According to TechJury, there are a staggering 2.2 billion active mobile gamers in the world today. That’s approximately five times the population of North America furiously swiping at their smartphone screens in an attempt to beat their previous high scores and topple leaderboards.
With this in mind, it’s no surprise to see just how dominant the mobile gaming industry has become, far surpassing the popularity of both console and PC games over the past few years. In fact, mobile gaming is estimated to account for 59% of total gaming revenue worldwide, and it’s not showing signs of slowing down any time soon.
With games such as Pokémon Go, Clash of Clans, and Candy Crush Saga becoming household names, it begs the question as to what is the driving force behind their global success. Well, as it turns out, many of the most successful titles that you will find on the mobile game ranking chart all have one thing in common: they have likely been designed to addict their users.
Interestingly, over the past few years, a growing body of research has highlighted the negative implications of addictive mobile video games, with one recent study finding them to be positively associated with social anxiety, depression, and loneliness. With this in mind, it’s important to draw awareness to these issues, so people have the opportunity to further educate themselves and understand the dangers of excessive mobile gaming.
On that note, let’s take a deeper dive into what makes mobile games so addictive and keeps players continually coming back for more.
While it can be challenging to give a concise definition of addiction, most experts and medical professionals tend to be in agreement that it is a strong urge or sense of need to regularly engage in an activity that you know is harmful to you. In other words, it is the inability to stop indulging in a habit despite the fact that it is bad for one’s mental and/or physical health.
With mobile games, the addiction has a lot to do with dopamine, a neurochemical that is tied to learning, exploring, seeking out novelty, and feelings of being rewarded. The vast majority of mobile games are carefully engineered to stimulate the dopamine system.
Research published in the scientific magazine Nature found that playing video games releases a quantity of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, comparable to that found after intravenous injection of the stimulant medications amphetamine or methylphenidate.
Simply put, games are designed to addict users by focusing on specific pathways in the brain that cause a rush of pleasure hormones to be released, making it extremely difficult for players to quit. With all of that said, here are some of the most common design elements that developers use to make their mobile games addictive and so hard to put down.
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First off, the vast majority of mobile games start off exceedingly easy to play, and this is certainly true of all the top gaming apps. As the player sails through the first few levels, there is ample opportunity for their dopamine system to become stimulated as they are rewarded for their success, which ensures people get a quick burst of the pleasure hormone right out of the gate.
This gives the player a sense of great accomplishment, making them want to carry on playing to achieve the same feeling.
At the same time, users are congratulated and given positive feedback every time they complete a level or a simple action. For example, Candy Crush Saga, which is currently ranked as the number one game on the top charts, is renowned for the heavy praise it lavishes on its players. After successfully clearing a level, a narrator gives positive encouragement, such as “Delicious,” “Devine!,” “You’re Awesome!”
As players get more comfortable with the game mechanics, the difficulty increases. As the difficulty increases, two things happen. First, the ego gets involved, and players start feeling a sense of pride for completing the most difficult levels. Secondly, studies have shown that dopamine stimulation is highest among those who were the best at the games and faced the most challenging levels – primarily due to an increased feeling of achievement since the difficulty is much higher. Thus, the better at the game you become, the more susceptible you are to becoming addicted.
Mobile games incorporate engaging colors and sounds that create a classical conditioning loop that increases the dopamine rewards push.
Just like you would see a barrage of flashing neon lights when you walk into any Las Vegas casino, mobile games are engineered to appeal to some of our most primal senses. We are innately wired to be attracted and alerted to bright colors and hypnotic sounds, which app developers are acutely aware of.
Dr. Lisa Strohman, a clinical psychologist, author, and founder of the Digital Citizen Academy used nature as an analogy for this, saying that we should “think of the red underbelly of a black widow spider,” referencing the concept of warning coloration in the animal world. “Bright colors are dangerous but satiate the brain in certain ways.”
When you throw in rapidly shifting visual environments with stimulating sound effects, it’s easy to see why people find it hard to put mobile games down.
If you’ve ever played a mobile game, you will likely have come across some variation of “appointment mechanics,” which is a tactic that developers use to keep gamers coming back at a predetermined time, in order to reinforce the habit of playing.
For example, in Clash of Clans, which is currently ranked ninth on the top charts, players are periodically prompted to come back to the game to attend to a specific set of tasks. Users are continually bombarded with push notifications to return to the game in order to collect resources, train their army, and battle against other players, and if they oblige, they are given a reward.
Another variation of appointment mechanics in mobile gaming is the daily rewards that players are given to maintain a streak of logging in each day. If you miss a day, you lose the streak, which means that players would have to start again from day zero, and this incentivizes players to keep coming back.
Even meditation apps such as Headspace and Calm even resort to the exact same tactics, but in those cases, people turn to the apps with the express objective of establishing healthy habits.
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While many games are skill-based, almost every game has a significant element of luck, which is central to its addictive qualities.
Popular titles such as Candy Crush and Angry Birds both have a huge luck factor involved, which gives players a false sense of control. In reality, whether you win or lose may still be determined only by the game’s configuration, which is similar to a slot machine in a casino.
Steve Sharman, a Ph.D. student in psychology at the University of Cambridge who studies gambling addiction, argues that the feeling of being in control of a game is crucial to its addictive nature, which is why it is especially prevalent in the casino industry.
“The illusion of control is a crucial element in the maintenance of gambling addiction… (as it) instills a feeling of skill or control,” he says. “There are a number of in-game features that allow players to believe they are affecting the outcome of the game, and in some cases they are, but those instances are rare.”
Last but not least, it’s important that we finish with a mention of the psychology behind freemium games and the impact they have on the current state of the mobile gaming industry.
According to Statista, 54% of app developers opt for a freemium business model, which means that the games are offered to players free of charge. This enables anybody with a smartphone and an internet connection to download the game and begin playing.
Of course, as soon as this happens, the players become exposed to the addictive aspects of the mobile gaming experience, which immediately draws them in and keeps them coming back for more. Once the players are hooked, the game is carefully designed to encourage players to make in-app purchases in order to improve the gaming experience.
For example, app developers purposely create obstacles or annoying features in the game that create a level of discomfort for the players. Then, they sell them tools to reduce that discomfort. This is a simple yet effective marketing ploy that has been responsible for creating billions of dollars of revenue over the past decade for mobile game developers – and it’s clear to see how addiction is pivotal to this strategy.
The more that players are compelled to return to the game, the more likely they will be to make an in-app purchase. In some cases, mobile games even offer users a chance to pay to reinstate their daily log-in streaks after losing them, pay to boost the speed at which they can progress through levels, and purchase in-game power-ups that increase the likelihood of winning and receiving that ever gratifying hit of dopamine.
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Mobile gaming seems to be only growing in popularity, and at the same time, people are spending more and more hours with their smartphones, starting to do so at younger and younger ages. While it’s certainly understandable that amid so much competition, app developers would want to use every tactic they can to maximize product stickiness, finding ways to do so that don’t exploit people is the challenge of the day.