Ex-gaming exec: I'm sorry for hooking your kid (and mine!)

A games designer turned digital wellness expert explains how carefully designed 'compulsion loops' can keep users craving more.

No one was more pro-gaming than mum-of-three Arcadia Kim, a powerful executive at one of the world’s biggest gaming companies.  She was good at what she did and proud of her success.

Until the day she asked her 10-year-old to end his Minecraft session … and he hurled his iPad at her. 

It was a slap in the face - quite literally - that shocked Kim to her core.  

And the irony could not have been more stinging, The former studio operating chief at Electronic Arts,  the publisher of games like Apex Legends, FIFA and Madden, Kim had devoted her career to making users feel exactly the way her son did when he was interrupted: namely, angry, frustrated and deprived. 

“The more I was able to hook people, bring them into the world, bring something people could escape to—the better I was at that, the more successful I was at my job,” she explains. It was her job, in other words, to strengthen what psychologists and game designers call “compulsion loops.” 

What is a compulsion loop?

Wikipedia defines a compulsion loop, sometimes called a “core gameplay loop,” as “a habitual chain of activities that will be repeated by the user to cause them to continue the activity. Typically, this loop is designed to create a neurochemical reward in the user such as the release of dopamine.”

Basically, the compulsion loop is activated in any repetitive gameplay cycle that’s designed to keep the player engaged. The gamer performs an action, is rewarded - and as a result another possibility opens and the cycle repeats itself.


The iPad incident brought home to Kim exactly how powerful the compulsion loop could become - and how dangerous. It inspired her to leave the gaming industry and start her own business: a digital wellness consultancy she called Infinite Screen-time. 

That was in 2019, a year before the World Health Organisation recognised video game addiction as an illness, a change that went into effect formally this month.

Disorder, addiction or problem?

It’s a designation that remains controversial, with some health care professionals and digital experts disputing that words like “illness” and “addiction” should ever apply to problem gaming.

Kim herself is reluctant to use those words. Gaming disorder, she notes, “has a very specific meaning. Let’s not turn it into something it’s not.”

Studies typically show “true” gaming addiction - in which gaming takes precedence over all other interests and activities and continues irrespective of negative consequences - affects only two to three out of a hundred gamers.

The less-serious condition of gaming disorder is more common than compulsive gambling but less so than compulsive shopping, according to estimates from University of Adelaide psychologist Matthew Stevens. 

Escaping the loop

Kim initially tried to protect her kids from getting caught up in compulsion loops - and assuage her own guilt about her role in creating it - by strictly limiting their screen-time to 20 minutes a day. She now believes that was unreasonable and ended up creating a sense of shame that led to sneaking and lying.

Today, she says she embraces her kids’ online lives. She advises parents not to forbid games, but to play along with them, and to involve them in decisions about limits and intermissions. 

Most importantly, she shares with parents the professional secrets she was instrumental in master-minding: how compulsion loops operate, and how to recognise and escape its hooks.

According to psychologist Adam Alter, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, these include:

Variable feedback. Think of this one as the slot-machine effect. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. It’s the uncertainty - and the hope that “this could be the big one” - that keeps them coming back for more.

Lack of stopping cues. In today’s gaming world, the fun literally never ends. There is always more - and more and more and more. 

Artificial goals. Human beings are notoriously goal-oriented. Our survival as a species has depended on that. Tech companies exploit that inbuilt pull by manufacturing goals that keep us engaged: 10,000 steps, say, or Snapstreaks, or collecting virtual items in a quest. 

Cliff-hangers. It’s the oldest narrative trick in the book. Leave ‘em in suspense, and they’ll be hooked - and panting for more. Our deep drive to know what happens next is a key feature of both popular games and social media platforms.

Open conversations plus Family Zone's acclaimed parental controls can ensure your child's online life stays healthy and balanced.

Create a home where your digital kids thrive, and start your free trial today.




Tell me more!

Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, online safety, esafety, gaming addiction, gaming disorder, video game addiction

    Try Family Zone for FREE

    Sign up now to try Family Zone for 1 month, totally free of charge.

    Free Trial
    Subscribe to our newsletter
    Follow us on social media
    Popular posts
    Parental Controls | Mobile Apps | Cyber Safety | teens on social media
    Can we talk? 100 questions your teen might actually answer
    Parental Controls | Screen time | youtube | smartphones | WhatsApp | suicide | self-harm | momo
    MOMO unmasked
    Parental Controls | Cyber Safety | Cyber Experts | parenting | roblox
    Roblox: What parents need to know about this popular gaming platform
    Parental Controls | Cyber Safety | tinder | Cyber Experts | parenting | yellow
    Yellow: The Tinder for Teens
    Parental Controls | Social Media | privacy | decoy app
    Hide It Pro: A decoy app to look out for
    Cyber Bullying | Parental Controls | Screen time | Mobile Apps | Cyber Safety | online predators | tiktok | paedophile | child predator | Likee
    LIKEE: What parents need to know about this risky TikTok wannabe

    Recent posts

    Press the reset button on your kid’s online routine

    COVID blew up our teens’ screen-time. It’s time to get them back on track. In the wake of the COVID pandemic, our children are facing a ...

    Bigger families face super-sized screen-time challenges

    If you have more than one child - and statistics show 86 percent of families do - then managing screen-time can be double trouble. Or ...

    'Bigorexia' a growing risk for today's boys

    We’re starting to understand how social media can damage girls’ self-esteem - but what about our boys? New research finds disturbing ...

    The metaverse: Brave new world - or an upgrade for predators?

    Mixing kids and adult strangers in a self-moderated online environment ... What could possibly go wrong?