Fun & (Addictive) Games

A few times now, I've seen Jonathan Blow (of Braid fame) question our obsession with "addicting" games.

Though I'm normally not that into video games of any variety, lately I've joined millions of others in compulsively playing ‘Threes’ whenever I have an idle moment, and it's got me thinking about his words again.

Among successful, beloved games, some are unquestionably fun (as evidenced by smiling and laughing). Some are high-energy adrenaline-inducing digital sports like Starcraft or CounterStrike. Some have mind-bending puzzles. Some are chock-full of beautiful visuals. Some tell great interactive stories. A few really outstanding games do a few or maybe even all of these things.

But, there are also a bunch of widely-played games that don't have any of those things going for them. Why do people play them? Mostly because they're addictive.

The weird thing is, games are routinely praised for being addictive. Games often feature reviews praising how addictive or how hard to stop playing they are. People curate lists of addictive games. There's addictinggames.com.

In one of his blog posts, Blow asks why video games aren't satisfying in the way that a movie, a song, a book, or a work of art can be. We often criticize books and movies and blog posts for being too long (hence "TL;DR"). But for some reason it's different with video games: we want them to be as long as possible.

Presumably a good bit of that desire comes from people just wanting something to do to kill the time (a desire which I admittedly have always had a hard time understanding). But I think in many cases these addictive games can quickly go from just killing time that was already going to be wasted, to killing time that could be put to good use on other things—even on more rewarding video games.

With all of that mind, I can't help but draw parallels with the rest of the software world.

It's probably impossible to guess whether most new software will actually improve people's lives or not. Even when an app is successful it's still hard to say. How do we know if an app is improving our lives, or if we're just addicted to using it?

There's plenty of talk about dark patterns these days, and certainly some games and software have been deliberately designed to be addictive for sinister reasons. But I also think that plenty of addictive software and games were built that way by accident.

This is something I'll be keeping in mind from now on: is this feature/app actually improving the lives of myself and others, or does it just seem that way because it's tapping into our human tendency for addiction?