Gov Gavin Newsom of California has just signed legislation that needs social media companies to make sure new products won’t be harmful to minors. The focus is on Big Tech and social media apps like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. Flying under the radar are video games even though kids in the US spend much more time playing video games than engaging in social media, according to a recent Common Sense Media report.
Last year, China prohibited minors from playing video games on school days and more than an hour on weekend and holiday nights. Teenagers then flocked to livestreaming platforms to watch others play their favourite games, so a new crackdown bars children from watching livestreams after 10 pm. The goal is to reduce addiction to gaming or, as the Chinese government calls it, “spiritual opium,” because of concerns about how it harms mental health and academic study.
Such bans may sound outrageous even for an authoritarian country like China. But as a gaming entrepreneur in the US for 13 years and a father of two young daughters, I don’t think parents are doing enough to protect kids from the potential harms of video games.
In 2009, I co-founded Storm8, a video game developer. I have launched more than 50 mobile games. These have been downloaded more than a billion times and have generated over $1 billion in sales.
I am very familiar with game addiction, as that’s what I thought about every day for more than a decade. (We sold the company in 2020.) I hired product managers and engineers to track everything players did and analyse their behaviour. Using the data we collected, we experimented with every feature of our games to see which versions allowed us to extract the most time and money from our players. For us, game addiction was by design: It meant success for our business. Here’s an example of how addiction is cultivated in gaming. If you have played mobile games like Candy Crush Saga, you are familiar with the concept of “lives.” You are given five lives a day; each time you lose a game, you lose a life. Run out of lives, and you can’t play again until your supply is replenished. ’ Why, you might ask, would someone get addicted if the developers prevent players from gaming as much as they like?
I have used the same mechanic in my own games, and this is how I explained it to my engineering team. Say I have a delicious chocolate cake. If I give you the entire cake, you might eat the whole thing in one go because it’s the best cake you ever had. But you likely will “overdose” and may not want to touch chocolate cake again. What if, instead, I give you a tiny slice each day? Gradually, you develop a daily habit, and you might end up buying 10 cakes from me.
For a long time, I didn’t see a problem. I saw our mission as bringing joy and entertainment to players. This changed when my two toddlers became old enough to take an interest in playing the very games I had built. Thinking about my games in my daughters’ hands, I had to confront what these products really were and what they could do. Knowing all the techniques with which we tried to bring about addiction, I realised I didn’t want my children exposed to that risk. My daughters are now 3 and 4 years old and I have yet to show them any of the games I have designed.
William is a founder of the mobile gaming developer Storm8
The New York Times