My first game of Candy Crush reminded me of my first experience with a slot machine. Both offered the same enticements: escapism, a bit of fun, and crudely simple gameplay. It is a puzzle-based game that requires players to align candies, three-in-a-row. But behind the veneer of charm and juvenile ‘fun’, Candy Crush, like its forebear the slot machine, has a manipulative, psychological pull: the sweet sugar of addiction.
Traditional academia once viewed addiction as exclusively limited to drugs and alcohol. Yet most modern researchers agree that behavioural addictions also exist. Regardless of the activity, Gaming Psychologist Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University concludes that “all addictions [are] essentially about constant rewards and reinforcements”. Once we have a trigger, and an activity we enjoy, rewards and reinforcements help cement that behaviour into our day to day lives.
Candy Crush and slot machines both proffer ‘rewards’, which are given in the form of trophies, high scores, stars, and access to new content. Common to both are what Griffith terms “aural and visual rewards for a winning move”. Candy Crush in particular reinforces ‘correct behaviour’, playing the game, by initiating audio cues— “sweet” or “delicious”— whenever a particularly successful move is made.
Such positive reinforcement, along with the quick acquisition of new levels, makes you feel like you have accomplished a great deal in a very short space of time. The game’s “incremental reward structures”— which lauds 544 levels of fun— provides an especially prolonged experience; one that enhances the “achievement” felt when you reach the final level. The development company, Palm, creates new levels every fortnight, meaning that the game literally will never end.
Research shows that, much like drug and alcohol dependency, “rewards” in video games impact upon our epinephrine, dopamine and serotonin levels. In effect, some of our base chemical gratifications are met by video games. It is these hormonal changes that have tangible effects on our emotional well-being. It is these tangible effects on the brain that make games like Candy Crush so ‘rewarding’ and consequently addictive.
As soon as the player is trapped into this addictive pattern of reinforcement and reward, the game strikes. At some point, you’ll fail to complete a level, and the game will prompt the player with the option of spending “$0.99” to “finish off the remaining candies!” Conversely, choosing “end game” triggers negative music which suggests that you’ve subsequently made the ‘wrong choice’, and should have committed to paying instead. Bad consumer.
Though the game markets itself as ‘free to play’, many fall victim to its moneymaking tactics. The worst victims, known as ‘whales’ by the industry, make up for those who pay nothing at all by paying literally thousands of dollars just to get their fix. Candy Crush is currently valued at $8.5bn. Estimates indicate the game grosses one million dollars a day in revenue. While the approximate cost per user is only $3.84, the game’s one hundred million players are not necessary frequent users. Indeed, the majority of Candy Crush’s revenue comes from these ‘whales’, who fork out hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year.
The game’s developer Palm laments that the traditional video game “consumes a lot of mental bandwidth… you binge and eventually you stop playing.” Candy Crush represents the worst of video game stereotypes, providing mindless button-mashing instead of meaningful or provocative stimulation. Palm designed the game so that it can be played one-handed, while multitasking, and offline. Of course, most addict recovery programs have ‘time away’ as an essential feature to break the cycle of addiction. Frighteningly, Candy Crush can be played whenever a phone is nearby.
The final condemnation I can make of Candy Crush is that, like slot machines, it is mind-numbingly boring. Though, Palm knows squeezing money from an addict is like taking candy from a baby.