Gamification Core Loop: What Makes Games Fun?

As of 2019, the video game industry has surpassed every other entertainment industry by a large margin, with an estimated annual revenue of US$152.1 billion compared to the global box office revenue of US$41.7 billion. For a quick comparison, the 2013 game, Grand Theft Auto V earned US$1 billion in sales within just three days (that grew to a staggering US$6 billion in lifetime earnings) compared to Avengers: Endgame’s week-long run in the box office to hit the same figure (with their lifetime box office earnings capped at 2.7 billion). The versatility of the game industry can also be observed by its rapid growth amidst the 2020 global pandemic. Today, the boom of mobile gaming market shows that the video game industry shows no signs of slowing down. 

The game industry’s move from a fringe cultural phenomenon to an industry that continually breaks revenue records is one that has garnered a lot of attention. Successful game design has created products that engage players for hundreds of hours, inspired billions in-game transactions, and defined popular culture for over two decades. While games continues to be the summation of visual, auditory, and tactile stimuli, the core mechanics of game design deal with the intrinsic human needs for satisfaction. 

In practice, game design is the delicate balance of user input towards challenge and reward, and the successful application of which has resulted in unprecedented rates of engagement in any medium. As games became more mainstream and the resulting revenues grew to proportions that could no longer be ignored, a new sub-industry had emerged: gamification.  

What Exactly is Gamification?

Gamification is the application of game design elements – the very elements that have grown the games industry into the multi-billion-dollar business – and applying it to the everyday. The integration of gamification into business, education, and otherwise mundane activities have proven particularly successful in recent years. 

Illustration of a communal gaming session
Playing video games have become a popular communal pastime

Though the application possibilities are nearly endless, for the purposes of this article we can distill the use of gamification towards two different outputs: retention and education. To explain just how gamification works, we need to first identify the defining reasons why gaming is such an enjoyable and addictive experience. 

The Science of Fun   

Pain and pleasure are base psychological and physiological responses of human biology. Years of evolution has resulted in a human form that survives on the habit-forming reinforcement of external stimuli. The communication of pain often denotes bodily harm, while the transmission of pleasure was meant to reinforce actions that were beneficial to the human body or the human population at large – eating, drinking, procreations, etc.  

For the contemporary human, the biological instincts required for species survival have gradually been rendered redundant as our cognitive skills continue to grow. Nevertheless, the core biological context that result in our base responses remain in our biology – quickly associating certain actions through a wide range of emotions and responses that directly tie to pain and pleasure. This kind of carrot and stick approach is deeply engrained into our anatomy via the release of the neurotransmission hormone: dopamine. 

Working as a chemical bridge in pleasure sensing neurons, dopamine release can be triggered through physical and mental stimuli. Achieving a dopamine rush through real-life actions often requires physical or mental strain followed by a “rewarding” sensation upon release. This cycle of challenge, input, and reward remains core to our functionality as humans and has been the basis for game design. Whether by design or by accident, the manipulation of dopamine release is due in large part to our brains’ incapability to distinguish between the real versus virtual stimulus.  

Achieving Fun through Game Designs 

In multiplayer video games such as Fortnite, players are given a flashy victory screen and a slew of in-game rewards every time they won a match. Overcoming the challenge of each battle royale game and the culmination in an end-screen that presents visual, auditory, and tactile stimuli presents a loop that thoroughly incentivize players to keep on playing. The degree of avatar customization also helps players to identify and attribute their in-game achievements as truly their own.  

Various single-player games also employ the same core game design that rewards the fulfillment of the game’s objectives, such as giving players new stages to play after successfully earning three stars in the previous stages of Angry Birds. Increasing your Atma’s stats and attributes in Code Atma also yields the same satisfying results, nurturing our desire to experience visible growth after overcoming the obstacles that are presented before us. 

To explain just how this kind of game design can be used to foster a higher level of participation and retention, we turn to Leika. In Leika, we apply the concept of a gaming leaderboard in order to enhance the level of audience experience and their performance. By giving users the chance to personalize their avatars, they are given a personal stake to reach the top of said leaderboard. They climb their way to the top by gaining points in various customizable minigames that could take form in anything that the game master wishes, be it for the purpose of learning, advertising, etc. Winning the top spot at the end of the game will show the user defeating their peers, earning them bragging rights and personal sense of immediate achievement. 

The steps in the game design core loop
The Core Loop of Game Design

So, What Makes Games Fun? 

Said combination of fun game mechanics, rewarding gameplay, and the degree of personalization keeps gamers motivated to keep playing. This creates a loop that keeps players from putting down the game; through a clear goal that provides immediate feedback that players took voluntarily with minimal risks. Giving users with a clear-cut path towards rewards is a sure-fire way to maintain a high level of retention, while catering their psychological needs of personal satisfaction and sense of achievement. 

The core concept of game design could then be applicable to help users achieve a much higher rate of retention and sense of accomplishment; such is the concept used by the foundation of gamification. Transforming mundane tasks into an addictive and interactive experience are achievable through the implementation of game-like values, by tricking brain chemistry into giving immediate feedback for a task that should take ages to be considered satisfying. 

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About Agate Level Up & Gamification Products: 

Established in 2010, Agate Level Up is the Indonesian frontrunner of gamified solutions to help companies reach their full potential. More than 100 clients from various industries throughout our one decade of experience is a testament on how having fun is detrimental to our collective success. We believe in fun, are you ready to thrive from it? 

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