pejorative to refer to conscious awareness of the ratio schedule, and hence the onset of boredom with respect to the process in question.

It’s equally striking that once the end point kicks in, games have supplemental systems based upon variable reward schedules at the back end. In the case of World of Warcraft, for instance, random rare treasure acquisition (“rare drops”) kick in near the maximum levels to maintain interest – which is exactly what animal trainers advocate when they talk about switching to rewarding randomly once the desired behaviour is established. This isn’t surprising since variable schedules are the most addictive, as any manufacturer of slot machines will tell you. The literature states that variable ratio schedules produce both the highest rate of responding and the greatest resistance to extinction, which is psychologist speak for how to make a slot jockey, or, for that matter, a WoW addict.

So despite the lack of discussion in the psychology literature concerning escalating schedules, the general way reward schedules are used in games does fit with the academic perspective on them: fixed ratio schedules to generate a high level of activity to begin with (to establish the habit) followed by variable ratio schedules to power up the degree of addiction. All that’s missing from the papers discussing this is the importance of the escalating ratio schedule (as opposed to the strictly fixed schedule), but from the point of view of game design this is a highly significant omission, since this pattern is utterly de rigueur, and not (I would suggest) for purely traditional reasons, since game designers would rather reinvent the wheel than borrow an existing wheel any day of the week. Game design patterns that persist do so primarily because they are successful in some manner pertinent to the games they are used in, and only rarely because of a culture of momentum.

The grind mystery, then, is why the escalating reward structures that produce the experience of grinding (which, despite the pejorative, are the basis of the core fun for an ever increasing number of games) are not considered in the psychological literature at all, given their effectiveness in games (and, I am positing, their greater effectiveness when compared to fixed schedules). Does this reflect an oversight on the part of psychological researchers? Or perhaps, as I have suggested here, it is because the gamer experience involves thinking about what to do and how to do it, and this parallel source of reward (i.e. fun) can be strangled out of existence by a game that doesn’t provide enough slack to allow for it. That’s the grind. And that’s why gamers complain about it, even though they continue to buy those games whose designs depend upon it for their success.

The Power of Games

pac_man_seating Where does the power of games lie, that they can entertain hundreds of millions of players, and engage gamers so intensely that they can forget even to eat?

In 1985, philosopher Noël Carroll wrote about “The Power of Movies” in a seminal paper exploring why the moving image had become “the dominant art form of the twentieth century”. The paper was unique in that rather than looking at cinema as a medium it considered the Hollywood blockbuster-style movie as a genre in its own right, and then explored what it might be about these films that made them so intense for so many people. The power of movies, in Carroll’s eyes, consists of two elements: widespread engagement (movies engage a broad mass audience) and intense engagement (movies hold interest strongly).

What intrigues me about Carroll’s observations is that these are two phenomena now shared with digital games. Mass market games (e.g. Wii, Facebook, Scrabble) have generated widespread engagement, while titles targeting the gamer hobbyists (e.g. Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Minecraft) generate intense engagement. This leads to obvious questions about how Carroll’s account of the power of movies relates to the power of games: what is the relationship between the two?


Widespread Engagement

According to Carroll, the mass appeal that movies are capable of is best understood by their accessibility, which he ties to three aspects. Firstly, the use of pictorial representation, a form which is less demanding than alternatives. Carroll makes the point that watching TV or a movie is considerably less demanding than reading a book – we can still follow a film’s story even when we are quite tired, but reading a book can be a challenge when we are enervated.

If we turn our attention to games, however, those games that have wide appeal are not necessarily or wholly pictorial in their appeal. Certainly the digital games with mass market appeal are visual in part – Wii Sports (65 million) or FarmVille (60 million players), say – but what about Monopoly (250 million), Scrabble (150 million) or Trivial Pursuit (100 million)? In so much as these games feature depictions, they are ornamental and not representational – with the singular exception of the house and the hotel in Monopoly. (To put these numbers in context, we can estimate that perhaps 250 million people watched Titanic, perhaps 75 million watched Slumdog Millionaire, so these game sales figures are clearly sufficient to justify the claim to widespread engagement).

