ack in the good old days, you would buy a video game, play it and eventually complete it. Maybe you’d replay it, maybe it would be tossed aside for the new hotness.
When Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) came along, there was a change. Now, as well as buying the game, you were paying a subscription in order to be able to play the game. It was a new way for companies to get more money out of their players. Of course, the content within any given game was limited and once a player had played through the main story, they had little reason to continue their subscription. They could simply renew as and when any expansions were released.
Eventually, this resulted in the rise of daily quests. World of Warcraft was one of the first to adopt daily quests back in 2007. Daily quests provided players with a reason to log in to the game every day in order to fractionally increase their standing within the game. Whether it was to gain access to slightly better equipment for their in-game character or whether it was simply to acquire vanity items or complete achievements, this was a big step towards the situation we find ourselves in right now.
Over the years, games developers have found numerous ways to keep players coming back on a daily basis. Long after the fun of the game has dried up, players still log in every day. Why? Quite simply, when you hit an achievement in a game or unlock some in-game reward, you get a hit of dopamine. Your brain loves it. It wants more and the way to get it is to keep logging in every day, performing mundane tasks in order to get a virtual pat on the head.
I have suffered this problem numerous times and every time, it has consumed my life until I’ve forced myself to quit “cold turkey”.
The first occasion that I remember was World of Warcraft. In order to get the “best” weapon for my character class, I needed to raise my reputation with a certain faction and that meant logging in every day to do daily quests. By the time I realised what was going on, I had spreadsheets set up to assist me with the acquisition of the rarest items and was spending hours every day when I should have been working, trekking around Azeroth. The worst part is, as soon as another expansion came out, the items would become worthless anyway.
So I quit. I deleted my characters, deleted my account and uninstalled the game. Of course, I found out later that I could have everything restored and my addiction to World of Warcraft reared its head periodically. At times, I’ve found myself essentially playing Farmville in Pandaria so that my Paladin could become a higher level agricultural specialist or fishing for hours on end so I can catch the ultra-rare fish in the enemy’s stronghold. All pointless tasks that aren’t even a real part of the game I was playing.
Look at everything I’ve achieved
I had a similar experience with Starcraft 2 through achievements. There were hundreds (if not thousands) of achievements in the game that ultimately added up to a score that you could compare to other player’s scores. One way to get points? Play against the easiest AI and win. This led to a bizarre situation where I found the quickest possible way to beat the AI and then sat there performing the same win over and over, just so I could get more achievement points. Totally pointless, totally unenjoyable. Eventually I realised and stopped chasing achievements.
This is nothing compared to smart phone apps. What video games started, apps have perfected. Drawing you in with an apparently free game, you soon find that if you really want to compete, you need to spend money. Everyone has heard horror stories about people spending a fortune on Farmville or Candy Crush just so they could plant slightly larger melons.
I’ve had problems with Hearthstone and Pokemon Go as well. In the case of Hearthstone, my determination to not spend any real cash meant that I was logging on every day to complete daily quests so I could “buy” packs of cards for free. This was something of a grind and the temptation to spend money to give my collection a boost was overwhelming. With Pokemon Go, location was a factor, which meant that (rather positively) I was getting out of the house more, going for walks and visiting places where I knew desirable pokemon could be found. At the same time though, if I was sat in the pub with a friend, I’d be constantly looking at my phone to throw pokeballs since there was likely a pokestop nearby and once I had a scanner, I would jump in the car for a ten minute round trip, just so I could catch something I didn’t already have. Not good.
For me, the app that bit hard was Star Trek Timelines. This game took over my life for about a year and this was only worsened by the instant access I had via my smart phone. I was fortunate enough to refrain from spending any significant amount of money on the game, instead opting for their monthly pass option which was somewhere in the region of £10 per month to give myself a slight edge over the players who spent nothing. Believe me when I say, I could have spent hundreds if I’d have been drawn in like others were. Again, I eventually realised the futility of what I was doing and quit the game.
The one positive thing is that when you stop doing a daily quest, you realise that you’ve “missed out” and there’s no point going back because you’re already “behind” everyone else. This has made it much easier for me to quit each time I’ve been drawn in.
I posted recently about why I’m not playing much Lightseekers at the moment. The app is the other reason.
The Lightseekers app includes all of the addictive elements we’ve come to expect from a mobile game: Achievements, Leader Boards, In-Game Vanity Rewards, Daily Quests and so on.
You don’t need to spend a penny in the app, especially if you’re like me and have an extensive physical collection. Except, if you want all those seasonal vanity rewards, you might have to spend some money after all. When the Halloween playmat and card back came out, I realised that I could acquire both if I hammered the daily missions to get enough gems to buy them. This was before we found out that the card backs were included in physical tournament rewards as a scannable card.
And once again, I found myself drawn in. Logging in every day to do daily quests to get gems to spend on utterly pointless, virtual items. At the point where I was considering spending real money on gems so that I could access playmats, I knew it was time to quit. All the alarm bells I’d begun to recognise over the years were ringing.
Lets also not forget, an infinite number of vanity rewards can be added to a game at basically no cost to the developer, all there to draw you in. Most likely, you will find that vanity rewards are added at a slow trickle. Just enough to keep you saying “just one more item to get until I’ve got them all”.
So this isn’t a criticism of the Lightseekers app. Companies will do what they need to do to keep you playing their game regularly and ultimately, to part you from your hard earned cash. Playing the same game over and over again eventually becomes boring and you move on to something else. No company wants you to do that so they will do whatever they can to keep you playing. It’s fair enough and it’s how business works.
What I’m trying to say is: learn to read the warning signs. If you’re logging in to an app every day just so you “don’t miss out” on something like a daily quest then there might be a bigger issue at hand. If you find the prospect of acquiring a virtual item something that you want to spend real money on, you could be hooked to the dopamine hit that you’ll receive when the item pops up in your inventory.
Apps in particular are designed to make you go back. From Facebook likes to Youtube shares, it all triggers that part of your brain that says “more please”. I recently had to remove my daughter’s access to Snapchat after learning that most kids use it because they are hooked to something called “streaks” where sending photos back and forward every day gives you a bigger streak number. Miss a day? Your streak is back to zero. No way any kid is going to let that happen if they can avoid it and so Snapchat has become the chat program of choice for an entire generation.
If you think you might have a problem, speak to someone. I’m no expert, just someone who’s fallen afoul of this time and time again. That said, do feel free to get in touch if you want to talk about similar issues.