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Why We Get Hooked on Video Games and Keep Coming Back

By Tim Cooley, Guest Contributor to TechAddiction

NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in guest articles are solely those of the author and are not necessarily the views of TechAddiction and/or Dr. Conrad.

Video games have been around since the 1970s with the introduction of the classic game Pong and later Space Invaders. Back then, gaming involved sitting in an arcade, plugging in a week's allowance worth of quarters and feverishly yanking on the joystick as our excitement built because we were sure this was the day that we would win the game or finally obtain the high score. The addiction to the game was fueled by this overwhelming desire to win.

Things haven't changed much now.

Gamers still feel the excitement. They still have that heart-pumping moment where one click of the button or joystick could either win the game, or send them down in flaming defeat. The most addictive games make them pick up the video game controller no matter how many times they lose and it’s always that feeling of excitement and challenge that draws them back to playing these games.

Here is a list of some classic games that kept gamers coming back for more, even though they probably should have put the controller down. As a testament to their addictive nature, many of these games are still played today, decades after their initial release. Note how many of the techniques used to make these games addictive can also be seen today in modern computer games.

Donkey Kong

This game had a simple premise: save the lady from the giant ape Donkey Kong. The character you played looked a lot like the plumber Mario who later starred in his own game series of Super Mario Bros.

In Donkey Kong, all you had to do was have Mario scale the steel beam levels and climb the ladders until you reached the top and saved the lady. Sounds easy, but it wasn't. Donkey Kong was tossing down barrels onto Mario's poor head as you had to make Mario jump and avoid the barrels. The higher you went, the harder it was to jump over the barrels. You sat on the edge of your seat, frantically hitting the button with your sore thumb, trying to desperately time Mario's jumps.

Two Reasons Why it Was So Addictive:

  • The thrill of speed.  It was a borderline test in reaction time versus a competitive game. The more you played, the faster you responded and, consequentially, were reinforced with progressively higher scores.

  • Simplicity of gameplay. Another reason this game was so addictive was how easy it was to play.  Simple movements up, down, left, right and jump.  The game taught you how to play on the fly, or while you were playing it.  Many game makers today use this principle, like Blizzard Entertainment, as the back bone of the game design.  “Easy to play difficult to master.”  This simplicity made it easy for players to come back because they didn’t have to “think” about playing, they could just do it – almost like an athlete whose movements and actions have become automatic.


One of the most famous addictive video games - line up the different shaped blocks to make them disappear before the blocks build up all the way to the top. You can still find this game everywhere: video game consoles, computers, cell phones, PDAs, iPods and even calculators and watches! It was the game in the office that everyone would have up on the screen when the boss wasn't around. A real nail-biter of a game that had you dreaming of spinning colored blocks at night until you woke up the next morning ready to defeat another level.

Two Reasons Why it Was So Addictive:

  • Never-ending challenge. If you played this game as much as I have you know how long it took to get to level 20, which is where the real challenge began.  It wasn’t the process of getting to the end, but how long could you survive when the blocks were falling at incredible speeds. Even in modern video games the concept of a game without an end remains a well-used tactic to encourage continued play.

  • Rewards for mastery. Another addictive structure placed in this game was the concept of a Tetris (dropping the bottom 4 rows at the same time).  You received the most points for it, but it was also the most difficult to accomplish.  Usually, after setting up your Tetris board just to drop the long piece down, you would miss the opportunity to complete it. And yet, on rare occasions, the perfect piece would be presented and you were rewarded for your mastery of this technique.

Super Mario Bros

People loved the Mario character so much from Donkey Kong that the game programmers decided to make a spin-off featuring Mario. Much like he still does in modern video games today, Mario had to break blocks to gain coins, power-ups, and destroy evil mushrooms as he raced across clouds and jumped down into pipes to try to reach King Koopa's castle at the end of every level.

Two Reasons Why it Was So Addictive:

  • Bragging rights. Part of what made this game so addictive was the extra challenge in seeing how fast you could beat it – especially if others were there to witness it.  After players beat the game a few times, for some the goal became to see how fast he or she could blast through the levels. Today, a quick search on YouTube will reveal many videos of players who have mastered this game to the point of absurdity – all for the bragging rights and recognition from fellow gamers.

  • The precursor to “casual gaming”. Another feature that made this game so addictive was how short the levels were.  A full level could be completed in seconds if not minutes.  This made it incredibly easy to try again, which is exactly what players would do, over and over again. Today, this same concept of “pick up and play” casual gaming can be seen in wildly popular games such as Angry Birds, Bejeweled, and JetPack Joyride.

Video Games as a Part of Life, Not Life Itself

Donkey Kong, Tetris, and Super Mario Bros are games that have brought countless hours of excitement and enjoyment to generations of gamers. Most people have fond memories of these games, but surely there were also those who played too much and had difficulty knowing when to stop. It is easy to see how many of the strategies used to keep players coming back in classic games are still used today to keep people hooked. Additionally, with the introduction of online competitive play, reward systems, more impressive graphics, and truly immersive storylines, the risk for addition is perhaps even greater today and the need for life balance all the more important.

Guest Author Bio

Tim used to spend countless hours farming up gold and jumping around. He still plays games and enjoys them, but life comes first. If you would like to talk to Tim about his transition from full time gamer to the casual video game player message him on Twitter. @TimlCooley

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Why We Get Hooked & Keep Coming Back to Video Games

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