There is a certain draw to video games, and it’s more than just the game itself. Whether or not you think you’re addicted to video games, every player is addicted to the great feeling of accomplishment. It’s because of a chemical in our brain called dopamine. When it’s released it makes us feel good. When we’re doing something normal like getting dressed in the morning or going to work our dopamine is being released at 100%. When we’re eating it can raise to 150%, and when we’re having sex it can raise up to 200%. But studies have shown that when we play video games our dopamine levels can raise even higher than eating or sex. So what is it that makes video games release all of this dopamine?
Our bodies use dopamine as a tool for reward based learning. When we accomplish something we feel good about ourselves and we strive to continue working harder and harder. This is why when you get your taxes done or finish your college finals you get a sense of wellbeing. You get the same chemical released when you level up or get an achievement in a video game. Whether you realize it or not your body is making you feel good about what you’re doing, and it’s making you strive to try harder and play more.
Does this make video games addicting? I’m not trying to say that it does. However, I do think that video games are trying to shove more and more achievements in our faces to get those dopamine levels higher and faster. Every genre of game from sports to RPG to flash game now have levels, achievements, goals, statistics, and other ways for us to feel good about playing their game.
Look back at video games 10 years ago. Many games didn’t have characters you leveled up. The levels were long and the rewards were small. Players were ok taking four hours to get an achievement. Now gamers want instant gratification. There are countless numbers of examples of games that have become more achievement and level based through the ages.
The first Call of Duty I played was Call of Duty 3. Back then there weren’t any bells or whistles in multiplayer, and you had a set of pre-determined classes to choose from. Then Call of Duty started releasing kill streaks. These are basically little achievements that you can get numerous times in a single match. Then they started having customizable classes with weapons that you had to unlock. Then they added contracts which were another way to add mini achievements. The Halo commentator voice is another great example of how developers are trying to tickle our dopamine sensors. Every time you hear “gained the lead”, or “double kill” a little bit more dopamine gets released and you feel a greater sense of accomplishment.
But developers aren’t just adding extra achievements to games. They are also speeding games up so players can get to the end of quests and missions faster. The Elder Scrolls series is a great example. In Morrowind players had to manually travel from place to place using boats, silt striders, or walking. In Oblivion they added a fast travel menu accessible from any location. Then Skyrim added sprint. Now going to a dungeon, completing it, and getting back to town takes less time than ever. And the Elder Scrolls aren’t the only ones adding faster travel… Pokémon, Minecraft, and it seems like every other game out there has added the sprinting ability.
And its not just in-game achievements anymore. Now completing in-game achievements unlocks points and items for other platforms. The Xbox Live Gamerscore is the epitome of a useless achievement. They offer you extra points for playing games, with some unlockable content to dress your avatar up with. PlayStation, Steam, Origin, and every other platform have followed suit, because they know that these points just add to the amount of dopamine that’s being released while we play.
So what does this mean for the gaming industry?
I think that it means games will continue to get faster and have more mini achievements. If a game takes too long to level up and open more content it’s deemed boring. It also means that games are going to get simpler. Skyrim got rid of the attribute system and made a more organic leveling system. Now you can level up in seconds whereas its predecessors took minutes to pick which attributes you wanted to level up and plan for the next level.
If a game takes too long to learn we’re giving up on them. It’s because we don’t want complicated mechanics anymore. We want quick action and reward. We are addicted to getting those dopamine levels higher. Sadly, with more emphasis on achievements and unlocakable content we might see a lack in good story and content. I think this is one of the reasons there have been a huge increase in casual gamers. They are simple games that give players quick achievements and short levels. They don’t worry about a storyline or mechanics.
Disagree? Look at your favorite series and see if they have added more mini achievements and quicker gameplay. While this might not be a ground breaking observation or an important one for some people it’s something to look out for as we play our new releases. Are developers trying to give us a better experience, or just trigger our dopamine levels so we get hooked? Are you playing games for the story? Or are you playing for the new accessory you can unlock for your character?