Good video games are an art form, challenging you, telling you a story, putting you in control of whole worlds and, like a good book or good TV series, presenting compelling reasons for you to stay engaged. With mobile gaming on the rise and revenue models shifting towards “freemium,” though, it’s becoming increasingly important not just to get someone’s attention, but to keep it.
In the format of a “Soviet Russia” joke, it’s becoming increasingly accurate to say that the game is playing you. As our attention and interactions continue to be analyzed and monetized, understanding the psychology, neurochemistry, and behavioral science behind our love of video games is becoming increasingly important. The dopamine that we get from video games and the techniques we’ve devised to get that dopamine lie at the root of both good and addictive game design.
Dopamine hits and compulsion loops
Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in our brain that helps regulate our pleasure and reward centers, is behind a lot of what we do. Mostly, it rewards us for good behavior – food, exercise, positive social interactions, and other enjoyable activities will earn you a dopamine release that encourages you to keep up the good work.
However, this system can be “hacked,” and we do so on a regular basis with delicious food (your health mileage may vary), drugs (including alcohol), and yes, video games. Completing a task and getting an in-game reward triggers a real chemical reward in our brains, and games often encourage you to ride that wave of good feelings and move on to the next task (where there’s also a reward!).
These cycles are called “compulsion loops,” and if you’ve ever played a game, you’ve probably experienced one. Here’s how they typically work:
- The player gets a task to complete and the promise of a reward at the end (motivation)
- The player is given a clear pathway to completing the task (an achievable challenge)
- The player completes the task and gets the reward (dopamine hit!)
- The player gets another task, formula repeats
This is basically why we enjoy playing games: we complete quests, kill monsters, open loot boxes, and do repetitive tasks with minor variations in mechanics and settings because the games are built in such a way that we’re never too far from the next neurochemical party. This isn’t inherently bad – levelling up, exploring new worlds, experimenting with 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 concentrated form of what we experience in real life. Whether you’re getting a promotion at work, upgrading your smartphone, or making new friends, your brain is giving you positive feedback and telling you to keep up the good work. What makes gaming potentially problematic, though, is when you don’t have a clear exit out of the compulsion loop cycle. Does Angry Birds ever really end?
Self-Determination Theory/Cognitive Evaluation Theory
So why do games stimulate dopamine release? They’re not really important for our survival, but it turns out that they do fulfill some basic human needs, specifically: “competence,” “autonomy,” and “relatedness,” according to researchers Andrew Przybylski, Richard Ryan, and Scott Rigby.” Put simply, people play video games because they make us feel like we are good at something, we are in control, and we are connected to people.
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 fly spaceships, manage cities, or destroy demon hordes in your day job, but games are specifically designed to challenge your ability, give direct feedback, and present plenty of opportunities for practice, so you really can get good at the in-game tasks.
By timing the challenges and rewards well, a game can give you a pleasant feeling of competence and continuous improvement, which can, in turn, be pretty much perpetual – you can always improve at something in the game.
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 partially because it’s something you can feel good at (competence), but even more so because they grant you autonomy. No boss, no threats of failure, just you, creating your own reality.
That’s why many modern games provide at least some kind of open world, where you can move around, explore, and dictate your own pace and path. Farmville lets you build and manage your own farm – you can do whatever you want with it, and since you can do it forever, that rush you get from being the master of your fate and the captain of your corn never really has to end.
Being part of a team and working well with others is a fantastic way to get your dopamine flowing, and as a side benefit to game developers, having other people depending on you makes it more likely that you’ll consistently show up to play the game. Games can actually be a great way to form friendships and strengthen social bonds, but developers can also leverage relatedness (play with your friends! Invite your friends! Compete for high scores with your friends!) to maintain our interest.
Other behavioral tricks that keep us playing
- The Near-Miss Effect: The illusion that because you were close this time, you have a higher chance of winning next time. This phenomenon is commonly found in gambling, when a random event, like a blackjack hand or roulette spin, puts you close to winning. Games don’t want you to give up, so they generally give near-misses rather than catastrophic failures.
- Variable rate reinforcement: Another gambling concept that has made it to video games is that our brains actually respond more strongly to uncertain rewards than to certain ones. A certain reward of five gold at the end of a level is way less exciting to us than a random chance at getting anywhere from one to ten gold. That’s the principle behind loot boxes as well: as long as we’re rewarded with something good on a fairly regular basis, we’ll keep buying them because that pattern of behavior typically gets rewarded.
- Relative deprivation/aspiration: Feeling like you don’t have as much as other people is a downer, but it’s also a motivator since it gives you something to work towards. If you see someone else in Minecraft with a huge amazing house and a lot of cool equipment, you know exactly what it is you want, and you’ll keep playing to get it.
- Loss aversion: Obvious fact: humans like to win and hate to lose. But a game with no stakes generally isn’t much fun – we thrive on achievable challenges. According to research by behavioral economist Richard Thaler, humans prefer a pattern of large rewards all at once, but small losses spread out over time, even if the amounts are the same in the end. If you want to keep someone playing a game, you have to make sure that their brain is happy with the way the rewards are being distributed. Every rage-quit is another lost player.
This is your brain on video games
We binge on a lot of things in the modern world – TV shows, video games, food, alcohol, social media, and all the other menu items available at our modern-day dopamine buffet. It’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 up the feast are highly incentivized to keep you at their table.
As mobile games and in-game payment models become the new norm in video gaming, we may be in for a whole new generation of carefully-tailored compulsion loops that most people will find hard to resist. Who likes saying no to some free dopamine? There may be no way to stop that train from leaving the station, but as game consumers, if you find a game using compulsion loops without a satisfying end in sight, the game may be taking more from you in terms of time than you are getting back in terms of enjoyment.
The brain also loves novelty, new experiences, and art, after all, so if you’re looking at it in terms of maximizing dopamine, finding a better game (or something else entirely!) might be a better use of your time.