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How do game developers hook us into their virtual worlds?


According to Newzoo's 2016 report, just over 33% of the worlds population - that's over 2.5 billion people - play video games. Video games have come from being simple 2d concepts that you would find in your local entertainment centres, to being these huge and vast digital worlds that can be accessed from nearly anywhere on the globe, from your pocket to the comfort of your own home.

With such a large subset of the population flocking to the digital world, what is it about gaming that tantalises us so much? In this essay I will be looking into some of the methods game developers use to hook us in as well as some of the games that utilise these methods so well.

Arrangement of video game consoles Nintendo Switch Games Console

1. Feedback Loops

A feedback loop is a situation where the output of a certain action or event is then fed back as an input. In gaming, these are built in systems that react to how well the player is performing in order to reward or punish the player depending on the game. These feedback loops can be broken down into two main areas; Positive and Negative.

What Are Positive Feedback Loops?

Positive feedback loops are used to reinforce outcomes of the players efforts (or lack of). An example of a positive feedback loop would be the progression system in the popular MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), World of Warcraft. In WoW, you start off with a small selection of abilities you can use to fight with. As you kill more enemies, you gain experience. This experience then levels you up and unlocks more abilities, which then allows you to kill enemies quicker, earning you more experience and levels which then in turn allows you to unlock more content etc. This positive feedback loop helps encourage players to keep pushing forward to unlock that next set of abilities which keeps them coming back.

Although the name 'Positive Feedback' suggests that it is always a happy experience for the player, it's not always the case. For example, in the game of Chess, if you lose a piece, you now have less pieces to play with and therefore have a lower chance of winning. Positive feedback loops can also be described to have a 'Snowball' effect on gameplay because, whatever the player does can 'Snowball' out of control leading to immense highs or crushing lows.

Although losing by it's very nature has a negative connotation, in video games it is used as a method to encourage players to keep going. Take the popular Action RPG, Dark Souls for example. It is considered one of the best video games ever released with more than 8.5 million copies sold globally. It's core mechanic is learning from your past mistakes. The PC edition of Dark Souls is called 'Prepare to Die', that should give you a clue as to the core gameplay mechanic. When you die in Dark Souls (which you do a lot of), your health is cut down slightly, so one death leads to another, and so on until you have next to no health left. Although this may sound harsh, this difficulty increase is used as a tool by game developers to deepen the immersion for the player as they have to take a slow and methodical approach to the game. Video games like Dark Souls offer us an opportunity to face failure and experiment with it in order to overcome the odds. Jesper Juul from the New York University Game Center sums this up very well in her book 'The Art of Failure' stating that:

There is no fun without losing just as there is no pleasure without pain

This satisfaction from overcoming our failures in video games comes from a theory called 'The Paradox of Failure'. This is essentially a paradox where we try to avoid negative emotions like fear and sadness in real life, but crave it within the content we consume. A good example of this would be going to the cinema to watch a horror movie. We go there knowing that we will feel fear and sadness but still go to it anyway to prove that we can overcome these negative emotions.

What Are Negative Feedback Loops?

Where positive feedback loops amplify the highs and lows of a video game, negative feedback loops are used to keep the balance of the game in check. If one player finds success that gives them an advantage, the negative feedback loop will kick in, lowering the chances of that player further increasing their advantage. On the other hand, the negative feedback loop will also help the players lagging behind by giving them preferential treatment and useful power-ups.

A popular example of a negative feedback loop would be the item distribution in the racing game, Mario Kart. When you're out in front of the pack, the items you get are more than likely going to be awful, therefore preventing you from increasing your lead with lucky item pick ups. The complete opposite can be said for the players that are lagging behind. They will get the best items at a higher frequency, so they don't lose all hope of catching up to the leader. It may seem unfair to the more skilled players but this negative feedback loop keeps players closer together which leads to more interactions and excitement. This effect is also known as "rubber-banding" because it feels like every player is linked, people out in front and people behind will all be pulled together to maintain equilibrium.

