Compulsion Loops and Addictive Training Games

These days, in learning, it’s cool to be gamey.  So, not surprisingly, there’s a lot of hype. And a lot of bad educational games.

To get past the hype, we need to move beyond simply saying “games are good,” and begin to critically examine the elements that make games successful at driving engagement and improvement in their users, and how those elements might be utilized in an educational context.

One powerful weapon in the game designer’s arsenal is the so-called “compulsion loop.” This concept has been implicit in many games since time immemorial, but the designers at Zynga (Farmville) recently popularized the overt exploitation of this idea, which has received increasing emphasis in game design. Joseph Kim, the studio lead at FunPlus, defines a compulsion loop like this:

Compulsion Loop: A habitual, designed chain of activities that will be repeated to gain a neurochemical reward: a feeling of pleasure and/or a relief from pain.

In other words, it’s an unapologetic attempt to get users addicted to your game. To create a compulsion loop, game designers carefully control the schedule of rewards (usually, a never-ending supply of new content) to keep gamers coming back for more. For example, imagine a game in which the goal is to kill as many zombies as you can.

Compulsion loop of an imagined zombie killing game.

Compulsion loop of an imagined zombie killing game.

At first you confront small zombies with a weak weapon–say, a bat.  Success earns you points that can eventually be applied to purchase a bigger weapon–say, a samuri sword–and this new weapon allows you to fight a cohort of larger, stronger zombies. You soon rack up larger point totals that allow you to acquire an even more powerful weapon–say, a chainsaw.  Your sense of challenge and accomplishment is carefully managed in an effort to keep you in a state of “flow,” in which you get the optimum satisfaction out of your task.

So called “freemium” games utilize compulsion loops in a particularly insidious way. In a freemium game, as the name (sort of) implies, you can in theory play for free. But if you do, you find that after a while your ability to earn points in the game starts to lag behind the introduction of new challenges. As you begin to lose more of your zombie battles, your point production slows. The time when you can purchase a new weapon begins to seem like it is a long way off.

As the challenge mounts, flow starts to give way to frustration. And at just this point, the game offers to let you pay (actual) money for an instant upgrade. For example, you might be able to buy a flame thrower for twenty cents.

This approach has proven staggeringly successful across a wide variety of games. While the incremental cost of an upgrade is small, dedicated game players end up spending large amounts of money–often more than the purchase price of a premium game. Hit “freemium” games routinely make tens of millions for their publishers.

When is the last time you heard of a learner who was willing to pay to continue a training experience? Presumably never. It’s pretty easy to see why if you try to think about the average learner experience as a compulsion loop. We can think of a compulsion loop as a cycle of MISSION-REWARD-CAPABILITY UPGRADE. Most training fails as a compulsion loop because there is no mission. (Unless you count “sit still while we shower you with content” as a mission.) Even for training that does have a mission, like a simulation or role-play, the reward is typically some praise (“Great job!”) and being allowed to stop.  That’s right, the main reward you can be granted in most training is that you don’t have to take any more training.  It doesn’t take a psychologist see that there’s a problem with that reward structure.

Compulsion loop of a typical corporate training course.

Compulsion loop of a typical corporate training course.

Even training that is configured as a game–in which learners score points in some way–does not typically provide any chance to improve based on those points. What would be the analog of giving users a bigger weapon in a learning game? Presumably, it would be to give them some knowledge or insight that will help them overcome harder challenges as they go forward in the game. We’ve never seen a learning game that works this way. And we probably won’t see one anytime soon. There’s a reason for that: the educational community holds it as a core value that learners should not be asked to attempt a challenge until  they have  prepared as well as humanly possible to confront that challenge. Withholding knowledge that would help the learner in an educational game until they’ve earned enough points to buy the right to get that knowledge would strike most instructional designers as shockingly unfair.

Game designers, with no such scruples, are routinely unfair in just this way. To play a game is typically to walk wholly unprepared into a series of challenges that will often defeat you the first time around. Interesting, isn’t it, how their audience keeps coming back for more despite this ill treatment? More importantly, real life is unfair in just this way as well. Learning a skill in real life always involves confronting challenges that you were not prepared for, then learning the required lesson, then overcoming the challenge.

Maybe if learning designers could learn to relax a little about the idea of doling out knowledge after the learner experiences the need for it, rather than before, we too could have a user population that sees our games as reward rather than punishment.

2 thoughts on “Compulsion Loops and Addictive Training Games

  1. This makes an even stronger case for tying up training to business outcomes. The perfect reward for playing the game well should be better performance on the job, which is turn should be well measured and rewarded.

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