I wrote this article for my awesome course – the GKIS Social Media Readiness Training Course for tweens and teens. I have to admit, I have never worked so hard on an article. Explaining complex psychological principles in easy-to-understand language for teens is difficult. But this information needs to be understood by everyone who uses screen technology – like a how-to manual. Too many of us are addicted to our screens, and it’s not an accident. Programmers intentionally bake hidden brain traps into our devices and onscreen activities to capture our attention. The more attention they can get us to surrender, the more money they make. Technology has moved us into a new wildly profitable market where our attention is the commodity. The more attention they can get us to give up, away from healthy offscreen activities like attaching to each other, being in nature, and anything else that offers us three-dimensional brain enrichment, the more money they make. They’ve cracked the code on brain reward. With psychology research and protective legislation lagging behind rapidly developing technology, it’s up to us to understand what we’re up against. Learning how to recognize these manipulatively-designed brain traps can break the spell, interrupting our screen dependence and our spending. I’ve tested it on gamers in my practice. By teaching them how special features trigger dopamine in the pleasure center of the brain, gamers can be taught to recognize it as it’s happening. With this new awareness, many of them popped out of autopilot responses and found the games less enticing. If you teach your kids about the hidden brain traps of video games, maybe they too will change their addictive online habits! For younger kids, just cover a few items at a time. Older players may be willing to cover all of these hacks at once. Make the discussion interesting and fun. If your child is getting bored with these fun facts, take a break and return to the discussion later. Don’t forget to ask them what they think along the way and be willing to listen and learn as well as teach. You’ll find that these ideas pop up again over and over if you keep the cooperative dialogue going. the application of this learning has endless benefit. Get familiar with the ideas on your own first, then teach these concepts along with your free GKIS Connected Family Agreement. Congrats on being the parent who goes the extra mile for the health and happiness of your family.
What We’re Up Against
There are lots of screen activities that can addict users, but video games are among the strongest. They’re so fun and compelling that some gamers lose control and cannot pull away. In fact, gambling and gaming are the only addictive behaviors officially recognized by the World Health Organization and the mental health community.
Behind gaming is a huge profit. In 2019, 2.5 billion gamers contributed to a gaming market that made 152 billion dollars! The most successful game in video game history is Fortnite. First released in July 2017, gamers can download it for free on nearly every gaming platform. In just two months of being on the market, Fortnite was played 2.7 billion hours, the equivalent of 300,000 years. Currently, it boasts 78.3 million players a month.
Under Fortnight’s spell of perfectly programmed brain traps, I’ve had clients drop out of school and isolate themselves from friends and family to play 12+ hours a day. The most addicted can barely sleep, fail school, and become socially isolated and burned out. Some are admitted to pricey screen addiction rehab programs that are often outside of their home states and away from their families!
What makes video games like Fortnite so addictive?
Each brain is entirely unique with over 100 trillion synapses (the spaces between our brain cells where cell communication takes place). Not only does our DNA impact our brain wiring, so does experience. That makes learning a nature via nurture phenomenon. In other words, we seek out certain experiences because of our brain wiring, and our brain wiring changes in response to our experiences. No two people experience video games alike. Some people may be barely amused by the most addictive video game on the market, while others will forgo eating and sleeping in order to rack up points.
On the other hand, we are all human. We come from a common ancestry that developed with similar evolutionary triggers in play. As a species, we’ve been hunting and gathering for 200,000 years; that’s 90% of human existence. Atari first introduced Pong in 1971. That means video games have only weighed in for the last .024% of our evolution. Find the triggers that captured the attention of our Neanderthal ancestors, and you’ll find triggers that capture us today. Technology has evolved much faster than our human brains. We simply can’t keep up.
Rewards and Punishments Are Folded into Gameplay
One of the first things college professors teach is the processes behind how we learn. Operant conditioning is a psychological learning method that involves rewards (pleasant) and aversives (unpleasant). When a behavior increases, it has been reinforced. When a behavior decreases, it has been punished. Programmers use reinforcers and punishers to manipulate player behavior.
