A Game Design Grammar

An Appeal for Consistency

Addiction_1Games can be addictive. I felt the need to get that out of the way first. They are not physiologically addictive, like heroin, opium, alcohol or nicotine, but they are psychologically addictive like marijuana, gambling, the internet, sex, pornography, shopping, eating or work. Notice, quite critically, that not everyone is a pot smoking, bulimic, work-obsessed,  spendthrift, internet-porn using sexoholic. Let's face it, who has time for that many addictions?

The term 'habit-forming' is often used as a synonym for 'addictive', for obvious reasons. However, let's not lose sight of the fact that our behaviour is almost entirely composed of habits. We need habits - habits are great. Between our habits and our search for new experience (those of us who are thus inclined, and still young enough to care) is the whole of human existence! I suffer from insomnia, but I have managed to control it by forming habits - getting up at the same time, doing certain rituals close to when I want to fall asleep. When people say 'habit-forming' what I suspect they mean is 'forming destructive habits'.

The threshold of addiction is a behaviour (or habit) which becomes recurrent; addictions become a problem if the affected person continues to pursue the addictive behaviour regardless of consequence, as happened in the infamous case of the South Korean man who died playing Starcraft, or the Chinese woman who died playing World of Warcraft. I think we can all agree that there is a problem here that needs addressing - the fact that these people were being recklessly irresponsible is beside the point. As a parallel, on the rare occasions when people die taking Ecstasy, the event is used by the media as a powerful warning against taking the drug, although in fact it is irresponsible behaviour that is always the cause of death - particularly exceeding normal dosages, or failing to remain hydrated.

There are three dimensions to address: what should we as individuals do? What should we as game makers do? What should we have our governments do?

As individuals, we should probably not allow ourselves to be controlled by addictive behaviours unless our life plan is to die alone in a garret as a starving artist. Habits are fine, but when deleterious effects result from pursuing a habit, we should intercede and make changes in our behaviour - or, if we cannot, we should ask for help from our friends and families. If we are parents, we should also educate our children about addictive behaviour, and be aware that all manner of things can be addictive and not just, as government advertising is prone to express, that "Drugs are bad, m'kay?"

As game makers, I believe we have a certain obligation to structure our games responsibly. This point was raised at a panel discussion I was a part of at GDTW yesterday: it's hard for mothers to break their children away from playing a game, and there is an implicit tendency for game publishers to intentionally make their games addictive in order to improve sales.  TV (which can also be addictive) comes in 22 or 45 minute slots. Books (which can be addictive) come in chapters, and are seldom long enough to be an issue (as it is individual books that become addictive and not all books). Games, on the other hand, are often structured as monolithic slabs of play - sometimes with purposeful misdirection to make the player think they are "almost at the end", so they keep playing.

Animal Crossing is one of the few games I know which is structured to be played only up to thirty minutes a day - you can keep playing, if you like, but the fun stuff dries up. I think this is an ingenious approach, but not suitable for all games. Explicit chapter ends, as used in Resident Evil 4, are also a good approach. For games targeting a mass market audience, thirty minute play sessions should be the ideal, and we should structure games around that model where possible. For games targeting solely a Hardcore audience, play sessions could be longer, but perhaps it would be better to just let the Hardcore player elect to play multiple segments. In MMORPGs, the three hour restriction being introduced in China is probably fair. You can do a reasonable amount of things in a virtual world in three hours.

Finally, we come to what we should advocate for our governments. I believe we need to insist on a consistent policy on addictive activities. The government isn't going to restrict shopping or work (as they drive the economy), although they may impose restricted hours for shop opening or work (except in the United States where people are apparently allowed to be treated like slaves). Gambling is similarly regulated, but is generally available for those who want it (except in the US where people are not allowed the freedom of choice to gamble in some States). Pornography and prostitution is also regulated. Games need not be treated any more severely than these other activities, which is to say, all that is needed is a 'watchdog' to establish acceptable boundaries for the industry.

The most inconsistent behaviour of governments (especially the US government) is in the context of drugs - probably because of the "War on Drugs" that arguably begun in 1880 after China became a bit annoyed that the West was selling super-addictive opium to its people, but became public in 1971 with the most loved and respected US president of all time, Richard Nixon. It's still going on now, despite the higher profile "War on Terror" taking the headlines. I don't want to get tied up in the politics of insanity, however, as our topic is addiction.

