Gaming and Dopamine Deficiency

  • Edwin McRae

The connections between dopamine and our digital world are well documented now. Facebook, Ubisoft and so many others are hitting our dopamine system hard, and most of the time we’re blissfully oblivious.

I wasn’t, not five days ago. I was anything but ‘blissful’. I think I know why. I simply ran out of dopamine. From body aches to an inability to focus, my symptoms tally pretty closely with dopamine deficiency.

But how did this happen? Assassin's Creed: Odyssey. That’s what happened. It’s a masterpiece of dopamine manipulation because it’s constantly offering you unexpected rewards. That’s the trick, you see. They have to catch us by surprise.

In the face of predictable rewards, our dopamine levels gradually decay. That’s how a fantastic game like Call of Juarez: Gunslinger can feel boring after a while. Your XP payoffs are like clockwork, perfectly predictable. You know when you’re going to earn that legendary pistol set or that golden rifle. That’s why it’s an easy game to play in manageable sessions. Sure, you can binge it, but it’s more like binge-watching a TV series because it’s the story that pushes you along more than the mechanics.

AC: Odyssey is a different kettle of piranhas entirely. Very few results are predictable in Odyssey, and that’s a deliberate move on the part of the designers. They want you to feel that elated surprise when you score an Epic Ceremonial Scythe off that mercenary you’ve just killed. They want you to feel the pleasant rush when you get over 1000 XP for collecting some herbs and handing them over to that nice archer lady. They want you to wonder what’s inside the question mark on the map and be delighted when it turns out to be some Chronos cultists presiding over a majestic statue of Prometheus and two loot chests!

Our dopamine system loves surprises. It spikes when we get a result that’s better than we expected and reinforces the feeling that we should keep trying until we get even more awesome results like that.

Sounds like gambling? Same techniques, same part of the brain.

But AC: Odyssey overplayed its hand with me. It pumped my dopamine well dry. And in the cranky light of day, I can see why I feel achy, cantankerous, and generally bitter about that game. I feel played and my dopamine levels haven’t yet replenished to normal levels.

Here’s hoping me and my dopamine system feel better tomorrow. ;-)


About Edwin McRae

Edwin is a narrative consultant and mentor for the games industry.

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