Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Addiction or Entertainment?

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Some video games are designed to deliver a complete, finite experience. Sometimes these games deliver story and character arcs, other times merely a series of levels with little to no narrative coherency. These can vary in length, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to many hours, but at the end of that play time, the game is over.
Other games are designed to be played eternally. Even their so-called endings are frail veneers of finality. There is always something more to do. Games like The Sims, World of Warcraft, and Peggle are frequently referred to as “addictive,” which is not a quality one normally seeks out in a product. Still, these games hold a powerful allure. They demand a great deal from the player. A truly addictive single player or multiplayer game can eclipse all other games.

The first item in Blizzard’s mission statement is “gameplay first,” and one of the results is a long track record of incredibly well-implemented mechanics. Blizzard releases are overwhelmingly popular and their addictive properties are a matter of public record. Their games don’t really end. Their single player campaigns are lengthy and substantial, and when those are done, a rich multiplayer experience waits behind.

Some Blizzard games, like Diablo 2, don’t even require a multiplayer component to continue on into eternity. Even with only one character, multiple playthroughs are possible in the search for better and better loot and ever-increasing levels. I’ve lost what seemed like years of my life to that formula. Other games have come close to that level of addictive properties, a recent example being Borderlands, but few have reached the level of polish that Blizzard achieves.

I began playing Torchlight yesterday, and I can already feel its claws digging their way into my flesh. My Vanquisher just got an amazing bow and a second melee weapon worthy of dual-wielding. I have deep stacks of town portal and identify scrolls, and piles of healing and mana potions. I’m close to gaining another level. If I grab a little more gold, I can afford a great gem. I have a long list of quests in my journal. I’m having flashbacks to past addictions.

In high school and college, a few video games dominated large portions of my life. At boarding school, Starcraft consumed my study hall hours as I reveled in the fact that all the computers on campus were networked together. In my first year of college, in Montreal, I spent many an evening hunched over by the window, my mouse clicks spelling death to demons everywhere in Diablo 2. The persistent world community in Neverwinter Nights consumed days of my life after I moved to Greensboro.

I wish those games were finite, in retrospect. I consider a great deal of the time I spent with them wasted. Our leisure activities should not generate regret. It made me consider swearing off video games entirely, though I later learned a stronger sense of moderation coupled with a desire to limit myself to certain types of game experiences. I am far more productive than I once was. I have a good job, I started this blog, and I have close friendships and exciting artistic projects. My time to actually play video games is severely curtailed, but my life is more fulfilling as a result.

Though I enjoy playing Torchlight, Plants vs. Zombies, and similarly obsession-fueled games, I get very little satisfaction out of my time with them. The parallels to addiction are darker than we let on: Some games really do help us to shirk responsibility, encourage us to keep playing for just one more level, or call to us when we’re working on unrelated projects. I know that, personally, some video games have had negative impacts on my personal relationships, study habits, and effective use of free time.

Obviously it is my responsibility to monitor my own time and actions, but why do we hold games that can completely distract us from our lives in such high regard? I’ve come to prefer a well-made single player experience with a beginning and ending to an eternal grind. I’m canceling my Starcraft 2 preorder but looking forward to Alan Wake. And I’m constantly at war within myself, even as I write this article, to focus on the task at hand and ignore my nagging desire to search the internet for Torchlight tips.

My free time is much more valuable to me now than it once was. I don’t have the mental space for an addiction. Maybe it’s time to put infinite games behind me, and focus on the finite. After all, I like a good ending.


  1. I understand exactly where you're coming from. In hindsight, a lot of my time gaming has been wasted.

    Kind of like how a lot of time getting hammered with friends is considered "wasted time".

    I guess it kind of highlights the difference between "in the moment" fun and a long-term, fulfilling experience. A lot of things in life are the same way. Women - You could have the fling with the mega-hottie, but regret it later because it was short-lived and her personality wasn't exactly sparkling, or you could have the long-term, fulfilling partner for life. It's the difference in the longevity of the experience.

    The last Starcraft II game I played was fun and all, but three weeks from now I'm not going to remember a single thing about the match. I haven't played Final Fantasy VIII in maybe seven years or more, but I can still tell you everything about every single character along with a variety of other trivial details.

    So, the eternal debate rages on.
    Intensity vs. Longevity.

  2. This is veering well into the territory of having nothing to do with video games, but I think a lot of the greatest experiences in life are a great combination of, as you say, intensity and longevity. (That's what she said.)

    Seriously, though. The best video games I have ever played are the ones that delivered incredible, deeply memorable experiences that were finite but lingered in my thoughts due to interesting characters, plot arcs, and incredible set pieces.

    Similarly, the greatest nights of getting hammered with my friends were the nights when we did something intense and memorable: setting off a firecracker in a parking lot, skinny dipping in a reservoir, talking for hours about our lives and loves and dreams.

    As I get older, I try to court that sort of experience more and more. Meaningless games and watching action movies with friends are fine for a time, but I greatly prefer a deeper experience. (Which is also what she said.)

  3. I like your method of kicking the habit--escaping game addiction by learning to appreciate the nonaddictive games, or the ones that can't have a seemingly eternal hold on you. It's like if someone could get over an unhealthy need for whiskey by drinking Belgium beer instead. Or if I could crawl out of the hellish bowels of my soul-crushing blow addiction by simply becoming a pothead.

    I have also seen how detrimental game addiction can be, so I hope all the addicts out there find this post and heed its message. It could save their lives!

  4. I've written before about the need for an end to games. That MMOs are designed to be endless treadmills is one of my major irritations with them.

    I have far too many games that I'd like to play, some of which I actually own, to dedicate myself to one game and play it endlessly. And then there's that "real life" thing I keep hearing about...

  5. I guess you could say it's a kind of over-arching dilemma that spans many aspects of life. Video Games are just one of those.

    I do agree that MMO's tend to be treadmills and other online games are generally repetitive rehashing of the same maps and situations, but they do have a communal aspect to them that is hard to compare to anything else. Being able to play a game alongside friends who can be nearby, or on the other side of the world, definitely brings a social aspect to gaming that single player campaigns/experiences can lack. I find that in most single player campaigns, my mind kind of tricks me into having feelings of camaraderie with the NPCs that accompany my character.

    May explain the tears that poured from many an eye of FF fans who had to see Aerith die in VII.

    I didn't cry though.
    Nope. Not one bit.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.