How addictive mobile games hack your brain to drain your wallet

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Is video game addiction real, and are mobile games designed to be addictive?
It's the middle of the night. You have work or school tomorrow and you really should be fast asleep – but you're not. Instead, you're on your phone matching gems or defending your base from enemy raids.

Sounds familiar? It's a situation I've also been in. Like many other people my age, I've also had a hard time letting go of a video game – not for long, thankfully, but for long enough to notice patterns and elements that made me wonder whether that game was deliberately designed to be hard to quit. And if there really are tricks to make a video game addictive, are game developers using them to their advantage?

What is addiction?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines addiction as "exhibiting a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity." One can be addicted not only to substances like tobacco or alcohol, but also to activities like gambling, shopping, or stealing.

In any case, the substance or behavior overloads the brain's reward system, causing a rush of pleasure hormones to be released when it is consumed or practiced. It makes you feel so good that you can't easily quit – even if you realize you want to, and when the behavior clearly leads to negative consequences.

Is video game addiction real?

Yes, according to the World Health Organization. In 2018, the WHO defined gaming disorder in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases as "a pattern of gaming behavior ('digital-gaming' or 'video-gaming') characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences."

Of course, there's a difference between playing games for fun and being addicted to them. Even if you play Fortnite every day, you're not addicted. Sure, you're not making the most of your time, but you're fine – as long as you know when to stop and have lunch or go to class. But once you stop showering and going out to have more time for gaming or if you quit your job and start selling your belongings to buy virtual currency, then you should seek help.

How do video games keep us playing more and more?

Think of a typical casino. What kind of images spring to mind? You're probably imagining brightly lit roulette and blackjack tables, the clacking of quarters and poker chips, the flashing and beeping of shiny slot machines. It is no secret that casinos are designed to stimulate one's senses in just the right way. These stimuli trigger the release of pleasure hormones which keep gamblers gambling and casinos in business.

A video game can also be seen as a business – and a highly profitable one at that. Video game company Supercell, known for its hits Clash of Clans, Clash Royale, and Brawl Stars, made over 1.7 billion dollars in revenue over the course of 2018. Its games are free to play, but players have the option to spend real money on in-game purchases to gain certain advantages. This is the business model followed by the great majority of mobile games today.

Since in-app purchases are the main revenue stream for free-to-play games like those mentioned above, it is in the developer's interest to keep players playing for as long as possible. Having a great game is a great start, but with literally hundreds of thousands of free mobile games available for download, a developer must find ways to make their product stand out and get people hooked.

The graphics

Some games attract players with the cheapest tricks in the book – through prominent presence of well-endowed ladies in the game's artwork, for example. I know you're probably giggling right now, but it's true: arousal makes you feel good, and players who feel good play more.

That certain games are flashy and brightly colored is no arbitrary choice. Research exploring the relationships between color and human emotions indicate that bright colors produce more positive reactions than dark ones, as pointed out in a 1995 study by Michael Hemphill published in The Journal of Genetic Psychology.

The difficulty

It is also common for games to start off as ridiculously easy while giving the player a sense of great accomplishment: flashy fireworks and triumphant sounds appear when they win or level up, even if they haven't done anything. In Mario Kart Tour, you'll win the first couple of races without even touching your phone during the race. No power-ups, no skills, no steering required. Try it for yourself if you don't believe me.

But after such initial euphoria, a game may get more difficult or force you to wait before you can play again. Naturally, it will offer you a small in-game purchase for your progress to continue. 

The in-game purchases

In-game purchases are marketed in a way retailers have been using to their advantage for years. Especially for you, that $10 chest of gems is 50% off today only! And I see how one tiny purchase can lead to another once you get that in-game advantage. I personally know someone who's poured hundreds of dollars into mobile games, and they admit that doing so makes quitting the game harder. That's not just a game anymore. It's kind of like an investment that you have to sustain.

The feeling of a near miss

Okay, Candy Crush Saga players: how many of you have been a single step away from beating a level? All hands up? Good. And I'm sure we all remember Flappy Bird, where each frustrating run made you feel like you were just a hair away from beating your record... of 4.

In her book "Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas," author Natasha Dow Schüll writes about the sensation of a near miss that gamblers experience when the slot machine is just one symbol away from paying out a prize. Slot machines have been taking advantage of this phenomenon since the mid 1900's. The reason: when a gambler is just one symbol away from winning, they don't feel like they've lost. They believe that they've almost won, so the urge to pour more money into the machine grows stronger. 

And video games in particular take advantage of this urge. As soon as you die, many would offer you to spend real money on gems or whatever to keep playing without losing your progress. Usually, there's only a brief time window during which you can make the transaction which makes this an impulse decision, not one that you can think thoroughly. 

The false feeling of having control

Here's one more trick casinos have mastered ages ago. Gambling machines are designed to give players a sense of having control over the outcome of each roll – there are handles to pull and buttons to press. In reality, whether yo win or lose may still be determined only by the machine's configuration. Similarly, games give you multiple loot crates, and you get to pick which one to open, even though your selection may make no difference whatsoever. 

Is there anything wrong with any of this?

Clearly, a huge chunk of mobile games are designed to be harder to leave, but at the end of the day, the practices I described above do not break any laws and are not proven to cause any harm. And the WHO clarifies that "gaming disorder affects only a small proportion of people who engage in digital- or video-gaming activities," according to studies. Video game addiction is indeed real, but it is a much lesser issue compared to abuse of substances like alcohol and tobacco, the abuse of which causes much greater damage to people's health and society as a whole. 

Also, I can't blame developers for anything they do, even if I don't think that it's the most ethical thing to do. They're making games to make money, and they're simply marketing their product the way they see fit. It is only logical for a business to give its product the best chance of succeeding.  

But I can't shake off the feeling that mobile gaming is suffering because for a majority of developers, making money has higher priority than making quality games. It's as if nobody strives to make an excellent game anymore. A game has to be just fun enough to get people hooked – and to get them to pay over and over. I consider paid titles like Monument Valley, Leo's Fortune, and The Room series to be more than just games. To me, they're works of art! But they're a rarity – and that's no surprise when the revenue they generate pales in comparison with the billions raked in by today's most popular mobile games.

I think I'm gonna go and play Contra now.

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