The most obvious reinforcers in video games include points, prizes, and social likes that are delivered with attaboys in the form of yummy sights and sounds. Cool graphics, pleasing colors, attractive shapes, and amazing sounds stimulate the learning centers of our brains. When I asked my son what sounds he finds most appealing, he said the “kill” sounds are particularly attractive in Fortnite, especially the higher-pitched headshot sound and the sound of ammo reloading. My army of client gamers enthusiastically agreed.
If we are doing badly in a game, it makes us anxious. Not only are we disappointing ourselves, but others may see we are failing too. Of course, game creators don’t let us feel crappy for long. They offer up relief from that unpleasant stress at mixed intervals (just like slot machines do), and we get double hooked!
Brilliant game builders exploit all four of the operant conditioning boxes on the blue image. Game features that interact with our primitive brains are so sophisticated and so well executed, we don’t even know it’s happening to us.
Remember nature via nurture? Our brain wiring sets us to seek gaming rewards and gaming rewards change our brains. Psychology research has demonstrated that addictive gameplay specifically permanently changes our brain’s interpretation of rewards and losses. The addict’s rewired pleasure center makes recovery very challenging. Learn these game traps that hack our pleasure centers, and you may be better equipped to make choices about gameplay instead of blindly getting tricked into them.
Expert Video Game Traps Designed to Snare Your Attention & Emotions
Finding Your Tribe & Being a Leader
One of the cornerstones of our survival as humans is our ability to form tribes and have babies. Through attachment and cooperative communication, humans dominate over other Earthly species. Gaming programmers know what makes us tick. They build games by testing them on themselves and millions of teen players they pay to play for study. By isolating and testing addictive game features, programmers combine the motherload of behavioral reinforcers.
Social feedback is one of those ultimate rewards. The likes and verbal and written comments from other players are like crack cocaine to the human brain. This is why the most popular games allow you to make new friends and invite others. The more influence we have, the more social capital we’ve earned.
Social capital, which is the collective value of all social networks, is particularly valuable to teens. It’s during this is the phase of development that one prepares to leave their family and hone-in on attracting your own tribe. By finding friends, testing skills, and “versing” each other, kids thrive on the team aspects of play.
But what if you are too shy to fail in front of your friends? No worries, the gaming engineers thought of that too. They allow you to start by playing anonymously or playing against yourself of strangers. That way you slowly gain confidence until you’re ready to show off your new skills with your team. The emotional stimulation of wins and losses with your friends is extraordinarily captivating. As a young player told me, “Dying sucks and the team gets mad at you because they die too. If your friends are beating you, it makes you mad. So, you work to get more dubs (w for wins) in order to get bragging rights.”
Standing Out in the Crowd
But what if you become like everybody else on the game? You won’t stand out at all. That’s not fun. Voila! Game makers thought of that too. They help you stand out with badges, points, and skins that discriminate who’s a newbie and who’s a pro. Sexy curves and muscled skins are valuable game commodities. By crafting the perfect look, players are able to attract other teammates. How you look, the levels you’ve achieved, your arsenal of skills and weapons offer the optimal distinctiveness you need to stand out in a crowd. In Fortnite, you can even earn the opportunity to be paired with other high-ranking and even celebrity players.
Brain Candy Learning & Expert Mentorship
Humans love to set, pursue, and reach goals. Learning through trial-and-error and tracking progress is deeply satisfying to our most primitive selves. We especially love to learn from people we look up to and want to be someday, like celebrities and influencers. Celebrity endorsement as a branding (selling) strategy is illustrated by the popularity of let’s play videos (videos of other gamers playing and commenting on gameplay) on streaming sites like Youtube, Twitch, and Mixer.
