What is this addictive game structure called?
July 29, 2007 10:23 AM   Subscribe

There's a certain fiendishly addictive structure in video (and other) games, and I'd like to know if anyone has named it or researched it.

I'm not much of a gamer, but I have stayed up some very late nights playing Civilization and (wayy back) X-Com: UFO. There's a very basic structure to those (and many other) games, one I'd like to research and especially try to apply to the classroom. But I don't have a simple term for that structure, and I wonder if anyone knows one.

I'll try to describe the form: By taking on challenges, you gain new skills, technologies and opportunities to build; which in turn expand your ability to take on novel challenges; which get you new skills, technologies and opportunities to build; which let you take on novel challenges which ... and so on ad infinitum.

(The Tech Tree for Civilization IV might give a notion of the branching-upward structure. Each new technology makes you better able to move towards the next, which makes you better able to move towards the next...)

It's probably a basic cycle in many games (Dungeons and Dragons, perhaps Settlers of Catan). Most of these games are turn-based -- but just calling them turn-based doesn't capture that loop of attainment-leading to challenge-leading to attainment (getting that next thing that will help you fight to get that next-next thing) that makes these games so addictive.

I'd love to put that mechanism to use in the classroom, but I don't know if A) anyone has invented a generally accepted term for it; and B) if it has been researched or modeled in idealized form. Any help is most welcome. (Brainstorming what it ought to be called -- feh. I can do that.)
posted by argybarg to Grab Bag (23 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:30 AM on July 29, 2007

(Disclaimer: I work in the game industry, but production not design)

This is very bedrock Design 101 stuff, and really it's all based off of a Skinner Box. Play WOW for a couple hours, you get a carrot in the form of a new spell, an upgraded spell, a new piece of equipment, etc.

It's really straightforward conditioning, and it works well. Toss in a social element (personal narrative and drama) to keep people distracted from the nature of the system (special sequences and events contribute to this while doubling as a different type of carrot) if they're going to be playing for an exceptionally long time.

Games in general are pretty addictive more as a byproduct of the need to 'ramp up' players than anything else. MMOs however are directly designed to be as addictive as possible with an eye towards long-term viability. Many companies producing the latter heavily research the psychology of addiction and intentionally exploit it in an effort to retain players. This is why most MMOs follow a social/adventure model (EQ, DAOC, WOW), rather than an open-ended simulation model (old-school Ultima Online).
posted by Ryvar at 10:37 AM on July 29, 2007 [3 favorites]

I think the general psychological term is reinforcement: simple positive reinforcement rewards achievement. By keeping the reward (here's a new spell, bigger sword, etc) small (there's alway another challenge ahead), it prevents the player from becoming bored. For real addiction, partial negative reinforcement is the way to go: the player usually loses, but wins just often enough to want to stay in the game. It's the principal draw of gambling.

That said, my experience with RPGs is that advancement is largely illusion. Sure, now you've got more hit points and a bigger sword, but now the monsters are bigger as well. I'm not sure that this is true in the classroom; some subjects really do get harder faster than the students can "level up."
posted by SPrintF at 10:38 AM on July 29, 2007

I've heard that referred to by Bill Harris at Dubious Quality as "variation within repetition". You do something often enough to get good at it, but the game keeps changing the rules a little so you have to keep adapting. Using a skill you already have is fun, at least if you haven't done it too much yet. Adapting to new challenges is also fun, and keeps the underlying skill exercise fun as well.

Another observation I'd have is that these really addictive games maintain a low level of tension and never ever relent; you come up with a new strategy or research a new tech and and can deal with the problem that's been bothering you, but that leads to a new problem, so the tension is maintained and your attention doesn't wander. It's low-key enough that you CAN put it down if you need to, but there's enough tension that you don't WANT to.

If there's been much serious academic research in this area, I don't think it's trickled into the gaming mass media yet. This technique may not have an official name yet.
posted by Malor at 10:43 AM on July 29, 2007

See, I think it's that last paragraph that makes the difference. The idea of positive reinforcement covers a lot, but this is a specific example of it. It's not just a pigeon pressing a button for a bit of food, it's a pigeon pressing a button to get larger amounts of increasingly tasty food.

