Idle games and and clicker games are an interesting little genre of video games. For those who have never played one of these games the basic premise is that you tap a touchscreen or click using a mouse to generate some in game resource (cookies, money, etc.) and after acquiring enough you invest those resources to make each click generate more. In turn you use those increased production values to invest into more productivity. This cycle continues indefinitely with no true end.
They involve very little in the way of mechanical variety and, in a lot of ways, are very similar across the various titles. On paper, if we’re being honest, the concept is boring. Yet games like Cookie Clickers and AdVenture Capitalist have over 10 million downloads each on Google Play. I downloaded and played two different ones (AdVenture Capitalist and Tap Tap Fish) so I could have some first hand perspective of how these games work. So what is it about these games that makes someone want to start playing and why do they keep playing? There are deeply fundamental psychological principles at play here so let’s pull back the curtain on our own minds and look at one piece of what makes us tick.
Despite All My Rage
There’s a reason we use mice in studies about memory and cognitive performance. They’re fairly simple animals but they have a lot of the same behavioral qualities seen in humans. If you get a result from a mouse it’s a safe bet that you’ll get similar results from a human. We may be able to build monuments and create languages but if you stick us in a maze with a rat we dont have any real advantage.
The basic, instinctive thought processes and behaviors are the foundation of what makes clicker games work and we have one man to thank for how we know this: B.F. Skinner. Most people have heard of his experiments but, for those who skipped that day of Intro to Psych, a quick summary is that he would place mice in a special cage that had a button that would dispense food if the mouse pressed a button under certain conditions such as a certain color light being on or a specific noise being played through a speaker. Eventually when those conditions were learned the mouse would follow those cues as an indication to press the button. From there the experiments have been taken in several different directions that have taught us a lot about what came to be known as “operant conditioning “.
So how does this apply to idle games? The premise is effectively the same. Click the thing and get a thing. Click more get more. These games are “Skinner Box” mechanisms in the most basic sense. From there we get into slightly more sophisticated methods.
Bigger is Better
Another aspect of the human condition that is routinely tapped into by these games is our inability to adequately measure progress in purely numerical terms. For the average person comprehension starts to fail at around five or six digit numbers. Even things we think we comprehend, like money, only make sense in terms of what they can be used for. We can comprehend ten thousand or forty thousand dollars in terms of the cars it could buy but trying to visualize the difference between ten thousand lemons and forty thousand lemons is a little more difficult. Once you get into the millions your mind simply cannot handle those amounts without anchoring them to a much simpler reference point.
Clicker games use this weakness to generate a sense of progress that seems much more substantial than it really is. Both games started with small numbers that rose exponentially. Tap Tap Fish started with one click for one vitality. Then, after some investment, it went to two, four, eight, and so on. Within a few minutes I was at hundreds of thousands. Sounds great right? Well it would be but every upgrade costs exponentially more as well. Those increased costs will equal, if not exceed, the production improvement. If you strip away the arbitrary inflation it’s a cost-benefit curve that looks less than appealing.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder
Another easily exploited aspect of the human condition is how our brains respond to stimuli by releasing chemicals into our system. It’s a gross oversimplification of pop science but there is some truth to those articles you see saying that chocolate has the same effect on the brain as falling in love.
The human mind, for all it’s incredible intricacies, is easy to manipulate into a cycle of repetitive behaviour by way of positive reinforcement. Do something, get a reward, get feel good chemicals. Those wear off so you do it again. The chemicals dont feel as good so you do the thing again. Desensitization continues. Do the thing more to get enough. Over and over. Sound familiar? That’s the same cycle that causes drug addiction.
I’m not saying that these games are on the same level as starting your weekend with a dose of Colombian bam bam. They do take advantage of the same mechanism in the brain that originally involved so our ancestors would continue to do useful things like eat and mate. You get a reward in game and your brain releases the happy sauce. The dev’s know they can tweak that even more. They slow down the rewards. The games give you power ups to speed up production, often when you first log in, so that when you start playing that is seen as the normal pace. Once that drops off you have two options: go slow or come back later. Either way your brain has to go without its fix. So, like a smoker stuck on a plane for 12 hours, when you do get that fix it’s even better.
What to make of all this
Are these games dangerous? Not really. Aside from a fraction of a percent of the population, this skinner box design isn’t a risk factor. I’d even hesitate to label it as unethical design on it’s own. It has potential to be dangerous, such as the way casinos exploit these same things, but as of yet these games don’t go to the same extremes. This is more of a look at a side of game design that doesn’t get as much as it should. Games are as much about psychology as they are graphics or character design. They can teach us a lot about ourselves if we pay attention.
So go out and look at your favorite games and see if they use any of these design methods. If you feel the need to click on something, why not try another article here or one of our Twitch channels? I’m sure you’ll find something to get your brain to give you another shot of the good stuff.