You don’t want to put in the hours it takes to learn everything? No worries, game creators will let you pay your way to the top by buying up for levels. Even players who haven’t reached celebrity status can make money from expert play. I’ve had clients play an account until they’ve leveled up, then sell these accounts for thousands of dollars to buyers who want expert-level access to features without having to put in the time commitment. Backchannel deals can also lead to big-earning e-sport tournament play. Some players even win college scholarships in tournaments that boast prize pools as big as 34 million dollars!
Hunting & Gathering > Building & Defending Community
Just as our ancestors did, our brains delight in building and defending the community. Being a good seeker, builder, and warrior gave us an evolutionary advantage. Fortnite taps into these traits by having players forage for and gather useful, rare, and collectible items randomly placed around the map. Excited anticipation paired with finding items triggers our hunting and gathering instincts.
Fortnite also offers community competition and violence to scratch that primitive itch. Although parents are pleased there aren’t blood spatter and guts in Fortnite, developers know that tapping into our human need to protect and survive through violent in-group, out-group protectionism is a sure win.
How They Make Losing Fun
Getting a victory royale in Fortnite is difficult. Players must have the skill and luck to defeat other competitors in battle. Most gamers play multiple, consecutive rounds without getting a victory royale because, in their minds, they are not failing, they are “almost succeeding.” In psychology, this is known as the near-miss effect. A gambler experiences a near-miss when almost winning a hand in poker. They take it as a sign to continue playing. During a near-miss, the brain’s reward system activates the same way it would during a win. Earlier generation Candy Crush game developers learned that the near-miss effect kept players hooked for hours and willing to spend.
Attracting New Players & Keeping Old Players Playing
To stay successful, games need to bring in new players while keeping the attention of seasoned players. Building anticipation for something new and exciting with a free gift is a sure way to hook and keep customers. Upon signing up for Fortnite (which is free and convenient), players are offered a starter bundle. Once you get tired of that, more anticipation is generated with the promise of another free gift with repeated seasonal battle passes which contain prizes like free skins, a pickaxe, a glider, a rare item, and some XP multiplier to level up in the game. Each season offers a new map and fresh features to avoid burnout. To reinforce habit and daily use, Fortnite even offers a fee asking for unlocking a majority of weekly challenges (55 of the 70) and cash if you log in on consecutive days! With immediate and long-term rewards, the game traps the immediate reward players and the work-for-it reward players.
Making Money From the Game & Within the Game
In 2018, Fortnite made 2.4 billion dollars in revenue. Most of this revenue came from players purchasing skins and emotes. As of January 2020, Fortnite was in its first season of Chapter 2. Chapter 1 had ten seasons. With each season comes the release of new skins and emotes, as well as the removal of ones from past seasons. Removing products from the marketing creates an impression of scarcity – meaning if you don’t buy now you’ll lose out. This makes collecting and purchasing skins and emotes a high priority to players, as it signifies status within the gaming community. The more fancy tools we collect in our cave, the more leadership we build within our community.
Triggering a sense of urgency in players is highly motivating, anxiety-producing, and builds intensity. Finding that sweet spot of flow between boredom and anxiety is the quest of every gamer. Once again, Fortnite doesn’t disappoint. The sense of urgency while searching and release upon finding creates a feedback loop of needing more, more, more! Being online puts us in a perpetual state of want.
Anxiety When We Leave the Game and Intense Craving to Get Back to Playing
Intensely craving game rewards feels pretty exciting in the short-term, but in the long-term, it can be stressful and take a toll on our mental health. That is why so many young gamers tantrum when they have to get off the game and older gamers feel irritated, frustrated, and depressed. Needing more skill to keep earning points builds what we call tolerance in addiction medicine, and the terrible feeling when we get off is called withdrawal. Just like drugs of addiction, tolerance keeps us using more and more and withdrawal makes us crave more gaming.
Speaking of craving and withdrawal, Fortnite knows that watching friends have fun triggers FOMO (fear of missing out). By jacking up player anticipation with live online events, Fortnite gets players advertising to their friends for free. To attract big numbers, Fortnite offers exclusive information and items. In other words, gamers must attend to get a chance to see what’s coming and get access to cool stuff. Players prioritize these events to get a leg up with their team members.
