In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell talks about nicotine addiction amongst smokers. What you might not know is that nicotine's power varies quite a bit depending on the, uh, victim.
Of all the teenagers who experiment with cigarettes, only about a third ever go on to smoke regularly. Nicotine may be highly addictive, but it is only addictive in some people, some of the time. More important, it turns out that even among those who smoke regularly, there are enormous differences in the stickiness of their habit. Smoking experts used to think 90 to 95 percent of all those who smoked were regular smokers. But several years ago, the smoking questions on the federal government's national health survey were made more specific, and researchers discovered, to their astonishment, that a fifth of all smokers don't smoke every day. There are millions of Americans, in other words, who manage to smoke regularly and not be hooked—people for whom smoking is contagious but not sticky.
Gladwell goes on to call these sometimes-smokers "chippers." While chippers never feel the need to go beyond a certain level of their drug, true addicts escalate their drug usage over time. I was surprised when I first read that, as I would have imagined that everyone would be caught on the slippery slope toward needing more and more of a drug, but apparently not.
You might ask what separates chippers from more hardcore addicts. In Gladwell's summary of the situation, he says "probably genetic factors." One piece of support for this is a (kind of scary) study where mice were given toxic levels of nicotine. At some point, it's poisonous enough to cause a seizure. Is that point about the same in all mice? Turns out, it's not. While some mice had seizures at X amount of nicotine, other mice could tolerate two or three times that amount. There seems to be a genetic difference here. Further, that range of "toxic to some, but others can tolerate two or three times as much" is the same range for alcohol.
I've never personally been interested in smoking (or drinking alcohol, for that matter), but I drink coffee. It's something I originally did for practical reasons when I needed a bit of a boost to do some work, even though I didn't want the coffee at all, but now I certainly have some sort of chemical addition to it. That said, it's only at the level of a "chipper." I have basically never had more than one coffee in a day, while I know others who have escalated to four, five, six cups, etc.
Oh, and another thing about those mice. The experimenters wondered whether there was a correlation between how much nicotine a mice could tolerate (a genetic factor) and how much nicotine the mouse would *voluntarily* consume (behavioral factor). It turns out the correlation was almost perfect, and that the more a given mouse could tolerate, the more it voluntarily consumed. So I'm willing to be my own personal choice of having some coffee, but not nearly as much as some other people I know, is just my luck of the draw with genetics.
Wanting vs Liking
If you only read one thing in this post, this should be it: "wanting" and "liking" are governed by different circuits in the brain, based on different chemicals. (The wanting-circuit uses dopamine while the liking-circuit uses opioids.) It's actually super important for you to know that wanting and liking are so different in our brains. Things that you want are not necessarily things you will like. This illuminates how bad of an idea it is to expend huge amounts of effort to attain things that you will ultimately not like. The most obvious one here is money. Mountains of research say that if you are not amongst the poorest people in the world who cannot afford clean water and shelter, etc., that more money is not correlated at all with more happiness. But you sure want more money. You'd probably even be willing to work way more hours at a job you don't even really like if you could get a lot more money. You are likely to not actually like this state of affairs, but at least in America, it's very normal to want that.
Because I'm pretty introspective, I've thought a fair amount about that coffee thing I mentioned before. I've concluded that I want the coffee a whole lot more than I like it. I sort of like it, but the want is much higher. Often there's a Jamba Juice place or equivalent near a coffee place (fruity slushy drinks). Several times I've imagined "what if I got the fruity slushy thing, would I like that more? What if I got some coffee-type thing, would I like that more?" And usually the answer is that I imagine I would like the fruity thing more. Most of the time, I choose the coffee because the want is just too powerful. The few times I do choose the fruity slush drink, I have noticed that every one of those times I did in fact like it more than I like the coffee, yet I continue to choose coffee. The point? Wanting things (dopamine) is so powerful that even when you are fully aware what's going on, it's hard to fight it.
Is addition in games at all like the chemical addictions described above? That's too big of a question, and I won't claim to have an answer. I can only offer a guess that yes there are some similarities. I think probably there are genetic differences in how people obsessed people get with games. And the whole business of dopamine vs opioids I think is extremely relevant to games. Let's make that concrete with two examples.
Diablo 3 is really all about the addiction. I don't actually know if the developers of the game talk about this explicitly as they work the design. They might, though my guess is they don't. I would guess they are simply trying to make a game that they think is fun and has lots of replayability. It just happens that what's really going on is they are trying to find the local maximum of how addictive that style of game can possibly be.
