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Addiction by design

A new report released by the US Surgeon General last month reminds us that cigarettes are designed with addiction in mind. Tobacco companies infuse tobacco with ammonia so that the nicotine crosses the membranes in the lungs faster, reducing the delay between inhalation and pharmacological effect. They add flavourings like chocolate and vanilla to the blend, knowing that smokers will be more likely to smell something in their food that they associate with smoking, and to feel like lighting up. These tricks are a source of moral outrage for many of us; it seems as though the tobacco companies are exploiting weaknesses in our biology to make us buy things we would not otherwise have bought, and to do things we would not otherwise have done (or would not have done so much). And tobacco executives have often denied engaging in these kinds of tactics.

All this makes for an interesting contrast with the case of video games, in which addictiveness is universally held to be one of the hallmarks of an excellent game, in which games can win awards for being addictive, and in which a developer can unabashedly boast of putting the most addictive systems into their games.

To be sure, there is still controversy among scientists regarding whether one becomes addicted to games (or for that matter, to sex or gambling) in the same way that one becomes addicted to tobacco or illicit drugs. It might be that we can laud the most addictive game but shudder at the most addictive drug, just because games are not addictive in the same sense, or are in any case much less addictive. But as Mark Griffiths has pointed out, we aren’t yet clear enough on what addiction is to be able to rule out the possibility of  game addiction. All we can do is look at the behaviours and see if they seem to be consistent with what we call addiction.

Sure enough, it looks like videogames give rise to behaviours with all the characteristic traits of an addiction. There is withdrawal, and tolerance, and excessive patterns of use, with the average South-Korean high school student spending 23 hours per week gaming. There are self-help groups, children dying from neglect, and people dying of exhaustion at their chair. There are strong neural correlations between the brains of people who are addicted to drugs and those who are ‘addicted’ to games. And depending how addiction is defined, somewhere between 3% and 30% of game players would be classified as addicted (this itself demonstrates how hazy the concept is). It seems as though nearly every reason for avoiding becoming addicted to drugs applies to games; while gaming isn’t toxic in the same way that cigarette smoke or alcohol is, it can lead to health problems when done to excess.

For all that, we openly design games to become more addictive, and we celebrate the most addictive games. So at least one of the following two things must be true: we should be more outraged by the most addictive games, and/or be more accepting of the measures taken by tobacco companies to make their cigarettes more addictive.

I suspect both of those things is probably true. When something is designed to addict people, whether it is a cigarette or a game or a slot machine, a whole range of different mechanisms can be used. Some games are more addictive than others simply because they are more rewarding: more interesting, more delightful, or more prosocial. Similarly, if a cigarette is made more addictive by making it taste better, or by reducing its bad-tasting compounds, then the act of smoking is made more rewarding. And, I suppose, if a behaviour is more rewarding then it is (other things being equal) more valuable.

Very enjoyable behaviours and experiences are more likely to lead to problematic overuse. But that’s not a reason to try to get rid of the most enjoyable parts of our lives, or to damp down the quality of these experiences. If we head down that road, surely we stand to lose a lot more than we would gain.

On the other hand, sometimes games (and cigarettes) are made more addictive through a mechanism which has little or nothing to do with the value of the behaviour in question. To take one example, both videogames and slot machines frequently harness the mechanism of intermittent reinforcement. If the amount of work an animal must do to get a reward varies in between trials, the animal quickly becomes much more deeply habituated to doing that work. But if the animal gets a reward after a fixed amount of work, the reinforcement effect is much weaker for any given reward. Slot machines give out small cash returns at variable intervals, and it’s one of the peculiarities of our animal brains that we find this much more compelling than a machine that gives out regular amounts of money after regular amounts of work. This is why people get addicted to slot machines but not to ATM machines.

It seems clear to me that a reward is a reward, whether it comes to me at variable or consistent intervals. In one sense I ought not to be attracted to the intermittent reward. And that’s why it seems more exploitative to design systems that use this weakness in my cognitive machinery in order to control my behaviour.

Every slot machine depends on intermittent reinforcement. But only some video games have this characteristic. Pac-man and Tetris, for example, have  entirely regular schedules of rewards: you perform a task and get a predictable number of points. But a game like Diablo works more like a slot-machine—every time you kill a monster they drop an entirely randomized prize for the player.

We ought to be more outraged by games like Diablo, and rather less outraged by games like Pac-man. And when it comes to cigarettes, too, I suspect it will turn out the same: there will be additives which make cigarettes more addictive because they make smoking more pleasurable, and these will be ethical additives. But there will be additives which make cigarettes more addictive in an unethical, exploitative way.

