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Mobile Games: Enslaving the Mind Since 1997

Ajinkya Goyal Hacker Noon profile picture

@ajinkya.goyalAjinkya Goyal

It’s really not your fault you’re addicted

Ever since mobile games have come out, we’ve been hooked — adults and children alike. And why shouldn’t we be? It’s endless, anytime fun, sitting in your pocket. It’s kind of hard not to reach out and play a quick round.

But the question is — why? Why are we ignoring the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Battlefield to crush some candy? Why do we let them collect dust, just sitting there on the shelf, begging to be played, while we choose to run some temples, royally clash and conquer totally?

Developers know why, and they are exploiting this like mad. They are literally programming their games to get your brains hooked, and to never let them go. But it’s time we know the details behind all this too.

Introducing the culprit:


Dopamine is a specialised molecule that is basically your body’s happy hormone. If you’ve ever felt a wave of excitement after finding a new secret passage, or a feeling of triumph after thrashing a new boss, you’ve experienced dopamine working.

Scientifically speaking, dopamine is known as a neurotransmitter. When you finally beat the gym in Pokemon, or you finally got your team the win for the match, your brain allows itself a little celebration time. Dopamine then gets shot out from your nerve endings, right into dopamine receptors, patiently waiting to collect the molecules.

Now you might be thinking,

If dopamine makes us feel happy, why do I get bored of my favourite games?
Sorry, Mario

This is where a little thing called desensitisation comes in. This is basically when dopamine ‘turns itself off’ due to repeated intake of its ‘drug’. For example, the first time you jump into that end-of-level tube in Mario, there would be a full dosage of dopamine being received. But by and by, this thrill decreases, and some of your dopamine receptors close. Your brain is trying to get you to try something else.

But newer mobile games have found multiple a way to combat this. First, they allow you to whizz through the initial levels, unlocking power-ups and collectables quickly. But then the levels get harder, and you have to work harder and longer to clear them, thereby introducing a gap in the dopamine secretion. This is known as a Variable-Ratio Schedule of Reinforcement.
This is exactly what casino slot machines use. You never know when you’re going to win, but when you do, it’s awesome! And the designers make sure you win just often enough to keep you interested and constantly coming back for more.

Thanks, MatPat

Secondly, and much more importantly, all games have mechanics built into the game that limit the length of one play session. You lose too many matches or too many lives; you try and upgrade too much, or you simply play for too long, the game forces you to take a break and come back later.

They are effectively cutting you off at times you are most invested in the game, at times when you are practically swimming in dopamine, making you want more and more all the time. So that when the timer runs out, you leap to play, lusting for that dopamine rush. All this is related to what’s known as the Hedonic Treadmill. Basically, as a person’s situation changes, their expectations for happiness change with them.

Here’s an example: Studies have shown that people who have won the lottery are no happier than before they were basking in money. Along with the money, their wants and desires also increase, and so they aren’t ever satiated by what they have. The same result comes from people who’ve been paralysed; they report the same level of happiness both before and after they were paralysed. This is because, in both examples, the people’s happiness equilibrium shifted. Their situations changed, and so did what they were happy with.

But mobile games make sure to never allow you to stay in that elevated state long enough to grow accustomed to it. In short, mobile games are the perfect storm of addictive gameplay. Along with that extremely sticky formula, they make them all free, and very easy to access on a device we have on us all the time.


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