Proprietary Addictions

Nonfree (proprietary) software is very often malware (designed to mistreat the user). Nonfree software is controlled by its developers, which puts them in a position of power over the users; that is the basic injustice. The developers and manufacturers often exercise that power to the detriment of the users they ought to serve.

This typically takes the form of malicious functionalities.

This page deals with malicious functionalities that are added to some programs for the sole purpose of luring users into more and more frequent and intensive use of the program, with the risk of getting addicted.

If you know of an example that ought to be in this page but isn't here, please write to <> to inform us. Please include the URL of a trustworthy reference or two to serve as specific substantiation.

How software is made addictive


Many games are designed to keep gamers compulsively playing—and spending money on the game. To achieve this result, developers use techniques that derive from behavioral and brain research:

The Skinner Box
An environment in which the user is trained to “push the lever“, i.e. do a certain action over and over again in order to get a reward. This is also known as “grinding.”
Virtual food pellets
Items that have nothing to do with the game itself, but are valuable to gamers because of the work required to obtain them (e.g., EverQuest); some people will end up collecting them for the sake of collecting.
Random rewards
They turn the game into the equivalent of a slot machine (e.g., World of Warcraft, ZT Online).
Elaborate cycles
Gamers' behavior can be “shaped” by making cycles (progress from one level to the next) slower and slower, designing complex tasks that are difficult to get out of (e.g. World of Warcraft), or conversely dividing them up in small chunks to avoid frustration (e.g., New Super Mario Bros.Wii).
Decay of game assets
This makes it necessary for a gamer to keep playing, without vacations, simply to avoid losing what they have earned so far (e.g., Farmville, Ultima Online, Animal Crossing).

Games such as World of Warcraft, which are considered very addictive, use several of these techniques.

There are even more elaborate ways to get users addicted to a game.

  • “Loot boxes” are a direct application of the random reward mechanism, and their addictiveness is enhanced by seductive animation. They are akin to gambling.
  • Gacha systems, widely used by Japanese games since 2010, may be considered the ancestors of loot boxes. A gacha is the virtual equivalent of a capsule-toy vending machine. Its addictiveness is based on random rewards, and also on the basic instinct of people to collect items.
  • The developers of gratis (“free-to-play”) games apply the techniques described above to turn their products into slot machines. This is clearly described in an infographic. The revenue generated by these games is directly related to the number of strongly addicted gamers (called “whales”), and to the amount of money they are willing to spend. Thus developers carefully study the behavior of millions of users to increase the addictiveness of their games, and apply classical marketing techniques such as the decoy effect to squeeze as much money as possible from gamers.
  • Leader boards can increase addictiveness, because some people are so eager to see their name at the top of the board that they will spend an unreasonable amount of time playing.

(Unfortunately, some of the articles referenced above use “free” to mean “zero price.” We recommend saying “gratis” instead.)

However, the addictiveness of a game is only one of the determinants of addiction. Equally important are the psychological make-up and life circumstances of the gamer. Gaming addiction, like other addictions, is a form of mental escape from an unrewarding life. The sad truth is that, in the long run, it leads to an even worse life.

Note:  We are not gamers. If you think we have misunderstood some point, or have suggestions for making this text clearer or more correct, please send them to <>.

Online gambling

Online gambling services (and their nonfree client programs) are designed to be addictive, much like on-line games. They achieve this with various different malfunctionalities, often in combination.

Many of these malfunctionalities are implemented by the server and the client program together. In some cases, there is no honest way that the client program could counteract the nastiness—for instance, when the server manipulates amounts won in order to get the user addicted, the only way the client program could block that is to pretend the win did not happen. But users would not want that modification.

However, modification of the client program could cover up some addictive behaviors without losing the user anything.

Social networks

The major social networks are continuously optimizing their design to grab users' attention by taking advantage of the psychological vulnerabilities described above, eventually leading some to addiction. For these people, a phone becomes the equivalent of a slot machine. Many of the addictive features (menu, “likes,” photo tagging, autoplay, etc.) are built into the client software, and can't be removed because the software is proprietary.

Thus, some social networking apps try to merge into your daily routine by exploiting social pressure and your natural desire for socialization, converting habitual gestures into thorough addiction. As already noted for games, addictiveness is essentially based on random rewards. In the present case, the rewards are messages from friends and followers, “likes,” news, interesting videos, etc. The software is designed to trigger users' desire for these rewards, and keep this desire alive as long as possible.

