May 12, 2021
I wanted to sound like an intellectual again and write a several page long essay with references to scientific literature and everything but I stopped myself. Let me tell you a story instead.
Once upon a time in my childhood I stumbled upon a particularly unusual book. It was a fantasy fiction book set in the world of Conan the Barbarian. The difference from a normal book was that the story was branched. Every now and then, there was a question asking us, the readers, what the main character would do next. Depending on the choice, there was an indication to what exact page and paragraph we should proceed to to continue reading.
I’m not sure how old this concept is, and I never saw any other book of such nature after that, but it definitely was the first time I experienced what is essentially a story-driven game.
I was born in Russia in the year they declared the dissolution of the USSR. I spent the first twelve years of my life in the Russian 90’s, and I can assure you that to live through those times you had better have some form of escapism. Otherwise, there were only three options ahead of you: asylum, prison or cemetery. I read fictional literature, both fantasy and sci-fi equally. Then I learned about video games (we call them “computer” games as consoles are not as widespread as PCs here).
There’s no need to lie and fall into hypocrisy saying that drugs, the usual topic in the talks about “addiction”, are fundamentally different from fantasy literature, movies or games in the way they detract a person from life’s problems. They are not. We can talk about the differences in strength and side effects between these four, but that wasn’t my intention either.
We as a biological species are able to induce positive feelings in our minds using external tools we develop ourselves. Some of these tools have such a powerful effect on us as to literally cause hallucinations, but the dreams are just the means to an end, which is always this rush of endorphins, this substance our brain uses to lie to itself, correcting behavior of the whole entity we call “consciousness”.
And this lie is so sweet, right? We make it a habit, an extension of ourselves so natural that we build our life around it, around the specific way we delude ourselves with the pleasure which our own brain fools us with. At this point they start calling it an addiction, attaching negative connotations to the word, and rightfully so: going too deep into this can literally destroy you. But again, it’s never a question of a specific thing to be addicted to, its side effects or its source.
We simply want to feel pleasure, and we just can’t stop.
If you think that addiction applies only to “serious” entities like recreational drugs or, say, sex, then please try to stop drinking coffee and reading stories on social networks (if you do, of course) and see what’d happen to you after you do that. I won’t even ask you to stop drinking alcohol.
But I digress. As we are on the same page now regarding how addiction works and why, let me continue with my story.
That book, where the story depends on the choices of its reader, is still too inconvenient. It’s boring to constantly flip the pages. Even without that, the resulting story is limited: it contains only the options imagined for you by the author. It still provides better immersion than a normal book, though: one can already imagine themselves being the heroes in the story, not a character built by the author.
Perhaps based on that, a concept of a tabletop roleplaying game appeared. I’m only guessing here, but the latter feels like a spiritual successor of the former to me. In a tabletop RPG the story itself is emergent, and the heroes are whoever the players imagine themselves as. Only a very liberal set of rules is limiting your imaginary actions, and the majority of these rules are just for two reasons: keeping the experience fun for all players equally and keeping the story “realistic”. To feel powerful, we need to be able to compare our dreams with everyday reality.
But in terms of mental impact, a tabletop RPG is a tremendous leap forward from traditional books and movies, even still it isn’t that convenient to experience. First of all, it’s a collective effort. A person who is interested in escaping from reality is probably not fond of the company of other people in the first place. Playing one-on-one with the dungeon master is more like a session with a psychologist instead. And it’s simpler to just sleep and dream rather than playing an RPG completely alone: more freedom of thought for less effort.
This is the problem which video game developers wanted to solve. What if we have computers emulate both the dungeon master and all other party members? That’s how the genre of computer role-playing games was born. Now you can indulge in the epic fantasy stories on your own. You control every party member, you can advance the story at your own pace, and a lot of the bookkeeping which you previously did on paper or kept in your head has been automated for you. I don’t know how many weak-minded people we lost due to Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, Neverwinter Nights, Divinity series, Pillars of Eternity, and Dragon Age, but every game from this list easily takes 100+ hours just for a single playthrough. And if it happened to be your thing, after finishing one of them, you end up just wanting more.
Not everybody likes to read that much. Not everybody is willing to fine-tune every character in a 5-6-person party, customizing everything up to their biography. A more streamlined approach to feeling powerful has been explored in games like Diablo, Titan Quest and Torchlight. Just a single character to control, plot which can fit on a postcard, and a gameplay crystallized to contain only the most pleasure-inducing elements: skills to defeat enemies with and a treasure to loot. These games are the real deal: you can easily spend a thousand hours building the most powerful character out there, which can one-shot everything in sight.
I have firsthand experience witnessing the immersive power of such games. Together with my university classmate we suggested one girl, who had zero experience in the genre whatsoever, to play Diablo II for a bit. After a minute or so of hand-holding, until she learned the controls, we left her by herself, and in just a hour and half when my classmate’s mom called us for dinner we heard her say: “yes-yes, sure, just give me a minute to kill these two mobs and loot that treasure chest”.
Looks like really dangerous shit already, right?
