As a social game designer, it's my business to design systems that drive sustained engagement. But when does engagement spill over into addiction? Usually that happens when someone does something TO EXCESS - and it leads to negative impact on their lives. It's not the thing itself, but the USE PATTERN that determines addiction
Most people who play World of Warcraft, League of Legends, Farmville or Bejewelled don't become addicted - just as most people who visit Vegas don't become slot machine zombies. However, ALL these experiences are designed to drive compulsion; it's up to the player to know when to walk away.
Recently, during a challenging time in my life, I started playing Bubble Safari (match-3 games are my preferred source of escapist gaming crack). It's a charming, absorbing game - filled with progress indicators and accessible rewards for sustained engagement. I found myself playing late at night, first thing in the morning - whenever I wanted to get a quick hit of accomplishment and flow (and avoid something messy and challenging).
Last night, after we got the kids to bed, my husband wanted to talk about our loan refinance -- but I was so absorbed in playing my game that I told him to wait. He looked at me, shook his head, and said "Face it - you're an addict." FAIL. Game Over. When a game starts interfering with your real life commitments and relationships, it's time to walk away.
So I've been wondering - it possible to design games and services that enrich your real life - that make it more FULFILLING? I think it comes down to the habits that you're building, and how they affect your life. Fulfilling Habits make your life BETTER; Addictive Habits make your life WORSE.
It's a little tricky: many habits that enhance your life - a glass of red wine with dinner, a gambling weekend in Vegas, a quick match-3 game to take a mental break and escape the complexity of everyday life - will make your life worse when done to EXCESS.
So I made a chart to wrap my mind around these ideas. Take a look. What jumps out at you?
The habits on the left - gambling, porn, junk food, violent media, heroin - are innately PRONE to driving addictive behavior, because they promise more than they deliver and activate your nervous system in an unbalanced way. Whereas the habits on the right - love, friendship, building, crafting, learning, exercising, sports - are fulfilling when done regularly (and not to excess).
What kind of games and services do YOU want to build? How do you feel about addiction in software design? I'd love to hear what you think.