Over the last few years, we’ve seen a real shift in both the way games are designed, as well as the way they are marketed, towards the idea that addiction is desirable.
Games are longer than they ever have been before, often with more online elements and microtransactions, and for many game developers the goal is not just for you to buy a game, but to keep playing it long enough to be invested in DLC, or an online community, to ensure the game keeps making additional profit beyond release day.
As a result, more games than ever employ psychological tricks designed to keep you playing in longer and longer play sessions, ranging from gameplay loops that deliberately leave open ends on progression, to open ended structures with less obvious neat pause points. This is great if you love that “just one more try” feeling, but can cause distress for some disabled gamers.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to be talking about compulsive or addictive gameplay loops. We’re going to talk about some of the tricks games use to keep people playing, some of the groups of disabled gamers who can struggle with these gameplay tricks, and how games can provide healthier off ramps for disabled gamers who find themselves distressed by these deliberate game design choices.
Let’s start this video off by digging a little bit into some examples of the kinds of gameplay loops video games today increasingly employ, and how some of those can be difficult to break out of for disabled gamers.
Over the last couple of console generations, one big trend in the AAA game space has been a shift in focus from linear single player games toward open world single player games with more open ended objectives. If we look at a game series like Assassin’s Creed or The Legend of zelda, you’ll see over the past decade a shift away from entries with a clear main path of progression, narrative checkpoints, and clear breaks in the action, and toward entries where you might have three or four different tasks in the works at once, and come across even more tasks to attempt as you try to check things off that list.
Looking at the two most recent 3D main series games in the Legend of Zelda series, Skyward Sword was a largely linear game, where players would drop down into an environment, work towards its end via the one and only core progression path, with loading screens between areas and save statues used to suggest that you’d completed an amount of progression, and reached essentially a new level, a solid place to save and resume later.
If you compare that to Breath of the Wild, you might set off on one of many available narrative quests currently in your quest log, on the way there see a bandit camp with a chest and some weapons, then notice a shrine just off your path, then encounter an NPC with a small side quest, all while on the way toward your original objective. Each of these new small distractions may not take long to complete, encouraging doing them on the way, and possibly sending you on a detour which takes you past even more new tasks to complete.
Breath of the Wild demonstrates a trend in game design toward more open-ended worlds, where attempting a single objective may lead to more objectives being added to a to-do list. That said, it is not the worst example of this trend out there, because of a handful of helpful game design choices the game employs. Players can, within reason, save their game anywhere, at any time. Their save will not always be precise, you may reload your save at the start of a Divine Beast dungeon rather than in the middle of that boss fight you were having, but generally a player can at any time save, stop playing, and lose minimal progress.
Quests in Breath of the Wild are also generally very small in scope. As long as you’re not attempting a dungeon, you can likely finish at least one item on your to-do list and get a sense of having completed something, which can act as an off ramp for players. These small points of completion are usually distinct, and separate from each other, making it easier to quit playing and walk away.
An example of an open world game I found really distressing to play as an autistic gamer was the original launch day release of No Man’s Sky. At launch, No Man Sky’s gameplay structure was very much geared around never allowing the player to feel like they had a good exit point from gameplay.
As someone on the autism spectrum, one thing I really struggle with in games is wanting to feel like I have completed a defined to do list before I quit playing a game. When playing No Man’s Sky, I vividly remember the day I had to stop playing that game entirely, because the lack of a clearly defined place to halt my own progression trapped me playing longer than I should have. I got stuck in a gameplay loop of having to scour a planet for resources to make a jump through space, in a corner of the universe that lacked an abundance of the resources I needed. I spent hours searching in circles for the randomly occurring spawns of resources I needed to finish up that “one last thing”, and as soon as I finally made the jump, I realised I was in a new area, and that resource was suddenly abundant. Something I had spent hours being told was rare was suddenly everywhere, and I felt compelled to play a little longer, despite already knowing I needed to stop playing. I felt compelled to keep playing a game, even though I was running late on my day’s work schedule, and causing myself distress.
