The ludic loop: how to snap free of hypnotic video games

Whether you call it a ludic loop or “in the zone,” video games can suck you down a whirlpool of time-wasting fluff. If this is your experience and you want to cut down, it starts with awareness. Read on.

ludic loop Pinterest pin

Ever been stuck in a ludic loop?

You lose track of time and don’t get things done. You don’t do a healthy habit like exercising or reading a paper book. Maybe you ignore living beings with feelings (including you).

But not all video games are the same, or “bad”. I propose the hypnotic element comes from two necessities:

  • Unpredictability
  • Fast-paced button-pressing

Civilization, Dwarf Fortress, and gacha games are unpredictable, but they’re less hypnotic.

Cookie Clicker and Rhythm Heaven Fever are fast-paced, but more predictable.

When combined, you get games like any shooter, fighter, sports, and swipe-to-connect shapes game. These can be addictive.

Ingo Froböse’s research on 1,200 e-sports gamers claims it’s the adrenaline. “This physical stress is mainly due to the high levels of concentration, rapid coordination, and the reactions demanded by the game.” (Stress can be good for you, and exciting.)

Rapid hand-eye movements and sped-up heartbeats equal yummy adrenaline, in other words. Anticipation at unpredictable elements also releases the motivation chemical dopamine to suck us in further.

video game addiction

This is the insidious “ludic loop.”

Professor Natasha Dow Schüll of NYU coined the term when she studied slot machine addicts. Why was watching lights on a screen, sitting slack-jawed, and sometimes pulling a lever pleasurable escapism?

As she told NPR in 2014, “I think it’s a kind of escape, the retreat from the world, the comfort… So people actually describe [slot machines] as being reassuring and predictable, which is really counter-intuitive. But it makes sense if you sit and watch people play.”

Colorful slot machines in Las Vegas.
This is just the obvious example. How many things can you think of that function the same way? (Photo by Amit Lahav on Unsplash)

A ludic loop is hypnotic, and it doesn’t end until you get a headache, lose interest (dopamine levels pass marginal utility), or your butt hurts from sitting too long.

Psychologists call it the attention spotlight. It grips you in rapt, narrow focus, which you can at least manipulate with Tetris of all things. But you can also redirect that focus into a healthy activity as another way to escape (I list plenty in my emotional exhaustion article).

But gamblers call this gripping focus the “machine zone.”

When you’re in the zone, nothing else matters. Outside the zone is the real world and real world problems. Why not play on?

You’re not a pleasure rat


In 1958, James Olds and Peter Milner ran an experiment to test rats’ self-control.

They placed the rats in boxes with one window. To look outside, the rats had to step up on a pedal that electrically stimulated some part of their brain via wires. The rats who got mild shocks to their pleasure centers pressed the pedal more often.

The researchers reported that “Rates as high as 7000 [presses] per hour were achieved when electric stimulation was applied in the region of the interpeduncular nucleus of the tegmentum [part of the brain’s pleasure center].” That’s one hundred sixteen and a third presses per minute, or almost two a second.

Here’s my theory: bouncing off the e-sports study I mentioned above, games that make you press buttons faster and force you to be aware of danger at all times keep your nervous system in a state of pleasant alert. Maybe it mixes with testosterone, too, and caveman instincts.

Hence my problem with my new fighting game.

Fighting games and the round-after-round ludic loop

The most fun characters in my time-devouring game are the fast-paced combo-makers. The offensive type, not the defensive zoning type. The actors, not the reactors.

I also prefer a hard difficulty setting. It’s not fun if they seem to read my moves, but I want some challenge. Though it is satisfying if I’m having a bad day to obliterate the easy computer… which is telling.

This chart from The Art of Game Design encapsulates it, I think.

The Flow channel lies between Anxiety and boredom, and it increases as time and skills increase.
Based off of Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi’s “flow” research. (I claim fair use)

Too hard is no fun. Too easy is no fun. The probability you can lose must be in-between. And if you stay in that sweet spot, that is, in the zone, you can get stuck for hours.

The only methods I know after trying so many different things is:

(Those are NOT affiliate links.)

Or if you can do it, stop whenever you reach a liminal moment: a save point, new area or level, new quest, etc. You question whether you want to keep going at that point anyway.

Then the hardest method.

Awareness to beat ludic loops

Fun starts high and ends low. Regret starts low and ends high. There's no such thing as "just one more."

At some point you’ll become aware you’re spending more time than you’d like. It lasts maybe less than a second, but you realize it. At that point, most of us continue on anyway. When you do:

just stand up, walk away, and take a deep breath

It sucks, but I’ve done it before. With video games, long YouTube streams… I was always like nah, but then I just rocket myself up from the bed, walk away, and breathe. It works.

lol i wonder if ur still reading after that

More ludic loop taming techniques

You break habits by making habits.

Tons of research backs up how good habits (sleep, exercise, posture, signature strengths, etc.) increase your resilience to cravings and help you shut down long sessions.

In my ebook strategy guide Quests: Habit Change for Addicted Warriors, I teach you that 5-point program. It pulled me out of video game, YouTube, and porn addictions that kept me stuck for OVER A DECADE. If you want control back, Quests is how you do it.

How else you get out of a ludic loop:

  • Save your game for when you need a shot of energy or dopamine to stop depression. (still use a timer)
  • any of my urge surfing techniques in this huge post
  • parental control software that limits time– set a random password that you don’t know, copy-and-paste it to someone, and tell them to never reveal it no matter how much you plead
  • visit r/StopGaming for community support

Comment below and tell me other methods to beat ludic loops so this page can help more people!

The ludic loop: how to snap free of hypnotic video games

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