The case for game addiction

First it was Doodle Jump. Then Dots. And now — will it never end? — Flappy Bird.

So many of the games that we download on our smartphones are a waste of time, but we can’t seem to stop playing them. My current high score on the late, lamented Flappy Bird is three. After weeks of tap-tap-tapping to keep that stupid little bird flying.


Three.Why do we keep falling for these things?

The answer to that question just might be found in, of all places, a medical laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco. Researchers there are trying to figure out what makes games addictive — and how we might use video games to make our minds stronger, faster and healthier.

Using neuroimaging techniques, researchers are peering into gamers’ heads, hoping that the data they collect will help them make video games that change as you play, getting easier or harder, depending on your performance. The idea is to keep people at the addiction point. You know, that infuriating flap-flap-flap zone.

From there, they say, the possibilities seem limitless. One day, we might develop games to treat depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Or games that rewire our brains to improve memory and cognitive function. The list could go on and on.

The U.C.S.F. neuroscience research lab looks like an ordinary hospital, with standard-issue linoleum floors and blue walls. But peer into one of the examination rooms, and you’ll see something unexpected: brain scanners, flat-screen televisions and video game consoles.

“By scanning the brain during game play, we are hoping to discover the areas of your brain that are weak, and then guide a more powerful experience to help improve how your brain works,” said Dr. Adam Gazzaley, associate professor and director of the university’s Neuroscience Imaging Center.

So where exactly is that addiction point? In the case of Flappy Bird, if you ask Dong Nguyen, its programmer, it was the entire game. He said last week that he pulled the game from the App Storebecause it was “an addictive product.” Tetris, the tile-stacking puzzle that came out in 1984, is built in the same way — hence, 30 years later, people are still trying to beat it. (My high score on Tetris is 126.)

Sometimes, games just seem unwinnable. Turns out, that helps explain why we keep playing them and try so hard to win.

“With these types of games — and with most addictive games — as we play them, we’re trying to fix something,” said Ian Bogost, a video game designer, critic and professor of interactive computing at Georgia Institute of Technology. “We’re saying to ourselves: ‘If I can just get this bird past these pipes, I’ll fix it. I’ll save that little bird, and everything will be O.K. in the world.’ ”

If only life were that simple.

Mr. Bogost said game-makers capitalize on our desire to “fix it” by offering us ways to buy ourselves out of seemingly intractable problems. In Candy Crush, for example, you can buy more lives; in Dots, you can buy more time.


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