2. Indentity And Avatars

When we read a book, our imagination conjures these amazingly vivid visions of the characters and landscapes in which the book is set. We follow the story along, page after page until we reach the predetermined end. Whatever happens in between; the plot twists, character development and action are all preordained by the author. Now I'm not going to say that this is boring or not interesting, it's far from it. But what if you wanted to make a different decision to the one that the main character made? What if you wanted to go to the far off land that everyone was mentioning in the book? You couldn't. A book tells us a story, but a video game lets us live it. A video game lets us create our own opportunities and make our own decisions that differentiate us and make us unique in the digital world.

video game character with attack, health and defense stats next to it

When we read a book, our imagination conjures these amazingly vivid visions of the characters and landscapes in which the book is set. We follow the story along, page after page until we reach the predetermined end. Whatever happens in between; the plot twists, character development and action are all preordained by the author. Now I'm not going to say that this is boring or not interesting, it's far from it. But what if you wanted to make a different decision to the one that the main character made? What if you wanted to go to the far off land that everyone was mentioning in the book? You couldn't. A book tells us a story, but a video game allows us live it. A video game lets us create our own opportunities and make our own decisions that differentiate us and make us unique in the virtual world.

Game developers allow players to create their own custom characters known as 'avatars'. Avatars are basically the players identity in the virtual world. In real life we can 'customise' ourselves. Changing our hair style, clothes or even getting tattoos and piercings to differentiate ourselves, this is fine but we are still limited by our physical bodies. We can't make ourselves taller, shorter, skinnier or bigger. In video games however, we can. Research presented by Nick Yee, a Research Scientist for Ubisoft shows that people idealise their avatar's. Yee found that people with a higher body mass index, or people who were smaller than average created skinnier and taller avatars as a sub-concious way of compensating for what they perceive as their real life shortcomings. On the other hand, people with lower self esteem and depression created avatars that looked more confident and assertive, but acted like it as well. As Professor Jeremy Bailenson, author of 'Infinite Realities' says:

Avatars are not just ornaments – they alter the identity of the people who use them

Although it may seem that customisation of a players avatar is superficial, it can actually have a deep and profound effect on the player that the avatar is connected to. Take Nick Yee's research into digital self-representation for example. Research participants were placed inside a virtual world where they were given an avatar with varying levels of attractiveness and height. After getting to know their avatar, they were then asked to talk to another person outside of the virtual environment. Yee found that people with taller more attractive avatars showed greater confidence compared to people with shorter and less attractive avatars. Proving that how we imagine ourselves in the virtual world has some bearing as to how we perceive ourselves in the real one.

As human beings, we crave an identity. Be it in our jobs, what we wear or the way we talk, we need that sense of self in order to differentiate ourselves from everyone else. This is no different from video games. Video games like the popular ARPG (Action Role Playing Game) Fallout 4 allow you to create and customise your own character in thousands of different ways. From your appearance, combat style and weapons all the way to your charisma and intelligence. When playing a role playing games like Fallout 4, you'll ask yourself, "what would my character do in this situation?". A study from the Institute for Research of Children showed that 65% of their test group would think about their avatar and the situations they are in outside of the game. Another 37% of their test group said they would rather be more like their avatar than themselves. With such immense amounts of customisation available to us in video games, it's no wonder people can identify with their in-game characters so well.

3. Progression

In the UK, we spend 11 years in compulsory education which get's us the basics we need to function in society. We can then spend upwards of 5 years after that in higher education learning how to specialise in a specific field we want to work in. Progression in real life is slow and often tedious with very loose ways to measure how far we have come and how well we are doing. Video games however are the complete opposite to this. If you look at the immensely popular ARPG, Skyrim, it takes on average around 245 minutes to complete the game fully. That is 245 minutes from start to finish, going from nothing but a peasant with next to nothing to but the clothes on your back, all the way to being this omnipotent being that has brought peace and harmony to the vast world of Skyrim. This is amazing progression, if you take Malcolm Gladwell's '10,000 hours' rule of mastering something and compare that to how long it takes to be a master in a video game. There is no contest.

