On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
Each video game is addictive for different reasons. Also, each person may find different elements of a game addictive. Although every case is unique, there are general patterns that can help explain why video games are addictive.
Video games are addictive because they help meet our basic psychological need for a sense of freedom, purpose/progress, and social connection.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these factors.
Video games offer a sense of freedom
Video games can be addictive because they offer a high degree of freedom that is unparalleled outside gaming environments. Let’s take a look at a few ways video games facilitate a sense of freedom.
Video games allow you to escape from social constraints.
From fantasy science fiction worlds to realistic combat environments, games allow a person to escape from the normal constraints of the offline world. This is especially relevant for someone struggling with social anxiety.
Offline social interaction can be challenging for individuals who find social situations anxiety-provoking, confusing, or over-stimulating. Games offer an escape from the constraints of social anxiety, providing a sense of freedom and control.
Although games serve as a short-term escape, avoiding in-person social situations comes at a long-term cost. Rather than facing one’s fears and dealing with the anxiety, games offer virtual freedom while keeping an individual dependent on the game as a form of escapism. Using games to avoid difficult emotions can lead to increased use over time, making in-person interaction even more difficult.
Video games allow you to experiment with different identities.
By experimenting with one’s personal gaming avatar, games offer the chance to try out new identities instantly, without the long-term social implications of the offline world.
This can be especially engaging for individuals who are dissatisfied with their offline identity, suffer from low self-esteem, or feel they cannot express certain aspects of their identity in their offline social context.
Identity experimentation through games can be healthy and liberating, but it can also be detrimental to developing one’s offline identity and sense of self-esteem. This is especially relevant if games serve as a form of escape or way to avoid confronting deeper self-esteem issues.
Video games offer a sense of adventure.
Games offer the infinite ability to explore new worlds. For those high in novelty-seeking, gaming environments offer a high level of exploration and experimentation without the dangers present in the offline world.
The modern world can often seem mundane, especially if you are bored and dissatisfied in your work or schooling. Gaming environments offer a way out of this monotony of everyday life and can be addictive because of the infinite possibilities they present.
Video games offer a sense of purpose
Video games can be addictive because they offer a strong sense of mission and purpose. Let’s take a closer look at how games offer a sense of purpose.
Video games facilitate a sense of progress through leveling up.
Games offer a sense of progress through their mission orientation. In addition, players gain a sense of mastery when their skills improve. This mission orientation and skill improvement are symbolized by character development, resource acquisition, leveling up to new environments, and various point systems.
This sense of progression can be especially rewarding for someone who feels like they are in a rut in their offline life. Games offer a way to meet our basic need to feel like we are progressing, even if it is virtual.
Another addictive feature common in games is their variable-ratio reward schedule. Like slot machines, games are designed with features that randomly reward players, keeping them hooked on a sense of anticipation. Loot boxes are a common form of this reward structure.
Video games with no defined end encourage infinite play.
Games with no defined endpoint encourage long-term investment. This can be addictive because the more time and energy one invests into an activity, the more difficult it is for them to simply abandon all of their efforts.
In addition, long-term play with a specific avatar builds a sense of identity investment, making it more difficult to let go.
Also, games with no defined end-point also encourage longer gaming sessions. This is the gaming equivalent of a Netflix binge. Gaming can continue indefinitely, potentially causing further isolation from one’s offline world.
Video games facilitate a flow state.
Flow states are moments you feel completely immersed in an activity. This is also referred to as being “in the zone”. You may lose track of time, feeling a sense of energized focus. Flow states are common when you are engaged in an activity that is challenging but not too difficult.
Video games are designed to facilitate a flow state, challenging players enough to keep them engaged, but not too challenging, encouraging a sense of purpose through progress.
The sense of purpose obtained through games is comparable to the sense of purpose obtained outside gaming. When games begin to be the primary means of meeting this need for a sense of purpose and progress, life outside gaming may seem less appealing.
Video games are addictive because they offer an easier way to meet this need, without the risks of working to meet this need outside of a gaming environment.
Video games offer a sense of connection
A fundamental human need is a sense of connection. We are social beings and can easily fall into a sense of despair when feeling isolated. Internet gaming allows players to meet this need in an interactive online gaming environment.
Video games can bond you with a team of individuals.
Many online multiplayer games involve teams of individuals. Cooperating with a team bonds individuals toward a common goal. This taps into our innate drive to connect with something larger than ourselves. This can also lead to a fear of missing out and a sense of obligation to play, feeling depended on by the other players on a team.
Video games connect you with a grand narrative.
Connecting with something beyond ourselves may also include connecting with a narrative. Even in games without other online players, gaming narratives connect an individual to a story and virtual characters. Like reading a good novel, players become immersed in the story, making it difficult to simply walk away from.
Video games connect you with like-minded persons.
Connecting with like-minded individuals makes us feel like we are not alone, meeting our need for a sense of connection. Online games connect players with common interests. This is especially relevant if one feels isolated in their offline environment.
Games can meet our need for a sense of connection, but when gaming becomes an addiction, they reduce one’s ability to meet these needs offline, reinforcing the need for continued play.
What is video game addiction?
In 2018, the World Health Organization classified Gaming disorder as an official form of addictive behavior. It consists of three components:
- The loss of control over one’s gaming
- Gaming taking priority over other areas of life
- Continued use despite negative consequences and impaired functioning in other areas of one’s life.
The key difference between someone who has a video gaming addiction and someone who plays a lot of games is the lack of control and the negative impact it has on the person’s life. This negative impact can include dropping out of schooling, loss of employment, loss of contact with in-person friends, or family, in addition to physical health issues.
Video games are addictive because they can meet our basic psychological need for a sense of freedom, purpose/progress, and social connection.
Video games provide an environment to experience a sense of freedom from social constraints, social anxiety and allow for a sense of adventure.
Video games also provide a sense of purpose and progress through a mission orientation and the ability to level up.
Lastly, video games provide a platform for individuals to gain a sense of social connection with like-minded individuals.
When these needs are unmet in one’s offline environment, games can be used to meet these needs virtually. Meeting one’s needs through games at the expense of meeting them in non-gaming environments further reinforces the appeal of gaming, making it continuously more difficult to meet these needs offline.