28 February, 2019
Progress In Clicker Games
They did experiments on animals in these things called operant conditioning chambers, or Skinner Boxes named after their creator, to see if giving a piece of food would encourage the animals to keep doing a desired repetitive action, or in some cases punished them for NOT doing so, and wouldn’t you know it, of course they kept doing the random simple task, because they got a treat out of it. In gaming, we see this all the time – besides obvious comparisons like slot machines or loot boxes, this is also why achievements are so effective – it feels good to be rewarded for your actions, and instead of only getting that feeling of satisfaction when beating a game, this is taken to the extreme in incremental games because you gain achievements all the time, in fact it seems to be what the entire system is based on. So if you don’t feel like you’re accomplishing much in your real life, whether you’re just bored or simply going through the motions, you can boot up an idle game and feel rewarded over and over again, and with very little effort needed.
Progress feels good, even if it’s in a silly video game. But in addition to this you’re dealing with our need for closure and something called the Zeigarnik effect, coined by a psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik, but you can just call her Ms. Z for short. She basically found through her research that people remember incomplete tasks better than ones we’ve completed – And I’m sure you can attest that this is true. I can’t tell you how many games I’ve beaten, but I can definitely remember the ones that I haven’t. The games that bested me stick out like a sore thumb in my brain that desires order. We want goals and tasks to be completed, so when they aren’t we will put in the effort to finish them – this is why you see people like The Completionist or those satisfied when they get another platinum trophy. There’s a sense of relief when you achieve your goals. So with all that considered, are clicker games really all that bad? Is it hurting anyone to have games that focus on those aspects of our brain? Well, from a game design perspective, I would argue that yes it is, and for two major reasons.
1) There is no ending to these games and 2) it uses real time as a mechanic. Let’s break it down a little bit. So yes while you can complete various tasks throughout your playthrough of an idle game, without an actual win state or end in sight, there will always be that sense of lingering desire to play more. It will never go away because there is no final accomplishment. You can see everything the game has to offer, but your numbers will keep going up until they simply don’t mean anything anymore. Eventually it feels like the only reason you’ll keep playing is because of the sunk-cost fallacy where you’ll tell yourself “I’ve already spent so much time building up my stats, it would be a waste if I quit now” and even if you reset with an added prestige bonus, that feeling of satisfaction will quickly become more and more fleeting as you realize the entire experience is ultimately pointless.