Back in 1987, I began my PhD on slot machine addiction, and one thing that I began to notice as I spent the first few hours of (100s of hours) doing observational research in amusement arcades that there were many similarities between arcade slot machines and arcade video game machines. It wasn’t until 1991 that I finally did a comparative analysis of slot machine gambling and video game playing and published my observations in the Journal of Adolescence. In the intervening years I have published many papers examining the commonalities and similarities between these two behaviours and it wouldn’t surprise me if I am still writing about these issue in many years to come.
My initial insights into the existence of video game addiction arose out of the research I had been doing on slot machine addiction. Both slot machines and video game machines may be considered under the generic label of “amusement machines”. The main difference between the playing of video games and the playing of slot machines are that arcade video games are typically played to accumulate as many points as possible whereas slot machines are played (i.e., gambled upon) to accumulate money. In my 1991 paper, I (somewhat paradoxically) claimed that playing an arcade video game could be considered as a non-financial form of gambling.
Both types of machine require insertion of a coin to play, although the playing time on a slot machine is usually much less than on a video game machine if starting with the same amount of money. This is because on video games the outcome is almost solely due to skill, whereas on slot machines the outcome is much more likely to be a product of chance. However, the general playing philosophy of both slot machine players and video game players is to stay on the machine for as long as possible using the least amount of money. I have also argued that regular slot machine players play with money rather than for it, and that winning money is a means to an end (i.e., to stay on the machine as long as possible). This is exactly what arcade video game players do too.
Besides the generic labeling, their geographical juxtaposition, and the philosophy for playing, it could be argued that on both a psychological and behavioural level, slot machine gambling and video game playing share many similarities (e.g., similar demographic differences such as age and gender breakdown, similar reinforcement schedules, similar potential for “near miss” opportunities, similar structural characteristics involving the use of light and sound effects, similarities in skill perception, similarities in the effects of excessive play, etc.). The most probable reason the two forms have rarely been seen as conceptually similar is because video game playing does not involve the winning of money (or something of financial value) and therefore cannot be classed as a form of gambling.
However, the next generation of slot machines is starting to use video game graphics and technology. While many of these relate to traditional gambling games (e.g., roulette, poker, blackjack, etc.) there are plans for developing video gambling games in which people would win money based on their game scores. This obviously gives an idea of the direction that slot machines and the gaming industry are heading.
Furthermore, there are a growing number of researchers who suggest that video games share some common ground with slot machines including the potential for dependency. On 1995, Dr Sue Fisher and myself edited a special issue of the Journal of Gambling Studies and wrote a paper examining trends in slot machine gambling. We pointed out that arcade video games and slot machines shared some important structural characteristics, these being:
- The requirement of response to stimuli that are predictable and governed by the software loop.
- The requirement of total concentration and hand–eye coordination.
- Rapid span of play negotiable to some extent by the skill of the player (more marked in video games).
- The provision of aural and visual rewards for a winning move (e.g., flashing lights, electronic jingles).
- The provision of an incremental reward for a winning move (points or money) that reinforces “correct” behaviour.
- Digitally displayed scores of “correct behaviour” (in the form of points or money accumulated).
- The opportunity for peer group attention and approval through com- petition.
As with excessive slot machine playing, excessive video game playing partly comes about by the partial reinforcement effect. This is a critical psychological ingredient of video game addiction whereby the reinforcement is intermittent – that is, people keep responding in the absence of reinforcement hoping that another reward is just around the corner. Knowledge about the partial reinforcement effect gives the video game designer an edge in designing appealing games. Magnitude of reinforcement is also important. Large rewards lead to fast responding and greater resistance to extinction – in short to more “addiction.” Instant reinforcement is also satisfying.
Video games rely on multiple reinforcements (i.e., what I call the “kitchen sink” approach) in that different features might be differently rewarding to different people. Success on video games comes from a variety of sources and the reinforcement might be intrinsic (e.g., improving a personal high score, beating a friend’s high score, putting a name on the “hall of fame,” mastering the machine) or extrinsic (e.g., peer admiration). As early as the 1980s, Dr. Thomas Malone reported that video game engagement is positively correlated to (i) a presence or absence of goals, (ii) the availability of automatic computer scores, (iii) the presence of audio effects, (iv) the random quality of the games, and (v) the degree to which rapid reaction times enhance game scores.
