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Compulsive loops and dopamine hits:how games are designed to be addictive

Good video games are an art form that challenges you, tells you a story, puts you in control of entire worlds, and, like a good book or TV series, presents compelling reasons to stay engaged. With the rise of mobile gaming and the shift in revenue models towards “freemium”, it is becoming increasingly important to not just grab someone's attention, but to keep it.

SummaryDopamine Kicks and Compulsion LoopsSelf-Determination Theory/Cognitive Appraisal Theory Other Behavioral Tricks That Get Us PlayingThis is Your Brain on Video Games

In the form of a "Soviet Russia" joke, it's becoming more and more accurate to say the game is playing you. As our attention and interactions continue to be analyzed and monetized, it becomes increasingly important to understand the psychology, neurochemistry, and behavioral science that underpins our love of video games. The dopamine we get from video games and the techniques we've devised to get that dopamine are the basis of good and addictive game design.

Dopamine-hits and compulsion loops

Compulsive loops and dopamine hits:how games are designed to be addictive

These cycles are called "compulsion loops" and if you've ever played a game, you've probably experienced them. Here's how they generally work:

  1. The player gets a task to complete and the promise of a reward at the end (motivation)
  2. The player has a clear path to complete the task (an achievable challenge)
  3. Player completes the task and gets the reward (dopamine hit!)
  4. Player gets another task, formula repeats

This is basically why we love to play games:we complete quests, kill monsters, open loot boxes, and perform repetitive tasks with minor variations in mechanics and settings, because games are built in such a way that that we are never too far from the next one. neurochemical part. It's not inherently bad - leveling up, exploring new worlds, experiencing new items, and most other game elements are there because they make us feel engaged and excited.

These positive compulsion loops are essentially a more focused form of what we experience in real life. Whether you get a promotion at work, upgrade your smartphone, or make new friends, your brain gives you positive feedback and tells you to keep up the good work. What makes the game potentially problematic, however, is when you don't have a clear output from the constraint loop cycle. Does Angry Birds really ever end?

Self-determination theory/Cognitive evaluation theory

So why do games stimulate the release of dopamine? They aren't really important for our survival, but they do turn out to fulfill some basic human needs, specifically:"competence", "autonomy", and "relationship", according to researchers Andrew Przybylski, Richard Ryan and Scott Rigby. Simply put, people play video games because they make us feel like we're good at something, in control, and connected to people.

Compulsive loops and dopamine hits:how games are designed to be addictive

Maybe you don't play guitar in real life, but you can get pretty good at Guitar Hero in an afternoon. You probably don't get to pilot spaceships, manage cities, or destroy hordes of demons in your day job, but the games are specifically designed to challenge your abilities, give direct feedback, and offer plenty of practice opportunities, so you can really get good at the tasks in the game.

By timing the challenges and rewards well, a game can give you a nice feeling of skill and continuous improvement, which can, in turn, be pretty much perpetual – you can always get better at something in the game.

Compulsive loops and dopamine hits:how games are designed to be addictive

There are some very popular games that literally require players to work on a farm, drive a truck, or do some other job that we wouldn't be so keen on in reality. This is partly because it's something you can feel good about (competence), but even more so because they give you autonomy. No boss, no threats of failure, just you, creating your own reality.

That's why many modern games offer at least some sort of open world, where you can roam, explore, and dictate your own pace and path. Farmville lets you build and run your own farm – you can do whatever you want with it, and since you can do it forever, that rush you get from being master of your destiny and captain of your corn doesn't hurt. never really ends.

Compulsive loops and dopamine hits:how games are designed to be addictive

Being part of a team and working well with others is a fantastic way to get your dopamine flowing, and as a side benefit for game developers, having other people depend on you increases the likelihood that you'll show up regularly. to play the game. Games can actually be a great way to build friendships and strengthen social bonds, but developers can also leverage relationships (Play with your friends! Invite your friends! Compete with your friends for high scores!) to maintain our interest.

Other behavioral tricks that make us play

Compulsive loops and dopamine hits:how games are designed to be addictive

  • The Near Miss Effect: The illusion that because you were close this time, you are more likely to win next time. This phenomenon is commonly encountered in gambling, when a random event, such as a hand of blackjack or a spin of roulette, puts you on the verge of winning. Games don't want you to give up, so they usually give near misses rather than catastrophic failures.

Compulsive loops and dopamine hits:how games are designed to be addictive

  • Variable Rate Reinforcement: Another game concept that has come up in video games is that our brains actually react more strongly to uncertain rewards than to certain ones. A certain reward of five gold coins at the end of a level is much less exciting for us than a random chance to get from one to ten gold coins. This is also the principle of loot boxes:as long as we are rewarded with something good regularly enough, we will continue to buy them because this pattern of behavior is generally rewarded.

Compulsive loops and dopamine hits:how games are designed to be addictive

  • Relative deprivation/aspiration: Feeling like you don't have as much as others is depressing, but it's also motivating because it gives you something to work on. If you see someone else in Minecraft with an amazing huge house and lots of cool gear, you know exactly what you want and you'll keep playing to get it.

Compulsive loops and dopamine hits:how games are designed to be addictive

  • Loss aversion: Obvious fact:humans love to win and hate to lose. But a game without stakes is usually not much fun – we thrive on achievable challenges. According to research by behavioral economist Richard Thaler, humans prefer a pattern of big rewards all at once, but small losses spread over time, even if the amounts are the same at the end. If you want someone to keep playing a game, you have to make sure their brain is happy with how the rewards are distributed. Every rage-quit is another player lost.

This is your video-games brain

We strive for a lot of things in the modern world – TV shows, video games, food, alcohol, social media and all the other menu items available in our Modern Dopamine Buffet. That's great in the sense that we've never had so many options for enjoying life, but it also means that the companies responsible for serving the feast have a strong incentive to keep you at their table.

As mobile games and in-game payment models become the new normal in video games, we may be faced with a whole new generation of carefully tailored constraint loops that most people will find hard to resist. Who likes to say no to free dopamine? There may be no way to stop this train from leaving the station, but as game consumers, if you find a game using stress loops without a satisfying ending in sight, the game may take you more time than you get. return in terms of pleasure.

The brain also loves novelty, new experiences, and art, after all, so if you think of it in terms of maximizing dopamine, finding a better game (or anything else!) might be a better use of your time. .

Image credits:Screenshot from Euro Truck Simulator 2, dod5, Meltdown Paris Compétition League of Legends