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The Obsessions and Compulsions of a Call of Duty Addict

June 5, 2011

by Joel Jordon

The Internet is all astir about Activision’s newly announced Call of Duty Elite service that’s going to charge a subscription fee for certain features in new Call of Duty games. This post isn’t really about the controversy over the subscription fee because I don’t find it all that interesting and you can read all about people’s opinions on it on forums all over the Internet. What I found interesting was some of the free features that were listed in a FAQ for Call of Duty Elite. Here are a few:

– Access Elite through the web as well as Elite’s free custom iOS and Android applications for smartphones and tablets

– Track and share thousands of stats with friends – k/d ratios, score-per-minute, win % and loads more, all represented in easy to understand charts and infographics

– Analyze advanced heat maps detailing your match-by-match performance – where you killed or got killed, when it happened, and more

– Career? Start tracking your Call of Duty career – everything you wanted to know about your performance across the franchise starting with Black Ops

I’m just amazed by this truly crazy level of stat-tracking. Granted, I know this isn’t the first time it’s been done—Metal Gear Online, for example, comes to mind, as it also tracks stats to a seemingly obsessive degree. It tracks just about everything, including not just how many kills you’ve ever gotten with each individual weapon but also exactly how many bullets you’ve ever fired from each individual weapon. My main point is that it seems people are beginning to expect this kind of crazy stat-tracking from their competitive online games, and what I’m wondering is whether we really need to know all of this virtual data.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t enjoy having my stats tracked and if, furthermore, I said I wouldn’t admire them all the more if I saw them arranged into pretty little infographics. Stat-tracking is remarkably appealing. It lets you pay attention to the smallest details, which consequently allows you to feel a constant sense of progress, even if all you’re doing is watching lots of numbers go up as you play badly (oh, is that just me?). On top of the numbers, of course, Call of Duty also constantly rewards you in small ways with some stuff that actually affects the gameplay—like new weapons and perks—and some stuff that doesn’t—like big messages  informing that you’ve fallen from a really high distance or that you’ve gotten a million headshots with this or that gun. I think most people realize a lot of is really dumb, but they buy into it anyway and pursue these ridiculous achievements because it’s all designed to make you feel like you have to and to be satisfying every time you do some small thing. That punchy sound effect you hear every time you get an achievement is no coincidence in game design—it’s auditory feedback that makes the little rewards all the more satisfying and makes you want to come back for more. It’s all designed to reinforce everyone’s obsessions and compulsions and completionist desires, and reinforcing those is exactly how you make a game addicting and consistently satisfying.

But there’s no real art to any of this. The game designers or more probably the business executives behind Call of Duty Elite have no doubt perfected the model that will keep players coming back, but they’re working on such an abstract, metagame level that I don’t think I’d call what they’re doing good game design. It would be like saying a game is well-designed just because it makes you feel compelled to get all of the achievements or trophies. It’s an obvious and easy way of getting people to play your game a whole bunch and come out of it feeling satisfied that they’ve accomplished something, when in reality they’ve done nothing other than experienced some lazy game design. Of course, Call of Duty has some sharp and satisfying game mechanics and isn’t really an example of a game with lazy game design, but its more abstract addicting qualities—all of the little rewards that come in the form of stat-tracking and achievements—are cheap and by no means examples of art in game design. They’re more like the qualities you’d expect a well-run business to have to keep customers coming back than anything else.

Still, I think I’d have a hard time trying to prove to Call of Duty‘s millions of online players that the game isn’t fun. But that’s exactly why I think games shouldn’t be judged just by whether they’re “fun” or not—I think, sometimes, you have to look at the kind of fun you’re having. It’s fun when Call of Duty hands out all of those little rewards to you, but it’s a Pavlovian kind of fun. There are a lot of other things that are fun in a similar sort of way—eating ice cream, doing drugs, watching things explode in action movies—but no one sees these things as good for you in large amounts or in certain forms. Eating only ice cream is bad for your health; heroin is definitely not good for you, and Michael Bay movies are even worse. My point is that there are different sorts of fun, and I think the Pavlovian kind of fun people are having with Call of Duty is one of the lowest kinds of fun that video games are capable of. What’s more, I think it might even be bad for you if you really got addicted to it.

