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The Greatest Magic Trick

Once upon a time we all thought how charming it was when games had that elusive ‘addictive’ quality which delighted players. But now the term addiction has become an accusation labeled at apparently unscrupulous FreeToPlay designers who are leveraging the psychology of Operant Conditioning to allegedly extort money from players.

Games that delight us often have the magical effect of become habit forming but how as designers can we judge the balance between a game as a social good and the manipulation of an audience.

I’m not a psychologist!! I’m a marketer who has been closely involved with running games services for the last over 16 years. That being said I’m first and foremost a games fan. That means I put the enjoyment of games first but I am also deeply interested in both the application of psychology for both playing and paying. I’ve read a lot round the subject but have also have had some fantastic help from Cyberpsychologist Berni Good (but please note that any mistakes here are my own!). I gave a webinar on this topic recently, and, if you want to hear more, you’ll find a link to a recording of the session at the bottom of the page.

Design is a seductive art which is about enticing players in to your world and making them feel safe and special. This is about creating anticipation and desire for more. Key to seduction is our ability to correctly set expectations. Just as using a fake photo on an internet dating site (I’m too old/married to know personally) can damage the first date; giving misinformation to players is a fast way to get deleted. Similarly a lack of attention to the needs of new players (such as a sucky tutorial) will be an instant put off… just like abandoning your potential new partner to go talk to someone else on your first date.

But if we want our relationships to last we can’t take out players (or partners) for granted. We have to sustain that interest over the long term. We want, no NEED, our games to become habitual don’t we?

Games have always been compelling 

Games allow us to demonstrate our own competence, be faced with genuine (albeit constrained) challenges and to escape (ideally) within a social context. These qualities are alluring and done right create something which has an intrinsic reward. That matters when we think about habit forming. BJ Fogg talks about habit forming behaviour as needing motivation, ability and a trigger. Games create compelling experiences, offer challenges which we see as achievable and contain calls to action as well as instant feedback. These seem to have the qualities needed to drive habit-forming behaviour.

The argument has been that a lot of  F2P games have attempted to use habit-forming techniques to create unscrupulous designs, often relying on extrinsic rewards to reinforce player behaviour to encourage spending rather than to deliver better  inherent value for players.

However, is that actually true? And does this mean that there is an inherent flaw specific to F2P design? Game design relies on creating rule systems and patterns which, to a greater or lesser extent, railroad users to perform specific patterns of activity. The best magic trick is when we make a level or player decision feel like it was their own choice; even where it was the only real choice available. Games do this by using audio/visual/gameplay or narrative clues to trigger reaction; usually by providing instant positive feedback when the player behaves the way we want them to.

Arguably that’s a form of manipulation

Assuming you accept that manipulation is an intrinsic part of game design then we have to ask whether manipulation is inherently wrong or whether it just becomes wrong when this involves money. Is it even essentially wrong to encourage/convince people to spend money in a game? Where do we draw the ethical line?

Terms like manipulation don’t help us as their use is too broad and we end up in meaningless discussions about semantics.

Games have often been the target of moral outrage, but I fear that, as an industry, we may be contributing to our own panic, either because of an aversion to the commercialisation of games, or through a lack of focus on delivering entertainment over revenue. It seems to me entirely reasonable that we should be able to make games people are willing to pay for as long as the business model offers value and is based on informed consent.

What is Real Addiction or Conditioning?

The two principle accusations levelled at games seem to me to focus on addiction and the use of Skinner-Box-Style operant conditioning?

Addiction a very serious issue that is harder to define than you might think. However, it shouldn’t be defined as  just a habit gone bad.  According to Harvard Mental Health Letter there needs to be a genuine compulsion which overwhelms the individual’s otherwise rational behaviour. This can be driven by a physiological need where the body has a chemical dependency which causes us to crave the addictive substance. Alternatively, it can be behavioural where an unhealthy pattern of specific and inappropriate activity becomes overwhelming. Both lead to harm to the individual concerned.

Interestingly, behavioural addiction is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders because “…there is insufficient peer-reviewed evidence to establish the diagnostic criteria and course descriptions needed to identify these behaviours as mental disorders.” It has however been described as an area for further study which demonstrates the need for further research and for us to remain cautious about jumping to conclusions either way.

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, describes a series of MRI Scans conducted as part of a legal case against a casino. The scans showed that to pathological gamblers near misses looked like wins. Their brains reacted almost the same way. On the other hand, when non-problem gamblers experienced a near miss, they received a dose of apprehension that triggered a different response, “quit before it gets worse”.

Games, if we are to believe Rafe Koster’s Theory of Fun, use pattern matching to generate stimulus. Over time and given repeated success the pleasure reward diminishes as we become increasingly familiar with the patterns. Eventually we get bored with the game and move on. However as Neurologist Judy Willis described in Psychology Today “The motivation to persevere and pursue greater challenge at the next level is the brain seeking another surge of dopamine — the fuel of intrinsic reinforcement.” That does sound like something we encourage in game design.

