Whether it’s a console game or just an app, every once in awhile, you find yourself immersed in a game that you just can’t let go of. No matter how much you play it, it sticks in your mind, keeping you coming back for more even when there are other games out there demanding your attention. Sometimes it happens on a national level - remember the crazes for Candy Crush or Flappy Bird? - or it can just be a gem of a game that only a few people dedicated to gaming innovations play, but those that do are devotees.
Have you ever wondered how games manage to do this; turn normal people into those on the verge of a game addiction? If you fancy finding out how things work behind the curtain, then read on…
#1 - Games Aren’t Designed To Be Fun
Sound difficult to believe? It might, but think about it: fun is transitory. What we have a tendency to enjoy at one point might not be the same thing that makes us happy another day. We can get tired of fun; we can want to move on to something more exciting, something different.
If, however, a game developer can tap into something deeper in our psyche, then their game has the potential to be a fixture for years to come. It’s interesting to note that the driving purpose of a game is not for users to enjoy it, but for users to want to keep coming back to it. These might sound like the same thing, but they are actually activating different parts of our brains.
Some of the most popular games of all time aren’t particularly fun, but they are rewarding. Understanding how rewards work in game creation is essential to understanding the behavioral psychology that they manipulate.
#2 - At First, Games Are Highly Rewarding
The first, and perhaps most important, attraction factor to a game is that it rewards new players quickly and often. That’s why when you first begin to play a game, leveling up and obtaining rewards is incredibly simple. Perform one basic task? You level up and get a ton of XP points!
Every time we level up or receive some form of reward from the game, our brains get a shot of dopamine - the happy hormone. Even if we don’t fully understand the game or haven’t decided to play it for long, we’re still delighted by this evidence we’re apparently good at it. As the game progresses, achieving the same rewards becomes harder and harder. With Facebook games, for example, it might only take 10 XP to get to level two, but it’ll take 7,000 XP to move from level 58 to level 59. Yet we still do it, because when we reach that level up number, we get the same shot of dopamine. If anything, it’s even sweeter when we have to wait and work towards something.
#3 - When You’re Hooked, You’re A Consumer
Many games like to ease you into them gently, especially those that don’t have a purchase cost like some app games. They get you in, leveling up, training you to enjoy that dopamine rush every time something goes right.
Then comes the next stage; transforming you from a gamer into a consumer. As you progress, learn the game, and what it takes to be good at it, you’ll then be offered some dangling temptations. An example would be something along the lines of: you could keep working to improve your armor, which will take time, effort, and skill… or you could just throw a couple of dollars at the problem and have your armor be perfect in an instant.
At first, going with the paid approach often seems valid. In many ways, that’s because it is. There’s no harm in spending money on virtual goods if they help us to enjoy the game more. It’s no different to spending on a cinema ticket or paying to download a movie; it’s all about enjoyment, so there’s no harm.
Of course, the problem comes when you are deeply immersed in a game and have been playing it for so long, it throws your judgment off. Then, the in-game purchases switch from being about enhancing your experience, to being necessary. There are many games where, effectively, you have to pay to win. Developers don’t throw this at you to begin with, of course! They ease you in with the leveling up rewards, the improvements for low cost, and then hit you with bigger and bigger requests for money.
This might sound like a harmless progression. It can be, if you manage it in moderation. However, the problem comes when people find themselves buying more and more because they’re trapped in a cycle of doing so, and feel they need it to continue enjoying the game. That’s when there’s risks of game addiction, people stretching their finances as they look for online payday loans and similar products that can allow them to keep buying.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with this in theory if you genuinely enjoy a game! You’re paying for a form of entertainment; that’s legitimate. But it’s always worth asking if you truly enjoy the game, or if you’re just used to playing it now and want to continue.
#4 - More Rewards
We’ve touched above on the importance of rewards to keeping you coming back to a game. This truly can’t be overstated.
Have you ever heard of the rat experiment, where a rat had to press a level in exchange for a morsel of food? This is a popular experiment on which game developers rely. We humans will keep pressing the lever (i.e. playing the game) if we think there’s a reward for it.
That’s why games give us trophies, buttons, badges - they’re rewards for pressing the lever over and over. Even basic games like Words With Friends will give you badges for starting a set number of games or playing a certain number of opponents.
Of course, when you press the lever enough to get your reward, you’re delighted by it. It’s this, perhaps more than anything, that keeps us going back to a game. If we have to work for something, we enjoy the rewards of it all the more. It makes us feel good; like we have achieved something… even if all we’ve done is level up, win a trophy, or suchlike on a game we enjoy.