An NPR radio report this morning covered the way companies use data from online video games to keep kids playing and to sell in-game products. (Here's a link.) The report says that the for-profit study of these games has "become a science." Indeed, even several decades ago, science was being applied to the early games. But few could have anticipated just how big the video game industry would become.
Why play at all? Because of the reinforcing consequences--consequences on schedules of reinforcement.
Anywhere there are consequences (which is everywhere), they're on schedules. So applications of schedules are everywhere, video games included. A classic article on the reinforcement schedules in video games appeared in the trade magazine Gamasutra in 2001 (article link). And author John Hopson got the schedules absolutely right: ratio (work-based), interval (time-based), etc., and the typical behavior patterns they produce. Obviously, game designers generally want a high, steady, and persistent rate of play. If you've read my book, you know why they go for variable ratio schedules for those basic experience points or extra skills. But designers also utilize time-based schedules: With the slower rates of play that they foster, these schedules encourage more exploration--more chances to check out the new possibilities that the game designers introduce for variety. After a while, also, anyone can get tired of a frenetic pace and want a bit of a break. The international connections provided by the real Internet friends who
are helping or fighting you adds another dimension, with social
reinforcers adding to the attraction. You can see where the science comes in, as game designers try to build in optimal schedules of reinforcement as they balance all the other factors they need to consider.
Negative consequences play a role too: You want to avoid getting killed in the game, or losing tools, or friends. The possibilities are infinite, and avoidance is a powerful motivator. The NPR report notes what scientists find, that being given an immediate threat enhances the power of the opportunity to pay real money for survival aids.
On a larger scale, reaching the next level in the hierarchy of accomplishment is a big positive reinforcer (shaping!). While World of Warcraft offers different scenarios, most with dozens of levels, Candy Crush Saga has hundreds of levels. Caught up in the game for weeks or months, kids and adults alike can lose track of how much they've spent. Because the games are online and require permission to join, every click can get recorded into the database.
How big are these effects? The top games raise millions of dollars every day. That's the power of consequences . . .