This is the kind of thing I mean when I talk about addictive loops in games leading to compulsion for disabled players. These experiences are there to hook players into getting invested in games, but for players with conditions such as autism, ADHD, and OCD, those hooks can really mess up a gameplay experience, and turn a game from “moreish” to a harmful compulsion.
I have focused a lot in this video on open world games as a source of this compulsion response in disabled gamers, but they are certainly not the only genre of game that has this issue.
Rouguelikes, which have ballooned in popularity in the past few years, often deliberately pair a short run length, high randomisation, low odds of success, and a quick reload to play again, to create game structures purpose built to binge over and over, without noticing the hours pass. If, as a gamer with ADHD and a medicinal lack of dopamine, I get into a loop of playing The Binding of Isaac, it’s easy to button mash from death into a new run, with the short length of most attempts and the dopamine reward of random collectables encouraging me to keep going.
I may have just died, but I mashed right into a new playthrough. My character is there and controllable right now, I might as well keep going.
Compare that for example to Hades, which typically has longer runs, less drastic randomisation due to increased control over pickups, and a narrative area between runs that forces the player to slow down and take a moment before continuing, and you have an example of a roguelike a lot less designed to breed compulsion in addictive, obsessive, or perfectionist players.
Lastly, there are games which don’t allow progression to be saved during certain in-game actions, such as chain shiny hunting in Pokémon: Let’s Go or Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. In both of these games, you can save during an attempted chain of encounters to raise your shiny odds, but that shiny chain status does not get included in the save data. This can create a major sense of FOMO, and encourage players to continue playing out of compulsion rather than genuine desire.
So, what can we do to help gamers with conditions such as autism, ADHD, and OCD to avoid having games prey on their compulsions? Well, we’re unlikely to see games as a whole move away from these kinds of gameplay structures any time soon, but there are tools which can help players manage those compulsions, largely surrounding save systems and game suspension.
Games which allow the player to save their progress literally anywhere and at any time are good, but in order to be truly effective they have to allow saving of all player data, without exceptions such as position in a shiny chain for example. In essence, what I am suggesting is save states, an option supported by many emulator programs for older consoles, where the player can literally save the exact state of their game, and pick up very precisely where they left off. This doesn’t fix every problem, but it provides an exit ramp where the player can guarantee nothing at all has been lost.
Now, I recognise some console manufacturers and game developers will simply not allow this, or ever implement it in their games. I brought up shiny chains in Pokémon specifically because that is an example of a game and mechanic that I suspect will never support saving mid run. So, what do we do to support creating an exit point for games that don’t support it themselves? Well, we look at game suspension.
At this point, most video games support putting a game at any time into sleep mode, walking away, and coming back exactly where you left off. However, not every game suspension option on modern consoles is created equally.
On PlayStation 5, players can suspend the game they are currently playing, and as long as their console remains connected to mains power, and they do not play a different game, their progress remains perfectly intact, and easy to walk away from.
The nintendo Switch is the same, with the added benefit that because it is a portable console with a built in battery, players can be confident that if their power goes out, or a family member unplugs the console to save power or use the outlet for something else, their progress will not be immediately lost.
However, the gold standard is the Xbox Series X, which allows for multiple games to be suspended at once, and keeps that suspended progress held in memory even if the console loses mains power. This allows the player to not just suspend their progress, but to go and play a different video game, one which does not prey on their compulsions, safe in the knowledge their progress has not been lost because they dared to play a different, less addictive game for a while.
While all of the solutions I just stated are things that can help provide disabled gamers off ramps from compulsive game design, at the end of the day the ideal solution is for game designers to think about this when designing core gameplay loops. At what points do you expect a player to take breaks from playing, and how do you signpost that to them? If you were not playing the game for work, what might a healthy play session for the game be, and how likely is a player to find a good exit ramp at that sort of play length?
We can advocate for a future in which more robust save options and game suspension tools exist, but at the end of the day this is a game design philosophy that hurts certain disabled gamers, and will not go away unless developers start thinking about it, rather than focusing purely on how to keep a player locked in on a single game for as long as possible.