Games like Minecraft can be addictive, but are they also manipulative? It all depends on the player, says author Ben Parr. (Provided by Microsoft)

High Scores: How video games manipulate us, and the weed factor

Plenty of things are assumed to be best buds with marijuana: sugary snacks, laser light shows, week-long guitar solos and, of course, video games.

But what exactly causes players to devote hours at a time to mobile crack like Candy Crush, or big, open-world games like World of Warcraft or The Witcher 3? What makes video games different when it comes to grabbing and holding our attention?

The marijuana element may seem obvious, especially with mellow, couch-locking indica strains. You smoke (or eat, or vape) and voilà: the trash is not going to take itself out, and your dinner consists of whatever you can grab without dropping the PS4 controller.

Ben Parr, author of "Captivology: The Science of Capturing People's Attention" on why there's such a deep connection between video games and weed
Journalist and author Ben Parr (Jonathan Leibson, Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

But Ben Parr, author of “Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention,” has a more psychologically compelling answer.

We caught up with the 30-year-old, San Francisco-based writer and former Mashable editor over the phone to talk gaming, weed and why the two are so potentially (and scientifically) inextricable.

The Cannabist: Video games are compulsive experiences for plenty of people without marijuana, but for some, weed cranks up the intensity. Why is that?

Ben Parr: In this context, the biggest thing about cannabis use is selective attention. Our attention is really based on the capability to selectively focus on something and tune out other distractions. Specifically, studies have shown that marijuana makes your selective attention weaker and it becomes harder to focus on a single item or object. With heavy concentration tasks — as in certain games — it’s actually easier to be distracted. And a very heavily mathematical game might not work out very well. But a lot of these games don’t require very heavy selective attention all the time. So most of the time marijuana goes well with games, but it depends on the game. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re trying to do a very intensive task.

Cannabist: Like what?

Parr: Solving an intensive puzzle, like in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. That has the hardest puzzles of all the Zelda games, ever. It also depends on the individual. Some people function better on marijuana and others don’t. It’s just a matter of who you are. I personally wouldn’t try to do Portal extremely high, but there are other games I totally would.

Cannabist: Does the format of the game matter?

Parr: If you’re playing a mobile game with a lot of repetition, there’s not a lot of decision making in there, it’s just a matter of how much critical attention that task requires.

Cannabist: So why are certain games addictive when others aren’t?

Parr: Here’s the thing: it’s all about the intention, right? If the intention is to get people to drop as much money as humanly possible, it’s about impulsion vs. trying to get them to appreciate a product that you believe will actually make their lives better. People are actually quite good at sensing manipulation, but in the end they may just not care as much or may have a disease that (affects decision making).

Cannabist: Is it safe to say that games with built-in microtransactions are designed to be more addictive than one-time purchase games? I can’t help but think of all the free-to-play mobile games whose entire business model is sucking people in so they can play long enough to hit a wall, then be forced to spend money on perks and upgrades. In some ways, it’s not so different than feeding extra quarters into Mortal Kombat when you’re about to beat someone at the arcade.

Parr: In some cases there is an obvious level of manipulation in getting a small group of people to pay, especially in social games. And unfortunately, the ones getting manipulated are the ones with strong gambling or addiction tendencies. That’s really unfortunate. But I don’t think Apple is manipulating anybody, for example. They have a product and if you like it, and you can afford it, that’s fine. It’s comparable in games: you know what the product is, you know how much it costs, and so you can have it. In World of Warcraft, you know how much it is per month to play online and you value that. That’s fine. There’s no manipulation there. But some manipulation in mobile games is in the payment structure.

Cannabist: Do you pay for extra content in mobile games?

Parr: I don’t pay for anything, but some people do.

Cannabist: At the risk of sounding conspiratorial, what makes this different from a form of mind control? Is it just more sophisticated and subtle? This has interesting implications for gaming, since games are judged positively on how addictive they are. Where’s the line between addiction and successfully captivating a player?

Parr: It’s different depending on the type of game. Are we talking console, computer or mobile? Generally, I think about the interview I did with (Nintendo’s) Shigeru Miyamoto and how great video games take their audiences through these three stages of attention. They demand immediate attention with compelling visuals or characters or graphics or music that make people want to watch and listen. I’ll never forget the Final Fantasy VII music until the day I die. Second is individual attention. You’re designing a dungeon or a level, but not making it so short and easy that people get distracted. And then third is long-term attention, like creating a franchise in multiple games. You’re not just playing a single game, but seeing a difference between individual games of a Mario series or Final Fantasy series. They make you want to buy the next game.

Cannabist: Would you consider yourself a gamer?

Parr: I am a gamer. I wish I had more time to play more games right now. But I grew up on RPGs, especially.

Cannabist: RPGs have become so massive and endlessly complex these days. I’ve always been interested in how games create that compelling aspect of play without overwhelming the player with choices.

BP: I think they’re hitting a key point, which is that most people don’t like making a lot of decisions. People get decision fatigue when there are too many options. There was a study that showed judges give harsher decisions as the day goes on and they get tired. When you have something as expansive as an open-world RPG, you risk that kind of decision-making. Expansive is fine, but that’s why a lot of games have the main storyline or the main play, and then you can go off the path a few times. You still know the general direction of the story. I usually like to play through the main story of a game and then I go through the extras and side missions of the world before completing the entire game. If you have too few decisions you’re bored. If you have too many, you’re tired.

Cannabist: And this is relevant for The Cannabist, since studies have shown that certain pleasure centers and risk-reward triggers are enhanced with marijuana use, which would seem to help explain why video games are so compatible with weed.

Parr: Again, I think it entirely depends on the format. I really do divide games into different categories. I think of mobile pay-to-play games as fundamentally different than console games. And I think of (one-off games) as different than franchises. Over the long term there’s a reason why people will play Counter-Strike after God-knows-how-many-years since that thing’s been released. There’s been 80 different versions, but on a very fundamental level it’s about our attention: simple, goal-based actions in trying to achieve that high score, and with tasks that we understand, but that get harder and harder over time. It’s so addicting that even 30 years later, people still play it. Look at how the current generation still knows what Tetris is!

Cannabist: Despite the power of nostalgia, is there also inherent appeal in playing something new — at least as it relates to capturing and holding our attention?

Parr: The new, super-innovative games do capture attention because they create a novelty that people want to try. Not just the games, but the platforms in which you play. Every time I play Oculus Rift at Game Con, I’m fascinated by the possibilities. Or think about Microsoft Hololens: you could bring out Minecraft in real life, and Minecraft itself was already a completely new form of game. Who would have thought that creating houses and building things would be so goddamned addictive?