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?
"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."