Why do we play video games for so long?

I gathered data from 56 gamers about their Top 5 video games based on played time. In total, more than 86 different titles were mentioned. When Gamers get addicted to games, they still have diverse tastes for game play, genre, player quantity and graphics quality. The games ranged from Soul Calibur to Tetris to NBA Jam to Zelda. It was a pretty big pile of game addiction data!

In order to make the data more manageable, the first thing I did was remove the ranking and roll up the player count to a franchise level. That is to say, Final Fantasy 1 = Final Fantasy 2 = … = Final Fantasy 10 et cetera. Most of the time this makes reasonable sense. The only one I feel kinda bad about is Counter-Strike because I decided that Half Life = Counter-Strike. So, my apologizes to you if you are offended by this. Basically, if a game had high numbers on it’s own, then it stood alone. Otherwise the games were rolled up to the most reasonable franchise.

I filtered to the games which got at least 3 players (or >5% of the total players). Interestingly, this is also basically equivalent to >1% of the total player votes because if one player voted for two different Diablos then the Diablo franchise received 2 votes. In summary, I don’t feel bad for cutting out all the games that only got 1 or 2 votes. Here’s the summary of games with 3 or more players:


All games with 3 or more players which appear in the survey answers of top 5 most played video games among 56 gamers. Table created by SocialMathematics.net and survey data.


These 22 games received a total of 163 votes. There were 280 votes cast (56*5) so 40% of the votes went towards games not listed. At first glance there are three standout games:

3. Diablo Diablo is an online role-playing game (RPG). First released in 1996 and last released in 2014.  22 Votes.

2. Final Fantasy Final Fantasy is an online (and offline) RPG. First released in 1987 and last released in 2010. 24 votes.

1. World of Warcraft WoW is an online RPG. First released in 2005 and last released in 2014. 30 votes.

As you can see, World of Warcraft stood separate from the rest of the Warcraft franchise. I mean, it’s an RPG not a Real Time Strategy (RTS) so I wouldn’t feel right combining them anyways!  World of Warcraft has the highest player count at 30 and no one voted for it twice (unlike Diablo and Final Fantasy). More than 1/2 of the players I surveyed spent significant time playing World of Warcraft. Why?

I was addicted to WoW too. Why was that? Was it because our tank kept dying in Molten Core and I like Battle Rezing? Was it because I had to have my flowers end in exact piles of 20? (Flowers = 0 mod 20. See this post for more on my love of ending on a 0 in modular arithmetic) Was it because I want to stay up and hang out with my friend Sartuk?

In this post I’m going to look at some major features of these highly played games to try to determine what caused WoW, FF and Diablo to be so highly played.


Votes given to games with online or soley offline components. Votes counted by lists of top 5 most played video games. Chart created by socialmathematics.net and survey data.

Is it because WoW is an massively multi-player online (MMO) game? When we consider the 163 votes, 140 went to online games. At first glance this suggests that the online component is the reason WoW did well. However, there are many games in the top 22 which are online but didn’t gain the fan base that WoW did. So something else is going on.

Maybe it’s because WoW was a really popular game? If lots of people bought it then lots of people could get addicted to it! However, a quick look at top selling franchises clears up that idea:


Unit Sales by Franchise. Created by socialmathematics.net and data from Wikipedia “List of best-selling video game franchises”.


World of Warcraft is nowhere near the top of the list! The top selling franchises which are on our top played list are Mario World (9 votes) and Call of Duty (4 votes). The only franchise which is highly played and has a chance at getting high sales is Final Fantasy. You know, it’s a good thing those MMOs have subscription fees or they’d never be able to afford the servers!

Well, on second thought, maybe that’s one of the real secrets about WoW. Regular updates continue to make the game feel fresh, even though it’s not actually a new game. It’s a good combination of novel and familiar. The patch days may really help WoW’s play time.

The last aspect of these games that I want to speak to is the age, or length, of a franchise. The longer a game franchise is producing games, the more opportunities we have to get addicted to it. Diablo, FF and WoW have all been around for a while. Perhaps it’s simply their longevity that lead to longer play times? Let’s look at the correlation between the age of a franchise and its popularity.


Correlation between the length of a franchise and the number of players who identified the franchise as one of their Top 5 games in played time. Created by socialmathematics.net and survey data.

At the top of the age list is Mario World. Clearly that is the game which we’ve had the most opportunities for high played hours.  However, this is not a big winner. Probably because it’s not online nor it is customizable.  I fit a line to the data and got an R^2 =0.08. Clearly there is no correlation between age and popularity either. Or is there? Let’s look at this differently. I’m going to flip the axes around:


Correlation between the length of a franchise and the number of players who identified the franchise as one of their Top 5 games in played time. Data fit with a 6th order polynomial for storytelling reasons. Created by socialmathematics.net and survey data.

We see our front runners at the top of the graph and a sea of other popular games underneath. I fit a 6th order polynomial to the data because it looks pretty and helps inform my story. Now I’d like to tell a story about the sea of highly addictive games and the three games which trumped them all:

1. First, in 1985, Mario came out and he was a cool guy. Side scrollers are awesome and Nintendo continued to release solid content in the Mario World franchise. But there is only so much to do those games, so they never dominated the gamer’s play time.

2. When FF came out in 1987, with it’s extended world and character leveling-up mechanic, the world was hooked. Final Fantasy continued to produce long engaging games which sold well and, for many, were highly addictive. Other games came and went, but not with the staying power of FF.

3. Then Diablo came onto the scene in 1996. While the graphics were initially terrible, you could play with your friends from another city. That was pretty cool! In later games, the Diablo franchise focused on re-play-ability and customization thus improving their game-play time.

4. By 2005 everyone I knew had internet (and was in college?) and World of Warcraft was released. Combining a potent combination of RPG customization, a huge online world, and regular updates, Blizzard built a soul-sucking addictive game with a huge player base.

5. Recently we’ve have a lull in new game releases. Nothing has stolen the lion’s share of the hardcore gamer’s time in a while. Well, kinda. Because people are still playing WoW. WoW is like Facebook- all your friends are on it, so you need to be too… even when you don’t want to be… So now we are collectively bidding our time while we wait for the next big thing. What’s next?



About Samantha from SocialMath

Applied Mathematician and writer of socialmathematics.net.
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