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Why It's So Hard to Walk Away From a Video Game

... and how gamers can find limits and balance.

Key points

  • People naturally hate leaving tasks incomplete, which makes many video games hard to turn off.
  • This is often due to a combination of flow, the Ovsiankina effect, and the Zeigarnik effect.
  • Recognizing this "trap," setting timers, and thoughtfully choosing games can help gamers maintain balance with other life activities.

I stayed up until three in the morning last night playing video games. Accidentally.

I was playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a Lord of the Rings-style adventure game with swords, elves, werewolves, assassins, and dragons. I had intended to play until around midnight, because I could sleep late this morning.

In the game, there is one large “main quest” in which the protagonist discovers they have unique powers and uses them to save the world from destruction. This can be done relatively quickly if the player chooses to ignore the rest of the world. However, along the way, many characters request the player’s help in solving their own problems. These “side quests” comprise most of the gameplay, as players complete the most interesting ones in any order they wish.

These side quests vary greatly and include tasks such as “avenge my father,” “help me gather supplies for my shop,” “assassinate the emperor,” “find gems to help make a wedding ring,” and “become a werewolf.” Few of these quests take more than 15 minutes to finish.

The Trap

So why couldn't I just turn the game off at midnight?

I looked at the clock just before 12:00 a.m. and decided to finish the quest I was working on before going to bed. This felt reasonable; I had nearly reached my goal and it would only take me a few minutes. I crept through the cavern, fired two arrows into the wicked bandit king’s chest, and returned to town to announce that the townspeople no longer had to worry about their safety.

The next moment is the crux of the problem. I planned to finish the quest and turn the game off. But I was right next to the local shop and I had a lot of extra equipment I needed to sell. So I decided “I’ll just sell everything and then go to sleep.” It would only take me a minute or two.

I had just fallen into what I call “The One More Minute Trap,” sometimes referred to as the “Arbitrary Endpoint Trap.” As soon as I traded my equipment for gold pieces, I remembered that I had also collected supplies that the local blacksmith had requested. “I’ll just go give those to her and then go to sleep.” On my way to her smithy, a villager requested my help with another exciting task which would likely only take a few minutes. “I’ll just go slay that monster and then go to sleep.” On my way back from the defeated monster, I noticed that I had collected 19 of the 20 wild plants a healer needed to create vital medicine. “I’ll just go get that last plant and then go to sleep.” The healer then requested one more ingredient. “I’ll just go get it and then go to sleep.”

I continued like this for three hours without realizing it. Why does this happen?

The Psychology

This trap happens as a result of three main psychological phenomena working together: The Zeigarnik effect, the Ovsiankina effect, and "flow." Both the Zeigarnik effect and the Ovsiankina effect refer to our innate need to finish projects and flow describes our tendency to lose track of time when engrossed in an enjoyable activity.

Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik showed that people remember unfinished tasks more easily than completed ones. Zeigarnik described incomplete tasks as a “state of tension” which only resolve when we finish them. As a result, having an incomplete agenda has been shown to cause stress and keep us awake at night. Similarly, the Ovsiankina effect describes that we tend to go back to unfinished tasks as soon as we can when interrupted. A person who receives a phone call while reading will usually resume the chapter as soon as they hang up.

Together, the Zeigarnik and Ovsiankina effects describe how much people hate unfinished business. Social media websites and apps have taken advantage of this by incorporating “infinite scrolling,” so that we stay on the app for far longer than we would if we could reach the end of a page of content and feel satisfied. This is why there is no "bottom of the page" on Facebook or Twitter.

So when a game like Skyrim offers us dozens of unfinished tasks, we naturally want to continue. And when they can be accomplished very quickly, it is easy to justify finishing "just one more" to avoid this distress.

Flow is the reason people lose track of time while painting, playing sports, playing music, reading, or even organizing large stacks of papers. If something is too challenging, it becomes frustrating. If it is not challenging enough, it is boring. When the difficulty matches a person’s skill level, they can enter a state of flow. Being in flow is a wonderful feeling, but it also makes it difficult to notice when hours have gone by.

