What Makes Games So Addictive: the Psychology Behind Gaming
How do games win our hearts — and our pockets? We have all been stuck playing for hours without noticing the time passing by — but what makes games so addictive? In this article, we’ll explain the psychological mechanisms that games trigger to give us pleasure — and generate $140 bln in revenues for the industry.
In fact, games put us in construct realities the main purpose of which is to give us pleasure and make us want to return for more. And the only way game creators can achieve that is by leveraging the same pleasure mechanisms that the “real” reality has developed in us throughout the evolution. Hence, if we want to understand the game’s trick, we should look for the answer in human nature and the very basic mechanisms that navigate us in our everyday lives. Also, these mechanisms coupled with the F2P monetization model explain how our platform will enable much easier access to what makes games so enjoyable and help bring the entire gameplay experience to a new level.
What mechanisms navigate us in our lives?
Our inner systems got pretty smart after thousands of years of evolution and constant self-adjustment. Our brains have worked out an effective method of making us stick to the “right” path by incentivizing our “good” behavior and discouraging the “bad” one. However, the “right” path is not so easy to determine. While the minimum condition for it to be “right” is that it should ensure our survival at any given moment, our system grew smarter and more sophisticated than that. Over time, we’ve developed many side needs that might not directly contribute to our survival here and now but, from our brain’s perspective, are increasing the likelihood of our survival in the future.
What types of behavior does our brain encourage and discourage?
A good way to classify these needs and the complex behaviors we build on their basis is through Maslow’s pyramid. It suggests a hierarchical order in which we fulfill our needs and also assumes that until we fulfill the lowest needs, we don’t care much about those above. It also divides these needs into two groups: deficiency needs which are directly connected to our survival and growth needs which have to do more with our psychology and strategies for living our lives to the fullest.
Each of these needs prescribes tons of activities that our brain would eventually classify as contributing to or impeding our survival, either in the short or in the long term. But while the deficiency needs suggest a clear-cut “good” behavior as a response — e.g. you’re hungry so you should eat — the ”good” behavior driven by the growth needs is much harder to define.
Say, you’re hungry and instead of eating at McDonald’s you go to a Michelin star restaurant. While both options cover the lowest physiological needs, for some of us, such behavior would also address the esteem needs and make us feel twice as good. However, that depends on our cultural background and values: some might consider that as an inappropriate indulgence or simply something not contributing to their social status. In this case, the esteem needs won’t be met.
This example depicts that the growth needs’ fulfillment is a very subjective matter. The determining factor of whether such needs will get fulfilled by a given activity is whether the person believes that activity is the right thing to fulfill them. And this, in turn, is dictated by his culture and personal experiences rather than his physiology.
But how does our brain ensure that we do the “good” thing — whatever that thing is — and steer clear of destructive behaviors?
How does our brain incentivize us to stick to the right behavior?
Our brain deploys a carrot and stick method to ensure we behave “good”. It rewards us by releasing chemicals like dopamine that make us feel good when we’ve done a “good” thing and punishes us with pain — physical or mental — when we’ve done something wrong.
However, in order to fulfill a need in real life — e.g. the social need — you have to partake in a lot of activities and overcome a range of difficulties. Say, if you want to build a relationship, you need to go meet people somewhere, work on your own appearance and behavior, on times combat your shyness, etc. And in the end, after investing a lot of energy and time, you will reach the result and be rewarded by a portion of dopamine which creates this great feeling of achievement and satisfaction.
So in the end, real life looks pretty balanced if we compare what it takes to fulfill our needs with the emotional reward we receive for it. In games, on the other hand, that’s not exactly how it works and that’s where their magic hides.
How do games leverage these mechanisms and become so addictive?
Our brain does not really set apart the “real” and the in-game reality and applies the same reward mechanism to both. The main difference here is that unlike real life, in-game realities often manage to get us a reward without making us go through that many hardships. As a result, they juice up our satisfaction while cutting corners on the time and effort it takes to bring us there. And as our brain is trained to search for ways to minimize your energy inputs while securing good results, this makes up for a perfectly addictive combination. And then game creators just pack this cocktail in incredible graphics and an immersive storyline and here you go!
In fact, any game can address our self-actualization needs by offering us to solve a quest. However, some complex games like MMORPGs can apply to the whole spectrum of our growth needs. They would address our social needs by letting us chat with other gamers inside the game, create friendships and coalitions, and ultimately be part of something bigger than us. They’d also let us meet our esteem needs by enabling us to acquire certain status and show off ourselves in the in-game society. The more needs are involved — the richer and the more satisfactory the game experience.
However, game creators still need to decide exactly by which means gamers will fulfill those needs inside the game. And as they choose those, they have to incorporate them into a bigger picture of their game monetization model. That’s why with F2P becoming a ubiquitous way to monetize games, game producers tend to make purchases of ingame items inherent to the gameplay and the pleasure that derives from it. And this is also why FiPME is poised for success in this new gaming paradigm: it provides the access to what gamers essentially play for and to where their satisfaction comes from — the ingame goods.
How exactly do in-game items contribute to that pleasure and how do they address gamers’ needs? Read about it in our next article!