I’d Like Fewer Addictive Games, Thanks

I’d Like Fewer Addictive Games, Thanks

Describing something as “addictive” is often innocuous, even if the word can mean wildly different things. Saying that nutella is addictive is not the same thing as saying that a drug is addictive, for example. One of these is meant as a compliment, the other…not so much.

When we’re talking about games, describing them as addictive is how many of us to laud compelling design decisions that make it difficult to stop playing.

When I say that Call of Duty is addictive, for example, what I’m really talking about is how thrilling twitch-based shooting is, and how remarkable the game is at providing constant adrenaline rushes. That also explains why it often sounds like we’re describing a drug: you can’t get enough of it, and in some way, that feels seductive.

The most recent example of our obsession with the word would have to be SimCity, a franchise that is known for being addictive.

“I’ve been playing SimCity since late last week, and, like every previous version, I’ve found it to be unyieldingly addictive,” writes Slate.

“If addiction is a freight train, then SimCity is the roaring locomotive pulling you into the night,” writes Polygon.

We know what they mean, right? “Addictive” means it’s a good game — because that’s what we mean when we say something makes us lose track of time, when something refuses to let us go.

I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that conflation. For one, we are celebrating compulsion. Sorry, that’s gross.

Addictive is a business imperative more than anything now, and it’s one that we’ve embraced with open arms.

Furthermore, defaulting to the word is too easy. What about not being able to put a game down is good, exactly? The clincher isn’t that you weren’t able to put the game down. That’s merely the effect of a worthwhile design choice.

Something isn’t worthwhile because you can’t stop doing it, after all. What’s good about Hotline Miami for example is that the levels resemble short puzzles, the music puts you in the zone and, similarly to Call of Duty, the quick pace is invigorating. You might die in a few seconds. Or, you might kill everything in your path. You play to find out.

The inability to put the game down? Hardly the thing that makes Hotline Miami worth playing. Though in this specific case, if we did talk about the game in the context of it feeling like a drug, that would be thematically congruent with the game as a whole.

Further, knowing that games are often engineered with the explicit purpose of being “addictive” feels uncomfortable. Because let’s not mince words here, game developers like it when we can’t put their games down — and that’s not just limited to developers who make Skinner-box-like social games.

The more you play, the more you might buy. Welcome to the world of games-as-services, DLC and microtransactions. Addictive is a business imperative more than anything now, and it’s one that we’ve embraced with open arms.

When we like to measure a game’s worth in relation to how many hours of playtime it can give us, our approval isn’t surprising. The more hours a game allows us to sink into it, the better. That hour-to-dollar ratio has got to be just right, else it’s easier to feel that a game has cheated you. Which is stupid, because time and time again short games prove they can be worth your money.

And what of the ethics of an addictive game? I suspect most people would, without hesitation, say that a developer should not be held accountable for the unhealthy habits a player forms…while ignoring that it’s likely a game was built with the explicit purpose of being too compelling to put down. To what degree can we absolve developers of their own potential responsibility over the works that they create? I don’t think the answer is as clear-cut as some would assume.

Regardless, something curious happens now that I’ve realised too many games try to dominate my time. I play lots of multiplayer games, and these are titles that I’ve put in an absurd number of hours into — often, because they’re designed so that that happens.

Endless levels — everything has an effing level. You have a level. Sometimes your gun has a level. There are typically weekly/daily challenges, and sometimes even those challenges have levels. There’s also always a new map pack on the horizon. Double/Triple XP weekends. Cosmetic unlocks.

Let’s not forget the most absurd part of this all: sometimes, we’ll willingly erase all of that progress with “prestiging.” All of these come together as if to say, “Play some more, why don’t you?”

No, I think not. More and more often, likely in the wee hours of the night after a gaming binge, I’ll look up in a daze from my screen. I’ll put my controller down.

Play some more, why don’t you?

I’ll look at whatever game I’m playing and go, you know what? I’m not interested in a game that wants to monopolize my time. I don’t want a game that is equally as enjoyable on the thousandth hour as it is in the hundredth.

Screw the addictive games. Note that I’m not saying “screw the good games;” of course I want good games. But I think I’d rather play a game that is OK with letting me play other games, a game that feels enough confidence in itself and respects me enough let me have a life outside of that specific game.

