we are addicted to progress


Game Design / Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

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.

In Egg, Inc., you tap the red button repeatedly to get more chickens, and the counter above increases. This interaction loop is highly satisfying.
In Egg, Inc., you tap the red button repeatedly to get more chickens, and the counter above increases. This interaction loop is highly satisfying.

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 clicker games.

It was Jesse Schell who put it into words, when I tried to explain my love-hate relationship and confusion with these sort of 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.

Why are we addicted to progress?

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”.

Can you tell which is the iPhone 6 and which is the iPhone 7? They look pretty much identical. (The iPhone 7 is on the left.)
Can you tell which is the iPhone 6 and which is the iPhone 7? They look pretty much identical. (The iPhone 7 is on the left.)

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 the best, and to getting better, and to progress, even simply for progress’ sake.

How can games take advantage of this addiction to progress?

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.

Cookie Clicker has increasing numbers everywhere, from the large total count of cookies on the left to the smaller counts of upgrades and their contributions to the cookie count on the right.
Cookie Clicker has increasing numbers everywhere, from the large total count of cookies on the left to the smaller counts of upgrades and their contributions to the cookie count on the right.

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.

The progress bar at the bottom of Bejeweled makes it crystal clear how close you are to levelling up.
The progress bar at the bottom of Bejeweled makes it crystal clear how close you are to levelling up.

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.

Grinding away to get 500 wins to earn my Gold Priest.
Grinding away to get 500 wins to earn my Gold Priest.

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.

Advancing on a pathway or map feels great, and Candy Crush takes advantage of this with their whimsical saga path, on which you can see your friends' progress as well as your own.
Advancing on a pathway or map feels great, and Candy Crush takes advantage of this with their whimsical saga path, on which you can see your friends’ progress as well as your own.

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.

The congratulatory screen for levelling up in World of Warcraft is one of a multitude, from all different genres and types of games.
The congratulatory screen for levelling up in World of Warcraft is one of a multitude, from all different genres and types of games.

How can we relate this back to real life?

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 gamefied 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.

Progress bars in Duolingo tell you how well you are learning a language, and even slowly diminish if you don't practice regularly, providing great feedback to the player.
Progress bars in Duolingo tell you how well you are learning a language, and even slowly diminish if you don’t practice regularly, providing great feedback to the player and learner.

2. Zombies, Run!: improving fitness

Zombies, Run! cleverly adapts simple counters into gamefied 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.

A repurposed pedometer in Zombies, Run! shows that it doesn't take much to take advantage of our addiction to progress.
A repurposed pedometer in Zombies, Run! shows that it doesn’t take much to take advantage of our addiction to progress.

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.

Free Rice themes its progress meters to match the cause, which reinforces the purpose of the game and makes the player feel like they are making a meaningful, quantifiable difference.
Free Rice themes its progress meters to match the cause, which reinforces the purpose of the game and makes players feel like they are making a meaningful, quantifiable difference.

There is a largely untapped game space where our addictions can make an impact in the real world, 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.

References Cited

  1. Gordon Kelly. “iPhone 7 Vs iPhone 6S Vs iPhone 6: What’s The Difference?.” Forbes. Forbes, 5 January 2017. Web. 15 February 2017.