Tom Chi  

What we can learn from “Gaming Addiction”

January 23rd, 2004 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

What happens when a game is *too* good? You know the sort. The ones you can play for hours on end and not notice time passing? The press usually looks to the most extreme examples of this and labels the effect “gaming addiction.” But the more I think about it, the more I see it as a potentially positive effect with important HCI implications hidden inside…First off, let me say that it’s remarkable when any piece of software can engage the human brain to a point where time no longer seems to matter. Even more amazing is that many users can play at a consistently high level for all those hours.

I believe that there is something very fundamental going on here. Perhaps a basic reward mechanism in the human brain is being triggered, allowing people to sustain complex activity (and enjoy it!) for 10 or 16 hours at a time. From the HCI standpoint, this is an incredible feat. Usually HCI people are happy enough just presenting simple interfaces that don’t terrorize the user, yet somehow, software in this other form is able to provide a complex thing that people love to do.

Is it possible to tap into some of the good aspects of this effect to make our applications more enjoyable? Perhaps when we design our interfaces, we should provide more rewards to the user when they accomplish their goals. This might take the form of satisfying sound or animation when certain productive things are accomplished, or it might manifest on a higher level: a “scoreboard” which is tallying up all the things that accomplish as you go through your day. At the end of the day you can expand the scoreboard and feel good about everything you’ve done. Perhaps in certain environments, the score could be networked and competitive: e.g. a game where you can see which customer care representative has fielded the most issues so far today (or which developer has fixed the most bugs).

All this sounds pretty superfluous (usually UI designers are already pleased if user can figure out how to use the software at all), but the existence of software which is both enjoyable and which still facilitates complex thinking and tasks proves that we can do far better. Maybe editing a spreadsheet will never become as fun as playing blitz chess or Tetris, but even 10% more enjoyable would be a huge success.

How do we get there? The theoretical approach would be to start looking at games more seriously to discover the reasons behind why this effect works. We could then correlate the effect to specific interface approaches and design techniques. Those techniques could then be brought into the context of traditional application design. The empirical approach would be to play with game-like ideas in our current software: introduce a game-inspired concept and see whether it helps the user to accomplish more, or whether it becomes a distraction. Rinse and repeat until you find the things that work.

Has anyone heard of work like this being done? It’d be very interesting to see how it works in practice.

11 Responses to “What we can learn from “Gaming Addiction””
KC wrote:

I think the effect is generated by the task much more so than the interface. i.e., If I’m working on a book, I could get so engrossed that I don’t notice it’s turned dark and I’ve skipped dinner. When I programmed, I’ve often been “in the zone” and completely lost track of time. Was it because Visual C++ had such an effect on me? Doubtful. It was the task at hand.

A person in my program ( ) last year did a thesis on how to create immersion in games. She later discovered that the definition of immersion wasn’t even clear and none of the game designers and research she did found any evidence that ANYONE had any idea what even defined “immersion”.

Bob Salmon wrote:

I think that the feedback / scoring could easily have negative implications, just as performance measurement that goes via management. E.g. your code editor gives you a smiley face each time you’ve entered 100 lines of code => you start hitting return a lot, spreading your functions out so that each argument’s on a separate line etc. I.e. you get what you measure. In games this is usually OK (although I’m sure you can think of counter examples) as the tasks and their measurement is quite simple, so there’s less room for leakage of effort into undesirable behaviour.

Note that you can get helpful feedback. In chapter 4 of Writing Solid Code, Steve Maguire advocates getting programmers to single step every line of every function they touch when making a change. Implication? Programmers start writing short functions in order to not have to single step more than is necessary, which is a Good Thing any way.

Bob Salmon wrote:

You could have some fun here. The accounts receivable clan vs. the accounts payable clan (viz The Onion’s the K Dog) with spreadsheets at dawn. Collaborative working and trying to gain more cells on the spreadsheet than the opposition. (This would be lovely if integrated with the excellent Pods that I used to play on Silicon Graphics machines.) You could have some of your comrades feint with effort on cells A16:C24, wait for the opposition to pile in, and then the main crew jumps on cells H12:K24, slips in the Formulae of Vorpal Sharpness and voila! Payable win!

Or maybe you could have two development teams implement rival versions of some code and then pit them together in a kind of artificially enhanced evolution process. Will your lean, elegant code stand up against the loop-unrolled monster?

I think it might be wise to gloss over wargames and the military…

Ian Roberts wrote:

Forgive me if I sound like an old fogey, but I’ve been resisting this issue for about 10 years now. Every few years I hear people say, “We should explore the interfaces used by games and apply them to our interactive visualization software.” The problem is that the goals are completely different. In games where you have to complete a task, it’s supposed to be hard or it’s not very fun. In work applications where you have to complete a task, it’s supposed to be easy so you can go home and play games!

I’m not saying we shouldn’t add elements of fun. Our web-based training programs have “show what you know” elements where the student does some sort of interactive “game” to test their knowledge. Many of them are just multiple choice, but through interaction, graphics and funny sound bites it becomes an interesting break from the monotony of learning by reading.

