Uncivilizing Influences

What makes a video game “addictive”?

Illustration by Paul Kim


One evening a few months back, as the hour of 6 p.m. and the year AD 1490 approached, a profound choice was thrust upon me: should I declare war on Germany, thereby committing the French nation to decades of strife in pursuit of territory and power, and myself to a night spent seeing through the campaign; or should I push myself away from the computer, make myself some dinner, then read a book for a while and sleep to fight another day?

Needless to say, I, Napoleon, eternal emperor of France, barely paused for thought. I opened my diplomacy interface and sent word to my German counterpart that war was at hand, then ordered the great cities of Paris and Orléans to ramp up production of military units, and moved my archers and knights to the outskirts of Hamburg. By dawn the next day, Germany lay in ruins, and so did I. I dragged myself to bed undernourished and fetid, my nerves fried.

This sorry state of self will be familiar to anyone who has played a game in the Civilization series, whose latest iteration, Sid Meier’s Civilization V, was released on World Peace Day, last September 21. So compulsive is Civ’s gameplay, so engrossing its range of possible outcomes, that it is legendary for stealing whole weeks from players’ lives. Mere days after Civ V’s release, a friend who is on scholarship at a world-renowned art school emailed me to say that the game had “immediately caused sitcom-esque strife” in his life, minus the laughs. Early reviews echoed the sentiment, with writers making frequent sport of Civ’s ability to induce players to stay seated for “just one more turn.”

And sport it mostly is. Compared with gore carnivals like Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto or Activision’s Call of Duty series, Civ is a pretty mild ride. It has a wholesome, even educational feel: its turn-based approach makes for methodical gameplay, and its violence is limited and highly contextualized. It has also incorporated a number of forward-thinking touches, emphasizing female world leaders and in-game advisers, and punishing cities for polluting. Its world historical framework, meanwhile, is highly strategic, presenting gamers with choices that can reflect genuinely held ideals.

The first Civilization was released in 1991, the brainchild of the series’ namesake, Sid Meier, a thirty-seven-year-old, Sarnia-born, Detroit-raised designer. Despite its limited colour palette, Civilization I was almost debilitatingly fun, deploying a system of frequent and varied player reward that was perfected by the time its first sequel was released in 1996. Many would rank the two among the best video games of all time, myself included.

Meier’s bio on the website for Firaxis Games, where he serves as director of creative development, refers to him as the “Father of Computer Gaming.” The designation exaggerates his singularity, but there’s no question his work had a profound influence during the ’80s and ’90s, when the industry’s profits began to explode. Notably, the popularity of such Meier titles as Civ, Railroad Tycoon, and Pirates!, along with his personal influence, helped advance the reward-centred philosophy that underlies nearly all of today’s bestselling games—even the hyperviolent Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 titles that bear little visual or moral relation to his work.

With their teen-friendly trappings, parental warning–worthy motifs, and multmillion-dollar development and marketing budgets, these Xbox and PlayStation games have seized the greatest share of public attention in recent years, coursing along two radically different streams of thought. In the one stream, debate has focused on whether video games have entered the lofty realm of art—and in the other, on whether they have descended into the less felicitous one of crack cocaine.

Civilization V, like its predecessors, sets forth from a simple premise: you are to guide a tribe from prehistoric times toward modern technological society. After founding your capital city, you gain the capacity to create units, such as warriors, scouts, workers, and more settlers; and city improvements, such as libraries and markets, which enhance your citizens’ finances, literacy, happiness, culture, and military capacity—sometimes, if you construct a wonder of the world such as the Pyramids, greatly. The gameplay consists mostly of founding new cities, improving your land, exploring the world, establishing diplomatic (or undiplomatic) relations with other civilizations, and conducting scientific research into technologies that expand your abilities and options on all fronts. When you complete a given task, which typically takes several turns, you set new priorities for the city or unit in question, and the cycle begins anew. Throughout, you are influenced by the activities and diplomatic entreaties of other players, be they artificial or mortal. Victory can come at any time, through military, cultural, diplomatic, scientific, or political means.

