The Addictive Nature of Video Games Through My Monster Hunter Experience
Monster Hunter is a game where you kill beasts rivaling the size of mountains and make clothing out of them. The game takes inspiration from the nordic berserkers, who believed that wearing the pelt of a bear granted them the power of Odin. But, Monster hunter isn’t just about killing monsters and using their bodies as fashion statements. It’s also about adventure and friendship in the face of adversity. Nothing feels better than teaming up with some capable allies and taking down hulking beasts the size of a mountain. Or that dopamine rush you get from carving your enemies to pieces and obtaining a rare part. Video game developers know these facts better than anyone, and they aren’t afraid to weaponize them either. By capitalizing on the sympathetic nervous system’s release of dopamine and serotonin during exciting or stressful events, they deliberately created a generation of addicted gamers.
Random drops are almost as old as gaming itself. Developers added these to create a sense of surprise and wonder after each encounter. They were a lucky reward for those who managed to gain the blessings of the random number generator gods. Those rare items were also the source of many playground rumors, garnering doubt and awe from those who heard them. It felt amazing to find one when you weren’t expecting it, and that was by design. Random drops, however, weren’t made to hook players into a vicious gameplay loop. Or to keep them stuck repeating the same mission continuously to maximize the sales of microtransactions. It was, instead, a nifty bonus that often made the game easier. Metaphorically speaking, it was the carrot without the stick.
Weapons or armors with far greater stats than those sold in stores and rare items that increased stats were some of the lucky bonuses you could score by beating them out of monsters. The transactions stopped there, though, as they already finished paying for the title. The company got their money. Whatever else they wanted from the player was going to have to wait for a sequel. But, the dynamics have changed for gaming. The real money is no longer in developing games and rewarding players for their purchases. Instead, it’s about keeping them coming back for more, bombarding them with limited-time offers and other predatory tactics.
But, how did they achieve this goal? By hiring behavioral specialists and other marketing experts to help them design their games, of course. Monster Hunter was one of the first to explore this core gameplay loop. But, it wasn’t perfect, at least at first. It took a few iterations until they found a good balance between challenge and reward. Now it seems like several developers decided to follow Capcom’s formula, but with a twist, the dreaded loot boxes. By incorporating these into their game, they created a way to monetize those same rewards that were once relatively easy to obtain.
Electronic Arts and Activision, for example, are notorious for adding loot boxes to their games. They constantly create artificial barriers to progression like EA did to Star Wars: Battlefront II (2017) or their FIFA series. Suddenly, unlocking items or characters became a slog through natural game progression. They understood that gamers weren’t patient enough to unlock these through normal means. Instead, they would pay money to purchase in-game currency and buy the chance to get them in a loot box. For Star Wars: Battlefront II, this tactic resulted in a massive backlash from governmental entities and players alike. But, the anger didn’t last long enough to make a difference. Because to this day, EA continues to hyper monetize their games, resulting in cases like the family in the UK whose children spent nearly $4,000 on FIFA. Suddenly, it stopped being about the carrot and became about the stick. They learned that if they punished players enough, they would take the path of least resistance. If that meant spending their hard-earned money on in-app purchases that were otherwise worthless, so be it. Because at that point, the sunk cost fallacy was already in full effect.
You see, the human mind is exploitable. People can become addicted to anything. When people invest time, money, and energy into something, they’re less like to give it up. Think of that friend whose car is constantly breaking down, but instead of selling the piece of crap, they continue to pour money into it. The co-worker who frequents the same casino thinks the next time will be the big day because they’ve already lost so much. Or even that family member who continues to play the lottery despite the chances of being struck by lightning being marginally higher than winning, all of them are victims of the sunk cost fallacy. Developers exploit this cognitive dissonance to keep you playing and buying their games. You might think that people who fall for this are stupid. But, the reality is that anyone can inadvertently fall prey to these machinations. I know this because my 2000+ hours of Monster Hunter will tell you; it happens gradually.
Monster Hunter was my drug of choice for a long time. I had to buy every game in the series and play non-stop for days; my whole life revolved around them. I was like a crack addict on a gaming high and constantly searching for my next fix. Thankfully, Monster Hunter isn’t nearly as destructive as cocaine. But, it still worked for me in the same way. I am almost 100% certain that fighting badass monsters created the same chemical response as taking drugs. The dopamine rush of finding that rare mantle after hours of fighting the same enemy was incredible, and I was trapped. Even my spouse was worried that I was spending too much time in the game. How did a game cause this reaction, though? Well, the answer is a complex one.