In the early 90’s for example, the Big Idea was that Doom was so popular, maybe we should use the maze idea for applications. But people don’t want to take the time at work to wander hallways to find their spreadsheet. Of course, we never considered giving them a gun and adding monsters…maybe that’s the key..hmmm :)

Thanks for the great comics and essays.
~ian (Interaction Designer - Rich Interaction Environments - Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Carl Klutzke wrote:

I’m fascinated by how some incredibly complex games (like the Zelda and Mario games) don’t require a manual, because they teach you new maneuvers as you advance through the game. You then master them before you get to a place where you learn new maneuvers. I’ve often wondered if there’s some way to incorporate this into applications so that you learn them as you go as well, and it would remember what you’ve already learned. For example, the first time you start your word processor, it goes over the fundamentals of creating a document, and once you’ve performed those steps it teaches you about document structure. I don’t know though how the application would assess the user’s progress. Heck, anymore I’d settle for decent online help.

Richard Soderberg wrote:

I’ve spent multiple hours using NetNewsWire, a Macintosh RSS reading application, without taking more than a couple minutes break — the longest being a 12 hour stint, once. It’s a simple, boring-looking Mac application — and yet I still use it day-in, day-out, and aggressively avoid switching to other apps. Little else inspires that kind of support from me; NetNewsWire, SimCity, and Diablo 2.

KC wrote:


I responded in my rather lengthy post here -

Tom Chi wrote:

That’s an interesting point. So maybe it has less to do with the interface than with a certain type of mental engagement. I’ve spent way too many hours playing online chess, and the interface is not much better than a chessboard. Where is the goodness then?

I’m guessing that part of it is seeded in the fact that the content is always changing. Whether its Chess, RSS Feeds, Civ, etc… there are new developments which are happening within the minute to minute timeframe. This would already be an interesting axis to study, as action that changes superfast might wear out the user over time, while things that change too slow would have them lose interest.

Another axis to explore is whether the task allows you to draw relationships, or build a larger picture of things. I can see how with RSS there might be added interest generated from seeing the relationship between what all the bloggers and newsites are saying. In Chess, the tactical relationships between pieces is fascinating, and they add up to larger strategic relationships. In Civ and ROTK, you have an entire empire which has needs beyond those of an individual battle, and in Diabolo, EverQuest, you have your own character, whom through experience and items embodies the sum of many individual actions.

So maybe it is not the specific interface choices as it is the architecting of a system which allows incremental progress and the contemplation of larger relationships.

Daniel Harvey wrote:

The immersive quality of a task is dubbed “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. From the intro at Amazon:

“You have heard about how a musician loses herself in her music, how a painter becomes one with the process of painting. In work, sport, conversation or hobby, you have experienced, yourself, the suspension of time, the freedom of complete absorption in activity. This is “flow,” an experience that is at once demanding and rewarding–an experience that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates is one of the most enjoyable and valuable experiences a person can have.”

It’s really quite an interesting read.

Raist3d wrote:

“So maybe it is not the specific interface choices as it is the architecting of a system which allows incremental progress and the contemplation of larger relationships.”:

I just wanted to comment that I do think that a reason why a game can be so entralling definitively may have nothing to do with an interface, and I also think it goes beyond simply something called “progress” or such thing. I can see games with concrete elements on this level, but also a lot of the very best games is just the whole experience- how the sounds, visuals, story (when applicable) convey a certain role or emotion wich may adjust dynamically to what the player is doing.

There are games like chess, in which is a good example of a “not so mainstream game” compared to the current videogames in this regard. I think chess appeals because of the sense of personal development- the mastery of this big puzzle it provides.

For some very unconventional games, check out SEGA’s Space Channel5 (now in a cheap package with its sequel published in the USA for the PS2). The whole game is really an experience. When asked Tetsuya says he is looking for the emotion that someone playing the game will feel. He wants the player to feel like a hero, like someone who can do stuff and the whole interactive experience of going along with the main character which is a “sexy retro sci -fi reporter.” (You really have to see this game to believe all the stuff it has. It’s truly creative and way unconventional. Guaranteed).

I think one of the reasons why it would be so hard to transfer this to say, doing corporate work on a spreadsheet is that games put you in a very different role from reality in many ways. Even the games that are “real” allow you to tweak and play with reality’s parameters to your heart’s content and those who imitate reality too close are doomed games (in my opinion, Shenmue was not a very good game although I respect the intent behind it).

I suppose that I don’t have anything as concrete as I wanted when I started the post, but I think in a nutshell it all boils down to the experience/emotions a player feels (be it chess or an rpg) and a very simple set of *limited* clear rules that together, can be combined used in very complex ways-> which then allow someone to explore and develop a sense of mastery withing those rules, which are simple to understand to begin with.

Games with way too many rules, overcomplicated or way “too open” (no restrictions) more often than not, just flop.

Well, hope my not so coherent post helps :-)

- Raist

D-Dub wrote:

chess addiction is a serious problem, havent slept for 3 days or eaten, shaking, if you are here discussing then you don’t really understand.

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?