Just A Skinner Box

In a series of experiments on Rats and pigeons, BF Skinner found using his eponymous box that an animals behaviour could be affected by adjusting their expected rewards; such as releasing food by pressing a button. By creating an escalating or random variation in the frequency of the release of that food you can even can cause them to press that button compulsively. The topic is too complex to cover in detail here and there are unanswered questions too, however it seems that a schedule of reinforcement (repeated actions with a predictable payout) plus unpredictable timing to that reward can be highly compelling.

Is that what’s happening in games? And is it unique to F2P?

The good news is that playing games a lot may not in itself be problematic for all gamers, whereas with addiction it is always detrimental for the addict (Gentile, 2009;Kuss & Griffiths, 2012): ‘‘Healthy excessive enthusiasms add to life, whereas addictions take away from it’’ (Griffiths & Meredith, 2009,p. 247).

A number of experiments have shown that humans show the same patterns of response that other animals show when exposed to the basic schedules of reinforcement; so Operant Conditioning does seem to work. However, in a game (unlike a Skinner Box), we don’t control all the factors and aren’t the only source of stimulus. In practice it’s rare that any game will have the capacity to exert much direct influence over players; the vast majority of people are just too savvy.

Even if we could really deliver the kind of influence that might affect players’ behaviour, conditioning also seems to require effort if it is to be sustained. There comes a point where that effort becomes greater than the reward. When we vary the rate of stimulus (e.g. the interval or ratio of activity needed to trigger a reward), the investment required to achieve the payoff will eventually exceed its value (eventually leading to the cessation of that behaviour). We learn from experience as an ongoing adaptive process. When conditions change, we learn new behaviours and eliminate old ones. Habits can, of course, be very hard to break – but they can also be very hard to form as (going back to BJ Fogg) they need a sustained Motivation, Action and Trigger.

It seems to me that conditioning in games is plausible; but largely impractical, not least because people are just too savvy.

Is it an Question of Ethics?

Of course being difficult doesn’t mean impossible.  But is there an opportunity? is this even an ethical question at all?

One of the biggest holes in the question of manipulation is that most (mindful) people will quickly notice any obvious attempts at manipulation. Despite this there are of course vulnerable people including children or adults with a susceptibility who might fall into the tricks of less ethical designers. There are systems in place to protect minors, legally and from a platform perspective – however this is not just a question of enforcement.  Our brand is on the line if we sully it with unethical designs which destroy trust and credibility. The anger people feel about being manipulated isn’t just about the individual concerned – they tell everyone they can. That kills any business.

Trust is what helps keep people engaged – not manipulation! It’s not just unethical to seek to form habitual behaviour in games but it is also largely counterproductive.

To be ethical our intent has to be appropriate, reasonable, and clearly communicated. Players need to have informed consent. But, for me, this isn’t just a question of ethics.

Commercially we are better off making better games. Designing game play that factors in engagement is the very best way to ensure a healthy environment that encourages players to come back to your game. Giving feedback at the right time will helps since intrinsic positive reinforcement is massively important in terms of desire to play. That feeling of mastering something and of an escape from our everyday world are more important than mechanical operant conditioning because they leave the player with a feeling that they “…cannot wait to play again”. This taps into the very essence of what it means for people to play games, rather than the work of responding to a schedule of reinforcement.

We have a lot to learn from the underlying principles behind habit forming behaviour especially from people like BJ Fogg and BF Skinner; but the value is in trying to understand players so that we can make them better games; not just to make more money.

Special thanks to Berni Good for her input and advice (any mistakes here are of course my own!)


Oscar Clark is a Consultant and Evangelist for Everyplay, the free SDK from Unity that records and shares your favourite moments of play. Find out more at He is also author of “Games As A Service: How Free To Play Design Can Make Better Games.” Published by Focal Press, it is now available on Amazon as well as Kindle, iBooks and Kobo.

To follow Oscar on Twitter check out @Athanateus  

Watch the Magic of Habit Webinar


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  1. If you are interested in this topic I highly recommend the book “Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini. It gives you a glimpse into the future what will be done to urge players to pay in F2P games ;)

  2. Thanks for all the comments folks. Sorry about the delay coming back – we had Gamescom and Unite conferences back to back and I’ve not had a chance to check back till now.

    @Sinister Mephesto – fair point on this being a wall of text. Sorry I was experimenting with a style to bring more analysis into a piece – and this turned out to be such a big one that I may have over done it. The question of “Why We Make Games” is fascinating too… perhaps something i should write about another time

    @Dean – I think you are right that people ‘burn’ franchises which they see as exploitative but there is little good evidence either way unfortunately. With a F2P game the proportion of players dropping out day 1 is inevitably large so its hard and leaves us with little explaination. Its also difficult to survey those people as often they are just not interested – so we can’t get much in the way of unbiased info sadly. An area for more study.

