we are addicted to progress: designing progression in games
On a car ride in the passenger seat, my friend handed me his phone and asked me to help him hatch some chickens while he was driving. He was talking about Egg, Inc., this game where you tap a red button repeatedly to hatch more chickens, which gets you more money, which buys you more upgrades to help you hatch more chickens, and so forth. There’s also something about shooting down drones for more money. It sounds silly, until you start playing it.
The popularity and addictive nature of these games is nothing new, and yet persistent. When I was introduced to the popular web-based clicker game Cookie Clicker (make cookies, buy upgrades with cookies to make more cookies faster), I left my browser running my session open for weeks on end, checking it occasionally to buy the upgrades. At the time, I had no idea why I was engaging so deeply in an activity that was essentially pointless, and was struggling to dissect the appeal of idle games.
It was Jesse Schell who put it into words, when I tried to explain my love-hate relationship and confusion with these idle clicker games. “Think about it,” he said, “you are addicted to progress.”
We are addicted to progress. This statement resonates with many of my gaming practices. Suddenly, the explanation to why I’m on level 891 of Candy Crush and why I’m trying to get 500 wins in each class on Hearthstone was all too simple. But what I’m getting at goes beyond the “achiever” type of gamer into a larger question about human motivation.
We are Addicted to Progress, Not Just in Games
Human history and society has been built on progress, from the development of tools to the birth of government to the rapid pace of technological development today. We have gotten to a point where technology is advancing at such a rate that movies are being made about the singularity, a point where artificial intelligence triggers unprecedented changes to civilisation. This urge to keep improving is something that set us apart from other species, and got us to where we are today, but now that we are established, we can’t help but want to keep doing more, making more, striving to be the best.
But, before that all happens, let’s take a look at a popular real-world example of “progress”. A staple of the mobile phone scene is the iPhone, and a release of a new iPhone is accompanied with long lines outside Apple stores and waitlists on ordering websites. But taking a look at differences between the last couple of generations1, it’s difficult to discern “progress” from simply “change”.
Along with the usual minor increase in storage, better camera and improved battery life, which are marginally better than the iPhone 6S and 6, and virtually no change to the thickness, screen dimensions and RAM, the iPhone 7’s claim to revolutionising the mobile tech space was its removal of the headphone jack. This renders all corded headphones useless, requires the purchase of special Apple “EarPods”, and prevents you from listening with plugged in EarPods and charging your iPhone 7 at the same time.
These changes do not necessarily constitute improvements. This was a decision that took “tremendous courage”, in the words of Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller, but was it a decision that meant that the new iPhone is a step forward in progress or simply another iteration of the same product with minor changes in order to continue pushing out new versions?
Unsurprisingly, Apple continues to dominate the mobile phone market, because we are so used to wanting things to progress that we will accept any small change with an increased version number and think it’s better, then buy more of it. We think, of course, version 7 has to be better than version 6.
So even though there may not be significant improvements, we are attracted to a feeling of progress, even simply for progress’ sake.
Tips for Designing Games to Motivate Players by Displaying a Sense of Progression
1. Numbers going up are really satisfying
For some reason, the human psyche is attracted to increasing numbers – consider your bank balance or a timer counting up. The opposite is also true, a depleting bank balance or a timer running down fills us with panic and dread. Idle clicker games like Cookie Clicker with a large number counting up are therefore satisfying, while any game with a timer counting down adds a level of stress to the player.
2. Progress bars filling up are also really satisfying
Ever have a jar of pennies and gain satisfaction from filling it up? This sort of visible progress is common in video games, and is satisfying because we like to fill things up. In Bejeweled, it’s this bar that fills up at the bottom that shows your progress to the next level, super easy to understand and very effective at making you feel like you’re achieving something with each gem match.
3. How many out of how many, now?
Another form of progress bar in games is a tally which shows a value that you’ve achieved out of the total value needed to unlock a reward. This is particularly effective in games because it not only gives you an idea of your progress, but also provides you with an end goal. This is exemplified in Hearthstone, where I am relentlessly pursuing a Gold Priest skin, which requires 500 wins in Ranked mode.
4. Moving along a track, with numbers
Mobile saga games with many levels have shown that moving along a track and passing other players can be extremely satisfying. This can be seen on racing tracks, and has been cleverly adapted into things like Candy Crush, where being far ahead of someone, and continuing along this winding candy road, is pure joy.
5. Simple level increments
Finally, we can’t forget the simplest form of progress in video games, levelling up. There’s no surer way of showing that you’ve invested a lot of time in World of Warcraft than by having maxed out levels on multiple characters. Also, a surefire way to prove that you’re categorically better than another player is by having gotten to a higher level in a game.
Using Progression in Games for Good in Educational Games and Games for Change
Simply making progress in games is extremely fun and addictive, but I think this natural addiction can be applied to making games that help us make progress in our own lives, or in the world. Here are some examples:
1. Duolingo: learning a language
Duolingo has very clear progress bars and gamified quizzes to help players learn a language. Filling up a progress bar and maintaining a streak of days where you log in and complete quizzes every day is addictive, and is channeled towards language learning.
2. Zombies, Run!: improving fitness
Zombies, Run! cleverly adapts simple counters into gamified progress, which shows how easy it can be to tap into our addiction to progress. These are nothing more than showing you the distance, time and pace of your run, identical to a pedometer, but with the added interest of zombies in the game itself. Getting fit becomes fun this way, and seeing your progress makes it much more satisfying.
3. Free Rice: donating to charity
Free Rice is an ad-supported website that allows players to answer quiz questions to make donations of grains of rice to charity. It gives players an idea of their progress in a unique way, with multiple reinforcements: a bowl of rice filling up, a number increasing, and piles of rice on the side when you’ve filled 100 grains in a bowl.
This is satisfying to no end and thematically fitting, plus allowing you to fill up multiple bowls of rice is a nice touch. In addition to helping charity, you’re also answering quizzes, which makes you exercise your brain at the same time.
There is a largely untapped game space where our addictions can make a difference, and I hope that as game developers, we can harness the power of our addiction to progress to make an impact in the real world as well as in the virtual one.
- Gordon Kelly. “iPhone 7 Vs iPhone 6S Vs iPhone 6: What’s The Difference?.” Forbes. Forbes, 5 January 2017. Web. 15 February 2017.