Video games have been taking lessons from psychology for quite some time; heavily-stimulating with quick rewards, they've been providing gamers' brains with bursts of dopamine since they first graced the primitive displays of yesteryear's mammoth computers. Ever since, the anxious parents of the world have been wondering what on Earth all of this overstimulation will do to the children - as though that were even remotely important compared to the steady stream of anxiety-inducing, self-esteem crushing stupidness from the adult world (you know, like resource wars, body shame, homophobia, classism, and so on). Meanwhile,
saner other people spend more time wondering why oh why they spent so much time playing Angry Birds.
Well, game designer and psychologist Ariella Lehrer lays bare in interview with ABC what should already be apparent to students of psychology: Casual game designers are using the same operant conditioning techniques that casinos use to hook players.
Operant conditioning is one of the most fundamental mechanisms of learning; it describes how rewards and punishments can be used to shape animal behaviour. Give someone a treat for pressing a button, and they'll keep pressing the button; this is called "conditioning." Stop giving them the treat, and after a while they'll stop pushing the button; this is called "extinction." What Lehrer argues that casual game makers (herself included) are doing to hook gamers is using a different reward schedule, intermittent positive reinforcement. In this system, the reward for performing a behaviour is only sometimes reinforced, exactly like slot machines in a casino. Knowing that they might win, the player pushes the button more and more, and occasional wins entrench this behaviour.
One of the most worrisome aspects of intermittent positive reinforcement, especially in regards to gambling and compulsive behaviour, is that extinction is harder to induce than with any other form of reinforcement (except for extremely deeply-ingrained conditioning paradigms oriented around survival, such as taste aversion). This helps explain the "just one more try" effect many games, especially clever casual and puzzle games, instil in their players.
While it's not surprising that games are using this technique to hook players and keep them that way, what is illuminating is that at least one designer is admitting that they are purposely doing it to snare people within the first twenty minutes of play.