At first, when you’re in control of only a few units and cities, Civ V moves relatively swiftly, leaping ahead by forty years with each turn. Each early decision has potentially long-lasting implications for your society. If you found one of your first cities in a mountainous region, for example, you will be relatively safe from attack, but the lack of surrounding arable land will translate into slow population growth. Your early decisions also go a long way toward determining your overall strategy. If you’re inclined to aim for military victory, you might prioritize technologies such as ironworking, and city improvements such as barracks, which allow you to produce better-armed and more resilient units, respectively. If you want to win by being the first civilization into outer space, you might research writing and build libraries, which increase the speed with which you develop subsequent technologies. Invest in scientific research at the expense of defence or economic growth, however, and it won’t be long before you’re going broke and German forces are massing on your borders, demanding that you hand over your hard-earned technologies, or else.

Leaderly choice opposed by strong artificial intelligence forms the core dynamic of the Civilization series. In theory, it offers players a vehicle for genuine, deliberate self-expression, which was very much Sid Meier’s intent. By the time Meier started working on Civ I in the late ’80s, he had designed dozens of games for the personal computer, and had put more thought than just about anyone into what makes a great game. “The more attention that’s focused on the player, the more successful it is,” he told GameSpot magazine after Civ II came out. “The more interesting you are as a player, the more successful the game is.” His ultimate aim, he said, was for the creator to recede into the background. “I want the player to forget somebody designed this game, forget that this is a game, and believe that this is an experience that the player is having.” The artistry of the early game designer, in other words, wasn’t in the creation of a splashy painting, but of an absorbing canvas. (Meier’s follow-up to Civ II, the obscure but no less ingenious musical composition game CPU Bach, was perhaps his most direct expression of this ideal.)

With Civilization, the raw material is world history, and as a game deepens so too does your sense of absorption in it. Your relatively rapid pace through the first few thousand years fools you into thinking you’ll be playing for only a few hours. But the game gradually slows the march of history as you go along, from forty years per turn to two, and with each new city or unit the number of choices required to complete a turn increases, so that by the time you’ve reached 1900 AD, you might have to make dozens of choices just to nudge ahead one year. Crucially, as the number of moves needed to advance the wheel of time increases, so do the quantity and variety of the rewards on offer. For building a wonder of the world, you get a cool film clip. For discovering mining, you get J. Paul Getty’s flash of dark wit: “The meek shall inherit the earth, but not its mineral rights.” For constructing an advanced new weapon, you get to eviscerate the Germans at last. Each success brings with it a fleeting psychological charge; each charge heightens your desire for another. And in Civilization, another charge is almost always just a few clicks away. Before you know it, you’ve forgotten it’s a game, just as Meier intended. It’s 3:30 a.m., and you’ve achieved gaming moksha—the state of perfect play. You can tell by the drool.

If you have ever drooled, or held your bladder to the point of peril, in anticipation of a game-born reward (guilty on both counts), you can appreciate that video games exert a powerful effect on the human body. Immersing yourself in a really good one basically entails hauling yourself out of your cerebral cortex. Among the changes I experience are heightened senses, reflexes, and focus, and a certain circumscription of my emotions around the game’s parameters. These feelings no doubt have deep biological roots, given that video games’ intended outcomes in some way mimic our evolutionary goals. Going to war in Civ V, for example, tickles my drive for territorial expansion; unlocking a new social policy satisfies my desire to acquire status within a community. Were I instead guiding an avatar through a battle scene in a cinematic game such as Call of Duty 4, I would be experiencing a vivid shadow version of my most elemental fear, that of death. The less artfully a game taps into these drives, the easier I find it to put down the controller or unhand the mouse.

The success of other arts surely depends on stimulating the reptile brain as well, but games’ interactive nature—not to mention their synthesis of these other arts—gives them a unique power. This power permeates the haunting final chapter of Extra Lives, by the American travel writer Tom Bissell. There, Bissell describes trying cocaine for the second time the night the groundbreaking video game Grand Theft Auto IV was released. He then details, in intertwining passages, the highs of both drug and game, ascribing the artistic appeals of the latter to the pathos of the main character, Niko, a Serbian immigrant; to the stunning design of the New York–like Liberty City, where Niko lives and steals; and to the sheer freedom the game world affords.

