A lot of people watch TV all day. I’d rather play video games. How long? I would say at least 50 hours a week. I try to keep a healthy balance. My bigger issue just besides the time, was spending a lot of money, just spending and gambling in the games. I can’t condemn a game for wanting to be addictive because that’s the point. I’m Ahmed Shihab-Eldin and I’ve been looking into the dark side of tech, from facial recognition to fake news. I wanted to understand how companies design addictive games that maximize profit. The global market for games grew from $70 billion in 2012 to $122 billion in 2017. By comparison, global box office revenue for films in 2017 was $41 billion. So we’re in Boston at one of the biggest gaming conventions in America, maybe in the world. And I don’t know where to look. Gaming has gotten so big that watching others play attracts massive crowds… …and two-thirds of American households now play video games, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Do you play a lot of games still? Yes, not as much as I used to. Why? Time. How much would you, when you were playing a lot of games? I would say like 30 hours a week, at most. That’s it? Yeah, I know, right? Gotta pump those numbers up. Those are rookie numbers. Why, do you play still? Yeah, for sure. How long? I would say at least 50 hours a week. Wow. Pretty much all my free time. Is it tough? Do you ever lose track of time? Some games can definitely make you lose track of time more than others. But it’s definitely harder to balance work life, personal life and video games. I kind of cut out the personal life part. focused more on the video games currently. Do you ever feel addicted to these games or to one game in particular? I don’t think so. I know when to step away because I understand some games, they’ll make me really upset and it’s like, okay, I need to step away and do something else. One study estimated that nine percent of teen gamers are addicted. With an estimated 2.6 billion people playing video games globally, it’s not a limited issue. After I heard that the World Health Organization was classifying gaming disorder as a mental health condition, my reporting brought me to a gaming rehab center near Seattle. You spent 8 weeks here? Yeah… So I was playing on average between 12 and 16 hours a day. I would either be playing video games, watching porn, watching some show or I would be sleeping. That was it. Every day? Yeah. Jon Jones is in phase two of the program, living in an apartment provided by Restart, but free to roam the real world. A flip phone to start out with. Computer use would only be at corporate in the computer lab. My main excuse of rationalizing was like, “I’m only playing so much just because I’m depressed. If I wasn’t depressed, I wouldn’t be playing.” Do you think games are designed to be addictive? Yeah and… You didn’t even hesitate. Hilarie Cash founded reSTART after seeing patterns related to gaming and screen addiction. My first case was in 1994 and throughout the 90s, you know, people were coming in for therapy… Parents are handing their devices to their kids and it’s going to really impact their development and prime them for addiction. Even if they’re not addicted, they’re going to be primed for it. So I think it’s a growing problem. The initial seven weeks of resident care at reSTART costs nearly $30,000, but Charlie Bracke said it changed his life. Did you feel anxious, shaky? Very much so. There’s very, very real physical withdrawal symptoms to video gaming. How serious of a problem is this? I was so depressed that I started researching how to kill myself on my phone because I couldn’t get up and go to the computer to do so. There are concerns about the affect of games on kids since nearly half of gamers are under 18, and mostly male. And teens who spend five hours a day gaming are 71 percent more likely to be at risk for suicide than those who spend less than one hour per day. it just spiraled out of control until I was gaming 16 hours a day. There are few screen rehabs, and experts are divided on the best routes to health. At reSTART, a complete digital detox is required. I don’t play games at all. If it’s digital and gaming, I don’t touch it, so I don’t even allow myself Sudoku on my phone. Gaming used to be all about personal computers and consoles. You’d buy a game outright and play it. Then smartphones came along. The gaming industry went to what’s called “free to play,” which basically you get the game and you can play the game. That’s Bill Grosso, a gaming industry insider, who founded Scientific Revenue to help companies maximize payments within their games. If you think about what a really bad game is, it’s the game that is completely non-addictive. Designing a good game is inherently trying to design something that people will want to come back to, will feel compelled to come back to. It’s also helpful for making more money. As games transitioned to free to play, the selling of virtual goods became crucial. By 2016, ‘Grand Theft Auto Five’ had sold more than 60 million copies, but the free version, ‘GTA Online’ made more than $500 