Should developers protect gamers from themselves?

Another gamer is dead after an excessive marathon session, prompting questions about the dark side of business models designed for engagement and addiction.


Diablo III

Last weekend, an 18-year-old man booked a private room in a Taiwanese Internet café and started playing Diablo III. After 40 hours of playing without stopping to eat, he collapsed and died. It's hardly the first time something like this has happened, and it's not going to be the last, either.

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Is there a way to curb unhealthy playing patterns without imposing strict limits?

Blizzard released a statement, appropriately expressing sadness at the man's death and declining to comment on the specifics. The company did add this bit, though: "While we recognize that it's ultimately up to each individual or their parent or guardian to determine playing habits, we feel that moderation is clearly important, and that a person's day-to-day life should take precedence over any form of entertainment."

Unfortunately, the industry is essentially giving us mixed messages on this point. Sometimes, those mixed messages are overt, such as with Sony and the PlayStation Vita. In ads, Sony tells us to "Never Stop Playing." But in the user manual, the message has somehow changed to "Take a 15 minute break during every hour of play."

Most other times, as with Diablo III, the mixed message stems from the game's core design. As games shift from offline goods to online services, the business model is changing in step. The focus is no longer on the initial purchase. With free-to-play and Facebook games, there's no initial purchase to even consider. Now the industry is turning increasingly to the subscription fees, downloadable content, and microtransactions that follow. The one thing all of these emerging models have in common is that they all depend on a continuously and deeply engaged player base, because customers won't be spending money on all these supplemental bells and whistles if they're not still playing.

Developers design games to maximize player engagement…It's not about "fun" so much as it is about keeping players compulsively clicking buttons.

As a result, developers design games to maximize player engagement as a prime directive. It's not about "fun" so much as it is about keeping players compulsively clicking buttons, bugging social contacts for help, filling up progress bars, and ensuring that there's no bottom to their particular rabbit holes. What's more, the games are frequently set up to dole out exclusive rewards to the most devoted players, whether that's with long-term achievements, higher ranks, or custom outfits to set the most enthusiastic players apart from their moderate peers. Whether this is "rewarding the fans" or "encouraging an addiction" is a matter of perspective, but it clearly runs counter to the message that moderation is important.

That raises a key issue here, and one we'll hear plenty about so long as gamers keep dying after indulging their hobby to the exclusion of all else: Exactly what obligation does the game industry have to protect gamers from themselves?

One simple answer is, "none at all." Publishers make a product, gamers buy it, and they should be free to enjoy it however they see fit. Even if that means enjoying it in a self-destructive manner. That puts games on a spectrum with a multitude of other industries that sell potentially harmful things, including medicine, tobacco, alcohol, fast food, and even water. And there's a slippery slope about how much regulation (whether imposed by government or the companies themselves) is appropriate for these goods. Toddlers probably shouldn't be drinking Night Train, and Evian shouldn't require an ID check; the rest will be a bit trickier for everyone to agree on.

There's a significant difference between a useful product with the potential for abuse, and a product designed from the ground-up to facilitate abuse.

On the other hand, there's a significant difference between a useful product with the potential for abuse, and a product designed from the ground-up to facilitate abuse. Take Zynga's games for example. The free-to-play company listed a number of risk factors in its annual report, among them, "We rely on a small portion of our total players for nearly all of our revenue." It's been reported that fewer than 10 percent of Zynga players ever pay a dime to the company, and the most lucrative 1 percent account for more than 25 percent of sales. So what's stopping a company like Zynga from designing its games around that 1 percent, from targeting the cross-section of their audience most susceptible to addiction, exploiting those least able to practice moderation?

Given the abundance of information companies like Zynga and Blizzard collect on their customers and the control they exert over the game experience, couldn't they use those to do more than just take their money? Why will these companies prevent a customer from playing because he doesn't have an online connection, but not from killing himself--not from the 40-hour marathon that finished him off or the undoubtedly numerous excessive play sessions that preceded it? Is it so unreasonable to limit a player's time on a game to no more than 18 hours a day? Couldn't these businesses get in direct contact with those players and suggest taking a break? Maybe point out to them how far outside the boundaries of normal play they've gone? Surely there's something that could be done to try and reduce the number of these tragedies without infringing on an individual's right to make terrible life decisions.

So I ask again, what obligation does the game industry have to protect gamers from themselves? I'm not going to pretend I have the answer, but it's a question I think absolutely everyone involved--especially those whose businesses benefit from the addictions and compulsions of others--should ask themselves.

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