Or, to be more precise, it's like a pigeon pressing a button to get food that gives it strength to press a larger button that gives it more food that gives it strength to press a still larger button to get still more food and so forth.

I might just call it "the level grind," although it exists in situations that don't explicitly have levels. It arguably exists in the real world as well, such as getting a job that gives you the skills and experience to get a better job that gives you the skills and experience to get a better job &c.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 10:45 AM on July 29, 2007

I agree -- Civilization doesn't just give you a happy face or a sugar cube every 10 minutes. It gives you something that makes you able to get novel things which let you get novel things, and so on ad infinitum.
posted by argybarg at 10:48 AM on July 29, 2007

i don't think you need a specific example or analogy of positive reinforcement to name it as the structure of games. moreover, i don't really believe that the way games are written, in terms of motivation to the player, is altogether different from the way that books and movies are written, either.

i think that what makes games stand out from other media is not this structure, but rather the interaction between the player and game. the interplay between interaction and positive reinforcement -- in a sense, you are in control of your own rewards! -- is another layer of difference. but the interaction is essential.
posted by moz at 10:53 AM on July 29, 2007

L. Fitzgerald's post made me go back and reread the question to see if I missed something, and I did.

As far as I know, the phenomenon you describe isn't based off a formal psychological principle. It was a necessary consequence of increasingly complex game design that systems be introduced sequentially once the player mastered the basics. That this happens to result in a sort exponential feedback was at least originally a consequence of complexity rather than a goal in and of itself, although I do know that it now serves as both.

X-Com: UFO, btw, is a good example of a game that is extremely complex yet came out early enough within the timeline of video games in general that the endgame breaks down almost completely (psionics + blaster bombs, in this case). A lot of games from that period simply do not scale all the way to their end, which is attributable both to the relatively new nature of complex open-ended game design, and lacking QA budgets during that period.
posted by Ryvar at 10:56 AM on July 29, 2007

I think this article on game mechanics at Lost Garden is what you're looking for. He doesn't have a fancy name for it, he just calls it a feedback loop: it's not action, reward, repeat; it's action, new information, skill increase, repeat. He also talks about why it eventually leads to burnout. The site in general is really fantastic. I'd recommend looking through the other articles, too.
posted by Sibrax at 11:02 AM on July 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Any pedagogical scheme in which students can gain practical rewards for abstract learning works this way, and it need not be as behavioristic as some of the "reinforcement" language here is suggesting. The key to applying this in the classroom is to develop practical applications of key ideas -- useful ones that students like. Very simple. And the basic technique of almost any good teacher.
posted by spitbull at 11:09 AM on July 29, 2007

In other words, teachers were doing this before there were computer games. Operant conditioning is as old as culture.
posted by spitbull at 11:10 AM on July 29, 2007

"It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair....It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape...."

It's been suggested that this is "flow." Merlin Mann has a nice round-up of the concept and its originator, Csikszentmihalyi. It's fascinating stuff and Csikszentmihalyi has spent a lot of time trying to apply these concepts to the business world as well. This Fast Company article provides some more insights into his work.
posted by ajr at 11:47 AM on July 29, 2007

You might take a look at books by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He has spent his life writing about the concept of flow:
Flow occurs in an existential middle ground. We experience it when a balance is achieved between abilities and responsibilities, when the skills we possess are roughly commensurate with the challenges we face, when our talents are neither underused nor overtaxed. Flow emerges in circumstances that are perceived as both problematic and soluble.

from Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness Edited by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Isabella Selega Csikszentmihalyi
In particular, you should check out Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. In particular, Finding Flow has many suggestions for structuring your everyday life so you’re more likely to experience feelings of flow. You should be able to incorporate these ideas in your classroom.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 11:50 AM on July 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

For the record, I don't see this in Settlers Of Catan, but if you're interested in seeing it implemented in an excellent board game, try Power Grid. The power plants at the beginning of the game are limited, inefficient, and expensive to run. As the game goes on, new power plants become available, and though these are more powerful and more efficient, your needs are greater, too.

