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Are Video Games A Drug?

Motivational psychologist Scott Rigby explains why we can’t stop playing.

UPDATE: 6.27.2010: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s ban on the sale or rental of violent video games to minors is unconstitutional.

What’s the Big Idea?

It’s not just the secret desire to blow things up that pulls us in to the world of video games, says Scott Rigby, author of Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound. A psychologist by training, Rigby spent eight years bringing his research to (virtual) life as a designer of interactive content for Sony, Time Warner, and Viacom, where he had a hand in the creation of some of the most addictive games on the market–Red Planet, AI:Artificial IntelligenceFrequency to name a few. “Hundreds of motivational studies have demonstrated that we all have three basic psychological needs that are always operating, whether at work, home, or school” he explains. “Good games draw us in because they are designed to satisfy these needs really, really well.”

The three basic needs, according to Rigby:

  • Competence, or the belief that you can do something well
  • Autonomy, or the belief that you have a say in how you live
  • Relatedness, or the belief that you matter and that others matter to you
  • How video games fill them:

    • Immediacy. “All of us could be playing a video game, either on our phones or computers, within the next ten seconds if we wanted to.”
    • Consistency. “Games give us clear paths to success and achievement, and treat us fairly. A game doesn’t tell us we got passed over for promotion because of office politics; it gives us the reward it promised, each and every time. We can count on them.” 
    • Density. “Games give us a rich field of opportunities to pursue, activities to undertake, and challenges to conquer”–plus the instant feedback that makes us feel effective.
    • What’s the Significance?

      The question raised by the sophisticated entertainment technology of today is similar to the debate around advertising in the 1980’s and ’90’s: can something this fun to look at actually be good for us? Or is brain candy limiting our ability to make rational choices about how we spend our time? 

      Regardless of the answer, it’s a fact of modern life that every time we deliver a lecture or presentation or concert we are competing against not just boredom, but the audience’s impulse to alleviate it with a covert round of Bejeweled (thank you, smart-phones). Instead of fighting it, we can learn from the powerful engagement offered by these games. For instance, the next time you create a Powerpoint, focus on making your message rich, immediate, and clear rather than on choosing the perfect font or sound effect for each slide.

      There is nothing inherently deceitful about using psychology to captivate a viewer. But there is a fine line between engagement and addiction, one which is especially important given the primary consumers of video games: teenagers and children. (Even the Supreme Court is weighing in on this issue: a recent case, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, asked, “Does a state law restricting the sale of violent video games to minors violate the First Amendment right to free speech?”)

      Are you an addict? Rigby’s five questions to ask yourself:

      1. When you think about how needs are satisfied in your “real life” versus games, do games come out ahead? The data suggest that if our basic needs are too sparsely satisfied by life, there may be a susceptibility to over-involvement in video games. 

      2. Do you miss deadlines at work or school because of gaming, or choose to game rather than spend time with friends or family? “One gamer I know reflected wistfully that he had missed most of the first five years of his daughter’s life because he spent so much time gaming.”

      3. Are you feeling personal pressure, guilt or shame around your gaming? You may feel a sense of guilt or shame about firing up another game, but do so anyway. 

      4. Are you playing four or more hours a day? “We find that up until about 25 hours, there is no direct association between time spent playing, and negative feelings or decreased
      well-being. Above that line, however, a relationship begins to emerge between 25+ weekly hours, and bad outcomes.”

      5. Is your gaming isolating others? “While you are running around virtual worlds, perhaps in the company of dozens of other online friends, slaying dragons and completing missions, it is sometimes hard to remember that you are leaving the molecular world–and often the loved ones that are under your own roof–alone and isolated from you. If you are immersed in a fantasy world, you aren’t in this one.”

      Scott Rigby PhD is founder and president of Immersyve, Inc, a research and consulting group. He is the principle investigator on several grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health which look at innovative ways to enhance learning and deepen motivation for healthy lifestyle change through virtual environments. His interactive work can be seen as part of the “Explore the Universe” exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.


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