Exploring addiction with Super Smash Bros.

As the latest instalment of the Super Smash Bros. series rolls off the shelf and becomes the fastest-selling game for the Wii U. Many of you, myself included will spend an average two hours (per playtime)* on the crossover fighting game. While, the game-play differs from traditional fighters (for focusing on knocking opponents out of the stage instead of depleting life bars), the make-up of a stage fighter is that it’s inherently repetitive.

So, what gets us so hooked to Smash? Well, before I begin to explore this, let me disclaimer that each person has their own "player personality" and this variation in preference has spawned a vast industry designed to meet different motivations. However, below are a number of generic motivators that can be applied to a fast-action competitive fighting game like Smash Brothers.

1. The battle for self-betterment
Gamers aren't easy quitters. No one likes getting beaten, so unless a challenge feels impossibly hard, we'll keep plugging away tirelessly until we are victorious. Smash Brothers has a deceptively simple controls scheme. While the game is relatively easy to understand, there are 50 character slots on the roster. Each character has a rich background and their individual movesets have been carefully developed (through three iterations) to respect their abilities and limitations. A huge amount of discussion and work has been put into mapping which character fits what play-style and what tier each fighter ranks in.

Finding and mastering a character’s fighting style requires dedication, patience and practice.


2. Getting the high-score
The oldest trick in the game addiction book. If high score tables weren't a mainstay feature during the golden age of arcades, it's questionable as to whether or not there would ever have been a golden age in the first place.

Anyone that's seen Seth Gordon's fascinating documentary, The King of Kong, will have witnessed just how obsessed some players can get about the high score.

This generation has revitalized the number war in spectacular fashion. Gamer scores and trophy collections provide bragging rights and are seen by some as an indicator of hardcore gaming skill. In reality, it's just about who has the most free time.

Achievement and trophy farming has not changed the way Smash Brothers is designed, but the introduction of these rewards has completely changed the different play modes in the game. Trophy, music, stamp and coin collection has provided Smash Brothers with yet another weapon in their arsenal of addictive firepower and the same weapon that persuades the user to battle against master hand.

3. Monarch of the cyber jungle

Of course, the most ingenious implementation of high scores is the player’s ranking (within a local group or online), as this offers a very real sense of competition, even when playing alone. The prospect of being able to parade an intimidating ass-kicking in the faces of your friends appeals to a very basic instinct of competing for superiority within a social group. It's the earning the title of alpha and it keeps us playing.

If Nintendo ever devise a more effective addiction than Super Smash Bros... then God help us all.


Internet gaming addiction - a new phenomenon?

Maybe in response to these developments in the gaming industry DSM-5 has introduced the concept of Internet Gaming Addiction as a new mental health disorder under consideration. The authors describe it as a 'persistent and recurrent use of the Internet to engage in games, often with other players, leading to clinically significant impairment or distress…'

They list these criteria:

  • preoccupation with such games
  • withdrawal symptoms of irritability, anxiety, or sadness
  • the development of tolerance
  • unsuccessful attempts to control the behavior
  • loss of interest in other activities
  • continued excessive use despite knowledge of psychosocial problems
  • deceiving others regarding the amount of time spent gaming
  • use of this behavior to escape or relieve a negative mood
  • jeopardizing/losing a significant relationship/job/educational opportunity

As these have just been introduced it is difficult to know how frequent this might be as previous studies defined it in various different ways. One study that evaluated an Asian population, considered the most at risk, found that among 15-19 year-olds 8.4% of males and 4.5% of females met criteria for the condition. The new definition from DSM-5 will help clarify what the real number might be.


Our 2 cents

Before jumping to any conclusions:

  • The condition is under study and it is not certain that this is a special case yet
  • We wonder why internet use in general was not included in the DSM-5 definition (social media, anyone?)
  • We also wonder why non-internet games were not included

We recognise that games can be very good at getting us to play them. Our intention is to use that 'addictiveness' to get you to do things that are actually good for you.

We do appreciate the irony we might face if the research for this condition bears true. We might be called upon to create a therapeutic game to combat game addiction!

*Super Smash Bros keeps record of average world-wide game-time