After the third attempt to get her 9-year-old son to stop playing his video game and do his homework, Kelly angrily walked over to him, unplugged the device, and yelled. Her son yelled back and went into a rage all about how she ruined his game, embarrassed him in front of his friends, and was “the worst mom ever”. But Kelly refused to back down and insisted that he do his homework.
Then came the negotiation. Her son promised to do his homework if she allowed him to finish his game. Kelly told him to do his homework first. Reluctantly, he got his schoolwork, did a half-hearted job, complained that the teacher didn’t explain anything, and insisted that he did his best. But Kelly didn’t like his effort, so her son escalated again saying, “you promised and now you are breaking your promise. I hate you.”
As her son’s bedroom door slammed shut, Kelly broke down in tears. How does happen? How does her normally sweet, kind boy go from loving her to hating her? Worse yet, it is all over a video game. What is this hold or power the game has over him that causes him to become such a different person?
In the 1980s US revenues from the video gaming industry peaked at $40 billion. The projection for 2020 is $220 billion. This is compared to the entire US professional sports market which makes approximately $76 billion. The video gaming industry is booming, and they have a vested financial interest in increasing their revenues.
What is the guiding principle? B.F. Skinner’s concept of behavioral modification is the foundation for designing video games. The principle is simple. Any behavior can be modified through a system of rewards and/or punishments/consequences. The more a person plays, the greater the rewards (prizes, leveling up, artificial money) and the less they play the more they lose (must start again, loss of prizes).
What are the benefits to the player? Video games allow a person to escape their problems, become a different person, socialize with friends, have instant gratification, be challenged, utilize their skills, set goals, achieve accomplishments, have a sense of control, have immediate feedback, and become deeply involved without much effort.
Can it become addictive? Yes. The World Health Organization has identified as “Gaming Disorder” in their International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as “a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour, which may be online or offline, manifested by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”
What are they addicted to? Kelly was very good at giving her son intangible rewards such as praise when he did well at school or excelled at a task. His baseball team gave out a tangible reward such as a trophy for winning in their league. When these things happen, dopamine is released in the brain allowing Kelly’s son to experience a pleasure. However, the same amount of dopamine is allow being released when he receives a reward while playing video games. The ease of this reward far out ways the difficulty of getting good grades or having a winning season.
How are the games addictive? Here are several ways video games are programmed to be addictive.
- Game rewards equal real rewards. Unfortunately, because the dopamine release is the same for an intangible game rewards as a tangible real-life reward, some people place more value on the gaming rewards. These rewards become a source of identity, achievement, progress, and confidence that does not necessarily translate into real-life benefits.
- Reinforcing progress, not achievement. Many of the video games show how much a person has progressed as they work towards a new level. Thus, the person is rewarded for their effort even when achievement has not been met. Once a person does move to the next level, another reward is given and thus the person keeps trying to move from one level to the next.
- The consequence of not playing. When a person doesn’t play a video game for a while, there can be consequences such as losing levels or points. This entices the person to continue to play regularly to avoid the consequences of not playing.
- Daily rewards for playing. Several games have immediate daily rewards for just logging into the game. They could be chances to win extra prizes, money, or bonus features. The chance of winning something for just logging into the game keeps people coming back.
- Loot boxes for purchase. Some games offer the ability to pay real money to gain a virtual item that might help with leveling up or achieving a reward. The items usually don’t cost very much but over time can add up to more than the initial cost of the game. It is a way for the industry to make some additional money off just playing the already purchased game.
- Gaming seasons. Just like there are seasons in the year, fashion seasons, or seasons for sports, there are seasons for video games. Each new season introduces new content to keep the old games fresh and interesting. It prevents the user from becoming bored with a static game.
After learning more about the video gaming industry and how it was modifying her son’s behavior, Kelly placed strict guidelines on her son’s usage. She also increased his activities in sports and other outdoor play. This made a dramatic difference in her son’s behavior and he returned back to the sweet boy she knew.