    @ImaginaryHuman – Whilst I get your point Addiction is a state we can identify – usually through the harm it does to the individual. However, I think my psychologist friend would tell me off if I left you the impression that addiction was a choice. They are “a genuine compulsion which overwhelms the individual’s otherwise rational behaviour”. That doesn’t mean that I think “addictive” gameplay is the same as a genuine compulsion; in fact quite the opposite. Whilst Games addiction exists its seems to my untrained eye that its more likely to be a crutch to wider issues – but remember I am not a psychoogist so my comments are pure speculation.

    @Peter Dwyer I like your question about whether we can avoid creating a schedule of reinforcement when we make games. I don’t think that avoids the necessity for ethics (and I don’t think you are saying that either) but you rightly (IMHO) reinforce the need for transparency.

    @Victoria – thanks but I think we should be careful about claiming that ‘many people are addicted’ what I’m trying to show is that the language we all use (myself included) may not be helping us in this discussion. Many people indulge in their habit of gameplay and gain benefits from that. However, where that overwhelms their otherwise rational behaviour that will be doing them harm and its that harm which is the issue. I’m also trying (perhaps badly) to make the point that we assume too much and that in practice we don’t really have a super-power (or the real conditions needed) to control most people and make them addicted. Where there are compulsions we need to understand if they might come from other deeper issues and the worst we can do is to play short term con tricks which in the end are likely to backfire and damage our brand. Instead I think its better to work with sustainable ongoing business models.

    @Skjorn actually the conclusion does come from some evidence albeit limited. The most successful games appear to have one common factor as they focus on Lifetime Network Value. That’s the combination of viral discovery, social glue and Ad-revenue from non-payers as well as the ongoing revenue for long term payers which adds up each month. Its a common theme that I hear talking to lots of these teams. The belief part (which I have to admit) comes from assuming that the loss of rentention is games is increased by a rejection of brands who use these copy-cat or exploitative measures. I can’t prove that because of the reasons I mentioned earlier but it does seem to be the case at least anecdotally. ITs very rare to see these big companies repeat the level of their first success with their follow-up games and a lot of the copies by other teams which are obviously failing too. So I’m not convinced people are ‘buying it’ but we need more evidence of course! Hopefully I’m right and that will drive developers to innovate and disrupt again. In my opinion there is a general misperception that if we copy successful models that will be less risk; copying always leads to a diminishing return. What we have to do it make the ideas out own instead!
    There is still money in console games, there is still money in mobile… but in both cases its the large sustainable brands like Candy Crush, Clash of Clans, Call of Duty and GTA which command the lions share – brands which also happe to have delivered Lifetime Network Value in their different ways.
    I also kinda agree with you on Flappy Birds. It has something which makes me play it for a while; but quickly the effort is greater than the benefit and I turn away. There is much to be said for becoming a zeitgeist game, but unless you build engagement you can’t realistically survive beyond the initial burst. In my opinion anyway.

    Thanks all

  3. I’m not sure where this conclusion comes from. Belief? :

    “Commercially we are better off making better games.”

    To me it looks like *commercially* it is “better” to make copies of popular games as fast as you can. Looking at you Zynga, King, and basically all the rest of the big mobile app companies. And people are buying it. But how does constant duplication warrant for better games? I don’t know what “better games” means to you; in my mind it’s closely coupled with “innovation”. Yet what makes more money in the end — FEZ or the last Call of Duty title?

    Never mind that, does Flappy Bird provide a healthy environment with positive intrinsic reinforcement in your opinion? I don’t think so. Compulsive addiction and popularity wave are the keywords here. Whether we like it or not.

  4. I didn’t read the whole article yesterday, but I did just now. Always interesting to ponder the activities of the mind and how we interact with what we call games.