At that point the industry together with players realized that people are social animals in any case, however hard they claim their “independence” and “self-sufficiency”. Boasting your overpowered character to friends while pointing to the screen is one thing, but boasting your overpowered character to your friends’ characters while you all are in the same game is absolutely priceless. With time, the internet happened and playing Diablo II on a local area network transformed into playing Lineage II and World of Warcraft. Massive multiplayer online role-playing games were a really serious blow to humanity. Being a strange merge of tabletop RPGs, where the most interesting content is meant to be explored in a team, and action RPGs, where the plot is extremely shallow and secondary to the gameplay of monster slaying and looting, they had the potential to completely replace reality for weakly-minded people who had already lost hope in it, provided that they find a way to secure food, shelter and sewage for their feeble corporeal shells.
Simple experience, carefully crafted by a game designer where you can see countable results for as little effort as you can afford, supported by the literal millions of people doing the same, has such a strong impact that people started dying from exhaustion right there in their seats and murdering their children with the simple act of neglect. A 10-hour 100-people raid will not play itself, and it’s just that attractive, even if the result would be a mere 1% increase of numerical representation of your imaginary alter ego and change of color of one of the sprites of its image. Even if all you have to do through the whole ordeal is pressing F1 every 2 seconds and F2 every 10. Especially if that’s the case.
The advent of MMORPGs, traditionally computer-based ones, happened at the same time as the smartphone revolution and a huge amount of money entering the game industry. After all, it requires a large team and a lot of money to develop and support such a game. Companies want their money back, preferably in larger amounts than they spend. So, real-world marketing entered the gaming community, together with a device which never leaves your side, allowing you to play a game potentially everywhere, at every arbitrary moment of your life.
I was there when the “free to play” concept started to appear in discussions among gamers. These days, the gaming community was still pretty hardcore by the modern standards. I would even say, ultra hardcore by 2021standards. We knew for sure that if a game was being offered for free, nobody in their right mind would pay for it. Except maybe in the form of donations from the bottom of one’s heart. Paying real money for strictly cosmetic changes, not providing a countable in-game improvement was a laughable idea, causing literal laughter. Paying real money for an countable in-game improvement, on the other hand, was treated as dishonesty and frowned upon. What we didn’t understand at that time is just how many people exist out there which have completely opposite views on games. After all, being “casual” gamer was just a transient period of adaptation before you become a real, “hardcore” gamer, or a crippling disability which you had to bear because you physically were incapable of playing “normally”.
Gamers didn’t understand that, but marketers did. And eventually, history shows, they won.
There’s an enormously profitable slice of the game industry today filled with hundreds of games, all built on the same principles. They don’t just acknowledge the weakness of our minds: they actively exploit them. Interested in collecting shiny things? Here’s 180 characters with flashy visual effects and pretty appearances. Don’t want to learn complex game mechanics? Here’s an universally understood rock-paper-scissors system of counters, and the power level of your character is counted by a single clear-cut number anyway. Want to feel power over other people? We have a player-versus-player arena, just bring the characters with better numbers. You can play only in 5-minute intervals while on the go? We made this game for a smartphone, all gameplay is automated and a single “adventure” can be cleared in less than 60 seconds. Don’t want to understand complicated tasks and story quests? Just click on the buttons highlighted by a red dot. You don’t even need to know the language the game’s in. After all, you do checklists on your job all the time, right?
You don’t like that other people are higher in the leaderboards than you? Why, you can just throw money at the problem until it’s solved.
And nowadays we are swamped with such “free-to-play, pay-to-win” games, especially on mobile devices, their homeland. Previously, game developers had a slight concern over the players becoming addicted to their games. I remember the server notifications in MMORPGs telling you that you are online for 2 hours nonstop and it’s better for you to go rest a bit. Mobile so-called “free-to-play” games I’m talking about don’t need such notifications. It’s assumed that you play in irregular intervals in an environment filled with distractions, but in fact, it only leads to the gamers losing control over the time they actually spend with the game through the day.
It’s common in these games to have content opened only on a specific time of day, for every player on the server at the same time. Do you know what it means for a hardcore player? It means that you put a schedule of game events into your real-life calendar. I dropped one game immediately when I realized that I was doing exactly that. Every day you go to sleep only after you have finished grinding all the content, spending every bit of resource given to you. And every day you wake up, check the leaderboards and see somebody outpacing you threefold in terms of power level. Which means that they went to the in-game shop to buy some sort of resource with real money, and just by their team composition you can tell exactly what they bought and how much it could have cost them. Some people spend thousands of dollars per day to not fall behind in this rat race. Some of them hire other people to play these should-be-games instead of them, just to feel pleasure that they are still on top.
Companies releasing these games do not just know about people becoming extremely attached to the gameplay; they actively embrace it. Every mechanic in these “games” is psychologically fine-tuned to provide the hardest endorphins release for the least effort, preferably for the most amount of money. It’s not the game anymore, it’s paying money for pleasure, an entertainment embodiment.
This is not a rant. Nobody actually forces you to play such constructs - they are “free” after all. It’s rather a question of whether your own mental health, your ability to focus on something productive for long periods of time, is strong enough for such things. It’s about the possibility to become addicted to anything, not necessarily a physical substance. It’s about a habit to submit to your brain drugging itself, lying to you about the decisions you make.
The games themselves are the reality of our world. It’s healthier to just accept their existence and continue living your own life, separately. Provided that you have one, of course.