Carroll’s second point of accessibility for movies is the use of variable framing, which draws the viewer’s attention to whatever is most relevant at any given time. He contrasts this to theatre, where the audience is presented with the entire stage and is left to their own devices to establish what is of interest. But this point doesn’t transfer well to games, which do not use this kind of variable framing and frequently expect the player to interpret a great many different elements in order to establish what to do (e.g. FarmVille, Scrabble) or leave it largely to the player to spot what is of interest in any given situation (Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed), albeit often with the help of additional informational tools.

The third point of accessibility raised by Carroll is the one he places most stock in: the use of narrative, which he calls “the most pervasive form of explaining human actions”. Following Russian film-makers V.I. Pudovkin and L. Kuleshov, Carroll suggests that the story in movies can be understood via a ‘question and answer’ model of narrative (what he calls erotetic narrative), whereby earlier scenes raise questions (“who will survive when the ship sinks?”) and later scenes answer them (“not Leonardo DiCaprio”).

But again, this point does not transfer well to games – in the case of almost all the examples given above, the predominantly played forms of these games offers little overt narrative interest, and putting it in terms of a question/answer model presents little of plausible interest beyond “who wins?”

It seems at first glance that either Carroll’s account of the widespread appeal of movies is in error, or the widespread appeal of games (both digital and board games) result from different factors. I believe Carroll is more or less correct in his assessment of why movies enjoy widespread appeal: the accessibility of audio-visual representation, the ease of following the action, and the universal appeal of narrative do indeed seem to be highly pertinent issues in the appeal of mass market films. But the accessibility of mass market games have to be understood differently.

Carroll says: “The fact that movies tend to be narrative, concerned primarily with depictions of human actions, immediately suggests one of the reasons they are so accessible.” Indeed, we are all quite capable of connecting with human narrative because we quite naturally imagine ourselves in the situations we see the protagonists depicted. This employment of imagination, which Carroll does not remark upon, is an important part of the puzzle once we widen our attention to take in games as well as films.

Those games which enjoy widespread appeal represent familiar situations – sporting matches, property development, farms, spelling and word problems all have in common a degree of familiarity of setting. This is important because, as I have previously noted, imagination is a talent in varying supply. To achieve mass appeal, familiarity isn’t just useful it is entirely essential.

Whereas narrative media like novels and films engage us via their characters, the thin fictional worlds that attach to Monopoly or FarmVille engage via acquisitions, that is, rewards and the goals that promise them. Players of both are motivated not by human interest but by greed (albeit, in the latter case, this greed is recast as prudent stewardship). The joy of mass market games is getting. Even in Scrabble, what motivates the dedicated Scrabble player is how big they can score – double and triple word score squares, the bonus points for using all the tiles, the race to go out, all these elements of the game can be understood as greed, the desire to get, the need to win.

Just as every human is always already capable of understanding a narrative, every human is always already motivated to win. It is fundamental to our biology, and games can push this button far more effectively than anything else.


Intense Engagement

When we turn our attention to the question of intense engagement, the circumstances change considerably, since those games that achieve widespread engagement are generally not the same games as those that achieve the most intense engagement. Furthermore, the intensity of engagement that a digital game can produce far exceeds that of a conventional board game or a movie. There can be little doubt among gamers that a player engaged in the multiplayer experience of Call of Duty or World of Warcraft, or a lone player engaged in Minecraft or another computer RPG, has an experience of engagement that exceeds the intensity of almost any movie that they have watched. What accounts for these circumstances?

Carroll attempts to explain the intensity of engagement that movie audiences experience by reference to “those features that enable movies to depict a very high degree of clarity”, which he does so principally by reference to the use of variable framing, mentioned above:

...the movie spectator is always looking where he or she should be looking, always attending to the right details and thereby comprehending, nearly effortlessly, the ongoing action precisely in the way it is meant to be understood... The element of cognitive clarity afforded by movies may well account, too, for the widespread intensity of engagement that movies elicit.

