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Addiction, Diablo 3, and Portal 2

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

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.

Portal 2

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.

Reader Comments (44)

What a perfect way to end that article :P

I wrote a paper in high school on how video game addiction is real and measurable. It was a pretty meh paper. But I wrote about random reward schemes, the flat to steep leveling systems in RPGs, and saw how they matched my own knowledge about games and how they matched the techniques used to train non-human animals to do tasks and such.

I think it's clear that many game companies, especially the bigger ones, like Blizzard and Zynga, use addictive mechanics on purpose, and not in a "oh look what we accidentally came across here" kind of way. It's a conspiracy, MAN.

August 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSeth

I still guess that most design discussions on the Diablo team are about how to make a fun replayable game, with the addiction stuff being under the surface. We don't have to wonder about Zynga though. OF COURSE they are all about that, do it on purpose, specifically design for it, and test for it. They don't even hide that in interviews or at conferences.

August 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I was just thinking about this addiction issue last night. It's been Vindictus for me instead of Diablo, but it's a similar situation - Vin has raids that take only 10-15 minutes to do and have a tiny chance of dropping some rare item that instantly makes you rich, and you can only do the raids once a day, so if you don't play every day then you feel like you're "wasting" chances for rare items. So then I played some Yomi tonight, and it felt pretty good to just enjoy the moment of being in the game, and to not feel anxiety over whether some random rewards schedule gives me valuable stuff.

I'm gonna try that plan of not playing Vindictus for a month and see how it goes. Definitely gonna play more Yomi, and...well I've been meaning to try Diablo one of these days but maybe I should save that for another month!

August 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGavisi

I go to industry conferences and they seem obsessed with monetization. I can't really blame them, because hey, money = sustainability. So anyway, monetization isn't the same as addiction, but then I hear these lectures about the techniques people use to monetize things, and at best it reminds me of frequent flier rewards programs, and at worse it reminds me of slot machines.

So yeah, my interpretation of this article is that as a player, I should look for the genuinely good games that are intrinsically fun to play. However, from a design (and devil's advocate) perspective, why wouldn't you just sell out and use all of the addiction tricks? I guess there's the thing where addiction isn't sticky for everyone, so you'd be relying on some subset of your players, but isn't this what the current social game profit model is about: attracting the handful of "addiction-susceptible whales" by using free players as word-of-mouth advertising? I mean theoretically, does game quality matter if you're using psychological tricks that are known to work? People know cigarettes are unhealthy, and yet they smoke anyway.

I guess the risk is that people naturally have events that break the cycle. Maybe a player goes out of town for a week and can't pull the virtual levers, and so there needs to be some intrinsic appeal to get those players back in front of your Skinner box instead of someone else's. And yet here you are, playing Diablo 3 again instead of Portal 2?!

August 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Au

I actually expected Diablo 3 to have more going for it than just the addiction, with all the interesting possible skill combinations and monster behaviours. It's better than D2, I suppose, but still more of a "want" than a "like". It also got me thinking about that difference ("Why am I playing this instead of SC2?"), so that's useful enough. So now I've started playing SC2 again, hah.

I don't agree that Portal 2 uses absolutely no tricks to keep you going, the linear story and the heavy signposting I would consider extrinsic factors. Not much of an issue, though, and not prevalent in co-op.

@Alan Au: Consider addiction in the context of MMOs, and how this can be dangerous when on a very large scale. Lots of people eating junk food leads to an obese, unhealthy population. Lots of people playing hollow games that do nothing to enrich their lives leads to a bleak, joyless population.

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpkt-zer0

Valve-created maps are some long forgotten thing to me. I am referring to the dozens of maps I've played lately. There is literally 0 extrinsic motivation. There is not even a tracking of which ones I've finished, or anything. It's like a pure case of only internal motivation to play more of those maps. Turns out, there are really talented map makers out there, so there's legitimately good content.

August 23, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Excellent article.

So how about Portal 2 with a random reward schedule?
Would that be even better, or are we just back to wanting to play more than liking to play?