million on in-game micro-transactions. My bigger issue just besides the time, was spending a lot of money – just spending and gambling in the games. I will joke about it in the games. Oh really? Like, “Oh yeah, I just spent $600. Yeah, they’re getting their money, they’re ripping us off.” We would joke about how they designed the games to get you to play longer, get you to spend more money. Now, I get to pay too much money to open loot boxes. Loot boxes amount to a randomized purchase that may or may not contain what you’re looking for. It’s very definitely the same thing as a roulette wheel. It’s very definitely aimed at the compulsion and addiction side of the game, of the human personality. I think loot boxes are straight-up gambling. It’s something that keeps people coming back, keeps people grinding in the game, playing it longer and longer, and because you can’t just buy what it is you want, you have to keep forking money over. Last year, one game company caught so much flack for the practice that they advertised a game this year with a simple message: No loot boxes. Belgium declared loot boxes illegal gambling in April and American politicians like Senator Maggie Hassan have also questioned the practice. Do you agree that children being addicted to gaming and activities like loot boxes that might make them more susceptible to addiction is a problem that merits our attention? So it would be 300, 400 and then it’s like, “Okay, well, I’ll keep going until I get it.” And if I don’t get it after a couple hundred dollars then I would get really depressed and sometimes I would just keep going. I already spent 400, well, I’m just going to spend until I get it. Loot boxes are also one of the best ways to pull ‘bleed whales’ dry. What is a ‘whale’? Whale is industry terminology for someone who spends too much, fundamentally. It’s one of those really unfortunate things in that it’s really a piece of terminology that comes from Las Vegas. Whale was casino terminology for a really, really big spender. Bill Grosso caught flack last year because, as his website brags, his company works to: “Turn free users into paid ones and keep more whales.” But during our interview, Grosso walked that claim back. If you look at some of the coverage of Scientific Revenue, where people have said, “Well, they spot whales and then milk them at the psychologically maximum moments.” There’s no truth to that. None whatsoever. We’re not that good. The claim remains on their website. And game companies remain focused on whales. They’ll spend 10, 20, 30 grand, they’re the people who keep the game alive because they spend so much money. You wouldn’t call yourself a whale? No. I was more of a ‘low.’ I did spend a lot with eight grand in a year. That’s a lot of money. Of course, it’s not just games. The rewards systems built into games are also built into our phones. And no method is off the table in the battle for our attention. My name is Nir Eyal. And I’m the author of a book called “Hooked, How to Build Habit-Forming Products.” Nir told me how to use gamification and psychology to make apps that will keep people coming back. Every hook starts with a trigger. A trigger is something in our environment that tells us what to do next. A ping, a ding, a ring. Some kind of notification that tells us what to do. Then the next step is the variable reward. It’s some kind of uncertain outcome that we’re looking for. Scrolling the feed has this variable reward mechanism just like pulling on a slot machine. And then, finally, the investment phase where we put something into the product, like data, followers, content, reputation, that makes the product better and better with use. Eventually, we’re using the product because of an internal trigger. When we’re lonely, we check Facebook. When we’re uncertain, we check Google. When we’re bored, we might check the news. We might check stock prices or sports scores to satiate that need. Three out of four American children have access to a smartphone and nearly half of American parents believe their kids are addicted to mobile devices. For now, both gaming companies and rehabs will profit, while gaming addicts are left with few resources for recovery. There’s lots of evidence to support that contact with nature is actually very healing and reduces anxiety, and helps people concentrate, so we have them out in nature quite a lot. What was your favorite part of being here? I tried to diversify, just not get caught up in one thing and focus on that. Most of the time was either spent with music. I started playing piano here. On Saturdays we’ll go out and hike and do different games I think a big part of it has been actually working on the past stuff and I actually being open and vulnerable and talking about emotions and just recognizing my emotions. Being able to deal with them more, but also just the, I guess, just that sense of being a little sad about how much time has been wasted… Hey, it’s Ahmed. Thanks for watching, and don’t forget to watch the other videos in this series, including stories about facial recognition and fake news. And don’t forget to subscribe to AJ+.