Cross Country Checkup

'Let people play responsibly': How this instructor is pushing back on addictive video game design

As an instructor at Laurentian University, Aaron Langille lectures on the ins and outs of game design — and the tactics that can make games addictive. But in his class, students are taught how to make their games engaging without getting players hooked.

Experts, however, are divided on so-called gaming disorder diagnoses

While some experts argue that video games can release dopamine in a way similar to addictive substances, others caution that there are likely underlying mental health conditions behind those diagnosed with so-called gaming disorder. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

As a computer science instructor at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., Aaron Langille lectures students on the ins and outs of game design — and the tactics that can make games addictive.

"One is to keep nagging you," he told Cross Country Checkup, pointing to games that encourage players to return to their virtual world with a notification.

Another tactic is to use loot boxes, surprise virtual prizes that players buy with real-world money. 

In Langille's class, however, students are taught how to make their games engaging without getting players hooked.

"I'd really rather that, as an industry, they moved away from those techniques and let people play responsibly without having those sort of influences thrust upon them," he said.

Aaron Langille is a lecturer at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont. (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

The suggestion that video games can be addictive has gained momentum in recent years. Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared "gaming disorder" a diagnosable condition.

Last month, a group of parents in Montreal launched a class-action lawsuit against the makers of Fortnite, a popular shooter-survival game.

Research has suggested that dopamine plays a role in fuelling attraction to the game. The Fortnite lawsuit likens the effects of the game to cocaine.

According to Jeffrey Derevensky, professor and chair of the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology at McGill University, those experiencing an addiction to video games are fulfilling other needs. Derevensky was part of the group that advised the WHO on the classification for gaming disorder.

"If you want to escape from some problem that you're experiencing, whether it be school or your parents are driving you crazy, you can actually play these games and you often go into what psychologists refer to [as] a dissociative state," he told Checkup.

Epic Games, makers of Fortnite, told Checkup that they do not comment on ongoing litigation.

Games 'not, in any way,' like cocaine

Not everyone is convinced that gaming could be addictive, however.

"Comparing video games to cocaine is not, in any way, supported by the data we have at this point," said Christopher Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University in Florida.

While playing video games does release dopamine into the brain, "so does eating a slice of pizza or having a conversation with a friend or watching a television program or reading a book or going for a nice walk in the woods," Ferguson added.

Rather than an addiction to video games specifically, Ferguson argues that the behaviour likely signals underlying mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety or ADHD.

"But, it does not appear that there's anything sort of unique about the technology or video games that causes people to develop an addiction," he said.

Fortnite has come under fire for in-game mechanics that have been called addictive. Epic Games, the company behind the popular shooter-survival game, is facing a class action lawsuit launched by parents of gamers in Quebec. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

Langille, who now primarily plays video games to keep current on trends, does see an upside of the medium.

"Video games can be a very social experience for kids that are otherwise feeling not social. They can really bring people together," he said.

But more can be done, he says. Loot boxes could be better regulated, he suggests, pointing to a Belgian government ban on the randomly-generated prizes.

Game makers could also rethink their marketing, he says.

"We're actually marketing games using the word 'addicting,' and this is what I tend to talk to my students about most frequently," he said.

"It's pretty much the only thing that I can think of where we market using the word addictive."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Richard Raycraft and Samantha Lui.

Sunday on Cross Country Checkup, host Duncan McCue will ask the question: Can you get addicted to video games? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?