iPhones, Games and the Addictive Experience

Stanton Peele By: Dr. Stanton Peele

Posted on April 5th, 2012 - Last updated: August 24th, 2018
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Addiction is all in the delivery system

That the DSM-5 substance-use-disorders committee has decided one thing that doesn’t involve a psychoactive substance—gambling—can be addictive has set off a debate about what is the most addictive non-drug experience of all. (One of my most popular posts is “The seven hardest addictions to quit—love is the worst.“) Leading candidates are love/sex/porn/Internet/food.

And there are games.

Peering over people’s shoulders in the subway, I am amazed at how many of them are playing games. Have you ever seen someone engrossed in their iPhone, playing a game to avoid being nervous, bored, angry—or simply to pass the spare hours of the day?

I was once addicted to a game—Pac Man. Most evenings, and sometimes even during the day, I would repair to the mall to play that game in an arcade.

Did you get the part about driving to the mall? That took time. And sometimes when I got there, other people were playing “my” game, so I had to satisfy myself with an Italian ice or some less enticing addiction.  Of course, I might wait until the game became free—but then it wasn’t INSTANT gratification.

Let me back up. We tend to identify THINGS as addictive—heroin,cocaine, porn, videos, tobacco-nicotine. But we overrate the object and discount the context—in this case the delivery system. Sure, people became addicted to opiates; but opiates were not noted historically as special objects of addiction even though they have been used since antiquity.

What raised the addictive stakes with the opiates was the hypodermic syringe, which became standard medical equipment in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  Intravenous injection allowed concentrated doses of narcotics to be introduced directly into the bloodstream.

Then there was tobacco. Native Americans viewed tobacco as a sacred substance. But they were never addicted to it. How could they be, when it was smoked in a ceremonial pipe passed from brave to brave around a circle? In the twentieth century came the machine-rolled, nicotine-packed delivery system know as the commercial cigarette—and our most widely addictive drug habit was born.

And, sure, you could become addicted to Playboy. But the potential was limited—how many times could a person masturbate to a single still photo? Then came ubiquitous Internet porn, and porn addiction flourished.

Do you see what I mean? The delivery mechanism is the thing. As I defined the phenomenon, addictions are generated by powerful, engrossing experiences that are instantly, predictably accessible.

Which is why my Pac-Man addiction at the mall arcade was relatively low key. Relying on that delivery mechanism made game experiences too much work for the pay-off to be intensely addicting for most people.

But—as Sam Anderson, the Times’ Sunday Magazine critic-at-large described in his history of “Hyperaddictive ‘Stupid Games'”—the technology of game delivery has progressed by leaps and bounds since then.  In 1989, Nintendo created Game Boy—”a hand-held, battery-powered plastic slab that promised to set gamers loose, after all those decades of sweaty bondage, from the tyranny of rec rooms and pizza parlors and arcades.” Game Boy produced Tetris, and the combination of game and delivery system eventually sold 70 million copies.

But that was only the start. Tetris began the tradition of “stupid games,” which Anderson describes as mindless, repetitive diversions that are never completed, based on their presenting “a faceless, ceaseless, reasonless force that threatens constantly to overwhelm you, a churning production of blocks against which your only defense is a repetitive, meaningless sorting. . . .”

In the meantime, Anderson had given up gaming: “I knew that, if I had daily access to video games, I would spend literally every day playing them, forever. So I cut myself off.” But, then, the delivery system for games evolved. Came the iPhone: “a pocket-size game console three times as sophisticated as anything I grew up with. My wife, who had never been a serious gamer, got one and became addicted, almost immediately, to a form of off-brand digital Scrabble called Words With Friends.”

For Anderson, “In the nearly 30 years since Tetris’s invention—and especially over the last five, with the rise of smartphones—Tetris and its offspring (Angry Birds, Bejeweled, Fruit Ninja, etc.) have colonized our pockets and our brains and shifted the entire economic model of the video-game industry. Today we are living, for better and worse, in a world of stupid games.”

The iPhone has upped the ante since it has accelerated the game experience’s immediacy exponentially by allowing it to respond to the finger motions of users.  And nothing is more addictive: According to one game manufacturing executive, “These games are not for everyone, it’s true, but it’s for more of everyone than anything else I know.” Accordingly, “In 2011, Rovio’s chief executive claimed that Angry Birds players were spending 200 million minutes inside the game every day.”

Anderson observes:

Pre-Tetris games were different in a primal way. They required human opponents or at least equipment — the manipulation of three-dimensional objects in space. When you sat down to play them, chances were you meant to sit down and play them.

Stupid games, on the other hand, are rarely occasions in themselves. They are designed to push their way through the cracks of other occasions. We play them incidentally, ambivalently, compulsively, almost accidentally. They’re less an activity in our day than a blank space in our day; less a pursuit than a distraction from other pursuits.

Why does Anderson say stupid games are hyperaddictive? “Ultimately, I realized, these games are also about a more subtle and mysterious form of wall-building: the internal walls we build to compartmentalize our time, our attention, our lives.” I believe he’s right, although Anderson then follows with a non-sequitur: “Maybe that’s the secret genius of stupid games: they force us to make a series of interesting choices about what matters, moment to moment, in our lives.”

It’s a non-sequitur to call something addictive that offers us “interesting choices.” Although in some existential way addiction is a choice, being addicted means not choosing. It is because the games are meaningless that they can be endlessly absorbing, which makes them overwhelmingly addictive.

It is their ability to take us away from what is meaningful that underlies their ability to absorb our attention and to produce the repetitive engagement and escapist gratification that are the essence of powerfully addicting experiences. And, thus, the digital game embodies the nature of addiction.

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.