Every era has problems that undermines people’s quality of life. The ancient era was plagued with violence before states were strong enough instill order and reduce crime via the police. The medieval era was rife with plagues and disease as populations grew faster than medical science could advance. The modern era, however, is undermined by time wasting games and applications.
I was reminded of this recently after I bought a new computer game, Total War: 3 Kingdoms, which is a strategy game that takes place during the fall of the ancient Han empire and the warring states period that followed between the years 180-250 AD. I have a personal rule where I only buy one computer game a year and this reminded me why I have it.
The truth is that games cost way more than expected in terms of money, time, and bad habits. When it comes to money, most newly released games cost anywhere from $30-60 depending on the quality of the game. Hardcore gamers who play a dozen games a year can easily spend several hundred dollars on this. They will also be tempted to buy the latest gaming system to play the newest games with the best graphics, which can cost several hundred or thousands of dollars depending on the platform. Some games also require ancillary equipment like handheld controls, joysticks, and other instruments that can also cost a few hundred dollars depending on how much you buy.
This can deal a massive blow to your budget and savings goals if you are not making a lot of money. I my case, I spent $1,600 buying a new computer for this computer game I’m playing. This was money I could’ve put into my business, or a dozen other home improvement projects.
Secondly, computer games waste a tremendous amount of time that could be spent on better things. Looking at my Steam account (Steam is an online game distributor), I’ve spent 1,252 hours across 9 games in the last 10 years. I can probably double that to 2,500 hours if I include all the games I’ve played over my entire life. That is 104 days, or 3.5 months that I can never get back – and that’s only as an sporadic gamer!
This time is gone forever. It’s time not spent improving your career, making more money, or starting a business. It’s time not spent on learning new skills or hobbies. It’s time not spent on the dating scene, or making new friends offline. It’s time not spent on working out and improving your health.
This is a tremendous waste of potential. 40 years from now, when nurses are asked what hospice patients regret on their death beds quite a few will say that they wished they had spent less time gaming and more time living.
Finally, video games form bad habits because they are increasingly addictive. Just like marijuana is several times more potent now than it was in the 1960s, the hold video games have over player’s attention and wallets is stronger than ever. As the gaming industry has matured and the popularity of games exploded, so has the industry’s understanding of the techniques they can use to manipulate player’s attention spans and wallets. For instance:
- Compelling stories/character design (maximizing escapism from the real world)
- Use of plot cliffhangers (players won’t stop until they know what happens next)
- Use of near misses (players want to try again when they only “just lose” as opposed to suffer a catastrophic failure)
- Laundry lists (players won’t stop until immediate chores/objectives are complete, but the list keeps growing)
- Large environments (so players want to keep exploring and see every corner)
- Use of difficult challengers (players keep playing to avoid being beaten by the game)
- Record of high scores (players keep playing to have the best score ever)
- Use of achievements/trophies, i.e. the Skinner
Box (players keep playing to get the next reward)
- In particular, its important that rewards occur randomly and not in a set progression, so that players won’t tire and get bored waiting for the next reward.
- Leveling up (players keep playing to become more powerful and skilled)
- Use of in game currency (so players buy things in game without associating them with a real life cost)
And this is only a small sampling of the most common techniques that you can find online. I’m certain you could find many more in video game design textbooks written by behavioral psychologists themselves.
Of these techniques, Total War: 3 Kingdoms makes use of all of them except #10. They took an engrossing story from ancient China, built a huge map to play it out on, and dispersed important cliffhanger events across the timeline to get you hooked. They also allow you to level up characters, replay battles if you only “just” lose a fight, and provide various rewards for gameplay. As the game is basically an empire builder, there is also laundry list of things to do and plan for.
This makes it a great game that is a lot of fun to play…and also the most disturbing one I’ve owned to date. I’ve been playing games for years but this is the first one where I’ve wanted to stop playing, but physically couldn’t stop. This isn’t healthy. Before I knew it, the hours fell away, my diet and gym work slipped a bit, and I’ve procrastinated on other real-life tasks I shouldn’t have. Once my current play through is finished I plan on putting computer games aside for a while. If I was smart, I should do so forever. Other people should as well.
In conclusion, its obvious that computer games are a deadly threat to our ability to reach FIRE. More broadly, we need to ask ourselves: at what point should we enjoy and celebrate a game because its great fun, or shun it for emotional and cognitive manipulation? If the line hasn’t been crossed already it certainly well upon us.