Why mobile games are so addicting — and how to reclaim your time

Think you might be addicted to that game on your phone? Here's how to tell.
A man looks at his mobile phone
Pretty much every mobile app with a gamification component is designed to lure your focus and cordon off the outside world.SetsukoN / Getty Images
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By Nicole Spector

It all started with Candy Crush Saga. I discovered it not long after it was first released in 2012, when I observed my then-roommate playing it. She said it helped her unwind after work.

“It’s so addictive,” she said giddily, like “addictive” was a good thing.

I was intrigued by the sounds of the game — twinkly small crashes — and the theme track, a whimsical bell-laden waltz like something that would come out of a dollhouse merry-go-round.

I downloaded the game that week and to my surprise (I’ve never been much of a gamer), I was instantly hooked. That first night I played it until I ran out of lives and then, as soon as I was on the subway the next morning, resumed. The commute flew by. I didn’t feel any of the typical anxiousness or irritability that I normally did during the rush hour shuffle. I was lost in the game.

I soon learned how to hack the clock on my phone’s clock to get more lives. This caused several glitches in my device, but I was willing to make the sacrifice because I was so obsessed with this game.

What had me so hooked?

Part of it was this surreal passage of time component — not tampering with my phone’s clock, though in retrospect, that hack seems profound, but the way minutes and hours glided by. I liked that I could just plug into another universe when I was feeling bad and tune the real world out.

With addictive mobile games, our perception of time changes

This escapism element factors into what makes mobile games so addictive.

“Any gamification platform is explicitly designed to make you want to not put it down and is designed to [stimulate the] reward pathway in your brain which can suppress your perception of time,” Dr. Joseph F. Chandler, assistant professor of psychology at Birmingham-Southern College tells NBC News BETTER. “Your brain stops keeping track of time and instead measures units of pleasure in the game. The next level becomes the marker of the passage of time. This is why you lose an hour or three without feeling it.”

Chandler also notes that people with anxiety disorders such as myself, can be particularly attracted to the distraction of mobile games.

“When you have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, a major symptom is hypervigilance — being hypertuned to your surroundings,” says Chandler. “Slipping through time with something pleasurable can be very inviting.”

Those bright colors and hypnotic sounds are no accident

Also inviting are the game’s colors and sounds.

The bright colors that we see in mobile games beg for our attention and tap into a primal recognition of alarm, notes Dr. Lisa Strohman, a clinical psychologist, author and founder of the Digital Citizen Academy. “Think of the red underbelly of a black widow spider,” she says, referencing the concept of warning coloration in the animal world. “Bright colors are dangerous but satiate the brain in certain ways.”

Throw in some exciting sounds and a constantly changing screen — where visuals and audio shift as you go along — and you’ve got yourself a seductive elixir.

“Mobile games like Candy Crush are particularly addictive because everything shuffles and changes and then you level up so if you have any competitive nature, you can feel successful,” says Strohman. “The [mobile gaming] industry knows that, so they take highly engaging colors and sounds and create a classical conditioning loop that increases the dopamine rewards push.”

Even meditation game apps can be addictive

Pretty much every mobile app with a gamification component is designed to lure your focus and cordon off the outside world. Meditation apps are no exception.

“Even games that are not designed to simulate stress, like the app Headspace — which I use and which has good empirical research behind it, can be addictive,” says Chandler, who limits his usage of the app, fighting the temptation to “do five sessions a day.”

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Rationalizing the addiction is the first sign you’ve got a bad habit

A few years into my Candy Crush obsession (around the time I wrote about why I traded in my bedtime phone usage for real books), I deleted the app. I did it mainly for the sake of improving my sleep. It helped.

But a few weeks later I got bored and downloaded a new game — and another, and another. I fell right back into old habits. “Is it really so bad if I’m addicted to phone games?” I’d ask myself, countering, “It’s not like I’m abusing drugs. Heck, I don’t even drink anymore. Play the game!”

