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Dallas, Texas, United States

Friday, June 30, 2017

Addictive Entertainment

My three-year-old son James and I have been playing the video game Super Mario 3D World a lot recently.  It is cooperative play where we are on the same team but I always have to be very careful not to score more points than him.  Let the wookie win.

Even though we had not met in twenty-seven years, I recognized one of my favorite electrical engineering college professors while we were standing in line at the marina diner recently.  He remembered that I was into playing and programming computer games.  I told him that after continuing my education by earning a Masters in Electrical Engineering, I had abandoned that industry to become a full-time game developer, including writing a book and teaching a university course on the subject.

When I was a professional game developer, I always felt a bit guilty about being a part of the entertainment industry.  If the players were not so busy playing, would they instead be doing real life activities such as building a better world for themselves and their children?  Or are games something you do to keep yourself content and out of trouble in between doing important things such as raising children and earning a living?

Games, unlike other forms of passive entertainment, are interactive and therefore can be won or lost based on player decisions.  Winning a game satisfies our craving for a sense of achievement by providing us with a stream of virtual goals.  I call games "pseudo-work" because they provide the good feeling of productive work but without any of the real-world tangible benefits.

If we repeatedly fail at a game, we become frustrated and quit playing because it is not providing the rush of success that we need as goal-seeking creatures.  Winning every now and then, however, can keep us playing indefinitely because intermittent reward is addictive.  Games are also addictive when they progressively increase in difficulty or complexity as this hooks into our love of learning and mastery.

I think all addictive entertainment, both interactive and passive, should provide at least some long-term benefits to the consumer such as education or exercise.  For example, an avid viewer of a zombie apocalypse television series might incidentally absorb a few tips about disaster preparedness and emergency survival.  By the time a player character reaches level fifty as a magical healer in a fantasy role playing game, the actual player should be able to pass a level one first aid certification.

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