Dr Bennett Foddy is a research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University. For the past 10 years he has studied the neuroscience, philosophy and ethics of drug addiction, as well as related issues like obesity and gambling. He's also a game developer, his past work including QWOP and Little Master Cricket.

Following an excellent presentation on gaming addiction at the recent Develop in Liverpool conference, we caught up with Dr Foddy to find out what we can learn about some of the biggest issues in gaming.

What makes games addictive?

stupid heavy rain -

"The main finding from addiction neuroscience over the past two decades has been that there's this reward system, a pathway of neurons that lights up when we receive some form of rewarding stimulus," explains Dr Foddy. "The ultra-simplified version of how addiction works is this: you repeat rewarding stimulus enough times, and then you'll gradually build up that appetite more and more."

The important thing to understand is that there's a link between addiction and control. This relationship can be proved by what is known as a Yoked Control Experiment, involving a pair of rats. The first rodent is placed in a chamber with a button; when the rat pushes the button, it receives a small hit of cocaine, administered directly to the brain via a funnel. The second rat is placed in an identical situation, only this time the button has no effect. Finally, the experiment is set up so that whenever the first rat receives the drug, the second one also gets a dose.

And here's the kicker: as the experiment runs, the first rat will develop a compulsive addiction to pushing the button; his friend, on the other hand, will not. If both animals are subsequently given free access to the cocaine button, only the first rat will use it. The second rat won't bother, because he hasn't established the same link between action and reward.

"You have to be involved in seeking the reward," says Dr Foddy. "Your actions have to produce the reward in order to become addicted to them. And that's really important in video games."

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FantasyMeister's Avatar


I think addiction and what I think of as my 'hardcore gaming hobby' are totally unrelated. Most addictions are either self-harming or harmful to others around you, even loved ones, but the impulses involved are so strong that those addicted carry on regardless.

Some people collect coins, they're not addicted, they're called numismatists.
Some people play videogames, they're not addicted, they're called gamers.

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Also, regarding Clockpunk's post, I think "Doc Clock" has a great ring to it.
Posted 10:24 on 08 December 2011
Clockpunk's Avatar


Foddy's use of that specific Yoked Control Experiment is fundamentally flawed. We know that cocaine is an addictive agonist agent in regards to the release of dopamine (amongst others) as a neurotransmitter. That alone is enough to invalidate its use in any such experiment in the eyes of any competent psychologist. Oxbridge credentials count for nothing if the research/compariosn methods are flawed, before anybody jumps on me for that. What is described is classical behavioural conditioning at its finest. Conditioning, which is further amplified by the chemical impact of the chosen drug. It makes no sense in this context at all, and is in fact a confounding variable, which even first year graduate students should know to be avoided if results are to be empirically valid.

Dopamine is a natural chemical neurotransmitter that is excitatory, involved with emotional arousal, and mutations in the production of the agent can result in either depression (undersupply) or even schizophrenia (oversupply). That cocaine prevents these compounds from reuptake, meaning masses gather in the synaptic gaps, there is a definite biological effect, which is *not* applicable to the psychological effect of natural release, as would be seen in an activity such as gaming.

A more apt experiment would certainly have featured an agent that was not independently addictive, such as a typical motivational-based involving rats, but water - either straight or laced with a trace amount of saccharine, which we know yields no addictive properties (outside of those applicable to *any* substance or action available to us). No entertainment medium is inherently addictive - only a pop psychologist would even think about claiming the reverse.

Foddy is here mistaking addiction with motivation, I fear. And don't mistake me, there are lots of motivational aspects purposefully tuned into gaming, especially with the current generation of games, but then 'addiction' is such a loaded and eye-grabbing term. Addiction can, in the definition he is espousing, come from any activity that facilitates an intrinsic reward (performed solely for its own sake, be it enjoyable or as a challenge). In this manner, yes TV shows and amassing a large film/music collection is just as addictive, in the perceived knowledge of attainment.

Happy coincidence that I've been working on my own research regarding this subject just this morning!
Posted 14:06 on 07 December 2011
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