Now I’ve heard it said on occasion that I’m ‘addicted to games’. Though there’s a morsel of truth in there, the claim struck me as a bit troubling. Does my future see visits to the pawnshop, where I’ll be trading my cat for cash to renew a World of Warcraft subscription? Or a rehab clinic with fellow patients running around screaming “Boom! Headshot!”? Will they have to drag me away from Jagged Alliance while I plead for one more turn? Okay, that last one’s already happened.
I remember the day I got my hands on Day of the Tentacle, along with a whole bunch of other classic pirated games stuffed onto a CD. That disc was my holy grail! I used to sleep with it under my pillow, which I eventually realised was a bad idea, after I found it cracked in half one morning. But I digress — I started playing the game after dinner, and when I finally got properly stuck, I looked out of the window and saw the sun peeking over the horizon. My mom was pleased; she thought I woke up early that day, for a change.
So just what is it about particular games that keep you playing them, and in the process, ignoring meals, significant others, and daylight? One strong case puts it down to a phenomenon called Flow, which is attainable when the game hits the sweet spot between player skill and challenge. It’s a delicate balance, since if the challenge is much more than the player’s abilities, it could easily be frustrating. On the other hand, if the player’s skill far exceeds the requirements of the challenge, boredom is bound to surface.
The idea is to test the player’s skill, and encourage his progress, so that he feels confident about taking on the bigger challenges that are yet to come. This is easier said than done, since the more time a player spends with the game, the more his skills develop.
And there’s no reason to assume that two players’ development curves will be the same, so you can’t even accurately predict how skillful with the game mechanics a random player will be at any point.
Some games tackle this hurdle with adaptive difficulty, where the game decides, behind the scenes, how to scale the difficulty, depending on how well the player is doing. Of course, many gamers frown upon this technique, since it robs them of a sense of accomplishment if the challenge is always being tweaked to match their skill level. The games that do manage to get the balance bang on are typically the ones that have you engrossed and staring at the screen hours on end, while the midnight oil gets burned.
One thing, though — let’s stop calling it ‘addiction’. Gaming is stigmatised enough from many sides, we don’t need to do its detractors any more favours by attaching adjectives with undesirable connotations. I mean, it’s not like we don’t have any control over our habits... it’s just... hang on, one more turn and I’ll be back.