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Games Hooked Us, Now the Tech World Wants Their Secret

The gaming industry is a more than just an entertainment provider; it’s an economic and cultural behemoth worth tens of billions of dollars, one that has eclipsed even Hollywood when it comes to money and power.

When considering the appeal of some of the biggest video game releases in recent history, such as Grand Theft Auto V and Call of Duty: BlackOps 4, we often think about their appeal as immersive, high-budget experiences with a strong brand reputation.

However, this isn’t the whole story. Games of all stripes, from big-budget Xbox games to smaller-scale online casino games, are designed to keep us playing. A focused examination of modern game design will quickly make it apparent that the high-tech graphics and engrossing narrative stories are little more than window dressing, with hidden design features being the main thing that keeps us playing.

The wider tech world, which has struggled with user retention and falling subscription rates for years, is finally taking notice and wants to learn from the gaming industry how to keep people hooked. Here’s how games are keeping us playing for longer than ever before. 

A central tenet of engaging game design is human psychology. Developers have long understood that a game’s format must be structured in a way that appeals to our ingrained habits and impulses. One piece of research that is often cited by game designers is the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s so-called “Flow Theory“. This posits that for an activity to be endlessly appealing, it must encourage players to enter a state of flow.

To achieve this, the activity must offer the player small, frequent rewards for clearly definable achievements, such as, say, collecting rings in Sonic the Hedgehog or gathering the clues needed to unlock a puzzle in Tomb Raider: Legends. It is this structure which encourages players to almost zone out, putting them in a blissful, contented, almost unthinking state where they can happily play for hours.  

Another powerful psychological tool used by game developers is branding. This is when they tap into what is known as the “nostalgia effect” via the imagery and sounds of a game to provoke feelings of familiarity and warmth among players. It’s partly this reason that makes the business of turning film franchises into games such a lucrative and competitive one. 

One particularly telling example is the recent Star Wars: Battlefront series, based on the most popular and enduring film franchise of all time, with the games themselves grossing billions of dollars. The games rely heavily on the soundtrack and aesthetics of old-school Star Wars films, with spin-offs of these games, such as the numerous recent Star Wars online slot games, proving equally successful.

Further to the above, the online casino industry has tapped into this psychological tactic particularly effectively, in combination with other tactics to lure people in, such as freebies in the form of no deposit bonuses to get the biggest Star Wars superfans at the reels. Studies on the casino industry have shown that this nostalgia effect is one of the most powerful contributors to user engagement, which is something the tech industry is eager to replicate. 

It’s the reason why apps with high user retention rates such as Angry Birds focus heavily on 80s aesthetics and sounds while streaming platforms like Netflix invest heavily in producing retro shows such as Stanger Things. The tech world is starting to learn from the lessons of successful game design, meaning that we can all expect to be glued to our phones even more in the future. 


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