My intention is not to be the sensationalist who compares Call of Duty to heroin. But I do think it’s worth considering some of the game’s potential social and cultural consequences. Of course I’m risking pissing off people who believe morality is all relative and culturally constructed by calling anything “good” or “bad”—but I think game mechanics that reinforce people’s obsessions and compulsions might be bad. I mean this in the sense that I think Call of Duty is so good at reinforcing these traits in people that, and keep in mind that I’m no scientist, it could influence them to exhibit this behavior elsewhere. In a culture already saturated with so much addicting media, Call of Duty‘s Pavlovian game design very well may be encouraging people to go on indulging in their addictions instead of maybe going out and accomplishing productive things. Whether anyone thinks this is a bad thing is totally their call, but I think it has to be acknowledged that this might be a real effect the game is having. At least, when seven million people are investing seven whole days per year in Call of Duty—a stat cited by Activision in the Wall Street Journal article about Call of Duty Elite—I think it has to be acknowledged that there are lots of people who might be really addicted to something here.

I mean, you’re even going to be able to access Call of Duty Elite on your cellphone. Do we really need our kill/death ratios right there in our pockets, wherever we go?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2011 7:39 am

    This is a very interesting post. I think achievements in general help to make a game addicting (at least for me). This post reminds me of two posts at Pixel Poppers “Awesome by Proxy: Addicted to Fake Achievements” and “Pretending to Rock: Fake, Artificial, and Valuable Achievement”.” In “Awesome by Proxy,” Dr. Professor discusses how achievements (especially when public) can push some people (especially those with particular personality traits) to keep at a game even when they would otherwise give up. In the other, “Pretending to Rock,” Dr. Professor distinguishes between different kinds of achievements. Some of these the Dr. finds more worthwhile than others.

    Those two articles and yours describe my experience with game-addiction really well. Sometimes it is nice to get achievements in video games and it will keep you coming back. For me, this is particularly true when I am not receiving a lot of “achievements” IRL. I have played video games since I was a kid, but my addiction has ebbed and grown at different times in my life.

    Recently, my video game addiction grew when I finished the classes required at school. I think I was used to getting “achievements” in the form of test scores and essay marks. When I was no longer getting those, I really missed the positive reinforcement, and video games became something that occupied much more of my time because they supply an artificial kind of “achievement.” So there might be a sense in which video games stand-in for the reward-response mechanisms in one’s mind, but it might not be the case that all reward-response reactions are as harmful as heroin. I think the achievements in video games have actually helped me to finish my dissertation, because writing is a long, hard, slog without much in the way of positive reinforcement.

    Your description of COD also reminds me of Jesse Schell’s talk at the DICE 2010 conference (I link to it at the bottom of this post). In that talk Schell is describing the success of casual games like FarmVille and other Facebook favorites. Much of Schell’s discussion centres on the achievements involved in those games, and especially the public nature of these achievements, which are shared with your friends. Schell is really excited about the possibilities of this reward-response mechanism’s potential. So excited that IMO his talk descends into describing a dystopian future (at about minute 18) in which every thing we do is tracked and rewarded by interested parties (government, corporations, etc.).

    The similarity between your description of the reward-mechanism in COD and Schell’s description of the success of FarmVille is interesting, I think, because it shows one of the ways in which ‘casual’ games are actually quite close to ‘hardcore’ games (and also, perhaps the extent to which the ‘casual’ vs. ‘hardcore’ distinction is spurious). I think a certain kind of COD fan who enjoys the stats tracking would really hate the similarity to a ‘casual’ game like FarmVille, but I think the comparison is warranted.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

    • June 8, 2011 3:31 pm

      It’s very interesting that you suggest how reward systems in games can actually give you positive reinforcement. I think reward systems become problematic mainly when we become addicted to them and spend a lot of our time seeking intangible rewards. All games, of course, rely on reward systems for gameplay—in simpler games the only apparent reward you might receive is the audiovisual feedback of seeing and hearing your character do something when you press buttons, but it is nonetheless fundamentally a reward and exactly what makes the games engaging to play. But these games are also much less likely to be addicting than the Call of Duty types that reinforce behavior to seek achievements that require a much larger time investment and a broader sense of completion.

      I would have to agree that there isn’t as much of a distinction between “casual” and “hardcore” as people seem to like to make. Every year when E3 comes around, you can start to hear gamers judge the major game companies, and especially Nintendo, based on whether they’re showing off “hardcore” games. If a company’s conference focuses a lot on games that use motion control, the conference is almost unanimously judged a “failure.” I think this is a much too simplistic way of looking at games and, anyway, in light of the popularity of iOS gaming and the barrage of “casual” games you can play on the iPhone that even so-called hardcore gamers find fun, the distinction is really just becoming useless. Keeping up the distinction seems like a way of trying to avoid change and invention in game design. In other words, gamers who continue to define themselves as “hardcore” will probably just keep on buying and playing boring, samey first-person shooters.

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