Healthy Games Inter-company Compact

This snippet is a silly, currently unworkable, but in my opinion still worthwhile idea to improve the healthiness of video games. Mobile games today are in an arms race. Make your game more addicting, and your game becomes more profitable. More addicting is not the same as more fun. They may be correlated, but the incentives of video game companies are not wholly aligned with the incentives of the players.

Why is it an “arms race”? There’s limited mindshare. Making your game addicting claims more of this mindshare. More engaging games are more profitable. And there’s no easy way for a game company to disentangle unhealthy addictive engagement from increased engagement due to increased quality of the game (is this true? will ponder…)

Developers of these games will A/B test mechanisms and designs and select those that maximize engagement. This isn’t unique to video games; it applies to social media and advertising as well, but we’ll focus on video games for this snippet.

Enter the “Healthy Games Inter-company Compact”. This is a hypothetical future agreement between all the video game companies. The “Healthy Games Inter-company Compact” (HGIC for short) states that once 100% of game companies agree to the compact, all video games will simultaneously reduce the addictiveness of their games by 20% (the specific number’s not central to the idea). Signing the agreement does nothing if not all video game companies have signed. Only once all such companies are signed the agreement does it come into effect. At that point, the agreement comes into effect for all companies at once, and all games are simultaneously made less addicting. (This idea is inspired by the real Popular Vote Interstate Compact.)

There are so many reasons why this can’t work in practice. In the spirit of taking silly ideas seriously, let’s go through those reasons, and perhaps we’ll find some of them weaker than first appearance might suggest.

The first reason it can’t work is that 100% of video game companies agreeing to “mutual disarmament” would be such an extraordinary feat. Wikipedia estimates that in the US alone there are 2,300 development companies and over 525 publishing companies. What would a consortium of all video game companies even look like? Why would 10% of companies agree to this compact, let alone 100%? A few could agree to it out of genuine interest in the health of their addiction-prone players. A few others could agree to it if it makes strategic sense for them. Getting to 10% seems farfetched, 100% fantastical.

Second, even if all the current video game companies did agree, the market is such that a new player could enter the video game industry at any time, disregarding the compact. This HGIC would need to be legislation, not just an inter-company compact, for it to apply to new entrants. This is something I am doubtful I would support, even though the HGIC is my idea. It would proabably even take considerable effort to make a legislative version of the HGIC constitutional! (Is game mechanism design a protected form of speech?)

Third, even if all current video game companies signed the HGIC, acted in good faith, and even if there were no possibility of new entrants, there still remain the difficult questions of how to measure the reduction in unhealthy addictiveness of games. As a strawman, the HGIC could specify a metric, say play-time per player, and all companies would reduce their play-time per player by an agreed upon percent. I’ll readily acknowledge this sounds ridiculous; it could mean ruining the fun of some games, not making them healthier! As a second strawman, the HGIC could specify specific game mechanics and how to adjust them. E.g. it would specify that count-down timers need to be shortened by X% (does that even help?), non-deterministic rewards need to be made Y% more deterministic, etc. I’ll readily acknowledge this strawman is ridiculous too; there are likely too many possible game mechanics for an agreement of this form to be manageable to produce. Finding an equivalent reduction in addictiveness across all games is impossible because games are simply too varied.

Fourthly and finally, everyone I’ve shared this idea with so far (three people in total) have disagreed with the premise, that the addicting nature of video games is a negative thing, and that reducing it is desirable. This is a real surprise to me. I thought it was generally accepted that the tactics employed by FarmVille, CandyCrush, Covet, and the like are deliberative exploitative and addictive, designed through experimentation to maximize engagement and profit, and that this is a negative aspect of the games. I suppose I was wrong about this (the generally accepted part, that is). Guess I need to expand my bubble.1

We now have four solid reasons that the Healthy Games Inter-company Compact could never come into effect. I’m sure there are a dozen more. It’s nevertheless nice to imagine a world in which a few companies draft and sign the compact, initially thinking it will never come into effect. And then, over time, more companies are drawn to the idea of improving the health of their addiction-prone customers, until eventually the industry enacts and broadly follows guidelines for healthy game development. I think that’s a world to aspire to, albeit unrealistic. So while the HGIC in all likelihood won’t work, perhaps there’s another path there.

  1. To get a glimpse of what people think outside my itsy-bitsy social bubble, you can have a look at these mixed reviews of CandyCrush from parents and children. ↩︎