The way the video game industry exploits the human dopamine response is unethical.

Bogus achievements and subtle changes to the way games are presented today maximize the dopamine hits the average gamer will receive so that they return to play habitually. This is taking advantage of human biology, and it’s unethical.

It’s just a part of human nature. When you accomplish something, your body releases the hormone dopamine to make you feel good about what you just did. Normally, this would be for things like a successful hunt, or watching a crop grow successfully, or scoring a goal in soccer, or managing to get more than a stammer out to the lady at Safeway whom you constantly forget is paid to smile at you. Increasingly, social media is actively trying to exploit the human dopamine reward system by pushing meaningless notifications – that’s right, just getting notifications is enough to give you your pleasure hormone for the day.

But that’s been written about enough. Let’s talk about the way video games have been trying so hard to brainwash you into returning to play.

First of all, achievement trophies are total bullshit. They’re immaterial titles that were once reserved for actual challenges and accomplishments, and now are awarded for as much as buying the video game. I’m not kidding, that’s an achievement. Executives and marketing teams and whatever bullshit hacks realized they could trigger our desire to keep playing without actually rewarding the player with anything. Once, completing levels and challenges unlocked cool content or bonuses for the players, and this is increasingly harder to find in video games. The best video games continue to reward the player with substance.

Money well spent. Ahhhh dopamine.

But again, it’s all about maximizing how much we are subject to the dopamine response, hijacking human biology. It’s the artificial sense that I actually accomplished something – they’re called achievements, and that wording is probably not accidental. Subtle changes in wording gear players toward feeling they are contributing and performing well. The most egregious examples can be found in Blizzard, where traditional “Kill” and “Assist” terminology has been replaced by “Eliminations.” Helping someone kill someone counts as an elimination, and delivering the final blow¬†also counts as an elimination. This is dishonest, lazy, and insults the player.

And when the final highlights of the game are shown, the play of the game is a person looking around in confusion while Eliminations scroll through their screen from shots they did not fire themselves… or they’re staring at a wall.

Well played indeed.

The effect is clear – players can be given the illusion that they are performing well and contributing during a game, when in reality it could just be that they are much more ineffectual. Video game developers really seem to be narrowing down even the possibility of players feeling down on themselves for playing poorly. Again, this is dishonest and really insults the player. They removed adversity from the game and replaced actual reward experiences with cheap bio-hacks. No company or entity should be allowed to take advantage of human biology like this to make money.

Finally, lootboxes. There was some recent controversy about Starwars Battlefront 2 and its lootbox system, a controversy that led to EA pulling their original design and releasing a much more fan-friendly version of the game. Lootboxes are a double whammy of dopamine, because just receiving one is enough to make us feel good about it. Then, when you open one, you get another wave when you see the items you get, even if you don’t want them. It’s a lazy reward system for the players, developed by crews that no longer care about meaningful experiences, or have had their work interfered with and mangled by executives to maximize returning consumers.

It’s just video games. We play them because they’re fun, but they can also be mentally and emotionally engaging stories, exciting difficult challenges that give genuine satisfaction from victory.

But video game developers have found ways to exploit a “fault in the brain,” thus maximizing return users and trapping them there, forever seeking their next dopamine hit from their third-rate achievements and rewards. We’ve all become dopamine fiends, hooked on the dirty stuff now that we’ve tasted the clean. When you consider how much our brain is being assaulted by constant gratification, it’s no wonder so many people find the real world to be dull and depressing.

matt immediately went back to playing Madden after this because dropping a 40-burger on the Patriots always makes him feel very accomplished. Then he did nothing else for the rest of the day, because he felt accomplished. Follow matt @bokchoifresh


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *