Game Design: Internet Gaming Disorder

DSM-V introduced the idea of adding “internet gaming disorder” (hence force referred to as IGD) as a possible classification of mental illness. This seems like a valid move, since being addicted to video games is atypical, stressful, and dysfunctional. However, IGD can’t be classified as a simple addiction because it’s not primarily neurological, as all substance addictions are. Rather, IGD is an addiction that is intentionally and purposefully created by game designers to keep people playing their games, using psychological methods rather than biological mechanisms. The DSM-V sought to understand IGD in terms of psychology, but first it is necessary to understand IGD in terms of game design. Before labeling IGD as a mental illness and using it as a diagnosis, it’s important to understand the principles of game design and how they are applied in the context of internet gaming.

Introduction To Flow

The flow chart.

In fact, game design revolves around a concept that was originally studied in psychology: Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow. This effect was studied in fields such as art, sports, and meditation, where people engaged in such activities developed an unnaturally intense concentration on what they were doing. The theory describes three conditions to reach this state: a task with a distinct goal, clear and immediate feedback on one’s progress towards that goal, and a reasonable difficulty to accomplish that goal scaling with the person’s skill level.

Flow is a key component of games, which are meant to keep players engaged and interested. In order for flow to work, players must get better at the game over time (and consequentially the game must also become more difficult with the player’s skill level). Games must through their design enable players to get better at the game, as a prerequisite to allow flow to happen. Thus, game design revolves around teaching players not only how to play the game, but also how to get better at the game, so the game can increase its own difficulty and bring players into a state of flow. The goal of game design is to keep players “in the zone”, so game design must act as a tool for teaching skills to players.

However, learning comes to an end. Eventually, a player will reach the point where he understands the game he/she is playing so well that it no longer poses a challenge. A common example is the game tic-tac-toe, which is so simple that after several games, the optimal winning strategy becomes obvious and there is nothing left to learn. At this point, tic-tac-toe is no longer capable of engaging players in flow: referring back to Fig. 1, it becomes a game of control or relaxation because the player’s skill level (and the game’s difficulty) can’t increase any more, and is thus incapable of bringing players into a state of flow. Koster, in his book “A Theory of Fun for Game Design”, calls this the point where the game has nothing left to teach and is not worth playing anymore.

Most console games and single-player games are perfectly fine with being put down after completion: they are bought once and experienced, like a movie or a book. However, this becomes a problem with online multiplayer games: they generate their income based on how long people continue playing the game. The world’s most popular online video game, “World of Warcraft”, gains revenue by charging players a monthly fee to continue playing the game. Many other online games use similar monetization philosophies, relying on the longevity of their game to keep making profits. If players in an online video game reach the point of mastery that Koster described, they would simply stop playing the game, and the game wouldn’t make any more money.

The fact that flow has an end is a weakness that console/single-player video games can live with, because of how they are sold. However, online video games can’t afford to have an ending, because they need people to continue playing the game. Therefore, online video games cannot use flow, despite flow being the primary method of engaging players and keeping them in the game. Even though online video games can’t use flow, they still need some way to keep players interested, or else the players will leave anyway. An online video game needs to fake the sensation of flow and compel people to continue playing the game anyway. This is the root of IGD: the tools that designers use in online video games to keep people playing their games under an artificial guise of engagement.

Operant Conditioning and Fixed Rewards

Leveling up in MMOs like Maplestory is very much like being rewarded in a Skinner box.

The psychologist B. F. Skinner was famous for his research in operant conditioning, primarily the Skinner box. A Skinner box was a simple chamber with a lever that would dispense food when depressed. If a rat was placed within a Skinner box, it would eventually press the lever and receive some food. Once this happened often enough, the rat would associate pressing the lever with receiving food.

From a game design point of view, a Skinner box refers to doing something for the sake of getting a reward, rather than because it’s engaging. The promise of receiving a positive reinforcement works to motivate people, even if the task they must do is boring. This is precisely why many online video games are designed like Skinner boxes: even if the gameplay is boring (because it cannot use flow), people will still play the game anyway for the reward.

The most common way for online video games to create a human Skinner Box is through leveling systems. A leveling system is one in which a character can accumulate experience points by playing the game. Upon reaching a set number of experience points, that character “levels up,” which in its most generalized form means unlocking new content that only becomes accessible once a character has reached a certain level. Accumulating experience points in these kinds of games is a boring process, but players will still go through it because of the promised reward of “leveling up.” This fixation on rewards is one aspect of what makes IGD such a threat: players can unknowingly spend hours gathering experience points in an online video game because the game trains them to focus on the reward rather than the process.

Variable Ratio Reward Schedules

Enhancements in MMOs like Maplestory often have only a chance of working (in this case, 20%).

A leveling system is an example of a fixed ratio: complete this task, get this many experience points as a reward. However, another aspect of operant conditioning that online game design takes advantage of is the concept of variable ratio reward schedules, where it is uncertain what the reward for a task will be. This concept is most clearly illustrated in the case of casino slot machines, where pulling a lever generates a random amount of money (usually none) as a reward. Variable ratio schedules have been shown to higher response rates than other types of schedules, possibly because of the alluring prospect of an unknown reward. Many online video games also use variable ratio reward schedules to keep people playing.

Nearly all online video games will allow players to find equipment and items, whether through exploring or through defeating enemies or doing other tasks. Finding high-quality items is a positive reinforcement, but there is often no reliable way to earn such items. Instead, there is a low chance to find them randomly. Using a variable ratio system like this in conjunction with fixed ratios like the aforementioned leveling system can create layers of false engagement. Players can become addicted to the thought of winning big rewards without realizing that the “flow” they are feeling does not come from the accomplishment of learning, but rather from the monotony of a routine.

The Zeigarnik Effect and Commitment Compulsion

Quests in MMOs like Maplestory are often just disguises for more grinding. I’ve really been hating on Maplestory in this post, haven’t I.

Various studies have shown that people have a tendency to try to finish what they started, otherwise known as the Zeigarnik effect. This was first studied by Bluma Zeigarnik, when she noticed that waiters at a restaurant would distinctly remember unfinished orders but forget them promptly upon completion. More recently, a 1992 study proved the same effect by interrupting people during their task and asking them to gauge how much time they thought had passed. The effect is even documented in books on how to discreetly influence other people by taking advantage of the natural human desire to complete the tasks they’re given. At a glance, the Zeigarnik effect seems like something that would compel people to complete all kinds of video games, and books, and movies, and any other time-based form of entertainment. While this is true, online video games go the extra mile to make intentional design decisions which amplify the Zeigarnik effect and the compulsion for completion.

Many online video games use systems to keep track of tasks that the player must do: collect a certain number of objects, or defeat a certain amount of enemies, or travel to a certain area. Completing such tasks gives the player experience points or rare items, feeding back into the fixed and variable ratio reward schedules described above. However, the fact that games present these short-term tasks to the player takes advantage of the Zeigarnik effect by generating a compulsion to continue playing the game long enough to complete the task. Again, the focus is not on the actual gameplay, but on the psychological mechanisms that compel players to continue playing the game.


There is no denying that IGD is an addiction that truly poses a threat to modern society. However, it would be a massive oversimplification to say that IGD is the same as standard addictions like alcohol or nicotine addiction, because IGD is already so closely tied to theories from not only game design but also psychology. To understand how to approach IGD from a psychological perspective, one must first understand IGD from its own perspective, as we have just done.

What can be done about IGD, considering its full context? Traditional methods of dealing with addiction may help, but the root of the problem is that video games are inherently not supposed to be addicting. Trying to treat IGD as a simple case of addiction would only be a way of accusing video games without truly understanding what they are and why they matter. Games are a powerful form of learning because of how they interact with flow, so psychologists need a better way to deal with IGD other than blocking games out entirely.

Games were never meant to employ psychological tricks the way that online video games use them. At the core, games are about teaching players and engaging them in a state of flow, generating a positive and beneficial experience that they can learn from. Online video games were forced to use psychological tricks because they were unable to use flow, and they were unable to use flow because flow would lead to an end and online games must be endless in order to monetize. The problem is twofold: online video games cannot use flow because they cannot end, and online video games gain income by being endless.

Addressing the monetization issue would be beyond the scope of a psychology paper, but it is possible to address the lack of flow in online video games. IGD happens because the techniques used by game designers to fake the sensation of flow are intentionally addictive, but flow itself is not an addictive experience. This is the reason why gaming addiction is so much more prevalent in online video games than in console/single-player video games: because the former category fakes flow using addiction, whereas the latter category uses flow naturally as a learning tool. If it was possible to use Csikszentmihalyi’s flow in an online video game, designers could eliminate the need to rely on psychological tricks and instead make video games that allow players to develop their skills at teamwork, cooperation, and coordination.

The fields of psychology and game design are so closely connected that a problem like IGD must be solved through a combination of the two. If psychologists can come to understand the principles and goals of game design, and designers can come to understand the psychological elements employed in video games, the two fields will be able to find solutions to the problem of IGD.

4 responses to “Game Design: Internet Gaming Disorder

  1. An interesting article (I got here from “The Gamer” on Batoto as well). Two small caveats:
    First, the DSM-V is by many accounts a rather suspect document; there are a number of “disorders” in it which seem to be less about people suffering from mental problems and more about creating employment for psychiatrists and markets for pharmaceuticals such as antidepressants. Not that everything in it is wrong, but certainly some of the new disorders need to be taken with scoops of salt.

    Second . . . well, as I think about this more it’s less a caveat about the article than a warning that using the article’s perspective about games implies, if you take that perspective seriously, a fairly radical perspective about the world in general. That is to say, the major assumption in the evaluation of games here is that performing tasks for rewards is a pernicious approach to motivation. Now, I’m a social anarchist and I’m pretty much fine with that. But most people probably shouldn’t be; consider that performing tasks for rewards in a fairly Skinneresque fashion is the basis of our capitalist system. Questioning the setup of these games as you do implies a fairly strong critique of our entire ideology of motivating people with money. Possibly relevant, an interesting video about how reward is only very successful at motivating simple, rote tasks (such as grinding, I suppose) and works poorly when it comes to tasks involving any kind of thought or creativity:

    According to this, the research indicates what mainly motivates people is autonomy, mastery and purpose. In games, I suppose railroading undermines autonomy, lack of player skill factor undermines mastery, and strong storytelling is needed to create purpose.

    Taking a devil’s advocate approach for a moment–what if the rewards the game offers are simply worth it? Is that necessarily a problem? If you look at a Skinner box, where the rats press the lever and get food . . . well, rats want food. Why wouldn’t they press the lever? Although in a game, it’s a little less clear that everyone really, really wants a 30th level character tricked out with awesome armour, maxed out skills and sweet equipment. None of that stuff fills your belly or heats your home. Paradoxically, it seems like much of the value people place on getting that stuff comes precisely from the effort (grinding) required to get it, which associates the stuff with a certain level of accomplishment (Purpose?). Also with the fact that, given the effort involved, many other won’t have that same stuff; status games. I think we can conclude, thinking at a deep enough level, that there are problems with this, but can we just assume that it’s bad to rely on reward without considering that just as the desire to gain skill may gratify something about us, so might the desire for reward, accomplishment or some odd form of status? Just how do we decide which motivators are “good” and which “bad”?

    I actually pretty much agree with your conclusions; I just am not sure you’ve justified them as thoroughly as it seems on the surface, and I also think they have bigger implications than you may realize.

    I’d also question whether these are the only available dimensions. I mean, take Minecraft. There is I suppose some degree of “Player Skill” to Minecraft, but it’s not the major component of the game. And there’s no “Character Skill” at all as far as I know. Nor is randomness that huge an issue. Rather, it’s about exploration and creation; tasks are defined mainly by the player, not by the game. And yet people seem to sink large amounts of time into it. How do concepts of “Flow” fit into such sandboxes?

    • Hey Purple. I’ve seen you around Batoto, and I’m glad you know the game design concepts here, because they’re really quite important to the discussion.

      To address your first caveat first, you’re totally right. A disorder doesn’t need to be in the DSM to be harmful to society. But a DSM label means that big companies can start dipping their fingers in: pharmaceuticals, hospitals, but most dangerously, government policy makers. Imagine if video games were banned until a certain age the same way that drinking and smoking are banned, and they rationalize it by saying that games are maliciously addictive. That would really suck, because games are a pretty important part of growing up and learning, so it’s in my best interest to make sure that doesn’t happen. The DSM diagnosis itself doesn’t matter as much as its possible repercussions down the line.

      Your second caveat is definitely the big can of worms. Yes, you’re right, this is a very deep rabbit hole. And I don’t think I’m qualified to go down it. That’s philosopher territory, and I’m not a philosopher, I’m a game designer. But even so, I do think that the carrot-on-stick approach has created a lot of problems for modern society. I could write whole rants about input-reward structures in education, or gender studies, or anything that requires human interaction at all. Maybe some other time when I’m feeling particularly cranky. Basically, yes, I’m aware that this philosophy has very big implications, and no, I’m not qualified to go into that territory.

      So with that, I’m gonna narrow my scope down and just focus on applying this to game design. From a design perspective, is grinding really all that horrible? You’re right that grinding is satisfying, it’s nice to look back at all the effort you expended and where it got you. Some game designer are cool with that. For me personally, I have a few levels that I judge motivations by:

      1. Does grinding tie into the game’s core theme? Grinding fits for some games, and doesn’t fit for others. For a lot of MMOs, grinding is less about the action and more about the social connotations. On the other hand, the new wave of action online games like “Warframe” or “League of Legends” really demand player skill over character skill, so I’m not as okay with grinding in those titles.

      2. How does grinding in this game encourage players to grow and evolve? Let’s take the example of “Minecraft”. It almost is a grind: you spend a lot of time doing monotonous tasks like looking for the right materials. But when you look at someone who’s put a lot of time into “Minecraft”, you can really see that they’ve learned from the experience, they’ve developed their skills. I mean, there are people who make buildings in “Minecraft,” people who make computers in “Minecraft,” people who make Flappy Bird in “Minecraft.” That’s crazy, and that’s player skill, I would have no idea where to begin doing stuff like that. I would say that “Minecraft” indeed does require player skill (depending on how you’re playing). On the other hand, look at grinding in “Farmville 2.” Same deal, people build cool stuff, but none of it is actually connected to player skill. Yes, you learn a little bit about planning and foresight, but it doesn’t really compare to the amount you would learn from creating something in “Minecraft.” If the grind helps players learn, I approve. If not, I disapprove. And most grinds do not help players learn, so I disapprove with most grinds.

      This is a much more generalized approach to thinking about IGD/grinding than the player/character skill dichotomy. And it’s something I’m still struggling with today. Check out my post about the Reverse Turing Test, which goes a little bit more into my game design philosophy. I’m only a student, so I hope that someone else (preferably someone who’s some kind of game design/psychologist/philosopher hybrid god-being) can deal with this problem better than I can.

  2. I arrived at this essay from your comment on Batoto’s “The gamer” page.

    I would like to salute your clarity of exposition and the compelling case you have made.

    I must say that the psychological description of game addiction is something aspects of which can be guessed by people who observe addicts from a distance. Although I had no previous knowledge on the Theory of Flow and the Zeigarnik Effect (and only cursory understanding of Skinner behaviourism), once they were exposed in your essay, I felt as if I had found a label and an explanation for phenomena I had observed.

    I am addiction-prone, but mercifully my addictions – books, manga, foreign languages, to cite a few – are conducive to learning new skills. However, I must tell you that simply READING a story about an IGD-structured game (namely, “The Gamer”) made me somewhat over-expectant about the future levelling up of the protagonist. I’ve spent some time (more than usual for a new series) re-reading the chapters in the hope of getting hints of how Jee-han would acquire new items and skills. So merely being an spectator to the process of playing this kind of game almost made me into a victim of the “fake flow” techniques you have described.

    I’ve always been afraid of games and how they could make me waste my time (now I waste my time with other things). I played little as a kid, and nothing at all in my current life as a young adult. But I wonder whether other profit-driven social activities in the net aren’t fitted with mechanisms similar to those used by MMORPGs. I mean, isn’t the “friend counter” and “follower counter” in Facebook and Twitter (I use neither) similar to the level tools of these games? Aren’t there people obsessed with making “friends” to the point that they will hardly ever leave Twitter?

    I would like to point out, though, that I consider you conclusion over-optimistic. I do not think that kind of cooperation between psychology and game design is ever going to happen (other than to cherry-pick the most noxious psychological tools like the ones used to generate addiction). It is simply easier to make games that tap into obsessive traits of the human being and make money that way.

    Even if one game designer or two decide to try it, the very fact that such a design would be probably more resource-consuming (in terms of setting, plotting, advancing and acquiring skills) and probably more difficult to prolong indefinitely will put a constant pressure against that time design. Profit-making follows the law of least effort. I hope time proves me wrong, though, because I do agree IGD is a real threat to society at large, especially as the current generation that is growing up exposed to MMORPGs reaches adulthood and the condition becomes trivialised and passed onto the next generation.

    That being said, I will definitely check out “Btooom!” after reading your comments. And I will educate myself to read “The Gamer” only once a week when a new chapter comes out. I don’t want to be a “passive smoker” if you know what I mean.

    • I’m glad you got so much out of this essay! Before I say anything else, I just want to emphasize that I don’t mean this as a critique of either “The Gamer” or “Btooom” as mangas in any way (they’re both interesting in their own right), but I don’t think you took it that way so that’s good.

      If you’re interested in more on the topic, you should check out Psychology of Games ( All the articles are short little snippets about a few psychology studies and how they’re applied to games, I actually learned about the Zeigarnik effect through one of his articles. There are actually many, many ways that psychology and game design are cooperating, and there are just as many ways that they are competing for different goals. As you say, there are tons of ways that noxious psychological tools are used in game design, so maybe you are right that I’m a little optimistic. Still, flow itself is psychology. I don’t know about other game designers, but in my opinion, flow is just the epitome of good game design, and for such a thing to be rooted in psychology means that the two fields do need to be connected.

      I feel like there are two directions that online games seem to be moving towards. The first is the whole Facebook/Twitter social game you play on your mobile tablet that abuses psychological tricks to no end, and I wrote this essay to attack those kinds of games. The second is the recent trend in MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) games, which place a heavy emphasis on player-versus-player combat and almost no grinding aspects. These kinds of games actually have a lot of potential, because they’re all about direct competition so people are driven to develop their skills so they can win. And MOBAs have been acknowledged, there’s an enormous professional gaming scene, and pro players are even recognized as official athletes by the US government. At that point, calling MOBA games addictive would be about as fruitful as calling basketball addictive. It’s not an addiction anymore, it’s a pursuit to improve and evolve, and those are noble things for us humans to pursue. So I would say that it’s not just a few game designers trying it, there are actually many of them who are trying the MOBA approach, and it’s gaining a lot of traction.

      Do check out Btooom!, it’s not only an interesting manga but it also addresses a lot of issues about IGD. The main character is someone who seems antisocial and socially incompetent in the real world, but is a world-renowned professional player in the game. Every character in the manga always faces the issue of social exclusion versus personal point of view. Seeing both of those aspects makes for some interesting thinking about what IGD is really all about.

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