Is RTS one of the most addictive game genres?

There’s a growing corpus of research on the most addictive game genres and RTS pops up regularly. Why is it hard to drag yourself away from a good RTS game?

Research on RTS as one of the most addictive game genres

Academic interest in the differences between game genres has increased over recent years in line with the general uptick in the popularity of video gaming. 

A number of interesting studies undertaken by clever folk in this area have demonstrated differences in the way that real-time strategy games are played, and the behaviors that they elicit, as compared to other genres.

For example, an analysis of a questionnaire and related tasks completed by 149 Iowa State University students revealed an association between individuals who identify as strategy gamers and pathological gaming behavior. This effect was also found for FPS gamers, so maybe it’s a good thing that RTS FPS hybrid games aren’t really made anymore!

Another study of US undergraduates, this time from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that problematic behaviors manifested much more quickly among RTS and role-playing/fantasy gamers than for other genres and that the probability of negative behavioral outcomes was highest among RTS gamers, regardless of time spent playing. 

Graph showing probability of Internet Gaming Disorder as a function of gaming hours for different video game genres, with RTS players showing highest probability of gaming disorder

More recently, a 2022 study in South Korea found that gamers who played real-time strategy demonstrated (based on their responses to survey questions) problematic gaming behaviors at a significantly higher level than those favoring other types of games. 

Specifically, RTS gamers were less tolerant and were more likely to neglect everyday life than racing, RPG, arcade, and shooting gamers. RTS players were also more impacted by the negative effects of withdrawal than racing and RPG gamers. 

Not all studies in this area, however, have drawn the same conclusions. For example, academics at the University of Sydney published a paper in 2020 exploring the intrinsic addictiveness of video games. The results, in this case, suggest that game genre has no impact on levels of problematic video game use.

How do you measure the most addictive game genre?

The most logical way to collect data on behavior at a scale large enough to make quantitative analysis possible is through surveys or questionnaires, which were relied on in all the studies mentioned above.

These surveys use – or adapt – existing question sets designed to measure gaming behavior. Responses to questions can then be given a numerical value (coded) and plugged into statistical software like SPSS for analysis. 

It is important to note that all of the studies I could find when researching this article are cross-sectional, rather than longitudinal. 

In other words, the data used for analysis represents a single snapshot in time rather than repeated observations under controlled conditions for a period of time. 

That means that while the outcomes demonstrate relationships (in some cases significant ones) between real-time strategy gaming and problematic behaviors that are symptomatic of addiction, these relationships are correlational

Correlation does not necessarily mean causation, so although these papers present interesting findings about real-time strategy games, more research (ideally longitudinal research) is required before we can say that problematic behaviors are actually caused by factors specific to RTS games.

What sort of RTS game is the most addictive?

Something that I found interesting when reading through these studies was how the real-time strategy genre was defined. 

Some studies included all strategy games in a broad brushstroke, while one specifically defined RTS games as requiring a single player to “simultaneously manage many ‘units’ that each possesses distinct abilities” – which would seem to exclude MOBAs (definitely real-time strategy, in my mind). 

Screenshot of LoL 2018 World Championship Finals game 1
League of Legends is one of the most popular MOBA games. MOBA is a subgenre of real-time strategy.

From experience, it’s clear that there is a huge difference between playing casual turn-based strategy games and playing sweaty, ranked online matches in a MOBA game. 

Even within the classic base-building/defending real-time strategy genre, there’s a wide spectrum of gameplay possibilities, ranging from rapid APM fests to slow-paced RTS games that suit another set of players altogether.

The motivations, rewards, and consequences experienced in these games are fundamentally different.

Who is playing these RTS games?

Another interesting takeaway from these studies is the impact of both individual and macro-level factors on gaming behavior in general. 

For example, not a single female in the University of Iowa study met the criteria for pathological gaming based on their survey responses, compared to 14% of males.

Country-level factors are also clearly important: Gaming culture in South Korea is, after all, markedly different from gaming culture in the USA and elsewhere. 

It’s perhaps not such a surprise in this sense that the paper published by the researchers at the University of Sydney I mentioned above found no relationship between game genre and problematic gaming, given that it utilized international rather than country-specific data. 

Why is RTS an addictive game genre?

Immersive single-player experiences and a busy multiplayer scene are two hallmarks of a good RTS game. These, along with several other factors, make these games kind of addictive!

One reason RTS games could be considered addictive is that they are full of micro-wins that are rewarding for players even if they go on to lose the overall match-up: 

Beat the opposition in a small skirmish early on? Micro-win! Gathered enough resources to unlock the next stage on the tech tree? Micro-win!

In FPS games, if you don’t have elite hand-eye coordination and fighter pilot-level reaction speeds, you’re never going to make it to the top of any ladder. In contrast, there’s space for a wide range of approaches in real-time strategy and, by extension, lots more ways to improve your RTS skills

In the excellent RTS game, Northgard, players are rewarded for being smart rather than fast.

Sure, you still need to think quickly in RTS games, and having a high APM is advantageous, but players are also rewarded for being smarter rather than just quicker

In comparison to MMORPGs, where you can grind and grind and you’ll eventually max out stats and levels regardless of your skill, the payoff for playing smartly in RTS games is much more satisfying

Finally, the structure of RTS games allows for far greater tactical experimentation and exploration than other genres. That means there’s almost always still something new to discover (and plenty of underrated RTS games to discover, too).

Summary – Is RTS one of the most addictive game genres? 

Research suggests that RTS games are among the most addictive, but these studies are largely cross-sectional which means explicit causal relationships between measures of addictiveness and elements unique to RTS games cannot be established.

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