A games designer turned digital wellness expert explains how carefully designed 'compulsion loops' can keep users craving more.
No one was more pro-gaming than mum-of-three Arcadia Kim, a powerful executive at one of the world’s biggest gaming companies. She was good at what she did and proud of her success.
Until the day she asked her 10-year-old to end his Minecraft session … and he hurled his iPad at her.
It was a slap in the face - quite literally - that shocked Kim to her core.
And the irony could not have been more stinging, The former studio operating chief at Electronic Arts, the publisher of games like Apex Legends, FIFA and Madden, Kim had devoted her career to making users feel exactly the way her son did when he was interrupted: namely, angry, frustrated and deprived.
“The more I was able to hook people, bring them into the world, bring something people could escape to—the better I was at that, the more successful I was at my job,” she explains. It was her job, in other words, to strengthen what psychologists and game designers call “compulsion loops.”
What is a compulsion loop?
Wikipedia defines a compulsion loop, sometimes called a “core gameplay loop,” as “a habitual chain of activities that will be repeated by the user to cause them to continue the activity. Typically, this loop is designed to create a neurochemical reward in the user such as the release of dopamine.”
Basically, the compulsion loop is activated in any repetitive gameplay cycle that’s designed to keep the player engaged. The gamer performs an action, is rewarded - and as a result another possibility opens and the cycle repeats itself.
The iPad incident brought home to Kim exactly how powerful the compulsion loop could become - and how dangerous. It inspired her to leave the gaming industry and start her own business: a digital wellness consultancy she called Infinite Screen-time.
That was in 2019, a year before the World Health Organisation recognised video game addiction as an illness, a change that went into effect formally this month.
Disorder, addiction or problem?
It’s a designation that remains controversial, with some health care professionals and digital experts disputing that words like “illness” and “addiction” should ever apply to problem gaming.
Kim herself is reluctant to use those words. Gaming disorder, she notes, “has a very specific meaning. Let’s not turn it into something it’s not.”
Studies typically show “true” gaming addiction - in which gaming takes precedence over all other interests and activities and continues irrespective of negative consequences - affects only two to three out of a hundred gamers.
The less-serious condition of gaming disorder is more common than compulsive gambling but less so than compulsive shopping, according to estimates from University of Adelaide psychologist Matthew Stevens.
Escaping the loop
Kim initially tried to protect her kids from getting caught up in compulsion loops - and assuage her own guilt about her role in creating it - by strictly limiting their screen-time to 20 minutes a day. She now believes that was unreasonable and ended up creating a sense of shame that led to sneaking and lying.
Today, she says she embraces her kids’ online lives. She advises parents not to forbid games, but to play along with them, and to involve them in decisions about limits and intermissions.
Most importantly, she shares with parents the professional secrets she was instrumental in master-minding: how compulsion loops operate, and how to recognise and escape its hooks.
According to psychologist Adam Alter, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, these include:
Variable feedback. Think of this one as the slot-machine effect. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. It’s the uncertainty - and the hope that “this could be the big one” - that keeps them coming back for more.
Lack of stopping cues. In today’s gaming world, the fun literally never ends. There is always more - and more and more and more.
Artificial goals. Human beings are notoriously goal-oriented. Our survival as a species has depended on that. Tech companies exploit that inbuilt pull by manufacturing goals that keep us engaged: 10,000 steps, say, or Snapstreaks, or collecting virtual items in a quest.
Cliff-hangers. It’s the oldest narrative trick in the book. Leave ‘em in suspense, and they’ll be hooked - and panting for more. Our deep drive to know what happens next is a key feature of both popular games and social media platforms.
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