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5 Comment on this post

  1. Surely another important difference between ciggies and video games is that the former have proven negative consequences for physical health. So by designing for addiction, tobacco companies are deliberately inciting people to damage their health. The same cannot be said, at least not with the same level of certainty, for video games.

    Of course you could argue that if we allow cigarettes to be sold and marketed at all we’re being inconsistent if we then complain about designing in addiction. But this isn’t quite the case.

    Basically what we are saying is:
    – marketing and sellingproducts that damage health is OK as long as the risks are clearly advertised;
    – designing for addiction is fine if the product isn’t damaging the customer;
    – designing for addiction when they do is going one step too far.

    I would tend to support this position. I didn’t know about this particular aspect of tobacco companies’ behaviour and I am suitably outraged (if not entirely surprised).

  2. Before I start I ought to say that I’m not really up to speed on any of the literature on addiction much less video-gaming. However, my off the cuff response is to question some things that Peter has said. Firstly, You say that “designing for addiction is fine if the product isn’t damaging the customer”. Might there be an argument that addiction is in and of itself a damaging phenomenon or something which by its nature is bad for the person. Even if we conceive of addiction to things which are ordinarily considered a good, for example exercise, we can see how taking it to excess is actually harmful. The phrase ‘everything in moderation’ comes to mind (although I usually flippantly follow that with ‘including moderation’ ;)). Secondly, even if we do not conceive of addiction itself as bad/negative/harmful then I suspect that there is probably some evidence out there that video games have a negative impact on the health (physical and/or mental). Off the top of my head I am thinking of the effects of being overly sedentary, constantly focused on a screen, non-interaction with actual people, etc. Perhaps Bennett might be able to tell us a bit more regarding the empirical evidence here.

  3. I don’t actually think the principal harms involved in many forms of drug addiction are direct health risks related to the pharmacological action of the drugs. Drugs become a huge financial burden, which creates risks relating to nutrition, incarceration, and so on. And you see many of these harms in people with ‘behavioural addictions’: malnourished or obese video gamers, etc. In a sense, no product is intrinsically damaging to the customer, as Peter puts it… it all depends on how (and how much) the customer uses the product. Even water can be fatal in the wrong dose, and people have become addicted to drinking water. For these reasons I think we have to look to the particular mechanisms of addiction, rather than to the harmfulness of the product.

    And I tend to agree with Muireann to the extent that being addicted, at least being strongly addicted, usually makes one’s life go worse. Does this make addictive things intrinsically harmful? That’s much harder to say, because the peculiarity of addiction is that it concerns what we desire and what we want. On some accounts of harm and benefit, we benefit just so long as we get what we want, while on others, we benefit by getting only what we ought to want.

  4. Fair points both of you. I think what I was mainly trying to do was to suggest a possible rationale for the current difference in level of outrage that seemed to be missing from Bennett’s original post. Looking more carefully at my previous comment, however, I see that I was “supporting” the position that drug addiction is “fine” if the product isn’t (otherwise) damaging for the customer, and that isn’t really what I think. A better way to put it is that it does seem reasonable to be *more* outraged when companies are designing for addiction to products that we know are damaging than when they are merely marketing and selling such products or designing for addiction in products that aren’t damaging.

    As to whether cigarettes actually *are* damaging in a way that video games aren’t, aside from the addictive aspect, I certainly agree that video games may be damaging, in fact I would bet that some of them are. What’s different about tobacco, of course, is that it’s effects are (by now) obvious, physical, and well quantified, which is not (yet) the case for video games, at least not to the same extent.

    On whether addictive products are intrinsically harmful, I guess I’m not really sure that anything is “intrinsically” anything, what is clear is that they *are* harmful to customers who for one reason or another are particularly susceptible. The question, I guess, is to what extent this should be considered the responsibility of those making, selling and/or marketing the products. Many would presumably argue that this is the responsibility of the customer, and that if we intervene in the market to save people from their own choices we reduce the common good by reducing choice for everyone else. This is almost certainly naïve if taken to an extreme, but it’s an argument that I think needs to be taken into account.

  5. A mild aside:

    A mother, worried, comes to a doctor: “Please help, my son is addicted to playing computer games! Stays home, plays all day!”
    Doctor calmly responds: “No worries, we’ll cure him”
    Surprised, the mother asks: “How?”
    Doctor: “We’ll give him the usual: cigarettes, alcohol, women …”

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