Conditioning is a part of nature, often backed up by secondary reinforcers, and is part of our every day lives. Beyond seeking for food and shelter (and on a higher level) social acceptance and money, video games, and in particular social games, also pull these metaphorical levers.

“Many people defend FarmVille as a harmless distraction, arguing that the thousands of hours spent playing the game would still have been wasted on other activities,” writes Benjamin Jackson. “But there’s no question that the social game market, with its virtual currencies and unlimited stock of goods, is a huge cash cow. And it’s also clear, when you look more closely at FarmVille, that it was engineered with one goal in mind: to coerce users into tending their virtual plots of land for as long as possible. Using our natural tendency to reciprocate gratitude from our peers, we end up pestering our friends to keep returning. And cleverly-timed crop cycles force players to return to their farms at all times of day. But what about the techniques employed in other games ”

Certain games can be more manipulative in their conditioning than others. Some of the more sinister games rely upon things like email sign-ups, checkouts, or upgrades.

“For example, FarmVille, Tap Fish, and Club Penguin play on deep-rooted psychological impulses to make money from their audiences,” notes Jackson. “They take advantage of gamers’ completion urge by prominently displaying progress bars that encourage leveling up. They randomly time rewards, much like slot machines time payouts to keep players coming back, even when their net gain is negative. And they spread virally by compelling players to constantly post requests to their friends’ walls.”

Of course, different games are compelling in different ways. For Zynga games, they are designed around the component of sharing, but this has an insidious aspect when its compelled by the game in a certain way.

“I’ll reiterate this in plainer language, just in case the quote wasn’t clear: [Demetri Detsaridis, the general manager of Zynga’s New York office] said that one of the most compelling parts of playing Zynga’s games is deciding when and how to spam your friends with reminders to play Zynga’s games,” notes Jackson. “Creating hard fun isn’t an easy task. It requires thinking deeply about the gamer’s experience, not just using cheap tricks to drive engagement. FarmVille, Tap Fish, and Club Penguin all employ Skinner-like techniques to persuade people to spend more time and money. But there are plenty of honest ways to create real engagement, and it’s our responsibility as creators and consumers of games to demand more honest and fulfilling fun from our entertainment.”

Source: The Atlantic