    Flappy Bird comes to mind. It became popular quickly because it was so difficult, and yet so simple, and so it seemed that it offered a potential reward that should be very easily within reach, and yet which for reasons entirely my own proved to be difficult to access. Always when you want something but you can’t have it – when there is a separation between your sense of what you can cause and the production of the effects you want, it creates a tension and temptation and pull (and a frustration), which perhaps describes what makes us comepelled to keep trying. Especially in flappy where the obstacles were completely fixed, not even moving, and so the problem was very very easy to comprehend, and yet extremely difficult to actually deal with (in spite of the extremely simple control system), it seemed to really point the finger at my own failings as the reason why I did not find success. Every time I crashed into a pillar it wasn’t because the game did something sudden and unexpected, I had ample time to see what was coming up ahead and to react to it, it’s just that I made an error, and I knew it, and because I made the error I thought I could do the whole process again and do it differently… because I could at least wield control over my own self – my input – in order to achieve success. And so long as I thought that I should be able to succeed based on my own abilities, I felt compelled to prove it. So the challenge was not really the game, but me going head-to-head with my own inadequacies and incapabilities, contrasted against what (in my ego) I believed I was actually capable of. And so I think the game is simply a mirror of what’s happening inside myself. The separation between where I am at and where I want to get to is symbolized in the difference between who I really am (in sanity) and who I think I am (in insanity). And each time I thought I could be who I thought I could be (and failed) it demonstrated my own frustration and my own insistence on being able to be this imaginary self. So the game really was just tapping into the dynamic that already exists in my own mind, and the minds of many people – the struggle of the EGO trying to convince ourselves that we are something we are not, versus the reality of who we really are. Flappy brought that out, and so triggered off people’s own compulsion to match up to their self image and not admit their failure as an ego. Playing the game then is nothing to do with playing the actual game, on the screen, it’s a game that we play with ourselves inside our own mind, and it just so happens that there’s stuff happening on the screen that fairly closely maps to it. This is why I said games do not exist inside computers, they are in our minds. And it’s only when a game can closely match the mental processes that are already occuring, and tune into our existing beliefs and identity struggles, that we get so caught up in them. If a game is all about its own identity, taking itself seriously, being difficult to relate to, or not representing what’s going on inside of us, then we are not interested and regard it as a bad game. We’re all really just playing with ourselves.

  5. Thank you for a very interesting review – many people are fond of games, but some of them are really game-addicted, and it is the same addiction as with gambling and even alcohol! But at the same time there’s a question how to understand when the love for games turns into addiction

  6. Is it possible to create addictive games? Yes.
    The brain will always release endorphins when it receives pleasure. A game (as balanced game) is a series of tasks followed by a reward that brings pleasure. This oddly is exactly the same as any drug. With addicts citing that the act of shooting up/ inhaling the smoke etc. etc. is the trigger point for their rush and not the drug itself (though the drug then causes the actual high that follows). This was tested by various studies and showed that the brain would start to release the endorphins at the trigger point, even before the addict was in fact high from the actual drug.
    If the correct balance of task to reward is achieved in a game, then the player will to some extent become addicted to playing it. Luckily, like all drugs, the brain develops a level of tolerance to the repetition of the task and so, over time, the game becomes less interesting to the player as they no longer get the same buzz from playing it. They have in effect learned all they can from the game and the brain simply starts to crave new stimuli.
    With MMOs like Warcraft the designers usually use this coming down point to introduce new content and “hook” the player again. With a game like Candy Crush, the designers simply introduce a new area to the map with new challenges and new rewards in the form of sweet effects or obstacles to overcome. In halo it’s the introduction of new maps and modes.
    Do we have an ethical responsibility to make our games non-addictive. Well I’m not sure that we could do that even if we wanted to. There will always be someone who’s pleasure centers are triggered by our game, whether that is one person or thousands. The best we can do is emulate what Nintendo tend to do i.e. pop up a message asking the player to consider resting or taking a break if they have been playing for too long. Thus breaking the emersion and “snapping them out of their zone”. Ultimately though, as long as we have warned the players as best we can, the choice must be theirs.

  7. Games do not exist in binary bits or inside computers or even in the world. They exist in our minds. We play along with them and map our perception to the one offered. We always have a choice in this, but most choose unconsciousness. What is addiction then but a choice. And what calls for guilt of any kind when everything is your own choice?

  8. I personally started the long and indefinitely complicated task of making my own game because I got bored of hack game designer tactics and the promise of something more than you can ever actually see happen within a marketed game. I think you invest of your self and your imagination when you play a game and want to immerse yourself into another dimension, so if after 200 hours of playing in multiple roles and extreme choices on an rpg and exactly the same outcome pursues with no dynamics or relevant reward, or you cant get past a certain part of a level because its scripted within the game that the controls wont respond as fast as you are controlling them in a high speed pursuit racer, there comes a point where you wont invest in the companies franchise any more. I’m an example of this, why would I buy a into a product that irritates me because the company only wants me to be distracted long enough until the next version comes out with hollow promises. I wont mention names but there has been a few huge companies that wont ever get there £40 every few months out of me again. I think for every one person you can manipulate there are ten who will go else where to play a game with integrity.

  9. Sinister Mephisto

    August 14, 2014 at 3:37 am

    There was not one picture/graph (outside the opening) just a long wall of text. :(.
    Sometimes I wonder why make games. I have never come up with a good enough answer. I think the process itself is cathartic. I have yet to ship a game that I had actual influence in its making so the players don’t really look human to me and I get paid regardless. I wonder if I would feel that guilt when I ship mine because for now I make the game I want to play. It you get addicted by it I would be far too detached to notice.