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFalke

I had a similar experience with D3, except for me, it was a 2 day trip that put the nail in the coffin rather than a new video game. I realized that, I just didn't have fun and had no clue why I was playing the AH for shitty rewards anyways... was it the fact I felt like a pseudo stock-broker. Similarly, I worked for one month straight without really "playing" anything outside of a few games of Mass Effect 3 multiplayer with a friend.

The one thing I do like about d3 is the ability to try new builds. I tried a lacerate barb build post patch, and it worked beautifully with a 2h in act3/4 inferno with average gear. However, the one hour of play I logged post patch after months of no play just confirmed that I have no desire to level an invisible bar.

Do you really think it is a genetic thing Sirlin? I understand that genetics has some pull over whether someone gets addicted or not (especially for more chemical scenarios), but I am willing to believe that we can override whatever genetics we have with willpower. After my extreme case with WOW, where I reached High Warlord, and then realized in hindsight, most of my play was to reach an extrinsic goal, I think I have become more self aware. Like your slushy example, I always ask myself if I am playing for the right reasons: namely fun? That wasn't the usual case with WOW. Now, I just listen to that intuition that tells me to stop drop and run. If people believe their genetics are at fault, they do less to self-empower their own actions; it becomes a cop out in my opinion.

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterUthgar

Do you think people are becoming more aware of this, as complaints about EverCrack, World of WarCrack, Diablo 3, etc. highlight this issue?

And if so, do you think that awareness serves to diminish the desire to play?

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterajfirecracker

I did that 30 day thing without coffee, and I still like coffee, so...

But in terms of something actually about games, how would you categorize games like Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress? There is a lot of skinner box stuff going on (I find diamonds in minecraft or workable metals in DF) but you also have the ability to build a variety of clever things. Minecraft, in particular, gets boring quickly if you only mine for resources and don't set your own goals.

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commentershatterspike1

@Uthgar: I walked the same path with EverQuest and with Diablo et al. and came to the same conclusion part way through getting my psych degree. MMOs now bore me so badly that they literally put me to sleep in my chair as I play them. So I'm not sure that genetics fully explains addiction rates and re-addiction rates in humans. Else, I would be still be just as prone to addiction as I was when I first played EQ.

I think self awareness and education plays some part, though genetics have an influence on how far that part goes. For some the genetic vulnerability to addiction may just be too strong. For others, the inability to comprehend the basics of statistics, the scientific method, and the results of landmark scientific studies will nullify any potential benefit those studies may bring.

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrized

Falke: as summarized by Hecker:
For interesting tasks,
Tangible, expected, contingent rewards reduce free-choice intrinsic motivation, and
Verbal, unexpected, informational feedback, increases free-choice and self-reported intrinsic motivation.

In other words, if you got rewards that aren't items in the game that power you up, and that gave you useful information at unexpected times, it might make the game more interesting. Like if you did some cool thing, the game detected that, then "rewarded" you by saying "hey you did some cool thing, here is info on that you probably didn't know." Also, simply tracking which levels you've finished in order for you to create your own personal goals of how many levels to beat, or beating X levels of a certain difficulty, or by a certain map-mapmaker could help too.

Uthgar, I'm guessing that genetics plays a bigger role in the kind of addiction that involves actual chemicals like nicotine. The thing is, in the case of a chemical like nicotine, it's really about "nicotine, dopamine, and opioids." So in the case of something like playing games that doesn't involve a still involves chemicals. It involves dopamine and opioids. So while the genetic dispositions are probably less there than if you throw nicotine into the mix, I think the genetic predisposition is still a fair bit more than zero.

I think it's somewhat misleading to say you can overcome it with willpower. I know a lot about the kind of tricks that are effective in tricking people, so I can look at some game and say there are the tricks right there and there and there. But that doesn't mean they don't work. They still trigger these same things in my brain as anyone else. Even I was like "oh paragon levels, when you're dying a lot against hard monsters and having a high repair bill, at least your paragon bar is filling up" and it feels like a good addition to diablo! Of course it's the same old tricks. Likewise, I could know everything in the world about caffeine and I don't think it would have any affect on my want for it. I could use willpower to deny myself my want, but I can't really use willpower to not have a want.