Measured Progression And Feedback

Video games don't just offer us fast progression, they offer us measured progression and feedback. For example, when you create a new character in a video game, you will usually start off at level one. You'll then be given a quest or objective that you are tasked to complete. Each time you progress in that quest, you'll be updated on how far you have left to go, how many monsters you have left to kill or how many more items you still need to get. Real life on the other hand doesn't offer a status bar on how far we have come in tiny incremental detail. After you complete the quest in a video game you'll be given a reward of experience points and maybe an item. This then progresses you to the next level. You don't just level up though, you "LEVEL UP!". Every game with a levelling system has some sort of fanfare or big celebration-like event that plays when you reach that new level. Bright lights, words of praise and a huge reminder of how far you've come. These aren't just there for aesthetic purposes though. They're there to trigger the reward centre in your brain. When we see all of these things singing our praises, a chemical called Dopamine is sent rushing through our brain cells. Dopamine is our bodies happy chemical that games are so good at releasing for us.

When you look at the average players profile in World of Warcraft, there are around 22 individual stats that you can see that measure their progress; from your level and damage, all the way to the amount of pets you have collected. These little bits of data and feedback we get frequently in video games create a rewarding sense of achievement that real life simply doesn't have enough of at the moment. We can't measure and gage everything like a video game does. As Game Theorist, Tom Chatfield says in his TED Talk '7 ways games reward the brain':

Every single thing that every single person has ever done in a video game can be measured.

The ways that video games provide us with feedback and progress updates is so potent that America's Indiana university is now conducting classroom studies in some of their undergraduate courses. Their recent 'Coin Counter' study in 2017 implemented an in class currency. This currency could be earned from nearly everything they did in class, from simply attending class all the way to pointing out typos in the course material they were given. The students were sent out reminders through their class app of how many coins they had as well as how many they had used. The students could then spend the coins they earned on homework and exam extensions. This resulted in an overall significant increase in: attendance, enjoyment, participation and performance. I like this method of rewarding someones efforts because it's an in-direct way of praising someone for the little things in life. If you were to literally praise someone every time they turned up for class, it would soon become annoying and might even seem condescending to the person being praised.

Endowed Progression

An interesting way game developers push us along to progress further into their games is by utilising the 'Endowed Progression Effect', an effect coined by researchers Joseph Nunes and Xavier Dreze. This is a method that works upon the principle that humans are more likely to complete a task if they have already made some form of progress towards finishing it. This is the exact same method most coffee shops use in order to gain a more loyal customer base. Remember the time when they asked you if you wanted a loyalty card at your local coffee shop? When you said yes, the cashier was kind enough to fill in the first two slots for you, to get you on your way to receiving that amazing free coffee. Although I'm not suggesting that there is some sort of malicious intent behind them giving you some free stamps. What I am saying is that this is an example of the 'Endowed Progression Effect' at work. You automatically feel more inclined to go to that coffee shop because you have already made 'progress' there.

Games like the popular MMORPG, Guild Wars 2 will straight up give you an in-game type loyalty card where you receive a small gift every time you login, this gift will then ramp up every consecutive day until you receive a big reward. Another example of this would be in World of Warcraft where you will be given some of the base items you need for a quest at the very beginning. This increases the likely hood of the player completing it. Other games though will utilise this effect in a more roundabout and sly way. Take the first-person shooter, Halo Reach for example. If you search for an online match, after a few minutes you will see that two players have been added to your waiting lobby. They won't have names and you won't be able to view their profiles. They will just be called 'Player Found!'.They aren't actual players, they're in fact just something the game places into your waiting lobby in order keep your hopes up that you'll find a game soon. This is yet another method game developers utilise to keep you going for that one extra game.

4. Endless Content

How Technology Has Changed Gaming

When looking back at the very first video games that were created, they were very simple and linear. Take Pac-Man for example, it was one level that didn't change but progressively got more difficult the further you progressed. Although Pac-Man was simple, it required huge arcade hardware to play. Now that technology has improved greatly, game developers can fit more than just a single level into their games. They can create entire worlds, galaxies and even universes for us all to explore. For example, the game No Mans Sky claims to have over 18 QUINTILLION planets for their players to explore. All of which are procedurally generated in their vast game space. Others like the new Red Dead Redemption 2 game take almost two hours of real time to cross from one side of the map to the other. Sheer size does not however indicate a good game. Content on the other hand does, with some games rocking immense amounts, like World of Warcraft for example, it has over 15,000 quests all of which that vary in time and difficulty to complete. This gives players an unprecedented amount of time to be immersed in the game. These large statistics also encourage potential buyers to purchase the game due to the perceived value all of this content provides.