Power Grid is currently number 3 on the Board Game Geek rankings. Number 1, Puerto Rico, has a bit of this quality as well--as the game goes on, you have more money with which to buy buildings with more powerful abilities--but the phenomenom you've described is really evident in Power Grid. (Plus it's super-fun...I don't know what grade you teach, but it's suitable for your typical seventh or eighth-grader.)

If you're interested in other board games that use the same mechanic, post a question on the Board Game Geek forums...by tomorrow afternoon you'll have hundreds of examples.
posted by Ian A.T. at 12:07 PM on July 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Empire building.

Or maybe turn-based empire building—TBEB.
posted by deeper red at 12:09 PM on July 29, 2007

In anime it's known as the "Sorting Algorithm of Evil".
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:22 PM on July 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

James Paul Gee's book What Videogames Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy discusses this sort of reward structure in depth. I highly recommend it.
posted by subtle_squid at 1:03 PM on July 29, 2007

I think the magic compulsion recipe in Civilization is the combination of small immediate goals and large medium-term goals during the course of the game. "Just one more turn" will generally get you something, and of course, after enough of those, you've completed a Wonder or conquered your neighbor, or something. It's the fact that it's *not* a constant level of tension that is reinforcing. Then the "repetition with variation" keeps you coming back, because even very similar games, with identical start settings, "feel" sufficiently different.

I don't know if it belongs in a classroom, though. It feels too much like manipulation or basic conditioning to make me feel good about it being used for learning. That is, I don't think it teaches productive exploration or the satisfaction of curiosity as much as it trains the user in pliant (sometimes virtually immobile) fixation.

I sometimes claim that I've learned a lot from Civ, but what I mean is that I've become curious about elements in the game and have researched them independently. Since the thing that makes these games appealing is basically what makes them a monstrous timesink, - more compelling than food, sex, or any form of social contact - I know that I would not feel confident that I could control the same principles in an effort to teach kids. As I say to my friends who have never tried Civ: "Don't start. Save yourself while you still can."

Also, if you read Gee, remember that he is not saying that these games are teaching things. He is saying that these games are teaching themselves. That definitely encapsulates my experience with Civ.
posted by caitlinb at 2:33 PM on July 29, 2007

Yes, I share those concerns. That's why I'm trying to get at the idea in its barest form, so I can the reasonable part -- the self-organzation and momentum part -- into the classroom and skip the heavy operant-conditioning piece. I only want to make the classroom less magically un-compelling than it often is.
posted by argybarg at 5:01 PM on July 29, 2007

This sounds like the 'reading tree' we had in third (?) grade, with like 50 books on it, along with certain prizes in strategic places. Books had to be read and reported upon before one could move further up the branch, and there was a choose-your-own-adventure quality to making decisions about which path to follow. If I want a yo-yo, I'll go that way and read those two books... or maybe I'll change my mind and go for the superball. The prizes were dime-store type, but enough to make it interesting.

Even the books seemed to be carefully positioned: the coolest books always required reading the most boring first. I imagine they were also in ascending difficulty, but I wasn't clever enough to notice that then.

In retrospect, I admire the engineering that must have went into planning that tree. But at the time, I just wanted the damn magic flashlight.
posted by rokusan at 8:23 PM on July 29, 2007

I'd disagree about the Power Grid reference. Power Grid's power plants change in numerical function, but they don't actually represent shifts in rules like, say, flight or gunpowder do in Civilization.

The person who really gets this stuff and is applying it directly to education is Katie Salen. She's starting the Institute of Play, about which I am rather obsessed. I really hope she does well because I - like you - see tremendous potential in techniques like this. I don't think anyone has really nailed it yet, but if anyone's going to it's Katie Salen.
posted by heresiarch at 8:38 PM on July 29, 2007

This may be a stupid answer, but back when I used to play such things, we just referred to them having a tiered (skill) system.
posted by Gingersnap at 12:53 PM on July 30, 2007

...and/or possessing "skill trees" as suggested above.
posted by Gingersnap at 12:55 PM on July 30, 2007

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