Addiction, Video Games, and Gamification of Toy Collecting

For the third time, I found myself addicted to a video game.

I’m a sucker for free-to-play games.  I dig the concept (essentially, pay what you want) and I think that commercial art – even highly monetizing commercial art – is still art.  Several of the games I’ve played have produced some really good stories and had some engaging characters, despite being free-to-play, pay-to-win, freemium, whatever your preferred term is.

I do actively avoid terms like ‘pay-to-win’ because I’ve often found that to be an unfair allegation against the games.  It seems to me that when players accuse a game of being ‘pay-to-win’, they simply lack patience to stick with a game and level up more organically, or to fully understand the optimum set-up.  Usually.  Sometimes the game is just poorly made, where the only way to really excel is to dump a load of cash.  So maybe I should clarify that I’m a sucker for GOOD free-to-play games.

As I write this, I’m also amused that Microsoft Word recognizes ‘Freemium’ as a word.  That both amuses me and worries me.

I digress.  The third time I found myself staring down the price tag attached to a game and said “I can afford that”.  The third time I found myself neglecting the real world and the people in it in favor of this handheld game.  The third time a game supplanted my own desires.

The third time I deleted the game and had to address the gaping hole in my day and my life that it left.

The first time, I was inspired to write a panel for conventions about Video Game Addiction.  As a fan of mental health awareness and stigma-busting, I wanted to talk about just what addiction is (and isn’t).  I wanted to explore how these games exploit the way the human mind functions to be electronic gambling, drugs, or just easy anchors for obsessive types.

See, that last one is an important key.  While some free-to-play games definitely are designed to do nothing but separate players from their wallets and get them totally hooked, others aren’t so nefarious.  Some games are games, jut games, with the monetary element connected to it so that the game can, you know, exist.  Wanting to make money off of art isn’t a bad thing, nor is it automatically greedy.  Wanting a roof over your head and food in your fridge while you spend your like making the art you love isn’t exploitative; it’s the goal!  So I definitely don’t begrudge games wanting to make a buck or three, especially if they are providing a game that I enjoy.  It seems more than fair.  A couple of times, I’ve even bought stuff from a game I didn’t really feel compelled to, just to support the game.  I figure if I’m still playing a game after a week, the least I can do is throw the developers a couple of bucks a month.  They clearly made a game I enjoy, and they deserve to get paid for it.


But even a game no one planned to be addictive can still be the source of addiction.  Addiction is a two-way street and while game developers can (and some will) exploit psychological tricks to increase the addictiveness of their game, there is also a user element to it.  I disdain victim-blaming but some people (myself included) have a predilection towards addiction to certain things, certain inputs.  Sometimes, the addiction isn’t the game developers fault (though, I think it would be unfair to say the addict is ‘at fault’ all the same).

So, for the third time, I deleted a game.  The second time I was addicted to a game, I purged it from my system and set about making another panel.  Life as an RPG (presented first at MAGFest, who has just announced their 2019 dates…just sayin’…) was an attempt to take what I loved about role-playing games (and often free-to-play games) and apply them to real life.  I wanted to explore what it was about these games that I so loved, that I so gravitated towards.

For the third time, I deleted a game.  And I found myself again with a missing icon on my phone.  And I found myself with errant moments of time unsure what to do.  Like a former smoker discovering the little pockets of minutes that used to go towards cigarettes, I discovered the fractured sum of time I had spent on this game.  Three or four minutes isn’t a lot, but ten or twenty times throughout the day starts to add up.

And to be clear, if you want to spend your life that way – and I don’t say that derisively or judgmentally at all – that’s perfectly fine.  Games are awesome and if you are having fun and living the life you want, hurting no one and doing okay, then by golly, you do you boo.  But I wasn’t.  Not really.  I was losing myself in a simulacrum, I was replacing the hallmarks of happiness with the simulation of pleasure.  Not the same thing.

So I took Video Game Addiction, I took Life as an RPG, and I tried to dissect my life.  I tried to understand what it was in these games that I kept getting lost in.

1 – Metrics

The first was the demonstrative metrics.  “Do this ten times, get this”.  Simple, clear, to the point.

2 – Rewards

It’s the ‘Get This’ part of that sentence that also matters.  The Zen Masters in the audience might laud doing a thing for the sake of doing it, but a reward for doing a thing goes a long way.

3 – Clear instructions

“Do this”.  Simple, clear, to the point.

4 – Celebration

A clear and concise recognition of when a milestone is achieved.  In a game, what happens when you level up?  Big, giant letters appear, music plays, light showers you from above, and it is blatantly clear that YOU DID THE THING!!!  It’s kind of nice when that happens, ain’t it?

There were other factors at play as well (all my games involve lovely heroines, or robots), but those are a bit harder to simulate.  They are also often window-dressing to the mechanics itself.  Clear goals, obvious metrics, tangible rewards, and visible celebrations.

So I began experimenting in my day-to-day life.  I gamified drawing.  Illustration has always been a hobby of mine, but I’ve found myself struggling to put in the actual hours needed to make real progress.  So I began tracking my drawings.  Do one hundred one-minute sketches and I give myself permission to get a reward.  Yes, I’m buying a thing that I could afford at any moment, but that isn’t any fun.  It’s the pursuit of the goal.  It’s the little check marks on the sheet I made to slowly mark my progress towards my goal.  The reward, when I achieve it, will not just be a thing I want but also it will have the context of knowing what I did to get it (aside from just fork over the money).  I may even post about it on social media.

Yes, this is all a bit childish, but so what?  Who cares if I’m thwarting my own addictive tendencies with remedial psychology?  I’m healthier and I’m happier.  I’m enjoying this.  I wake up in the morning eager to get in a few sketches, to make those check marks on the page, to move me closer and closer towards that reward.  The sense of pursuit and progress is almost more fun than the reward will be.

I have to be wary of free-to-play games.  I periodically will get the pull to see what’s on the app store today.  I’ll see a game advertised or a friend is talking about and I’ll be curious to check it out.  I could probably exert some willpower and play a game.  I’ve gotten addicted to three but I’ve played dozens.

But I’d rather do some sketches, read some books, and put down a few more checkmarks.  I want to be a better artist, and I’m having fun.  And it’s not like Combiner Wars Bruticus is going to complete himself.




Nothing on the convention docket yet, although with the aforementioned MAGFest announcement and other cons moving towards their planning, some new dates should be appearing soon.  If you’d like to see me at a convention near you, please feel free to let me know of a convention, or contact your favorite convention and ask them to invite me.  They can reach me here, through social media, or via email.


No books are currently slated for release, but I’ll have some new ones by the end of the year.  Of course, you can always check out previous books, available at Amazon or your favorite retailer of choice.


Also, for my international fans, did you know I have Amazon listings in France, Germany, Japan, and the UK?  Just sayin’.

Published by Robert V Aldrich

Author. Speaker. Cancer Researcher. Martial Artist. Illustrator. Cat dad. Nerd.

3 thoughts on “Addiction, Video Games, and Gamification of Toy Collecting

  1. Speaking of addiction, this podcast has a fascinating and tragic story about a woman with no history of gambling who became a compulsive gambler as a result of the medication she took for her Parkinson’s disease. The increased dopamine levels made her very vulnerable to the “Do This/Reward” scenario that slot machines provided. After she stopped taking the medication, her gambling urge went away completely within 2 weeks.

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