We should want more games that know how to package what they need to communicate to us in a sensible number of hours, not games that make it hard to let go.


  • What a moronic article. When reviewers say a game is addictive, they are simply saying it has compelling gameplay. That is a good thing.

    • The point is it’s a lazy and misleading word choice. There are games that you can’t put down because they are good, and there are games that you can’t put down because they have finely tuned reward schedules. A game can be both, or only one. The vast majority of Facebook games are not good games, but they are addictive games. Diablo 2 is (arguably) good AND addictive. Arkham Asylum is just good.

      Being addictive in the absence of being good is about the worst thing that a game can be, and as freemium models become more ubiquitous we’re going to see a lot more developer attention slated towards this precise zone of design. Which is why we need to stop using it as a synonym for good. Instead of asking, “Does it keep you playing?” we should ask “WHY does it keep you playing?” And the answer, ideally, should be ever deepening gameplay, compelling story, an enjoyable world, or a rewarding sense of player skill development. Not just that the numbers go up in a semi-random pattern.

      • I would argue Arkham Asylum is good AND addictive where it continually rewards your progression whereas Arkham City was good but not addictive…

      • Well for me personally, if a game isn’t good I don’t play it, even if it is ‘addictive’.

        And for word choice, I can’t think of a better way to describe that one-more-turn feeling I get playing Civilization late at night and early in the morning. Just because a word can have negative connotations in some contexts means it shouldn’t be used at all? It’s all about the context.

        • I get that one more feeling about Xcom lol. Then I get that ‘SHIT I shouldnt have done that turn’ feeling afterward as my world tumbles into destruction…

    • Author is also addicted to writing articles that are consistently about her avoiding personal responsibility. There *MAY* be a pattern forming here…

    • My god how on earth is this person still employed.

      This is by far the most idiotic article I have read in my entire life, and i read the article where a politician says that fucking games are worse than guns for america.

      Like seriously, your using the word addictive completely wrong.

      When a Gamer say BLOPS2 is addictive, they are not saying its causing them physical addiction (bwahahah we all know that doesn’t exist, only weak people such as your self unable to exercise self control as you yourself stated in this article).

      What they are saying is the game is so well made that they want to keep playing it, as much as they can, because its still fun at that 50th hour. THIS IS A FUCKING GOOD THING, to think otherwise is beyond insane. They are NOT saying this game is giving them anxiety nausea and the shakes because they can’t play it anymore like some strung out junkie. They are however excited with anticipation to play said game.

      There is a massive difference between the two and i honestly have to question your mental state for you to even write such a ridiculous article (mixing the two up) in the first place. Your articles are always beyond asinine but this borders on delusional, you are effectively saying that games that are too much fun and too well made are a bad thing. Your not even talking about the mmo’s that try and trick your mind into thinking your having fun, but the real games that are actually fun even when your playing for the umpteenth hour.

      So please go see someone seek a medical professional, if not for yourself at least for my sake, so i dont have to read something this backwards again…..

  • The author should do some research into the nature of addiction. What some people find addictive, others do not. Whilst some gameplay elements are designed to elicit an OCD like response (zynga games, some EA games) they’re not present in every game. This article is just retarded.

  • No matter how good a game is, developers can’t take control of your free will. I think it’s a great thing that companies have made games that are good enough to soak up all of your time. How you choose to spend your time, however, is entirely up to you.

    If you have an addictive personality & have a problem with not being able to do/take things in moderation; Don’t buy addictive games.

    Simple enough, if you ask me.

    • I agree 100% I have an addictive personality when it comes to certain things, does that mean i spend all my time gaming? No.
      I mastered the art of keeping track of the time while i play long ago (when i was 12 or 13 and would lose 6 hours or so at a time) its not a hard thing to do, it just takes self control (i do have the occasional 6 hour binge but thats it).
      Throughout Patricia’s various articles you find no end of evidence of her inability or unwillingness to exert even the most basic self control, she blames video games for her inability to sleep at night, she blames them for being “addictive” and controlling her time, among any number of other things.

      • My curiosity gets the better of me with regard to Patricia’s articles. They give such a strong impression of being written by someone who doesn’t enjoy games at all. I keep reading them to see if I can work out why that is (or why she bothers writing at all).