Anyway if people were more educated about these things, yeah it would have an effect, in my opinion. I think we may have even seen that already happen. It seems a lot of Zynga's success was unleashing the worst kind of tricks on the masses of non-gamers on facebook that might not have worked so well on more sophisticated gamers. Over time though, that market (maybe?) became more sophisticated and a bit more resistant to facebook mind viruses. Still seems like that stuff is highly effective, not quite as much as when the masses were new to it. Just a theory there.

August 23, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

The problem is that addiction is a symptom, and not a cause. I loosely classify addiction as obsessive non-optimal behaviour to escape a normalized state; so, you're in a dead-end job, and after work each day, you drink alcohol to be drunk or take drugs to be high. Games and Film & TV are escapism, too. However, Games are more dangerous obviously, because the player participates directly in the feedback loop and the loops are significantly shorter. All developers exploit this. If a developer exploits variable rewards, you have a glorified slot machine.

Furthermore, if you couple that with a social component (input from other people/players), you have a glorified bar/pub; that's the case with World of Warcraft. I know addicts (drugs, alcohol) and I know that they will never give up their addiction by virtue of the fact that their social life is interlinked with their addiction; if they cannot go to the bar, they have no social activity. There is always that danger in MMOs.

You can treat the symptom, but if you don't treat the cause, the symptom will re-appear either by relapse into the same behaviour or into another, which is to say one game or another. Moderation in all things.

August 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGerard

Thanks for writing this and hitting the nail on the head.

The ethics of video games are not treated with respect in the industry. As such, it seems well-meaning companies, like Blizzard, have fallen prey to the temptations of leaning towards 'want' addiction cycles, without really considering how that affects the players of the game, or perhaps the pure fun-ness of them. Games have always been built on reward systems, even Portal 2; it's what makes them games.

I think all developers, and players for that matter, should pay special attention to which side of that line they are on.

Do you folks know of any studies that categorize game rewards as being on one side or the other?

August 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCoreTechs - SeeJay

A lovely ironic note to all this is that Portal 2, the more 'fun' and less addicting of the two games, contains an interesting story arc that revolves around addiction.

August 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFurulamelle

Is there a reason my previous post did not make it through moderation? Send me a PM explanation plz.

August 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFivec

Fivec: I see no record of any such post.

CoreTechs: I don't know of any studies because I don't think there is any acceptance of where such a line even is.

August 24, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Reading through your article, I became increasingly aware that my general feeling of being immune to addiction may be more solidly grounded in reality than I thought it was - and covers more things than I expected! Which probably explains why people are so often incomprehensible to me...

August 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterArchon Shiva

The "want vs. like" metaphor seems really useful in clearly explaining this concept, so thanks for that, Sirlin. Also some interesting discussions in the comments.

Let me throw out a question. I've read the "money does not equal happiness" thing a lot and the data is pretty overwhelming so I have to accept it. But I've done a really poor job of internalizing it. Even though I know objectively that getting more money won't make me happy, I cannot seem to subjectively believe it. Has anyone reading this done a good job of internalizing this fact, and using it to guide their life decisions (e.g. taking a job for less money that might make you happier)? Any tips on how to do it?

August 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Keller

Stephen: When the head guy at Kongregate approached me to work on Kongai, I first said yes, but then I said actually I can't because I don't have enough time. Already have a full-time job and this project would take a lot of time. He asked me about my job, then said it sounded like half the things I do I seem to like, and the other half I seem not to like. He said I should suggest to my boss that I only be there half the time and get paid half as much so that I could use the rest of the time for his project. I took his advice and it turned out I was much happier. There was a time where instead of 50%/50% it was more like 50%/10% because his project wasn't quite ready yet. With this extra free time, I was overall earning much less but it really did increase happiness to control my time that much better. I used that time to start my company and work on Yomi.

If instead I had taken a higher ranking position, earned more money, and spent a higher percentage of time doing things I liked, that could have been good too. The thing is that it can often end up that such a position ends up with you spending more time on things you don't want to do, and even longer hours. In that case, the promise of more money probably isn't worth it, though it's hard to see through that.

August 26, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin
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