Diablo 3 really doubled down on "randomness." Random maps, random items. Random means new, new, new which is good for the seeking behavior that your dopamine-starved brain wants. It goes far beyond new though: we know full well that a "random rewards schedule" (look that up if you need to) is the maximally effective way to addict animals. Giving out known rewards at fixed intervals just isn't as powerful as giving random rewards at random intervals, and that's exactly what their loot system is cashing in on. There's so much research to support this random rewards schedule stuff, that I won't even go into it here.
So we have great production values in Diablo 3, great art, and a whole bunch of abilities to play with and try out. There's challenge, though a lot of the game is really grinding for gear (or grinding for money to get your gear on the auction house). You can certainly get way into it. You could learn about the math behind the game, and learn how to optimize your gear just right, what to look for, the patterns of the auction house. I don't deny you could experience flow playing the game. It's just that there's something you should keep in mind....
We also know from psychology that people really want to rationalize their behavior. So when you are telling your story about how much fun you are having in Diablo 3, and how much brain power you are using or something, it's possible that that's mostly a story of rationalization. You might have fallen prey to the very well-designed addiction cycle the game is all about. I know I've found myself spending far, far more hours on it than would seem to make sense given the level of fun. I'm not saying I didn't have fun—I certainly have. I also like coffee. I just don't like Diablo 3 as much or like coffee as much as would make sense given the number of hours of Diablo I've played and number of cups of coffee I've drank.
I wrote about Portal 2 a couple months ago. A friend wanted to play the coop mode with me, I did, and I liked it a lot. That took about two days, and I wasn't playing Diablo 3 during those two days. Right after that, I liked Portal 2 so much that I downloaded several player-created maps and played those too. Also great. Portal 2 as an engine is just really super great, in my opinion. It's possible to create really interesting puzzles, and I enjoy solving them.
It's worth noting that Portal 2 is about as far from the Diablo 3 end of the spectrum as you can get though. There is no addiction involved at all. There are no external rewards at all. No leveling up, no XP. There are no random items to grind. It's entirely based on your own internal rewards of feeling satisfaction at solving the puzzles. It's sort of like, "What if a game used *zero* tricks to get you to play, and you only played because of its own merits?" The result is that the game is so good that I've played it a lot, but have not ever played it more than makes sense based on my level of liking it. In other words, the want and like are aligned. It's not like that cup of coffee that I get anyway, even though I should have gotten a fruit slush. It's not like Diablo 3. For that reason, I really admire the game. It's playing it straight, so to speak. I wish this were the norm, instead of the crazy unusual outlier that it is, these days.
There's something else that was interesting to me about the contrast between these two games. Earlier I said I stopped playing Diablo 3 for a couple days to play coop Portal 2. Then for several days, I played various player-created Portal 2 levels. But then what did I do? I actually went back to work. I worked for about a month straight (on my customizable card game) without playing anything. Portal 2 had, in effect, broken the cycle. It was like eating junk food every day, then having several days of eating regular food and realizing "oh, not all food is junk food, hmm." When I wanted to play some game again, I played Portal 2 and discovered there is a "quick play" button in the game's menus that instantly gives me a new level to play! I have played literally dozens of levels this way, and practically all of them have been good. And still, I've never played more than felt like the amount that matched how much fun I was having.
Former Capcom community manager Seth Killian once mentioned something to me about addiction. He said, "If you think you're addicted something, try not doing it for a month. At the end of the month, if you want to do it again, go ahead. If you don't feel like you really need to do it anymore though, then you've exposed that it was just a shitty habit to begin with." I thought about that as Portal 2 had cleansed my palate of Diablo, and I never logged in again.
Until Diablo 3 patch 1.04, that is. I really like the improved effects in combat that make it easier to tell what's going on, and the balance changes seem to be improvements at first glance. Also, there's a new meter to fill up that will take forever (the paragon levels). Even though it's ridiculously transparent that it's just triggering the same old addiction circuits (more level ups! and by the way more super rare legendary items to seek out!), it's almost like seeing through the veil doesn't help. That's how powerful the forces we're playing with here are.
I hope this helped you think about these issues in some way. Maybe I could say more, but it's time for some Diablo 3 now.
EDIT: As an epilogue, I'll say the last line was a joke in case you couldn't tell. I have played much more Portal 2 since I wrote this.