In 2007, Dr Jonathan Parke (Salford University, UK) and I developed a new taxonomy of structural characteristics related to gambling, listing all the known structural characteristics that have been shown to influence gambling behaviour in some way. All the 60+ structural characteristics were grouped into one of six types of characteristic:
- Speed and frequency characteristics: Factors relating to the frequency, duration and expediency of the game or reward.
- Playability characteristics: Factors that make gambling fun, interaction and/or engaging.
- Payment characteristics: Factors that relate to how one pays to gamble
- Reward characteristics: Factors relating to how one receives financial rewards or winnings.
- Educational characteristics: Factors that educate, protect, or provide information to players.
- Ambient characteristics: Factors that may influence the immediate situation of the game or may contribute to other factors already mentioned (e.g., the use of colour and sound).
Using this typology, Dr Parke and I argued that future research and policy initiatives may be to focus on regulating structural factors relating to payment (spending) and player awareness/education and focus less on structural factors relating to playability (which may also include reward, ambient, and speed characteristics). In this way, slot machines can continue to be fun, exciting, and play inducing, but with the eventual aim of minimizing harm.
It wasn’t until 2010 that I – along with Dr Daniel King and Dr Paul Delfabbro (both at the University of Adelaide, Australia) – developed a separate taxonomy of structural characteristics related to video game playing (published in the International Journal of Mental health and Addiction). We used some earlier empirical work that I had done with Dr Richard Wood (GamRes Ltd, Canada) back in 2004 and published in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior. We devised a list of structural features by (a) playing a variety of video games, (b) examining and comparing known gambling structural characteristics, (c) discussing these features with players of video games, and (d) examining relevant research in the area of video game design. Our framework included the following characteristics:
- Sound, including sound effects, speaking characters and background music.
- Graphics, including high-quality realistic or cartoon-style graphics and full motion video (FMV).
- Background and setting, including whether the game is based on a story, film, or television program, and the use of realistic or fantasy settings.
- Duration of game, referring to how long the game usually takes to complete.
- Rate of play, referring to how quickly the player “absorbs” or “gets into” the game. & Advancement rate, referring to how quickly the game play advances.
- Use of humour in the game.
- Control options, referring to what the player can control in the game (including sound, graphics, and skill settings, choice of control methods, and physical feedback). &
- Game dynamics, including exploring new areas, elements of surprise, fulfilling a quest, skill development, AI interactions, collecting things, avoiding things, surviving against the odds, shooting, different ending options, different modes of transport, solving puzzles, beating times, cheats/Easter eggs, solving time limited problems, building environments, mapping, and linear/non-linear game format.
- Winning and losing features, referring to the potential to gain or lose points, finding bonuses, having to start level again, and ability to save regularly.
- Character development, referring to character development over time and character customization options.
- Brand assurance, referring to brand loyalty and/or celebrity endorsement.
- Multiplayer features, referring to various multi-player options, communication methods, building alliances, and beating other players.
Using this paper, and the gambling structural characteristics taxonomy, we developed our new video game structural characteristics taxonomy comprising five types of feature. These were: (a)
- Social features (i.e., social aspects of video game playing)
- Manipulation and control features (i.e., the role of user input in influencing in-game outcomes)
- Narrative and identity features (e.g., the role of character creation and interactive storytelling)
- Reward and punishment features (i.e., the ways in which players win and lose in video games)
- Presentation features (e.g., the visual and auditory presentation of video games).
Since developing the taxonomy, we have started to test it out empirically. Dr. King, Dr. Delfabbro and myself recently published a study investigating our structural characteristic taxonomy among 421 video game players (aged between 14 and 57 years). Our results showed that the reward and punishment features, such as earning points, finding rare game items, and fast loading times, were rated among the most enjoyable and important aspects of video game playing. There was some evidence that certain structural characteristics were stronger predictors of problematic involvement in video games than factors such as gender, age, and time spent playing. This included the use of adult content in the game, earning points, getting 100% in the game, and mastering the game. Our latest research supports the notion that some structural characteristics in video games may play a significant role in influencing problem video game playing behaviour.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H., Derevensky, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). The classification of video games with gambling themes and content: An Australian perspective. International Gambling Studies, in press.
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King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The convergence of gambling and digital media: Implications for gambling in young people. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26, 175-187.
King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). The role of structural characteristics in problematic video game play: An empirical study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9, 320-333.
Malone, T.W. (1981). Toward a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction. Cognitive Science, 4, 333–369.