Later, while living in Tallinn, Estonia, Bissell finds himself hunting down first a gaming console, then some coke, and dedicating days on end to GTA IV. “There is surely a reason,” he writes, “it was the game I most enjoyed playing on coke, constantly promising myself ‘Just one more mission’ after a few fat lines.” Eventually, the compulsions of the drug and the game blur together entirely. “When you are away from it, you long for its dark and arrowy energies,” he recalls. “But am I talking about video games or cocaine? ”

The markers of addiction extend, too, to gamers’ social habits. But where Bissell emphasizes his love of isolation, J. Nicholas Geist, in the first issue of Kill Screen magazine, a new, Paris Review–style gaming journal, traces his compulsion for the wildly popular online role-playing title World of Warcraft to his need for non-threatening communion. “I play to be with people like me, people I find all too rarely in the world outside,” he writes. “People who generally don’t ask, ‘Why are you playing WoW when you could be [insert overwhelming task here]? ’” Like Civilization, WoW is predicated on a system of frequent reward; unlike Civilization, it places great emphasis on teamwork, which, because it is played exclusively over the Internet, means it offers a special kind of anonymous refuge. But as Geist reveals, in walling himself off in this specialized world, he is avoiding the challenges of his real-world relationships. And when he tries to vivify his virtual world by spending time with a new Warcraft-ing friend, he finds himself “overwhelmed by the feeling that this special, shared bond of Otherness against the real world is mostly a sham. We share in this activity so that we can pretend to be alike, when there’s nothing real in our communion, and we are all alone.” His ambivalence about the game leads him to teeter back and forth between quitting and returning, a pattern familiar to any addict.

The emotional travails of self-aware gaming nerds like Bissell and Geist are sad, but they pale next to a few recent tales from gaming’s outer extremes, which have been so well publicized as to verge on moral panic. Just this October, a Floridian mother named Alexandra Tobias pleaded guilty to second-degree murder after shaking her three-month-old to death because he was crying while she was trying to play the turn-based game FarmVille on Facebook. A few years earlier, in Ohio, a sixteen-year-old named Daniel Petric shot both his parents, killing his mother, after they cut him off from playing Halo 3 on his Xbox 360. And in Canada, in 2008, Brandon Crisp, a fifteen-year-old from Barrie, Ontario, fell from a tree and died after running away from home because his parents had confiscated his console; they’d been forced to do so when he started skipping school so he could play Call of Duty 4.

In a Fifth Estate story on Crisp, reporter Gillian Findlay was quick to employ scare words like “hooked” and “obsession” to describe his gaming, but she backed them up by showing how Call of Duty’s reward system, in combination with factors like Crisp’s self-esteem issues, could have led him to invest the staggering number of hours required to become a top-tier online player. One of her interviewees, Daniel Folmer, who was once addicted to the game, described its compulsions this way: “As you level, you’re accomplishing things and getting rewards. And your brain is telling you, ‘Okay, I got a reward—I love this.’ The feeling you get as you waste a whole group… that’s fun.”

The addiction question came to seem at least temporarily settled back in 2007, when the American Psychological Association released a statement affirming that it had no plans to include gaming addiction in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due to insufficient evidence. But research has continued to build, if slowly: last September, in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Israeli researcher Aviv Malkiel Weinstein published the latest of many studies showing that video games trigger the release of significant amounts of dopamine, a neurotransmitter with a role in stimulating and regulating the brain’s motivation, punishment, and reward centres. Weinstein’s particular purpose was to compare dopamine release in users and non-users of ecstasy (an amphetamine-based drug of similar power, if not addictiveness, to cocaine) as they played video games. The level of pleasure caused by the dopamine the team measured in the control group, he wrote, was “comparable to the effects of psycho-stimulant drugs on the brain.” It seemed likely, he concluded, that video game addicts were inducing the same long-term, sensitizing changes as amphetamine abusers did in the reward circuitry of their brains.

Which starts to sound a little bit like cause for moral panic, at least if you’re the parent of a teenager like Brandon Crisp.

