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What makes video games 'addictive'?

Are video games addictive? The jury's still out. Experts disagree on whether compulsive game-playing is a real addiction. So how does a normal gamer transform into a bleary-eyed zombie? And do game companies try to hook players?
What is it about some games that turns otherwise nice people into bleary-eyed zombies who forget to pay the gas bill?
What is it about some games that turns otherwise nice people into bleary-eyed zombies who forget to pay the gas bill?Duane Hoffmann /

Are video games addictive?

The American Medical Association isn’t ready to rank this substance-free habit in the same category with, say, compulsive gambling. But you’ve surely heard the horror stories — and some of them are pretty horrible.

There’s that guy who played “StarCraft” to death in South Korea. There’s that Reno couple that neglected their kids in favor of “Dungeons & Dragons Online.” The gamer culture acknowledges the addictive nature of these games (dubbing “World of Warcraft” “World of Warcrack”), even though the shrink world doesn’t yet.

What I’d like to know is how games become compulsions. What is it about games like “World of Warcraft,” “EverQuest” or “Call of Duty” that turns good people into bleary-eyed zombies who forget to pay the gas bill? And do game developers design games to be addictive?

“Yes, totally. That’s the main goal you have when you design a game,” says Jason Kapalka, co-founder of casual game company PopCap.

Kapalka and his team make games like “Peggle” and “Bejeweled” — “quick hit” games that don’t require a 40-hour-per-week commitment to level up. The company’s business model, like most casual game companies, is “try before you buy.” So it’s important to hook players quickly so they’ll actually purchase the game.

Game companies aren't drug pushers
Still, Kapalka says he doubts that any game designers — yes, even the ones who make “World of Warcraft” — sit around scheming how to get players hopelessly addicted.

“It’s hard enough to make the game compelling in the first place … most people say, ‘I wish I had that problem with the game being too addictive,’ ” he says.  “By definition, it means that the game is a success.”

Speaking of “World of Warcraft,” I did contact Blizzard about whether they designed the game to be addictive.  

In an e-mailed statement, Shane Dabiri, lead producer on “World of Warcraft,” didn’t directly address that question. But he did say that “WoW” uses many of the same conventions employed by other role-playing games. What sets their game apart, he says, is the level of care the company brings to all aspects of the game, from the art style to the customer support.

It's the socializing, stupid
Clint Worley, the senior producer on Sony’s “EverQuest” (or “Evercrack,” to the afflicted), says it’s not the games themselves that are addictive — it’s the social aspects of the massively multiplayer genre.

“The social networking is really kind of the glue that pushes people to sit in the game for long periods of time,” he says.

Dr. Hilarie Cash, a Redmond, Wash.-based therapist who specializes in Internet and computer addiction, agrees. She works with lots of teenagers and young men in their 20s who don’t have a lot going on in the real world. So they play online games to fill the void of friendship, companionship — even love.

“What I see in the population that I’m working with around video games, many gamers are people who were bored and lonely, and this is an addiction which kind of gets its hooks into them,” she says.

Boredom wasn’t what drew Sherry Myrow to “World of Warcraft” — it was her husband’s obsession with the game. Myrow says she knew her husband was a big gamer before they married, but when “WoW” came into his life, he was consumed.

Let's stay together
Committed to keeping the marriage together, Myrow accepted her husband’s offer to join the game. Before long, she played “religiously,” her longest session clocking in at 15 hours straight. She and her husband had a blast playing together at first, but she was more into exploring. He was more into gaming. So he left her behind.

Myrow says she didn’t mind too much. She met plenty of really nice people willing to help her, hang out with her — give her gold, even.

“People in the game are a lot more genuine then they are in real life,” she says. “Being hidden behind this mask of your character, you’re able to be a little more open and honest with people because they don’t know who you are.”

Leveling up
Hanging out and making friends is a powerful draw in online gaming. But so is opening a can of whoopass. If you have even the slightest smidgen of a competitive streak, role-playing games like “WoW” are kryptonite.

“There’s a tremendous gratification if you level up and get really good. And so you can be competing against yourself, and that has a certain power,” Cash says. “But once you really feel like you’re competing against other people and you really want to receive the admiration that comes with achieving a high status in the game, that’s a very powerful motivator.”

Sameer Lalji can relate. The Toronto-based computer consultant was hooked on “WoW” for about a year, eventually becoming a very high-ranking character.

“The way ‘WoW’ worked, was that the more time you spent playing the game, the better you could get and the more things you could do,” he said. “That’s what I was more addicted to, was trying to be the best.”

Even though Lalji became the best — the No. 1 priest character on his server — the game had taken a heavy toll. He was out of shape from sitting in front of a computer for 20 hours a day — and his job performance suffered. So about a year ago, he quit playing .

“Withdrawals” from his “WoW” habit were tempered by a new distraction, Lalji says: Going to the gym up to six days a week.  “I think that worked for me … replacing one addiction for another,” he says.

Are you hooked on a particular game? and tell me what it is about the game-playing experience that keeps you coming back for more ... and more. Selected responses may be published in a subsequent story.