Alcohol and tobacco are fairly nasty drugs in health terms, being both physiologically and psychologically addictive, and having deleterious health effects in sufficient quantities (in the case of alcohol) or in any quantities (in the case of tobacco). But they have a long cultural history, and therefore we accept them. The Prohibition in the 1920's in the US shows what happens if you try and force culturally accepted drugs into an illegal status. It's not an option for intelligent, open minded people to support.

Therefore, I propose that the only realistic approach is to set the bar at the level defined by alcohol and tobacco. If we accept these two drugs into our cultures (and I appreciate tobacco is on shaky ground in parts of the US), we should also accept any other drugs or activities which have health risks that are equal to or less than that posed by alcohol and tobacco, including video games, MMORPGs and marijuana. In the case of marijuana, I believe that criminalisation might also be a cultural affront to Muslims - since their religion does not allow them alcohol (as a desert religion, this prohibition makes especial sense, as alcohol causes severe dehydration), many Islamic nations allow hashish as an alternative recreational chemical, but Muslims in other nations have no such solace.

This, then, is an appeal for consistency in the way we treat all potential causes of addiction. If we accept alcohol and tobacco, I believe we should also accept any other activities which pose no greater beheavioural or health risk. This is already happening in Europe, with the Netherlands having decriminalised marijuana since the 1970's (and, I might add, having reduced the number of long-term marijuana users as a result) and the UK becoming quite close to something similar (personal possession no longer being a cause for arrest). As an aside, the BBC claims that smoking pot is more popular in the US than using the internet, both of which are considered potentially addictive behaviours.

Censorship issues aside, there are currently no laws to significantly restrict the sale or use of video games in Europe or the United States, but when the lawmakers make their first attempts to exert influence in this area (likely for short term political gain, but perhaps also out of genuine concern for the children) let us not argue that games are not addictive, but rather that many behaviours are addictive, and that education about addictive behaviour would be more valuable than laws to restrict one particular class of addictions - especially when the health risks are dramatically lower than being a user of the legal drugs which appear to be with us for the long run.

Regrettably, I have been unable to find the name of the artist to whom I should attribute the opening image. As with all such republished images, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will properly attribute once I have the correct information, or will take down the image if asked.


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Welcome to the Round Table!

Yet another excellent post. The topic of government involvement ought to spark a reaction or two. I can see that it is in the best interest of a society to help control the addictive behaviors of its populace but hasn't it been shown, by and large, that education is the primary deterrent against destructive behavior? Laws don't keep kids from smoking, but pictures of bunny rabbits with cigarettes in their mouths evidently do.

I agree - but in a modern democracy one must either accept a certain degree of government interference or advocate some form of anarchy. (Tempting, but...) There will always be a proportion of the population who would prefer to be told what they can and can't do, rather than learn independently. I was shocked when I first discovered this, as I had always assumed people wanted to make their own mind up!

Certainly I advocate education as the best method of moderating addictive behaviour (I think I do so above!) but I'm pragmatic about the nature of modern politics.

"I was shocked when I first discovered this, as I had always assumed people wanted to make their own mind up!"

I still have trouble wrapping my brain around that one.

I also don't think government should get involved. Whole addictive, it's not as detrimental as gambling or porn. Instead, I would recommend game ratings include some kid of indication of how involved or segmented a game is. That's probably possible, but I don't relish the idea of anyone dictating my gaming habits as an adult.

I don't think it's the developers' responsibility, either. They cater to a demanding market. It's interesting that game lengths are seemingly getting shorter; there was an outcry when Max Payne only took 10 hours to complete, but now a few titles already sit there. The sand box model that GTA and several other titles use also extend a game's lifespan, but they hand the pace to the player. That might cause more addictiveness, butsince a player can dictate his progression, it could be less.

Also, what about games emerging beyond a controller or mouse? Rythm games are pretty popular and I doubt that being addicted to it is a terrible thing. Unlike a lot of addictions, you actually get a lot out of gaming. Perhaps not as much as going out or doing a physical activity (I definitely advocate a balanced lifestyle, regardless of what you are into), but definitely a lot. Games are challenging and demand far more from us than mere hand-eye co-ordination. For this reason developers can't ignore the demands of the market and curb games down for the sake of saving ourselves.

Making people understand how much more complex and involed games are than they perceive is a key element here. If you have a vague understanding why someone would spend somuch time on a game, it will be easier to help them if they have a problem, even if they don't notice it.

I don't see myself as advocating government involvement so much as taking the rather fatalistic view that governments inevitably will get involved, so we might as well look at what is appropriate. Perhaps I am having a rare fit of pessimism! :)

Also, I think I took a purposefully provocative stance in order to engender some debate on this month's Round Table. :)

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