GameDiscoverCo: ‘Compulsion loops’, predatory monetization & you..

Simon Carless, the GameDiscoverCo newsletter (weekly free issue)

We’ve been sitting, mulling on this subject for a few weeks now. But it’s time to uncork it. You may have noted that the PC/console game market is changing, with a high supply of new games, and a tendency to reward titles that allow recurring play.

Along the way, we’ve been preaching things like: ‘make deep, mechanically complex games that you can additionally monetize with DLC. We’d defined this as both good business & ‘ethically sound’, whatever that means. (We’ll get there later.)

But what happens when you get too far down the spiral of monetizing your human-computer interface at all costs? One of the most powerful books I’ve read in the last few years is Natasha Dow Schüll’s ‘Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas’, which answers precisely that question:

“Drawing on fifteen years of field research in Las Vegas, [the book] explores the dark side of machine gambling - a solitary, rapid, continuous form of play that has less to do with the competitive thrill of winning than with the pull of ‘the machine zone,’ as gamblers call the trancelike state they enter.”

As an industry, we make video games that give people pleasure. But I do think people should, from time to time, ask - are we jamming people’s brains with overly ‘addictive’ things? And are we taking advantage of that to make money, especially from those less able to afford it?

Dow Schüll’s book is relevant because - remarkably - it is both a meticulous history of how machine gambling companies learned to retain players, and a close study of some of the local, less affluent Las Vegas gamblers locked into a vicious cycle of spending - because these machines demand money constantly.

One big conclusion from her work? Winning money back from slot machines - the thing that makes the government regulate them so closely - doesn’t actually seem to be why many people play them. It’s about reaching a ‘flow state’, as defined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi - the idea that you can get lost in an experience.

A good piece from a good newsletter.