That does not like candy Crush? Well, me, since I’ve never played it—but I was a fan of Bejeweled at the time, i spent an hour every night playing Mah Jong tiles and currently, escape room puzzle games. My sister publishes her Wordle scores. My brother spends hours in Sim City 2000. Oh, time sucks extraordinary, why do we love you so?
Because their creators want us to.
In my new book Red flags, a kidnapping takes place against the backdrop of a controversial Senate vote on video game regulations. I chose this subject, more or less, on a whim. Personal note: next time, use a subject that is not sprawling, amorphous and ever-changing.
But learn How? ‘Or’ What these games let you play until your report is overdue and you should have been in bed an hour ago – well, that was more of a revelation than Death Wish Coffee.
Some incentives haven’t changed since you kept a stash of coins in your pocket to play Asteroids in an arcade, and generally revolve around the ego. The challenge of a high score – it could be your initials up there. Multiplayer games – you can beat that kid in Japan you never met, or the guy in the office who works at Records. Flattery never fails. This is why we win in games at a much higher (i.e. unrealistic) rate than in real life. Designers know how to give players a reason to believe they are above average.
For those with a less megalomaniacal bent, it’s cool to make a new friend in Japan or discover a new world – something that has driven humans for centuries and is no different when the world doesn’t exist. not really.
But today’s games have been honed by the maker’s team of behavioral psychologists and extensive experimentation, designed to draw attention (and wallet) deeper and more effectively.
How? Three main routes.
One: Skinner’s Box. BF Skinner’s rat learned to press a lever to get food. Action leads to rewards, and rewards are fun. They are the most important factor in the game and require an intense amount of design to strike a delicate balance between exactly when to reward x amount of effort with y amount of reward. Too many rewards and your brain gets bored. Too difficult, frustration sets in and you decide to play something else. The timing is careful; new levels and virtual possessions come fast and furious when you start playing, to set the hook, but then it takes longer and longer games to get to the next chapter. Rewards should be less predictable (called variable reinforcement ratio); unexpected rewards are highly motivating, but only up to a point, so some rewards are fixed and others variable to get the most out of both techniques. Random rewards may seem counterproductive, but it’s actually the most effective way to keep playing. However, the randomness must be carefully skewed in favor of the player, otherwise it will feel like the game is cheating. (As mentioned above, we often win unrealistically.)
All these manipulations must be cleverly hidden so that the players feel like they have control over their choices in the game. This is illusory – the game progresses pretty much the same no matter what choices you make, because actual control isn’t important. It’s the illusion of control which is important. Think about Tetris. You don’t really have influence over what drops from the top, but making the connections feels good.
Two: More things. Today’s games have props: daily quests, objectives, avatar props, dances, and gestures. If not given away for free, they are available for purchase. Players can buy weapons, coins, extra lives, better health, “skins” and outfits – you might be fashionable in the real world, but online you can dress like a rock star. This not only makes money, but contributes to the overall goal of making you want to keep playing.
the more time and money a player invests in a character, the more likely they are to stick with the game.
And when I say “money,” I’m not talking about the virtual kind. Games are often free, so developers rely on in-app purchases to rack up the profits. Additional moves in Candy Crush Saga will set you back just ninety-nine cents – a brilliant price, by the way. Not even a dollar, you say to yourself. But these tiny, constant, countless microtransactions have accumulated almost two hundred billion annual revenue for video games.
You do not have have to open your wallet, of course. You can earn virtual coins, slowly, by playing the game a lot or by watching ads for other games. Either is a win from the designer’s point of view.
I wouldn’t pay real money for these weapons, parts and skins, you think. It’s not real. But what is still real? There’s a reason so many games use coins or gems as rewards, because what’s valuable in real life seems just as valuable even in a virtual world. Games have scores, new levels reward you with jewels, my escape puzzles include a hidden piece in every room. Accumulating them means nothing, earns nothing, but even a meaningless number, as long as it continues to increase, tricks players into equating these items with real value.
Three: double. Once a player gets used to shelling out real money for a virtual world, upgrades such as loot boxes are added. This is a virtual box with a mysterious virtual item, available for purchase with longer play or very non-virtual money. One might as well drop in front of a slot machine – and children and teenagers, who have not yet reached a legal level of maturity, can get into debt as easily as any adult. A high school student with a part-time job and no car has racked up nearly fourteen thousand dollars in tiny in-app purchases. The 8-year-old son of actor Jack Black spent three thousand dollars the same way. A 45-year-old man has pleaded guilty to embezzling $4.8 million from his employer and spending $1 million on War game. Several countries like Japan, China, Belgium and the Netherlands have enacted laws to restrict or ban loot boxes.
These three structural strands and other techniques are all part of the “addiction algorithm,” used to calculate timing, spacing, and game perception. It’s the same type of cybermagic that allows Facebook to know which posts to place at the top of your feed or why Amazon thinks you’ll prefer mint toothpaste over orange.
So we are led. But is it something new? Is this manufactured addiction an evil empire or just good business sense? Of Classes everything online is designed to keep you online – what’s the difference between getting a magic coin when you level up in Bejeweled or Facebook showing the News Feed and Twitter showing current trends so you keep scrolling and scrolling. Or offline, like when TV channels have a million commercial breaks, but not between the end of one show and the start of another, don’t change channels! Where does manipulation cross the line between expected and criminal?
So…it’s the end of a long day. A little of clash of clans will relax you and get you ready for bed, you think. Just fifteen minutes. But an hour later, will you still be flipping through your phone?
Of course you will.