Most people, particularly in the young gamer demographics, don't have this in their jobs or in any aspect of their everyday lives. But the most addictive video games are specifically geared to give us all three... or at least the illusion of all three.
You pick your quests, or which Farmville crops to plant. Hell, you even pick your own body, species and talents.
Annoying your Facebook friends with updates is a really annoying talent.
Players will do monotonous grinding specifically because it doesn't feel like grinding. Remember the complicated Tier Armor/Frost Emblem dance that kept our gamer clicking earlier.
Connection Between Effort and Reward:
This is the big one. When you level up in WoW a goddamned plume of golden light shoots out of your body.
This is what most of us don't get in everyday life--quick, tangible rewards. It's less about instant gratification and more about a freaking sense of accomplishment. How much harder would we work at the office if we got this, and could measure our progress toward it? And if the light shot from our crotch?
The beauty of it is it lets games use the tedium to their advantage. As we discussed elsewhere, there's a "work to earn the right to play" aspect of World of Warcraft, where you grind or "farm" for gold for the right to do the cool stuff later. The tedious nature of the farming actually adds to the sense of accomplishment later. And it also helps squash any sense of guilt you might have had about neglecting school, work or household chores to play the game. After all, you did your chores--the 12 hours you spent farming for gold last Tuesday was less fun than mowing the fucking lawn. Now it's time for fun.
So What's The Problem?
Video game designer Erin Hoffman said it perfectly: "Addiction is not about what you DO, but what you DON'T DO because of the replacement of the addictive behavior." She was talking about how the attraction of a simple flash game like Bejeweled depends entirely on how badly you want to avoid doing the work you have open in the other window.
Wait, what was I saying again?
The terrible truth is that a whole lot of us begged for a Skinner Box we could crawl into, because the real world's system of rewards is so much more slow and cruel than we expected it to be. In that, gaming is no different from other forms of mental escape, from sports fandom to moonshine.
Heroin: It's pretty much WoW in a syringe.
The danger lies in the fact that these games have become so incredibly efficient at delivering the sense of accomplishment that people used to get from their education or career. We're not saying gaming will ruin the world, or that gaming addiction will be a scourge on youth the way crack ruined the inner cities in the 90s. But we may wind up with a generation of dudes working at Starbucks when they had the brains and talent for so much more. They're dissatisfied with their lives because they wasted their 20s playing video games, and will escape their dissatisfaction by playing more video games. Rinse, repeat.
And let's face it; if you think WoW is addictive, wait until you see the games they're making 10 years from now. They're only getting better at what they do.
David Wong is the Executive Editor of Cracked.com and a NYT bestselling author, his long-awaited new novel is about cybernetic criminals and other futuristic shit like that. Pre-order it at Amazon, B&N, BAM!, Indiebound, iTunes, or Powell's. You can read the first seven chapters for free by clicking below:
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Wong wasn't kidding about his love for video games. Check out more of his exhaustive research into the subject in The 7 Commandments All Video Games Should Obey and The Next 25 Years of Video Games.