Earning Your Trust & Upping the Ante
Since we covered the standards in marketing in business like scarcity and urgency, you might as well learn about the upsell. Marketers know that we buy out of habit. If they can get us to use our credit card once, we will be far more willing to use it a second and third time.
To get us into this buying habit, games offer an in-game purchase for cheap. Once we buy that, they then approach us with the pricier items. Since we trust them after liking the first item, we are more likely to purchase from them again. An example of an upsell in Fornite is the offer for a common emote or skin costs at only $8. Once you buy that, Fornite entices you with a more expensive and rare emote or skin for a higher $20 price. Fortnite in-game purchases can be very expensive. A father from England found out when his son spent $918 on the game in three days! Fortnite is a virtual marketplace that is very enticing to immature brains.
If You Like Them, You’ll Also Like Us!
Fun products that tie into popular brands, like The Avengers, are often integrated video games. This is called affiliative marketing (meaning if you affiliate with or like another brand, they can entice that brand’s users over to them). By paying an already-popular brand to partner, both brands benefit by sharing each other’s userbase. Celebrity skins, affiliation, and team competitions sweeten the offer even more.
Issues Specific to Neurodivergent Players
Neurodivergence simply means players who think differently than the average player. Most commonly, it refers to people who have traits of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD). All players have gameplay strengths and weaknesses. But for neurodivergent players, these strengths and weaknesses can be more extreme. For instance, many neurodivergent players have a tough time making and keeping friends in real life. For them, the opportunity for online mastery and social capital is particularly valuable. And the cool thing is, some strengths typical of neurodivergent players, like pattern recognition, make them awesome gamers. One of my ASD clients describes loving the problem-solving elements of gaming and the thrill of earning accolades from her teammates for her exceptional Jedi skills.
Should we just forbid video games?
Going screen-free is not an option for most because of the extraordinary learning, communication, and socialization benefits that screens bring. Also, the genie is out of the bottle already. If everybody else is doing it, it may be a real loss to your child to not have access to their friends. And Fornite, which some say is on its way out, is not the only culprit. As long as the video game market continues to pull in a huge profit, developers will continue to build games with increasingly sophisticated brain traps.
By reviewing this article with your gamer tonight, covering the points where you agree or disagree, and asking them for their thoughts and observations, you will empower your child through parent-child connection. Protecting your kids is less about depriving them of screen time, and more about giving them the tools they need to have informed agency. By equipping our children to be smart problem solvers on- and offline with loving support, we open the bridge to really connect as a family. It’s the connection that our children are looking for, and we are a part of that.
The Next Step
Although this article offers a ton of free information, there’s so much more to learn for long-term mental health and brain enrichment. Also, you want your kids to become increasingly more independent and start to solve problems on their own when you aren’t there for help. For even better coping and psychological resilience, you don’t want to miss our GKIS Social Media Readiness Training Course. Complete with lessons about digital injury risks and psychological wellness tools and individual lesson mastery quizzes, it’s the perfect prep!
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
 The Global Games Market Will Generate $152.1 Billion in 2019 as the U.S. Overtakes China as the Biggest Market
 Mansoor, Iqbal (2019) Fortnite Usage and Revenue Statistics (2018) http://www.businessofapps.com/data/fortnite-statistics/#2
 List of video games by monthly active player count
 Dong, G. Hu, Y., & Lin, X. (2013). Reward/punishment sensitivities among internet addicts: Implications for their addictive behaviors. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, 46, 139–145.
 Jamie, Madigan (2016) The Near Miss Effect and Game Rewards
 Matt, Porter (2019) How much money did Fortnite make in 2018? https://www.dexerto.com/fortnite/how-much-money-did-fortnite-make-in-2018-285995
 Joe Pinkstone (2018) Distraught father issues a Fornite warning after his son, 12, spends nearly £700 on the violent game in just three days https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5874041/Father-discovers-son-12-spent-nearly-700-three-days-Fortnite.html