When does an immersive video game become an addictive one?

This extract from Tim Wu’s Attention Merchants pg 192-193 makes clear how the immersive character of video games has been treated as addictive from the outset. It raises the question of where the former characteristic ends and the latter begins:

In both markets Space Invaders was a sudden and unexpected success—nothing quite like it had ever been seen. “Outer Space Invaders are taking over the U.S.,” reported the Youngstown Vindicator. The Washington Post reporter assigned to try the game described his experience this way: “I dropped in a quarter and saw 55 rectangles waving little arms and dropping laser bombs on earth, which is at the bottom of the screen. I fired back with my three laser bases, which got bombed out in about 30 seconds. . . . I was still pounding on the FIRE button at end of game. End of quarter. Start of addiction.” The themes of addiction and engrossment could be found in writing about video games from their debut. “It’s like drugs,” a Space Invaders distributor told The Washington Post in 1980. “They’ll tell you: ‘I got a $ 4-a-day habit.’ ” The first thing everyone noticed about Space Invaders was just how captivated its players were. It was a hard game—seemingly hopeless—yet something kept players coming back, trying to conquer it. 3 “What we are dealing with is a global addiction,” the novelist Martin Amis would write in his own meditation on video games in 1982. “I mean, this might all turn out to be a bit of a problem. Let me adduce my own symptoms, withdrawals, dry outs, crack-ups, benders.” Psychologists and other experts were perplexed and disturbed by the appeal of the games, especially to children. “Most of the kids who play them are too young for sex and drugs,” a Dr. Robert Millman told The New York Times in 1981. He proceeded to compare playing video games to sniffing glue. “The games present a seductive world. . . . [Young people want] to be totally absorbed in an activity where they are out on an edge and can’t think of anything else. That’s why they try everything from gambling to glue sniffing.” Others seemed to think Space Invaders’s success had to do with the recent national experience. “It’s really Vietnam,” wrote Ted Nelson, a magazine editor. “It’s a body count war. You do it and you never ask why.”

I suspect the answer is that it depends on the player. The nebulous character of these discussions follows from imputing to games what is in fact a relation between the player and the game. In this sense immersive can become addictive (in the idiomatic sense of exceeding our capacity to self regulate, as opposed to a medical sense of the term) depending on the conditions of this relation, varying in ways which have little to do with the game itself. However it’s interesting to note the quality of attention involved, as he does on pg 193:

As in any real game—be it tennis, pinball, or blackjack—the fast-flowing stimuli constantly engage the visual cortex, which reacts automatically to movement. No intentional focus is required, which explains why children and adults with Attention Deficit Disorder find the action of video games as engrossing as anyone else. Unlike games in reality, however, video games are not constrained by the laws of physics, making possible a more incremental calibration of the challenges involved, duration, and related factors in the attempt to keep players coming back.

About Mark