I have occasionally become addicted to certain computer games. Tetris or Bubbleshooter, Mahjong or deck-of-cards solitaire, Spaceward Ho! or SimCity: these diversions provide an endless stream of little dopamine rewards. Complicated games with stories and opponents, strategies and development: yes, I’ve gotten hooked on those too, but the parts I enjoy most are resource development, technology advancement, and territorial expansion. While it is emotionally satisfying to reduce my opponent’s space fleet to debris (less so, the opposite), it is getting my civilization to the point of producing the affordances needed for that act, rather than the act itself, that most pleases me. Metaphorically speaking, the shooting of the bubbles (finding and mining the gold), the perfect nestling of the falling shapes (organizing the right mix of military and/or trade units), and the removal of matched tiles or stacking of ordered cards (aligning the technological development tracks) is what has kept me playing.
My favorite game of all must be SimCity. I’ve played it two ways: carefully husband resources and grow slowly until my initial stake hits zero just as net revenue goes black, then manage growth until I have savings equal to that original stake and repeat; or simply build willy-nilly until mounting debt prompts the game to offer a subsidized prison or garbage dump (eroding my popularity among the Sims), to offset my budget problems. Both strategies eventually end up producing a thriving metropolis, although I never seem to be able to get rid of the slums.
Here’s the problem: “just one more”. Just one more minute of play, just one more round. Just one more achievement. Pretty soon a sequence of “just one mores” means I have to work late into the night to get in my hours. I watch myself procrastinate and don’t care. I have a history of game-binging every few years followed by a dry spell of cold turkey. I’m better than I used to be, partly because I avoid having any sort of gaming environment installed on my personal devices, and I’m sufficiently paranoid of “free” or “no-install” game sites with ads and malware that their potential negatives outweigh their addictive potential.
A few years ago, never mind exactly how many, having (and wanting) no job yet owning a new computer, I thought I would install the latest version of SimCity and begin another game-binge. Imagine my surprise when, during the actual purchasing process, but before clicking “buy”, I learned that to play the game at all, I would need to be online with Maxis’s (the company that made SimCity) servers through the duration of the experience. Now, network gaming is fine, and I’ve done some of that, but the other online entities were other gamers such as myself, not corporate overlords seeking to monetize my behavior. This intolerable affront led me to immediately terminate the purchasing process and curse Maxis. However, after a bit of calming down (the adrenaline rage of having one’s dopamine desires thwarted is enduring), I became, instead, thankful. I knew that my binge, though highly enjoyable, would have been detrimental to accomplishing my daily and long-term goals. In fact, it was one of those emotionally intense moments that can be re-used: I can’t experience any gaming desires now without recalling that moment, and that helps me resist an allure that I know would cost many wasted hours. My revulsion must have been widely shared, as Maxis’s move alienated a huge cohort, and I think they never recovered. I wonder how many other gaming addicts are saying, along with me, “Thank you, Maxis!”