Feature: 'Persuasive Games: Familiarity, Habituation, and Catchiness'

In his latest 'Persuasive Games' column, author and game designer Ian Bogost looks at why we should repeal Bushnell's Law and move from 'addiction' to 'catchiness'
In his latest 'Persuasive Games' column, author and game designer Ian Bogost looks at why we should repeal Bushnell's Law and move from 'addiction' to 'catchiness' in our framing of video games. One of the most commonly repeated aphorisms among game designers is that a game ought to be "easy to learn and hard to master", that belief contributing to the goal of producing a title that is both addictive and easy to learn: It's an adage most frequently applied to casual games, but it is also used to describe complex games of deep structure and emergent complexity. In the modern era, this familiar design guideline comes from coin-op. The aphorism is often attributed, in a slightly different form, to Atari founder Nolan Bushnell. In his honor, the concept has earned the title 'Bushnell's Law' or 'Nolan's Law':

'All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth.'
Bogost, though, says that learnability shouldn't the goal, but familiarity, arguing that familiarity is what makes something easy to learn. He believes that Pong's "avoid missing the ball" mechanic isn't accessible unless players have either played or seen racquet sports. The persuasive games designer also points out Tetris, a puzzler often hailed for its approachable and addictive qualities, as not that easy to learn. The controls and the game's goal isn't immediately obvious or intuitive, but the familiar pieces provide a hint to the game's purpose: "But the tetrominoes, those are familiar. Tile games find their roots in dominoes, an ancient game, one millennia old in its earliest forms. Polyominoes (a shape made of a certain number of connected squares; Tetris pieces use four) have been common elements of puzzles since the early 20th century, most frequently found in tiling puzzles (like pentominoes) or assembly puzzles (like tangrams). Tetris cleverly combines both the assembly and the tiling varieties of polyomino puzzles, asking the player to construct a small sub-tiled region (a line) by making micro-assemblies of two or three blocks. As all of these examples suggest, familiarity builds on prior conventions. Pong builds upon table tennis, which builds upon tennis, which builds upon racquets. Tetris builds upon pentominoes, which builds upon dominoes, which builds upon early games of dice and bones." You can read the full feature, which further discusses the importance of familiarity, habituation, and "catchiness" in video games (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).

Latest Jobs

Cryptic Studios

Senior Producer

Anne Arundel Community College

Arnold, MD, USA
Instructor/Assistant Professor, Game Art

Night School Studio

Los Angeles, CA, USA
Level Designer / Scripter, Games Studio
More Jobs   


Explore the
Subscribe to
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer Newsletter


Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Subscribe to

Game Developer Newsletter

Get daily Game Developer top stories every morning straight into your inbox

Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more