Videogame Developers Are Making It Harder to Stop Playing

Videogame Developers Are Making It Harder to Stop Playing

Players are logging more hours as developers find new ways to keep them engaged

By Sarah E. Needleman Aug. 20, 2018 5:30 a.m. ET

Videogames have gotten harder to turn off, mental-health experts and parents say, raising concerns about the impact of seemingly endless gaming sessions on players’ lives.

Game developers for years have tweaked the dials not only on how games look and sound but how they operate under the hood, and such changes have made videogames more pervasive and enthralling, industry observers say.

The World Health Organization in June added “gaming disorder” to an updated version of its International Classification of Diseases, warning about a condition in which people give up interests and activities to overly indulge in gaming despite negative consequences. It is expected to be formally classified in January 2022.

Many games today are free, available on multiple devices and double as social networks. Where once games were played and put away for a while, now game companies are routinely delivering new content aimed at keeping players constantly engaged. Some new content is available only for a limited time, a maneuver that tugs at people’s fears of missing out, psychologists say.

Sony’s mobile role-playing game “Fate/Grand Order” takes up most of 31-year-old Daigo’s time—and a lot of his money: His in-game purchases total more than $70,000. It’s worth it, he says. Devotees like Daigo have made “Fate/Grand Order” Sony’s most profitable game ever.

“Videogames are engineered specifically to keep people playing,” said Douglas A. Gentile, a research scientist focused on the impact of media on children and adults. “They’re designed to hit the pleasure centers of the brain in some of the same ways that gambling can.”

The growing allure of games has parents such as Tracy Macon worried. Her 14-year-old son Matthew plays the tactical shooter game “Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege” around the clock, she said. Taking away the computer he plays it on has caused meltdowns.

“He has no motivation to do anything else,” said Mrs. Macon, a 40-year-old office manager in Minneapolis. “It’s hard for the whole family.”

The videogame industry has long challenged criticism about the harmful effects of games. Its biggest trade group—the Entertainment Software Association—said the WHO’s proposal is based on “highly contested and inconclusive” research.

Some mental-health professionals say games can have a positive impact on players. They can help students improve in math and history, plus nurture team-building skills and creativity, said Rachel Kowert, a research psychologist focused on game technology. “The reputation games are fueled by a moral panic, but their impact is more positive than negative,” she said.

.... as people spend more time playing than five years ago.

Videogames are more popular than ever. Game-software revenue rose 80% between 2013 and 2017 to $97.6 billion world-wide, and this year is projected to reach $108.4 billion, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. By comparison, spending at the box office and on home-movie entertainment reached a global record of $88.4 billion in 2017, according to the latest data available from the Motion Picture Association of America.

Among the biggest changes fueling more interest in videogames is that many, such as the megahit “Fortnite,” encourage players to socialize, acting as social hot spots that are replacing malls and other teen hangouts.

After “Toon Blast” added the ability to chat and compete in tournaments with friends, people started playing 45 minutes a day on average, up from 30 minutes, according to its developer, Istanbul-based Peak Games Inc. “People like to help each other and socialize,” said Ömer İnönü, director of strategy.

The average amount of time each week people in the U.S. aged 13 and older spend playing videogames rose to 7.8 hours in 2017, up 60% from 2011, the first year the survey was conducted, according to Nielsen. It doesn’t survey children younger than 13 for research in this area.

The latest survey, taken in January, showed a drop to 6.5 hours a week. Nielsen didn’t give an explanation. Kit Yarrow, a psychologist who specializes in consumer behavior, said people likely are more reticent about their activity given repeated warnings over the years. “Once people realize they have a problem, they tend to underreport their usage,” she said.

“Fortnite,” which has amassed at least 125 million players since its July 2017 debut, embodies many of the tactics game creators use to keep people playing. It is available on many devices—consoles, computers and smartphones—and its popular last-person-standing mode is free.

Epic Games Inc. routinely changes the “Fortnite” landscape and storyline to keep players engaged. Virtual goods are frequently added to the game’s store, nudging players to customize their characters and show them off to friends.

Jake Claborn, a 16-year-old from Whitewright, Texas, said he logs into “Fortnite” for several hours daily in part because “all of my friends play it.” He says he frequently argues with his parents over the habit. “They usually have to tell me three or four times” to stop, he said.

Epic Games declined to comment.

One common feature that can help hook players is a virtual reward for logging in or completing a list of tasks daily.

“These types of extrinsic rewards build habits of regular engagement with a game, and can lead some players to compulsive or addictive behaviors,” said Patrick Jagoda, a professor at the University of Chicago who has researched how game-play techniques are used in business and culture.

Dan Hacker, a 25-year-old musician in Detroit, spends about three hours daily playing Electronic Arts Inc.’s FIFA franchise. The more time he invests in the soccer game, the more free virtual currency he acquires to spend to create a dream team.

“It definitely feels like I have an obligation to play,” he said.


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