Check out Irresistible: The rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked, by Adam Alter. (his Ted Talk can be accessed at

Alter (2017) does an excellent analysis of the psychological, situational and physiological factors and principles used to get us and keep us hooked to the immediate, intermittent reinforcement of all the activities we might do on the net (text, email, Facebook, shop, game…), and the damage this can cause. Our instant access to these compelling internet activities available through our tech has fueled a dramatic and alarming increase in behavioural addictions (Alter, 2017). He cites research that up to 40% of the population, and 48% of American university students, “suffers from some form of Internet-based addiction…to email, gaming or porn…” (p. 86).

Remember, symptoms of behavioural addictions include that the person feels unable to stop the behaviour, and the behaviour has adverse consequences such as interference with work or school performance, social relationships with family and friends, even physical or financial safety.

Alter also analyzes the reasons why on-line gaming is so addictive, and so possibly damaging to functioning at work or school or in relationships.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved role-playing D & D from the original Gary Gygax era in the early 80’s. But I don’t play computer games (though I admit I’m often tempted by Legends of Zelda, and by Minecraft). As a psychologist and therapist, I’m just too aware of the dangers.

Alter’s analysis investigates what it is about these games that is so addictive. He quotes Doan that addictive games have three critical elements: immersion, achievement, and the social element.

  • Persistence to Goals: Humans are goal oriented, and games or activities that build in goals are compelling and motivating. As an example, if we set exercise goals (10,000 steps a day), they have a lot of power to motivate us. Some of us, especially in achievement oriented cultures, can get caught in a cycle of striving to surpass these goals, or even to meet them at the expense of our health, ignoring injuries and illness. (as is often the problem with concussions that occur in sports).
  • Social Comparisons: Humans are also likely to fall into the trap of social comparison, a principle behind many Facebook posts and on-line multi-player games.
  • Reinforcing Feedback from net activities is another powerful factor. Even small bits of feedback, like lights and sounds, can be reinforcing. As Alter notes, “adults never grow out of the thrill of attractive lights and sounds” (p. 134). More meaningful to us is the positive reinforcement from a friend’s response to a text, a “like” on a post or photo, or winning treasure in a game – these all reinforce the user. This may seem counter-intuitive, but that is especially true of intermittent reinforcement (with a variable ratio schedule).
    • Why? Reinforcement makes it more likely the behaviour will be repeated, and intermittent reinforcement on a variable schedule is the most powerful. Thus the addictive power of games comes from the immediate small rewards as we play them, and occasionally large rewards when we “win”. Even more addictive is gambling, especially facilitated by fast tech like slot machines, even when we know the house always wins in the long – or short – run.
  • Making Progress: Another very attractive feature of games is the feeling we are making progress. This can apply to games ranging from card games like Solitaire to Minecraft to FarmVille to Civilization or Empire games, to quest games like Word of Warcraft or Legend of Zelda. With some games, fear of losing ground that they’ve gained can keep a player playing long into the night.
  • Escalation of Difficulty/Mastery: This plays on a very adaptive aspect of human nature – we crawl, then learn to toddle, we toddle then learn to walk. We start at a Kindergarten level, and then we learn, and advance to the next level and the next. With any activity or competence, we start at an easy level that anyone can do, and then improve with practice and master each stage. We advance and “level up” as we play. A sense of mastery increases and that feeling of mastery of something that was once challenging is very enjoyable. Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development proposed that children learn best and are most motivated when the activity is just a bit challenging to their current level of competence, but mastery is achievable, aided by the parent or teacher’s “scaffolding” (subtle help and guidance to improve) that the game, or friends, may provide.
    • So the games that addict us are ones that start easy, and as we master the early levels, progress in difficulty – but not impossibly hard. We master the challenge and level up, a strong motivator.
  • Cliffhangers: All of us who get hooked by a Netflicks series (apparently 61% of us binge watch (Alter, 2017) (or continue to read a book they aren’t enjoying to its end) understand the compelling power of “cliffhangers”. This is called the Zeigarnik effect: an incomplete story or task is very likely to remain in your memory and will nag you until you complete it. (Like the quilt I started in the 80s and never finished but can’t throw away).
  • Social interaction: Some games offer social interaction with other users – multi-player games, Minecraft, etc.
  • Human Nature: Alter notes that because humans are lazy, and impatient, games are appealing leisure activities compared to the hard mental graft of studying or concentrating on difficult work challenges. And because we are impatient, we really like the instant reward of novel stimulation provided by a click of the mouse and won’t stay with a site or game that takes time to load.

The quests my D & D group played certainly had all three characteristics of immersion, achievement and social interaction, and many of the other characteristics as well. Engaged in a worthwhile quest, which for us were always saving a village beleaguered by monsters or rescuing a captured friend, gave us goals, progress, the opportunity for mastery and leveling up, and certainly many built-in small and large rewards of treasure and points, and the enjoyment of each other’s company. They also extended over time, in one case over a year of monthly games, but the Zeigarnik effect guaranteed that we would not stop the game until we had finished it, completed the quest, saved the village.

One big difference: Our role-playing games were not immediately instantly accessible at the touch of an icon. It took time for the Dungeon Master to come up with the game, for us to build our characters, to arrange time in our student schedules to get together. It took imagination to picture the scenes, maps, monsters and treasure.

Today’s vividly animated games are already built for us and ready to go with carefully crafted challenges and rewards.

Now. At the click of a mouse.

Alter, A. (2017).  Irresistible: The rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked. NY: Penguin books.