In 2006, Chuck Klosterman wrote a column for Esquire called “The Lester Bangs of Video Games,” in which he lamented the absence of serious video game criticism of the kind Bangs wrote on rock ’n’ roll in the ’60s and ’70s. Klosterman pointed out that if the generation that had turned games into an incredibly lucrative cultural industry couldn’t distill any value from them beyond the purely commercial or experiential, then their chosen artistic idiom would ultimately be considered meaningless. After considering the challenges involved, he concluded that thoughtful criticism might emphasize the “significance of potentiality.” Video games, he said, “provide an opportunity to write about the cultural consequence of free will, a concept that has as much to do with the audience as it does with the art form.”

It was an astute prescription. Games do, in theory, offer a great deal of choice, and a forum for a kind of self-expression. Civilization was built around this ideal. The problem, though, is that the evidence suggests that the better a video game is, as we seem to define games, the better it is at eroding players’ ability to employ the higher-order deliberation and self-control we ascribe to our greatest exercises of free will. The more deeply you immerse yourself in Civilization, the less you become your Napoleon, and the more you’re the Napoleon of War and Peace: convinced you’re at the helm of history, when in fact a greater design is controlling you. Whatever the diversity, complexity, and nuance of the game’s moral choices, when you have to be at work in a few hours but you don’t care because you’re too busy rallying your legionnaires before Bismarck can wipe them out, you’re not exactly choosing from the righteous side of the Cartesian divide. Ludo ergo sum.

The solution to this problem, beyond the fair but facile rejoinder of stronger personal, parental, or regulatory control, may lie in the move toward a new, more artistic conception of video games. In March, Meier delivered a keynote address at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, entitled “The Psychology of Game Design (Everything You Know Is Wrong).” Rather than critiquing what we know about successful games, though, he fell back on his strengths: “Rewards are really a way of making the player feel comfortable in this world, letting them know that they’re on the right track,” he said. “You can almost not reward the player enough in the very early stages of the game, to get them invested, get them committed.”

A few months later, in the pages of Kill Screen, independent designer Krystian Majewski recalled walking out of the speech. “It’s patronizing,” he said. “It’s like treating your players like they’re children. You give them candy all the time and make them addicted to these rewards.” Though the movement to broaden video games centres mostly on indie designers like Majewski, it has lately been popping up in mainstream circles, for example with the February release of David Cage’s Heavy Rain, a PlayStation 3 title whose unorthodox gameplay and noir narrative put it in the sphere of interactive fiction. For the moment, though, gaming remains a capital-intensive, profit-oriented industry (one that Canadian provinces, it’s worth noting, are falling all over themselves to attract). Companies like Firaxis, Rockstar, and Activision have all the incentive in the world to continue targeting teenage boys with the tried-and-true buttons-for-dopamine approach, and no doubt they will.

Bissell, for one, ends his book still supportive of gaming’s old guard. Ultimately, he decides, the emotional experiences his favourite games have exposed him to are more genuinely desired—more true—than the ones he had on cocaine. He leaves off reminiscing about his times with Grand Theft Auto IV’s protagonist, an affecting but uncanny touch Philip K. Dick would have appreciated. “Niko was not my friend, but I felt for him, deeply,” Bissell writes. “By the end of his long journey, [we] had been through a lot together.”

As someone who values literature, and who has had plenty of fun playing games, I find it difficult to fault Bissell for investing such empathy and humanity in a fictional character. But it’s also hard to forget that he opened the same chapter lamenting his waning ability to concentrate, read, and write, and that this decline coincided with the deepening of his gaming habits. I wouldn’t begin to claim that the time I’ve dedicated to Civilization had the same compulsive force as Bissell’s coke and GTA IV binges in Tallinn, but I nevertheless understand his desire to interpret all those real hours lavished on unreal worlds as time meaningfully spent. Still, as enriching as I’ve felt video games to be, I sometimes worry, during my post-Civ hangovers, that playing so much amounted to getting really, really good at masturbation, and that there might have been truer drives and rewards and experiences to be explored away from the screen. While reading books, perhaps, or making friends, or falling in love—or even, with luck, having sex.

This appeared in the January/February 2011 issue.

Jeremy Keehn
Jeremy Keehn is an editor at Harper’s Magazine, and a former senior editor at The Walrus.
Paul Kim
Paul Kim is the design director at The Walrus.