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Elisa Heiken, Blogger

January 22, 2014

6 Min Read

Social casual games are psychologically addicting.  Whether on mobile, tablet, or computer, these enticing games lure us in and make us hooked.  Well, at least the good ones do.  The games provide us a few minutes of entertainment, and we repay the favor with more gameplay and a few dollars.  But what makes these games so compelling to play? One way to answer this question is to evaluate how well they satisfy our psychological needs.

How do we look to technology to satisfy a growing set of needs?  Imagine that you are sitting alone at a table at a crowded restaurant waiting on a friend to arrive. You take out your phone to shoot off a word in a game of Words With Friends. Harvard psychologist Henry Murray would argue that, in that moment, you are feeling a deficit in the needs for affiliation and play. You are satisfying your needs for affiliation and play by briefly connecting with your opponent and having fun while doing so.

We humans are a complex species.  Our minds are in a constant state of disequilibrium.  We are in a constant deficit of one thing or another.  Whenever we have a deficit, our behavior is such that we will perform some sort of action to fill whatever need we are deficient in.

Murray identified 28 core psychological needs to explain these deficits, which in turn shape our motives and behaviors.  Murray’s identification of these needs provided the theoretical basis for Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Positive psychology.  His work can be looked at in the context of social casual games to better understand why they fulfill such a wide range of needs, and, therefore become so addicting. Murray’s 28 needs fall under six categories:

  • Intimacy – The need for warm, close, communicative interactions with others.

  • Power – The need to control situations and have an impact on other people.

  • Achievement – The need to accomplish goals and be superior to others.

  • Defense of Status – The need to defend yourself, avoid humiliation, and make up for failures by trying again.

  • Materialistic – The need to collect, build, retain, and organize.

  • Informational – The need to learn and grow.

Every one of our behaviors, including deciding to take action of pulling out your cellphone to check Facebook, is driven by a constant deficit of one thing or another.  Generally speaking, humans have a need to feel affiliated with others.  The baseline state of this need can vary from person to person, by gender, and even by age.  In addition to having various baseline states, our individual level of deficiencies can vary from week to week, day to day, and even hour to hour.  At any given time we are essentially complacent on some needs, have some filled up to excess, and in a deficit of others.  This ever-changing state of disequilibrium is what drives people to play social casual games.

The three most important categories for social casual games are Intimacy, Power, and Achievement.  In order to make a satisfying social casual game, all three of these needs must be clearly expressed.  It would not feel good to spend months building upon a beautiful kingdom if you didn’t have anyone to show it to (Intimacy), show off the product of your time spent building (Achievement), and know that your kingdom looks infinitely cooler than your friends’ (Power).  The remaining three, Defense of Status, Materialistic, and Informational Needs, can be used in conjunction with the three most important groups in order to enhance gameplay.  For example, in CastleVille, an online game in which the player builds/collects/advances in the story of the kingdom, depends more upon the fact that it is a purely social game.  Who you are connected with is just as important as the virtual castle you’ve built. Without the Intimacy, Power, and Achievement needs being satisfied, Defense of Status, Materialistic, and Informational needs wouldn’t work as well to create satisfying gameplay.

CastleVille is small beans compared to the Candy Crush Saga universe built by King. Candy Crush Saga is one of the top grossing mobile and Facebook games to date, with 6.7 million active users as of July 2013. Furthermore, it exemplifies all of the psychological needs described above in a single game. Candy Crush Saga fulfills the need for Intimacy by creating a sense that you are participating in game play with friends.  A player needs their friends to send rewards to help out with the tough levels, unlock gates, and send more lives so that they can immediately start playing again the second they run out.  Players can see what their friends’ scores are and which levels they are on so that they can feel connected and superior—or even inferior—to them at the same time.

Power needs are expressed by the ability to dominate friends’ high scores.  Pass a friend’s score?  Immediately inform them of this information with one click to rub it in their face.  However, don’t try to ask anyone how many times he or she has played a level or paid real money for a little extra help and then expect to get an honest answer. Our Defense of Status needs cause us to want to appear in as positive a light as possible and conceal any failure of the self.

The need for Achievement is satisfied repeatedly throughout this game with each level completion.  A player’s ranking is important, but the real reason this game wins is, because unlike many other casual social games, Candy Crush levels are hard and cognitively engaging, both of which boost Achievement and Power need stimulation. Its widespread popularity has reinforced its effectiveness at satisfying psychological needs by expanding into water cooler conversation, which makes its effects on Intimacy even stronger.  

The success of social casual games is due in part to our brains and their ever-changing states.  Because of our minds’ constant state of disequilibrium, we are always seeking stimulation in one form or another, depending where our deficit of the moment is.  Social casual games are made up of the mechanics we need to satisfy our cravings.  If our minds were constantly in a state of homeostasis, without feelings to activate us towards our behaviors, what kind of interactions would we have with our surroundings and what kind of world would that be? That’s the recipe for a world without Candy Crush Saga, and that’s not a world I want to live in. 

Social casual games offer a unique opportunity to fulfill my psychological needs in a safe environment with complete control over how much mental energy, time, and physical energy that I would like to invest.  The more psychological needs that are met by a game, the more time I’m likely to spend playing it.  Why venture out into the real world for psychological stimulation when I’ve got all that I need at my fingertips?  

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