The brain produces chemicals when it experiences intense emotions; we know this reaction as a dopamine rush. Dr. McCauley (a known expert in addiction) explains that dopamine tells the brain when a reward is better than expected, and Monster Hunter is all about better than expected rewards.
You see, the system that Monster Hunter utilizes to reward players for hunting is randomized. At the end of each battle, you either carve the slain monster (and proceed to the reward screen) or capture said beast heading directly to the reward box. But, despite its simplicity, it’s insanely infuriating when a battle that took 30 minutes does not reward the player with any items necessary for their next armor set. There are even stories out there of players that have fought the same monster over 40 times without receiving the part they needed. Of course, when a rare enemy drops ranges in the 1% to 3% drop rate, they’d have to be incredibly lucky to get one, let alone a few. But, once you obtain the piece you were looking for, the feeling you get is incredible. You don’t want to stop playing to see if you’ll get lucky again. After all, you don’t want to spoil your luck. That reaction is what causes the dopamine to fluctuate in your brain.
The video provided in this link will explain more:
For those of you, who didn’t watch the video, let me explain. Think of Dopamine as a feel-good drug. Players get small dosages of the chemical when they kill a monster without getting any rare drops. But, one day you’re hunting the same enemy, and it drops a jewel with a 1 in a 100 chance of appearing. Your brain rewards this drop with a surge of dopamine in the brain. In your mind, this experience becomes something you crave; you want to feel good again. What is the response? The brain actively seeks more of it via a different chemical response of Glutamate. Glutamate gives your brain the green light to seek more of this pleasurable activity. This reaction response cycle, in turn, causes Monster Hunter to act as a small acting drug.
As this video explains the example:
Drugs, as well as video games, seek to attack this system directly. In the case of drugs, though, it can be extremely devastating to the brain; Monster Hunter, not so much. A more elaborate way to explain this is to look at casinos. Monster Hunter is a slot machine. The player puts in his effort (as a stand-in for the money) to obtain a reward (the jackpot being synonymous with a rare drop). When you get any item you were looking for during an extended period, your emotions will surge due to the dopamine rush. In response, your mind will let it imprint in the memory as a pleasurable experience. One that will keep you coming back for more.
Because Monster Hunter isn’t a title that you play for 10 hours and stop playing, instead it is a game that you can quickly pour over 1000 hours into if you aren’t careful. You often see boards dedicated to this game with players bragging about the insane amount of hours they’ve spent playing the series. There are conventions, clicks, groups, guilds, and even a theme park dedicated to this series. If you ever visit any of these, you will find players telling stories of their conquest, showing off their dedication by cosplaying, or even simply showing off the cumulative hours they spent throughout the series.
Players don’t realize what’s happening in their minds, though. They don’t understand that it is not about the game being uniquely enjoyable or it’s a novel experience. All that is happening is their mind is addicted to the thrill of the fight and the rewards. If the game instead handed them out like candy, that feeling of satisfaction would not be present. Consequently, challenging bigger and stronger enemies becomes the only way to obtain that next thrill until inevitably nothing can stand in their way. But, that would require more than thousands of hours per title. But, that is what makes players interesting.
Gamers are a persistent bunch. They will put themselves through countless hours of grinding to complete their favorite sets only for the sake of dressing up their virtual paper dolls. But, their diligence has become a vulnerability. While video game addictions weren’t as damaging as drugs, now that statement is not so clear.
True, it doesn’t carry the same repercussions as foreign chemicals like cocaine? But, with the rising cost of in-game purchases, our finances are the ones suffering. Where do we draw the line of us owning a game from the publishers owning us instead?
*Disclaimer* This is not the only game that exploits this mechanism in us. Plenty of games utilize a similar process to hook players each day. MMO’s are notorious for these practices. People practically have a second job playing them. Perhaps it’s not easy to accept that video games are like drugs because many people cherish them. But, we must be aware of the abuse going on right under our noses.
*Disclaimer* Images belong to their respective owners. The examples provided in the summary of the video were part of Dr. McCauley’s Pleasure Unwoven