Understanding ‘The Button,’ Reddit’s Highly Addictive Game

A hand is poised over a computer mouseTwo weeks ago, Reddit released a new game, “The Button,” as an April Fool’s Day joke. The game has taken on a life of its own, with users caving to temptation to play the game even though they have no idea what the button is. This strange game may provide clues into the psychology of addiction.

The Button: A Game Without a Point

The game is deceptively simple. A button is positioned next to a 60-second countdown timer, and users can press the button at any time during the 60 seconds, but only once. Thousands of people may be watching the clock at any given time, and the timer will reset for everyone when any user pushes it.

After users push the button, a color appears corresponding with the time users waited prior to clicking. Longer wait times correspond to less common colors. After a color appears, nothing else happens and the timer resets itself. The color a user gets, though, becomes a part of his or her Reddit user name, making longer wait times a sort of Internet status symbol. As of this writing, the lowest time achieved was 19 seconds; it is unknown what will happen when the timer hits zero. Since the game started, nearly a million people have clicked the button. Only users who registered with the site prior to April Fool’s Day can compete.

Why Do People Play the Game?

“The Button” might not seem like a game at all, but the Reddit forum in which it is situated has become a hotbed of philosophical discussion. Many users highlight the game’s ability to test impulse control, but discussions also veer into mortality, the nature of being, and the meaning of existence.

Discussion of the game itself often relies on religious terms, with users questioning whether not playing is “blasphemy” and referring to the game as “the word.” Others say they’re addicted to watching the timer and have no idea why they are compelled to do so.

Mental health experts and game players have offered a number of theories for the game’s popularity. From arguments about how people create meaning to avoid the fear of death to claims that the game could help us understand addiction and impulse control, no one seems to know what the game’s purpose is, yet most players seem to think it has some value.

Darren Haber, MA, MFT, of West Los Angeles, California, told GoodTherapy.org that when people become fixated on an addiction such as an Internet game, there’s usually a reason. “One person’s fun distraction is another’s compulsion,” he said. “It really varies. The key is that an addiction usually serves some essential self-regulating or emotional function that becomes highly ritualized or compulsively essential to the person’s self-organization. Is ‘The Button’ a psychological symbol of control over one’s destiny or a compulsion that has taken on a life of its own? It depends.”

References:

  1. Dewey, C. (2015, April 13). The addicting, apocalyptic psychology of ‘The Button,’ the Reddit game that ate the Internet. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/04/13/the-addicting-apocalyptic-psychology-of-the-button-the-reddit-game-that-ate-the-internet/
  2. Woollaston, V. (2015, April 14). Can YOU resist the Reddit button? Online experiment that tests your self control is driving the web to distraction. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3038293/Can-resist-Reddit-button-Online-experiment-tests-self-control-driving-web-distraction.html

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  • Rob

    Rob

    April 20th, 2015 at 10:38 AM

    Hello! Interesting post, thanks for writing it. I wanted to point out that there is an error in the second paragraph of this post:

    “If you navigate away from the page, it resets, requiring users to watch the timer count down rather than distract themselves before pushing the button.”

    The Button doesn’t have anything to do with navigating away from the page – The Button resets itself whenever a user presses it. This refresh happens in real-time for everyone.

    Understanding that may help you speak about The Button, since it’s not only status that people are aiming for (the color and Also the number the user pressed it at display next to their username) but it also has an element of competition. If one user sees the timer hit a new low (meaning nobody anywhere has pressed it since it last reset) the user is basically competing with everyone at the same time to be the first user to press at that lowest time.

    Thought this would help. Thanks again for the post, it was an enjoyable read!

  • Cole

    Cole

    April 20th, 2015 at 11:25 AM

    It’s obvious that I have no impulse control because now the only thing i feel compelled to do is go check this out.

  • EB

    EB

    April 20th, 2015 at 1:28 PM

    The timer is global, and anytime anyone hits the button, the timer resets. So if Fred in Georgia and Tom in California are watching the page, they are both wanting the button to get as low as possible, before anyone else clicks. So if Fred clicks at 45 seconds, the timer will reset to 60 for everyone.

    Watching a timer and a button is not a game. When you get several million people vying for the lowest scores possible – that is a game. And that is what you have failed to report on.

  • deena

    deena

    April 20th, 2015 at 1:53 PM

    I guess that I really have my head in a hole in the ground because I have never even heard of this and I guess my friends have’t either because this is the first time I have even read about it or heard it mentioned. I hope that is this is the secret of living a good life it’s not too late to hop on the bandwagon because otherwise I guess all is lost.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    April 21st, 2015 at 8:15 AM

    Thank you for your comments and clarifications, Rob and EB. We have edited the article to indicate that the timer is global and that the timer resets when any user pushes it.

  • Tara

    Tara

    April 21st, 2015 at 10:45 AM

    Well now that whole aspect of the “game” really does change things… makes it even more of an interesting concept.

  • cheves

    cheves

    April 23rd, 2015 at 6:06 PM

    I better not even take a look at that.

    I have no patience and so would probably just end up ruining things for everybody.

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