The hip trend these days in game dynamics is “compulsion loops,” where in one of the game activities lets us win gold or coins or some kind of virtual currency, which lets us buy stuff, which helps us play the game better, which earns more gold, and so on. (Stephanie Morgan gave a great Creative Mornings Talk on this.)
As we win more, our skills improve and we get more attached to the game. These days, if we want to short-cut the process and level-up more quickly, we simply spend real money to buy virtual currency via in-app purchase.
The Stir Fry iPhone game includes a great example of a compelling compulsion loop, along with an entertaining premise and fun interactions.
The core idea is that you can’t let your veggies burn up in their frying pans. You can flip them and hit other similar veggies to score points, and if you are lucky, you could get a fortune cookie, which earns you coins at the end of the game. You can buy potholders, fire extinguishers and other tools to improve your ability to keep your veggies from burning up. The addition of other elements to the game play also keeps you from getting bored once you get good.
There are two aspects to this compulsion loop that deepen engagement and increase effectiveness. First, the creative variety and story telling aspect of the props deepens engagement in the game. Secondly, including an aspect of chance and randomness in the reward system makes it more addictive.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the element of chance is a key difference between something being work and something being play. (Of course, in work we don’t always get more when we work harder, but that’s the prevailing mythology. In a game we know the rules and we buy into the randomness because it is fun.)
In recent New York Times article, Paul Howard-Jones shed some light on this phenomenon:
computer games stimulate the brain’s reward system to produce dopamine, a chemical “which helps orient our attention and enhances the making of connections between neurons, which is the physical basis for learning.”
Mr. Howard-Jones said that research has shown that the introduction of a chance or game element into any reward system increases dopamine production. “For generations, we educators have done everything we can to maintain a consistent relationship between reward and achievement, but the neuroscience is telling us something different,” he said in an interview.
According to Mr. Howard-Jones, students learn more, and are happier to continue learning, when they are offered the chance of a reward rather than a guaranteed reward.
While it seems illogical, I think we’ve all experienced playful activities from games to sports where the element of chance adds to that edgy, uncertain anticipation that makes the reward that much more sweet. If only we could apply the same philosophy to all aspects of our lives, since there is an element of chance in everything we do. Of course, I think one of the reasons games are fun is simply because they are a diversion meant only for entertainment and the game play is a gift to ourselves.
Check out Stir Fry iPhone game for a neat new example of well-thought out game dynamics or just for a fun diversion.