Have you ever stopped to consider that in most video games, you’re doing variations of the same thing over and over again? And yet, it still feels fun. This is pretty incredible if you think about it. Repetition in other contexts (like work) can lead to existential crises. But games get away with it. How is this possible?
Game designers are experts at hiding repetitive parts of the games without us realizing it. It makes sense: if every interaction needed to be wholly unique, the game probably wouldn’t last very long. Who’s going to pay full price for a game you can finish in an hour?
The repetitive actions are often called ‘grinding’ in a game. As well as increasing the time the player can enjoy the experience, it levels the playing field a bit. In online games, the players with the fastest reflexes and motor control would always win otherwise.
Let’s take a look at four key techniques game designers use
1. UNLOCK NEW SKILLS
Have you ever given yourself a repetitive strain injury just to progress in a game? You’re not alone.
Old School Runescape, a massively multiplayer online RPG, does this as a core game mechanic. And it’s done pretty well with 280 million player accounts! Players can train many skills and a popular one is mining. To mine, you literally click on a rock. Then you click on another rock. Then another. You get the point. Does it sound like fun? I didn’t think so, it’s like predictable whack-a-mole.
To unlock the ability to mine the most powerful ore in the game using the most popular method, you’d need over 250,000 clicks! So they reward players for doing this by giving new abilities throughout with each one progressively more difficult. By the time someone is working towards the final one, they have already sunk dozens of hours into the game!
In real life, we see this used as employees earn perks the longer they stay at the company. It could be a nicer car parking spot or more flexible hours but it gives people something in their mind as a milestone to reach for.
2. THE LURE OF SURPRISE
Everyone likes a bit of a surprise right? It keeps things fresh when life feels monotonous. Maybe you like to close your eyes and pick a chocolate from a selection. You rebel, I like you.
Borderlands 2 won a string of awards when it was released including ‘Best Action Game’ and ‘Best Multiplayer Game’. It had over 30 hours of gaming time and one reviewer stated it’s worth playing multiple times over. Yet a large part of the gameplay is killing the same monsters over and over again. What’s so fun about that?
The designers cleverly use uncertainty to keep players hooked. When you skill a monster, you have a small probability of gaining a Legendary item. Each kill is driven by the hope this time will be lucky. It’s like playing poker with a weak hand until finally the opponent has a weaker one and you win. Yet the difficulty of obtaining the item makes them all the more desirable.
Online dating apps use this method well. Every swipe could be the love of your life so we don’t stop!
3. SOCIAL OBLIGATION
You know those times where you go to a party because you feel you have to? Games do that too.
Farmville’s success is one of the most baffling things in gaming history. In March 2010, it had over 80 million monthly users! The gameplay was based on managing a farm. This consisted of riveting activities such as clicking on plants and watering them. If you kept clicking then eventually it would grow and you could trade.
Anyone around on Facebook in the late naughties remembers this terror and maybe even took part. Farmville was everywhere and friends would send invitations for you to join the game. They sent you turnips and you feel the need to send some back. It worked because of our culture of reciprocity even though the items weren’t real. Someone had asked us to do something and we didn’t want to spoil their fun.
This is the foundation of social media. When somebody tags us or shares their ten millionth dog picture, we feel the need to engage or else look unsocial.
Do you hate leaving things half done? I always regret it, especially when it’s the food!
Pokémon is the second-highest game franchise of all time with $20 billion in revenue! While I could pick many aspects of the game out for being repetitive as they do use the other methods in the list too. Yet I’m going to focus on the elusive maximum level a monster can be trained to. This is way after the story is over and players need to battle thousands of times, usually choosing the same move every time, to get to level 99.
No rewards come with it and it’s predictable. None of your friends will make you train a pokemon to this level yet so many of us did it. We love the idea of reaching the end of completion. Of having made our creature as powerful as it possibly can be. We get the intense feeling of Fiero which is the Italian word for pride coming from the triumph over adversity. For a few seconds, you get the feeling you’ve scored the winning goal in the world cup.
In the US, 30% of college students drop out in the first year but once people have got through this 83% reach the end. We want to see things through once we are invested!
What we do in games isn’t always fun but game designers are smart enough to keep us hooked. When you find yourself playing a game for a huge amount of time, ask yourself which one are you doing?
1. Unlock new skills: Grinding through to unlock new cool abilities
2. Lure of surprise: Grinding through hoping to strike gold
3. Social obligation: Grinding through because you feel you owe it to your friends
4. Completionism: Grinding through for the elation of finishing
Thank you for reading and I hope you have a wonderful day!