        • Honestly i wonder if the only reason they keep her around is the controversy she can cause in the comments, i find myself reading her articles even though they generally get under my skin for how simplistic her world view tends to be (and that nasty habit of over analysing things and taking them out of context) out of morbid(?) curiosity.

        • The way I read Patricia’s articles is that she loves games and challenges game designers to do better. I don’t always agree with what she has to say but I do respect it. If not following the horde makes her controversial then I want more of it.

          • The way I read Patricia’s articles is that she loves games and challenges game designers to do better

            That’s great. How about reading this article though and the actual words she wrote?

            I’m pretty sure journalism isn’t meant to be abstract art. If I happen to read any more of her articles, I’ll take them at their word.

  • Absolutely anything can be mentally addictive, this is different to being physically addictive. I don’t believe I have seen any evidence of video games being the latter.

    I have a hard time grasping her point here, is she upset that people are using the term addictive for things that might not be physically addictive, or is it that games that are made to be addictive are unethical?

  • Worst quote in article: I don’t want a game that is equally as enjoyable on the thousandth hour as it is in the hundredth.

    She is basically saying ‘don’t make games that are too good’.

  • Second worst quote in article:
    We should want more games that know how to package what they need to communicate to us in a sensible number of hours, not games that make it hard to let go.
    Becuase the Civilisation series is so shit /sarcasm

  • I think it’s a good article actually, but she seems to be saying that she likes addictive games, but regrets the time she spends gaming.

    I can identify with that.

  • “The inability to put the game down? Hardly the thing that makes Hotline Miami worth playing. Though in this specific case, if we did talk about the game in the context of it feeling like a drug, that would be thematically congruent with the game as a whole.”

    These two sentences are gold, and earn rep points from me.

    Which is good, because they’re currently running at a defecit. I ‘meh’ at the implied, moral indignation ‘you diminish real addiction by misusing it here’ thing going on, referred to in the other comments, but that’s pretty common for the author and relatively tame, here.
    Grats on dialling that down.

    But I’m all in favour of combating journalistic laziness that allows folks to sum up games as, “It’s addictive!” when I’d really kind of like to know why they think it is, before I buy into their theory. I find levelling guns in warframe addictive. I don’t find it addictive in CoD/BF3. So if you’re going to call something addictive, further information is required.

    …Doesn’t make for great pull-quotes/box-quotes or article summaries, though.

  • I find the only reason I get addicted to things (not having any chemical dependencies), is pretty basic – I don’t want to do anything else. It doesn’t matter if it’s a brilliantly designed ‘Skinner box’, if I consciously know I shouldn’t be doing something and I keep doing it – I’m trying to put something else off. Procrastination. We aren’t rats, and video games aren’t pellets

  • I agree with Patricia on this one.
    Would love to see more great games with less of the addictive elements.

  • I can’t remember the last game I played that was addicting 🙁
    What a shame, maybe it’s cause I’m older, or just burnt out on games.

  • I don’t think many are patient or discerning enough to understand what the author is describing, instead they feel their beloved hobby is being attacked. It’s not, the author is discussing the idea that in some games, operating off a very carefully thought out reward-time mechanism is what draws you in (and possibly your cash) and may not necessarily contribute to making it a good game, or a fulfilling experience ultimately.

    • That is a generous interpretation, and if true suggests Patricia views us as too stupid to tell the difference between when we play a game for fun vs being compelled to play.

      Also, by suggetsing that many of us readers aren’t patient or discerning enough to understand what the author is describing you are giving Patricia the benefit of the doubt, but not your peers. We could all make inferences about what the article was trying to get it, but wouldn’t it be better to write it coherently in the first place so your message is clear?

      If you think I’m being unfair, refer to the quotes I highlight above and then find them in context in the article. At best the article is poorly written and at worst it is exactly the attack on the hobby that you mentioned.

  • I know the past few Patricia articles have been terrible, but I think there’s a whole lot of overreacting in this comments section.

    Anyway, I can relate. Having played ME3’s multiplayer for quite a while, it’s clear that their unlock system is designed to be addictive; that their design choices were to go with what was ‘addictive’, rather than ‘fun’.

  • And this article has been posted on the ACL’s pick of the day’s news section. . .

    Kinda says it all doesn’t it. . .

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