Low Barrier of Entry

If you look at Newzoo's top 20 PC games out at the moment, you'll see that every single one of them is aimed at the multiplayer market. These 5 games have a massive following adding up to a whopping 192 million players worldwide. The games are as follows:

But what makes them so popular? Well one of the main reasons is that they are all incredibly easy to access for a huge number of people. Almost 3.2 billion people have some form of access to the internet globally now with that number only set to go up. Just an internet connection is not enough to play these games however, you need a PC or laptop to run them on. When thinking of PC gaming it conjures images of big beefy computers or at least a relatively decent PC / Laptop. The developers of the top 5 games on the list however have made their games in such a way that makes them incredibly easy to run on nearly any computer created in the last 10-12 years. When looking at the system requirements for these games except for Fortnite, you'll be shocked to see that they still even support Windows XP. To put that into context, Windows XP was released in 2001.

The top 4 on the list are also all free-to-play which means that there is virtually no barrier of entry to start playing these multiplayer games.

Infinite Playability with Multiplayer

League of Legends being the top game on the list boasts a huge 81 million active players every month. The game is so big that in 2017 when the League of Legends world championship was hosted in China, over 80 million people tuned in to watch. If you look at what League of Legends was like when it was first released and compare it to what it is nowadays, apart from the visuals and addition of new characters. Nearly nothing has changed about the core gameplay. Even the map hasn't changed it's layout... Ever. This can be said for most multiplayer games as well. They may add new characters and areas to play but they are still the same game underneath. But why is it that these multiplayer games are the top dogs when it comes to video games?

Well due to the sheer size of their player base, amount of characters, weapons, items and methods to play, there are nearly an infinite amount of ways any one game or match can be played out. Take League of Legends for example, the game has 142 playable characters, that can all use over 320 unique items that change the way they play, each character can also be played in 5 different roles. This alone is enough variation to create an immersive experience. When you include a player base of just over 81 million different people that all play the game in their own way. This creates a massive near infinite amount of variation and playability. Not to mention the competitive nature of the game as well. With most multiplayer games you will have to beat an opponent to win. In League of Legends you have to beat an entire team of five other real people in a 5v5 match. This team play also creates a huge amount of variance in gameplay as some people obviously might work better with others.

There will always be someone better than you

I personally have played League of Legends for the past 6 years, clocking up over 4,000 hours in the game. I can whole heartedly say that the team play is one of the most frustrating yet incredibly rewarding parts of the game.

META Changes

Other than the massive amount of variation and competition that comes with most multiplayer games, they also use incremental updates and additions to the game in order to keep gameplay fresh and new. The top 4 games on the list above all use a system known as 'patching'. This is just a fancy way of saying update. These patches change aspects and stats of in-game characters, items and weapons around in order to create a difference in gameplay. This forces players to adapt. These changes also re-define what is known as the META. The META or 'Most-Effective-Tactic-Available' as it is sometimes referred to, is basically the best character, item or weapon that is out at that time due to either direct changes to that character, or in-direct changes that have benefitted them. For example, if a character in a video game gets changed in a patch to become one of the strongest, the characters and items that would effectively counter the strongest would then become strong as well. This creates a form of balancing.


As someone that has grown up with gaming being at the forefront of entertainment. I never actually looked into how video games pull us in until I embarked upon writing this essay. Now that I've been made aware of some of the main methods games utilise to draw us in, I'm a lot more dubious about playing them. Gaming for me ticks every box in my brain, it's rewarding, engaging and it's competitive. But is this necessarily a good thing? Game developers and publishers spend a lot of time and money on tailoring their products to not only our wants, but our needs as human beings at an evolutionary level. With the games industry expanding at the exponential rate that it is, the advancements and methods developers use will only increase in their allure to us the consumers, and I for one am slightly worried about that.