We have all looked at a clock while working on a project and been shocked by how much time has passed. We were in a state of flow.

Video games are particularly effective at helping us experience flow. Flow is most easily achieved with a series of small objectives rather than one large one, which video games provide. Importantly, video games naturally keep a player challenged appropriately. When a task is too easy, it can be completed quickly and players can move on to more challenging areas until the difficulty level matches their skill. Difficulty typically does not increase until players’ skill advances enough to complete the previous task. As a result, players are nearly always challenged in a way that helps them enter flow.

This is one of the main reasons video games are enjoyable and relaxing, but it also causes difficulty managing the amount of time gamers spend in front of the screen.

Video games use these three phenomena, the Zeigarnik effect, the Ovsiankina effect, and flow, to create a trap in which a player is always nearly done with a task and doesn't realize how much time is passing.

This creates a problem in game development: what makes a game enjoyable also makes it problematic. Skyrim would be boring if players had to spend a lot of time searching for quests. As a result, most games are unintentionally designed in ways that prevent players from stopping easily.

However, unscrupulous developers intentionally use this trap to make sure players play their games for long periods of time and keep reopening the app, so that they can spend more money. This is particularly true for free-to-play games in which the game’s revenue comes from highly invested players.

How to Escape

Recognizing this pattern is the first step toward breaking free. As soon as I hear my inner voice saying “Alright, I’ll just finish this last thing and then go to sleep,” I know that I’m on the edge of a mental snare. If I’d had an early appointment this morning, I would have decided to end my game session there.

Some need additional strategies to help them in these moments. I have worked with clients who become so “stuck” that they show up to work or school late, or even call in sick when they realize they’ve missed the bus. Several clients ended up dropping out of college due to their inability to stop playing video games in time to go to class. Almost all identified this “just one more minute” feeling as one of their biggest vulnerabilities.

In order to avoid this peril, many set alarms for themselves thirty minutes before they need to stop. This gives them time to commit to a firm ending for themselves which they can reach in the next half hour. However, even this approach takes a great deal of discipline and self-control, and it may be too difficult to stop at that later point.

Others suggest that the place to stop is when you start looking for a suitable place to stop. In other words, if you are susceptible to this trap, then watch for the moment when you decide, “I’ll just finish this and then stop.” That’s the sign to stop immediately, rather than playing until the endpoint you just set for yourself. You will likely struggle to hold yourself to that endpoint.

In extreme cases, the game the person plays needs to be rethought. Some games are better than others for those who struggle with this. Games that have natural endpoints throughout are easier to turn off. For example, many of the Mario games act like a series of separate challenges, rather than an overlapping set of objectives. Every time a course is completed, the player returns to a selection menu to choose another. This provides an easy place to stop. “Open world” games like Skyrim feature many simultaneous challenges which can be completed in any order the player wishes. This genre is more difficult to stop, as players are always close to completing at least one objective.

Everyone experiences this pattern at some point—needing to finish a chapter in a book, fit the last pieces into a jigsaw puzzle, or watch the end of a movie before turning in for the night. We are all susceptible to the combination of flow, the Ovsiankina effect, and the Zeigarnik effect. Video games are uniquely good at using this trio to keep us engaged, so some may need to take additional precautions to maintain balance in their lives.

LinkedIn image: Facebook image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock


Extra Credits. (2017, October 18). One more level – The arbitrary endpoint trap – Extra Credits [Video]. YouTube.

Syrek, C. & Antoni, C.H. (2014). Unfinished tasks foster rumination and impair sleeping – Particularly if leaders have high performance expectations. Journal of Occupational Psychology, 19(4)

Weigelt, O. & Syrek, C. (2017). Ovsiankina's great relief: How supplemental work during the weekend may contribute to recovery in the face of unfinished tasks. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(12).

Zeigarnik, B. (1927). On finished and unfinished tasks. Psychologische Forschung, 1927(9)

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