  • By default, notifications are sent every time a new item comes in, instead of, say, once a day. They are associated with sounds or vibrations which make them even more compelling. (Remember Pavlov's experiments with rats.) These triggers are often opt-out, and many users don't try to turn them off. They are most effective when the app is installed on a mobile device which is always on and never leaves the user. As a side effect, they may contribute to the addictiveness of “smart” phones.
  • Users are served selected material that is likely to interest them, based on profiling. (This paves the way to manipulation, by the way.)
  • The app interface is designed to make users stay on the site as long as possible, using infinite scrolling for example.
  • The company that owns the social network tries to cover users' needs as extensively as possible, by acquiring other companies if needed. Once users have concentrated most of their online activities and a lot of their personal data on a single platform (or a set of platforms that belong to the same group), they find it almost impossible to leave. And even if they wanted to, they would have a hard time digging out the relevant options, and the app would aggressively nag them to stay.

A good way to minimize the risk of addiction, short of avoiding social media altogether, is to turn off notifications and leave as little as possible of your own data on the platform.

Nonfree smartphone software

Parents are very concerned about the intentional addictiveness of the software that their children use on snoop-phones.

The “manipulative tech,” which underpins addictive features that the article naively attributes to “screens,” is in fact implemented by software: partly in the operating system and partly in some apps. These features can be designed to do nasty things because they are nonfree software: their code is controlled by some “owner,” in this case a powerful company, rather than by the users. If they were free programs, the user community could reprogram them so as to be less addictive.

By freeing ourselves from these companies' power to require use of software they control for accessing their “services,” we will also reduce the harm that online dis-services can do.

Examples of addictive software

  • 2020-10

    The addictive Genshin Impact relentlessly coerces players to spend money by overwhelming the game play with loot boxes.

  • 2020-03

    Roblox (among many other games) created anti-features which sucker children into utilizing third-party payment services without authorization.

  • 2019-07

    Resourceful children figured out how to empty their parents' bank account buying packs of special players for an Electronic Arts soccer game.

    The random element of these packs (also called “loot boxes”) makes the game strongly addictive, but the fact that players are pressured to spend more in order to get ahead of their competitors further qualifies it as predatory. Note that Belgium made these loot boxes illegal in 2018.

    The only good reason to have a copy of such a proprietary game is to study it for free software development.

  • 2018-09

    Clash of Clans is a good example of a gratis mobile game that its developers made very addictive for a large proportion of its users—and turned into a cash machine for themselves—by using psychological manipulation techniques.

    (The article uses “free” to mean “zero price,” which is a usage we should avoid. We recommend saying “gratis” instead.)

  • 2018-09

    Clash Royale is an online game with an “optimized” gacha system that makes it very addictive for players, and very profitable for its developers.

  • 2016-12

    In the game Fruit Pop, the player buys boosts with coins to get a high score. The player gets coins at the end of each game, and can buy more coins with real money.

    Getting a higher score once leads the player to desire higher score again later. But the higher score resulting from the boost does not give the player more coins, and does not help the player get a higher score in subsequent games. To get that, the player will need a boost frequently, and usually has to pay real money for that. Since boosts are exciting and entertaining, the player is subtly pushed to purchase more coins with real money to get boosts, and it can develop into a costly habit.

  • 2016-04

    Many popular mobile games include a random-reward system called gacha which is especially effective on children. One variant of gacha was declared illegal in Japan in 2012, but the other variants are still luring players into compulsively spending inordinate amounts of money on virtual toys.

  • 2015-07

    Game Of War: Fire Age is an iPhone game with addictive features which are based on behavioral manipulation techniques, compounded with group emulation. After a fairly easy start, the game slows down and becomes more difficult, so gamers are led to spend more and more money in order to keep up with their group. And if they stop playing for a while, the equipment they invested in gets destroyed by the “enemy” unless they buy an expensive “shield” to protect it. This game is also deceptive, as it uses confusing menus and complex stats to obfuscate true monetary costs.

  • 2015-04

    Runescape is a popular online game with some addictive features derived from behavioral manipulation techniques. Certain repetitive aspects of the game, like grinding, can be minimised by becoming a paying member, and can thus encourage children and impressionable people to spend money on the game.