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."
Why do we hate lag (and Quick Time Events)?
Now that we've understood this link between action and reward, it's easier to see why gaming can be so satisfying.
"Any number of rewards can create addiction," says Dr Foddy. "You've got things like leaderboards, achievements, but people always stop talking about it there, at the most obvious rewards. Rewards can be much more basic: just pressing a button and having something happening - that's a reward. And if it's a strong enough reward, it can be addictive in this way."
In other words, it's not just about the "big" moments. Our brain rewards for even the most simple of actions - like making Mario jump, for example. But there's also a catch: in a 1999 study, University of Virginia professors David M Wegner and Thalia Wheatley discovered that there's a limit to the way in which our brains sense a link between our input (pushing a button) and the results on screen (Mario jumping). If the delay between input and result is greater than 150 milliseconds, our brain doesn't perceive the link properly. ("That, as far we know, is the threshold, but there may be some wiggleroom," says Foddy.)
This explains why sluggish controls don't "feel right"; we're not getting the same causal link. This is also why we tend to get annoyed with Kinect games that seem slow to respond to our movements. It's the same story with Quick Time Events: we're often asked to hammer away at buttons for extended periods of time, with the apparent result unfolding seconds later.
However, not all Quick Time Events are inherently unsatisfying, as Dr Foddy explains:
"Heavy Rain has an interesting Quick Time Event system. With many of the Quick Time Events in that game, but not all of them, your input is instantly reflected - it just takes time to complete the action. And that's okay. You slowly rotate the stick to place plates on a table, and as you rotate the stick, he moves. You're getting instant feedback, it just takes time to complete the action."
And confusingly, there are certain circumstances in which our brain won't mind the delay:
"Virtua Tennis is a game where you press a button and it can take as much as two seconds before you hit the ball. This also applies to Wii Tennis, where you have to make a gesture. The way they get around this in tennis is that they set up the game so that your guy on the screen will only swing the racquet when the ball gets to him. Now, they know that you don't intend to swing the racquet early or late - you intend to swing it when the ball arrives. So as long as they do that, you will feel like your intention was reflected - even though you had to push the button ages in advance, and there's only a loose temporal connection. It still works. It's about when you expected something to happen, or when you intended something to happen, and what the delay is there."
Why TV shows will never be as addictive as video games
Games offer a constant procession of action and reward. In contrast, television shows offer an entirely passive experience - and as a result, Dr Foddy believes that they lack the potential to be so addictive.
"We talk about people compulsively watching TV, but I think that's a different phenomena. When you're watching TV, you're so passive - it's said that your metabolic rate is slower than when you're asleep. It may just be that people get depressed and they lose their will to move! Having said that, like many people I'll have a set of seven DVDs of a TV show, and I'll watch them back-to-back. I'd resist the idea of saying it's addictive. It might be hugely rewarding - it might just be that you're getting such a huge pleasure dose that you're making the decision: 'I'm going to watch another one of those next.'"
Importantly, there's a clear difference between compulsive desire, and something you would merely like to do.
"Going for something that you like again and again, that isn't addiction on its own," explains Dr Foddy. "There's this element of having done it before, at your own behest, and then having this desire - this pressing desire. People talking about it as 'urgent desires' - like the feeling you get when you need to urinate. It's not a desire that you can just ignore. It crowds out other thoughts. That's what it feels like to be addicted to something."
Why games have the potential to be more effective than any other entertainment medium
"With all of this stuff that I'm talking about, one of the things that should be a take-away is... video games can be more than movies," says Dr Foddy. "They can be more than books, and more than music. They can be the most rewarding art-form. That's why I'm interested in making them." I don't think it's the case that they always are more, but I think that's what we should be shooting for."
In Dr Foddy's opinion, developers should actively embrace the strengths of gaming as a medium, rather than trying to emulate non-interactive entertainment forms, like films.
"It's wrong-headed for people to go, 'I want my game to be like a movie'. It can be more than a movie. I just think that most of the commercial games that are coming out are not making the most out of these inspirational rewards. There's a lot to learn from cinema, there are a lot of tricks we can use.
"In a way, it's not really a criticism of games that they don't always manage to be all they could be, because they have to roll in tricks from writing, from cinema, from visual arts, from sound design. You have to be a master of all trades to make the most of it. And I think this is why the industry is consolidating into these massive studios with 150 people. But you can't really take big design leaps if you've got 150 people working on a game."