The moment we start rationalizing our behavior to ourselves is the moment we should know a change is needed.

“When we have the opportunity to rationalize a behavior, that's a sign you have to work against it,” says Chandler. “This is a powerful psychological theory: resolution of Cognitive Dissonance. On some level you think it's bad and so you're having to talk yourself out of feeling bad. If our behaviors and our thoughts about them are out of line, it’s easier to change our thoughts than our behavior, but it’s the behavior we have to focus on.”

Key risks: Bad sleep, squandered intimacy and gaming as self-medicating

The problem that Chandler most encounters as a result of too much mobile gaming is sleep disturbance.

“People are often playing these games when they should be sleeping or winding down without bright screens,” he says.

Strohman notes that the negative effects of too much mobile gaming can also show in your relationships.

“I see a lot of preoccupation with gaming that can [manifest] as neglecting relationships or responsibilities,” she says. “Are you playing Candy Crush next to your husband on the couch when you could be tending to the relationship? That's preoccupation — a slow neglect. I have seen how people grow away from each other because of this.”

Though mobile games can be effective in distracting from anxiety — they don’t provide a cure, and can even create more anxiousness.

“A lot of times people feel anxiety go away when they’re engaged with a mobile game, and only because your brain is toggled when playing,” Strohman says. “If you have an anxiety disorder, engaging in something that distracts you from that feeling feels like it calms you down, but this can be another way of self-medicating, and it can cause more anxiousness.”

Social games can mess with your self-worth

Elina Ollila, VP of UX and Product at Evasyst, a cross-platform social app for gamers, beat an addiction to the mobile game “Clash of Clans.”

“At one point, I was using three phones (my own and my two children’s) to play with my colleagues and their friends.” Ollila says. “During this time, I felt a lot of social pressure to contribute to my team so that we could be successful together.”

The social dynamic that drove Ollila to spend so much time playing this mobile game, is another aspect that can make these apps, to use Chandler’s word, “insidious”.

“Your self-esteem is derived from positive affirmations from social networks,” Chandler says. “One of the most powerful hits of dopamine you can get as a human being comes from that. [Such interactions] literally help determine self worth.”

How to keep mobile game use under control:

Track your screen time

Ollila restored balance to her life (and cut back on mobile time) in part by realizing just how many hours she was putting into this game thanks to Apple’s Screen Time function.

“Having tools like [Screen Time] can be a real eye opener and shock people into reality,” says Olilla, who still enjoys gaming, but makes it a collaborative family experience.

“My husband and I now have gaming nights with the children, where we will all play together,” she says. “Incorporating them has made this enjoyable for everyone and shows [our kids] a healthy way to enjoy gaming."

You can also use your phone’s screen time program (Android has one, too), which Strohman recommends “whether monitoring as a parent or monitoring yourself.”

Create time limitations and set an alarm

Both Strohman and Chandler suggest setting strict guidelines for mobile game usage.

“Say you have a 30-minute train ride, set your alarm on your device for 30 minutes,” says Strohman, noting that you should turn the game off at that 30 minute marker no matter where you are in the game (or in your commute). “Sticking to the limits you set is important.”

Match the time you spend on screen with IRL time

“Set goals for offline activities,” says Strohman. “The best thing you can do is bring balance. If you have an hour online, spend an hour outside or an hour reading a book. You want to make it at least equal to the time you’re spending on your phone.”

Can’t quit? Spend a few sessions in therapy

If you’re unable to stick to reasonable time frames or strike a healthy balance between online and offline life, a therapist specializing in addiction can be of help, and you likely won’t need their services forever.

“If you're having trouble, it shouldn’t take more than four or five sessions to figure out what to do,” says Strohman.

As for me, I’m regaining balance by setting an alarm when I play a game (my latest obsession is the deceptively relaxing “Two Dots”), as well as keeping the phone off my nightstand come bedtime. I actually keep it under my nightstand, out of reach, which is also helping me limit my access to the snooze button come the morning.

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