When we come at this idea with reference to digital games, Carroll’s account does not seem to cross over. These games generate the same or greater intensity of engagement but do not guide perception in anything like the same degree. Indeed, the player is often left very much to their own devices in order to establish what they should be paying attention to in any given situation, a chaotic circumstance that only becomes manageable because of a clarity of purpose gained by the internal goals of a game e.g. we know what to do in an FPS because the basic goals are set by the circumstance: find and kill the enemies. Knowing this context affords clarity to the situations the player encounters.

It is worth remarking that digital games place greater cognitive demands on the participant than movies, yet still generate intense engagement. Recall Carroll’s example that reading a book is harder than watching a movie; we may similarly say that playing a digital game is harder than watching a movie – most middle-aged gamers will have had the experience of being too exhausted from work to consider playing a videogame. On the other hand, once one becomes engaged with these games, the intense engagement can sustain interest, even against exhaustion – as can be seen in the sad cases of gamers who have ‘played themselves to death.’

However, there's something to be said for Carroll’s notion of a fixed focus: the game and the movie both allow the individual to stare at one thing, the screen. The theatre or the board game does demand awareness of a greater number of things. In this sense, Carroll’s account of clarity can be applied to digital games: the clarity in this case is not that of variable framing, which drives the viewer’s attention to whatever is salient for the narrative, but the clarity of presence in a fictional world that is afforded by agency. The player can take actions which have consequences, and those consequences generate rewards. It is the expectation of these rewards (which I have termed Grip) which is the source of the intense engagement that digital games can produce.

Carroll too recognises that intense engagement arises from expectation, and notes that the question/answer (erotetic) structure of movies creates these expectations:

Given the erotetic model, we can say what it is that audiences expect: they expect answers to questions that earlier events have made salient... If it is a general feature of our cognitive make-up that, all things being equal, we not only want but expect answers to questions that have assertively been put before us, this helps explain our widespread, intense engagement with movies. Even if the question is as insignificant to us as whether the suburban adolescent in Risky Business will be found out by his parents, our curiosity keeps us riveted to the screen until it is satisfied.

In essence, this description is expressing how Grip occurs with narrative forms. This also leads to closure, which Carroll expresses as “that moment when all the saliently posed and sustained questions that the movie has raised have been answered.” This is also the case in a digital game which has a narrative backbone: many gamers have persevered with a story-driven game in order to get closure on the story, even if the game per se has not held their attention as well as others. Thus it is that digital games can benefit from story content – and I mean expressly here static story content – even when that content appears simply as miniature “reward animations” that punctuate play.

Although digital games generate expectation and closure by substantially different methods to movies, Carroll’s account of the causes of engagement can be adapted to games with great ease. It is precisely the way that modern reward schedules, such as those in Call of Duty’s multiplayer, or World of Warcraft, sustain interest: by having a plethora of unanswered questions (“When will I level up?” “What will happen when I fill this bar?”) every one of which generates new questions (“What will I do with the points I got for levelling up?” “How can I best fill the next bar?”).

For those players with sufficient imagination to control their own play more explicitly, games like Minecraft allow the player to decide on their own questions, and create their own answers, each of which generates by the structure of the play new activities that cause the process to snowball into an experience of intense engagement in the pursuit of self-made goals. There is no stated way to attain closure in such a game: the player will remain engaged as long as they continue to imagine new future states that they will strive to attain.



Carroll’s account of how movies generate widespread and intense engagement can be applied to games in so much as media which enjoys widespread appeal must be accessible and familiar, while media which creates intense engagement must create expectation and hold off closure for as long as possible.

The power of games thus lies in their capacity to generate widespread engagement through the universal appeal of winning which games by their nature are unparalleled at supplying, and to generate intense engagement by inserting the player more deeply into a fictional world via agency, such that their own actions lead to rewards which in turn can generate the promise of yet more rewards in an ever widening gamut of goals to pursue.

Gearing Up

Still getting ready to face down the games industry in 2011, so it may be a week or two before I have some game-related posts ready. However, I'm working on a few things relating to game addiction (later this month?) and the aesthetics of games and art-games (later this spring?) which should be interesting.

More soon!