Creating addiction – are there links between Wikipedia and the techniques used by online computer game sites?

I read today a troubling article about online “free-to-play” games, which instantly reminded me of Wikipedia, and the way in which people become hooked on participating in it.  Chasing the whale: examining the ethics of free-to-play games is about online games, that encourage addiction in order to profit from the vulnerable.

“I’d use birthday money, I’d eat cheaper lunches, I’d ask my wife to pay for dinner so I’d have a spare $10-$20 to spend in the store. Which does mean, I guess, that I was thinking about it even away from the game.”

Chris was in his mid-20s when he began spending a few dollars here and there on Team Fortress 2. All of his friends had recently moved out of town, and his wife was now working a nighttime job, leading him to take solace in an online TF2 community.   …

“I’ve never really been addicted to anything else, so I can’t say for certain whether a ‘real’ addiction would be stronger,” he notes. “I would say that it felt akin to what I’d expect a compulsive gambling addiction would feel like — social pressures reinforced a behavior that kept me searching for an adrenaline rush I’d never be able to recapture, even as it kept me from making progress in life.”

“There were nights where I’d be up until 3 am drinking beer and playing Team Fortress and chasing those silly hats with purple text, ignoring the gambler’s fallacy and swearing that if I dropped another $50 I’d be sure to win this time,” he adds. “Then I’d wake up the next morning and see that I’d not only spent over a hundred dollars on digital hats, but failed my only objective by uncrating a bunch of junk.” …

Chris’ behavior during this time is how people in the video game industry would describe a “whale”– someone who spends large amounts on free-to-play games, and essentially makes the business model viable by balancing out the 99 percent of players who don’t ever fork out a dime.

And while Chris is happy to admit that a portion of his addiction was no doubt down to his own silly mistakes, he reasons, “I have to question whether a business model built on exploiting ‘whales’ like me isn’t somewhat to blame. Free-to-play games aren’t after everyone for a few dollars — they’re after weak people in vulnerable states for hundreds, if not thousands.”

But what causes people to do this?  Well, it isn’t entirely voluntary; not unless we presume that businesses merely hope for the best in such situations.

I also received messages from people who claimed to be ex-employees at free-to-play companies, and who told me that their respective employers would often build games purposely to entrap these “whales.”  …

“I used to work at [company], and it paid well and advanced my career,” the person told me. “But I recognize that [company]‘s games cause great harm to people’s lives. They are designed for addiction. [company] chooses what to add to their games based on metrics that maximize players’ investments of time and money. [company]‘s games find and exploit the right people, and then suck everything they can out of them, without giving much in return. It’s not hard to see the parallels to the tobacco industry.  ….

The ex-employee says that it all comes down to one main point: “Enabling self-destructive behavior is wrong.”

“It’s wrong when the tobacco and gambling industries do it, and it’s a shame that portions of the game industry do it too,” they added.

There is some research coming into being, and I highlight a couple of passages:

Dr. Mark D. Griffiths is a psychologist and director of the International Gaming Research Unit in the psychology department at Nottingham Trent University. The professor is well known for his research in the field of video game addiction and gambling.

Griffiths published a paper last year in which he argued that social games have gambling-like elements, even when there is no money involved whatsoever — rather, they introduce the principles of gambling through in-app purchases.

“On first look, games like FarmVille may not seem to have much connection to gambling, but the psychology behind such activities is very similar,” he argues. “Even when games do not involve money, they introduce players to the principles and excitement of gambling. Companies like Zynga have been accused of leveraging the mechanics of gambling to build their empire.”

One element that Griffiths has found to be particularly key in encouraging gambling-like behavior in free-to-play games is the act of random reinforcement — that is, the unpredictability of winning or getting other types of intermittent rewards.

“Small unpredictable rewards lead to highly engaged and repetitive behavior,” he says. “In a minority of cases, this may lead to addiction.”  …

Isn’t the goal of every social media site to get people “highly engaged”?  Isn’t that what Wikipedia seeks to do to visitors?

In another paper published earlier this year with his colleague Michael Auer, Griffiths argues that “the most important factors along with individual susceptibility and risk factors of the individual gambler are the structural characteristics relating to the speed and frequency of the game rather than the type of game.”

“The general rule is that the higher the event frequency, the more likely it is that the gambling activity will cause problems for the individual (particularly if the individual is susceptible and vulnerable),” he adds. “Problem and pathological gambling are essentially about rewards, and the speed and frequency of those rewards. Almost any game could be designed to either have high event frequencies or low event frequencies.” ….

Griffiths is keen to stress that, as of yet, the psychosocial impact of free-to-play games are only just beginning to be investigated by people in the field of games.

“Empirically, we know almost nothing about the psychosocial impact of gambling via social networking sites, although research suggests the playing of free games among adolescents is one of the risk factors for both the uptake of real gambling and problem gambling,” he adds.

Of course the extraction of money is not a feature of Wikipedia.  But inducing people to spend time contributing emphatically is.

I’m not suggesting  that the owners of Wikipedia are setting out to do harm to their contributors.  My impression is that they are instead largely indifferent to the welfare of contributors, and enjoying creating their encyclopedia.

But the sort of motivators, which we see being exploited and described in the article, may well be happening in Wikipedia also.

I wonder how many “whales” there are, among Wikipedia contributors, getting that “buzz” by spending time on the site?

3 Responses to “Creating addiction – are there links between Wikipedia and the techniques used by online computer game sites?”


  1. Tony

    Never thought of Wikipedia as a social media site!

  2. Roger Pearse

    Well it isn’t. And yet in some ways it is … the bullying/harassment that Facebook has had to deal with is certainly present in WP, especially the jeering at victims.

  3. Peter Kirby

    Similarities are strong between Facebook or Twitter, Wikipedia, and certain games like Candy Crush or the Zynga stuff, especially in the sort of psychological addiction that is possible with all of them. For the most part, though, the former don’t bilk the users for cash and have some possible redeeming social value (Wikipedia moreso than Facebook or Twitter). Don’t forget that unpaid blogging is only a hair’s difference away from any of these.



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