Have you ever fired up a quick game of Angry Birds and 30 minutes later you’re still promising yourself that this is the last game you’ll play? An hour later, you’re still at it: playing and promising yourself that you’ll soon finish the game and return to whatever you were doing before.

First generation video games such as Tetris and Pac-Man earned the nickname “addictive undefeatables” due to the fact that the levels were at times so difficult that they were practically impossible to complete. Players took it as a personal challenge to try to finish all the levels. In fact, such was the challenge that most of these classic 1980s games are still popular and addictive today.

Nowadays, video game developers and software designers are using modern psychological techniques to get their customers hooked on their products. From social media platforms like Facebook and Snapchat to simple yet immersive games such as Candy Crush or more complicated affairs such as Fifa 15, our brains yearn for continuous simulation, even if it’s just a simple reward.

Behavioural psychologists have long identified that random reinforcements or rewards create powerful addictions. This particular technique has been used for years in slot machines, where money received from slot machines acts as reinforcement. Gamblers consciously know that in the long run they will probably end up losing more money than they will win – however, the random nature of the rewards and the possibility, even if remote, of a big win keep them coming back for more.

Over time designers, through the use of continuous market research and psychological principles have identified a semi-scientific process which is being used to ensure that their software provides such random rewards so as to keep the user’s attention for as long as possible.

In reality the most profitable companies are not the ones that are able to produce the best video game or piece of software, but rather those that manage to get the most users hooked on to their products. Take operating systems, for instance. Microsoft launched Windows 1.0 in 1985 and most computer users still think that this was the first and best graphical user interface. Others argue that there were other better graphic user interfaces before Windows, such as Linux X, which was introduced around the same time as Windows. The only difference is that Microsoft was able to convince more users to use its product and in the process, gained worldwide recognition as a standard provider of operating systems on IBM compatible personal computers. Windows-based computers are the most commonly used today in the world, due to the fact that Microsoft keeps updating and focusing on the same user base.

Random reinforcements or rewards create powerful addictions

In his bestselling book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (Portfolio Hardcover, 2014), Nir Eyal deconstructs the practice of getting consumers addicted to a particular product into smaller steps. The author advises companies to use seed marketing, which is a technique that involves creating loyalty among opinion leaders. This is exactly what Facebook did in its early years when its service was offered exclusively to students attending particular US colleges. By getting highly opinionated thought leaders on board, Facebook managed to infiltrate other strata of society easily.

Another technique advocated by Eyal is to ask for a high investment from users: this investment could be the time spent in learning how a product words, or the financial outlay to build an entire infrastructure around a particular product. Microsoft used this strategy when marketing newer Windows versions: Windows users find it very difficult to let go of this product due to the time invested in learning how to use it and all the software associated with it.

Optimisation is also advocated. In 2013, Twitter removed all the clutter, options and company information from the main page and replaced them with just two buttons: sign up and sign in. This simple change helped increase the user base dramatically.

Registered psychotherapist Amanda Grech has plenty of experience in dealing with people who have problems related to newer technology phenomena such as cyber bullying. She says that there is currently a debate as to whether the internet and certain games are actually addictive: however excessive use of the internet or gaming is considered problematic and several studies show that in some cases gamers find it hard to control their behaviour.

Internet usage plays an increasingly important role in our everyday lives and even though the internet offers a myriad of benefits, there are some serious psychological underpinnings. As with other mass communication technologies, there are issues related to misuse and addiction.

But to what extent can playing video games or browsing social media be a disruption?

Grech says that issues arise when someone spends an excessive amount of time online, to the extent that this disrupts performance at work and school as well as relationships. Thus, online behaviour becomes problematic when it has a negative impact on someone’s life situation. On the other hand, some video game publishers are becoming more conscious of their social responsibility towards their customers and use warning messages about the risks associated with overuse.

Video games often stir up controversy in families. As the old adage goes, prevention is better than cure and ideally parents monitor their children’s internet use constantly rather than when a problem arises. Grech suggests that in such situations, it’s imperative for parents to be open to technology and value the educational and recreational elements of the digital world. This will facilitate the negotiation of reasonable resolutions with regards to internet use and will help young people realise that their parents understand the issue.

Also, communication and education are effective strategies in shaping children’s behaviour. This is of particular importance also due to issues of online safety. The internet can be very dangerous and parents need to ensure that their children are safe online.

If someone realises that they are spending excessive time gaming or browsing and neglecting other areas in life, Grech suggested that it might be fruitful to observe and record online behaviour. By building awareness, we may be in a better position to prioritise and plan time according to what is deemed most important in life.

Replacing face-to-face interaction with online networking can also be a concern: a person could be avoiding offline interactions due to anxiety provoked by social settings or due to a poor concept of self. At times, in order to deal with internet misuse, a person needs support to strengthen other areas in life such as building self-esteem and working on issues related to social anxiety. Grech explains that it’s important that a person seeks professional support, particularly if they feel stuck or cannot bring about the desired life changes.

Social media, video games and the internet are not negative in principle, says Grech. Some can enjoy positive experiences such as feelings of achievement, friendship, sense of community and also a source of amusement if they manage to balance their online activities with their offline world.

Ian Vella is a search engine optimisation specialist.


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