The psychology behind the most powerful game mechanics


In 1930 Burrhus Frederic Skinner, who was a psychologist at Harvard University, invented the Operant Conditioning Chamber, better known as the Skinner Box. This box was a camera that had a lever, a lever that an animal, usually a rat or a pigeon, can press down in the hope of obtaining food or water as a reward. This reward is known as the “enhancer.” The Box was used for a series of experiments, most of which revolved around finding the factors that caused the animal to pull the lever more or less frequently (called the “response rate”).

His findings have had a great impact in various fields related to the motivation industry. This included fields such as motivation enhancement, addiction study, behavior modification, employee engagement, game design, and many others.

The most basic level of results showed that pigeons were more likely to push the lever more frequently when there was a 50% chance that they would receive a reward. The weird thing was, this happened even more often than when they got one 100% of the time. This is called intermittent rewards program and it is one of the most powerful game mechanics used to engage players. They also found that the most effective rewards program was a variable rate rewards program (where the result was 50% of the time, but they could get 3 rewards in a row and then nothing for 5 lever pushes) rather than a fixed rate schedule. of rewards (for example, where they would get a reward every 2 lever pushes no matter what).

Basically, the combination of unlocking the reward only 50% of the time along with not knowing exactly when the reward will be unlocked inserts a level of randomness into the equation such that there could be many unrewarded lever pulls. but the average reward is established and can be somewhat intuited. This combination is irresistible and produces both the highest response rate and the highest resistance to extinction.

What does this mean to us? Animals (and humans) can be persuaded to do an activity more frequently simply by giving us the opportunity for a reward rather than promising us a guaranteed reward. We tend to know this intuitively, which is why many people enjoy gambling.

Thousands of games use these principles. Slot machines will reward you with money intermittently, Farmville will randomly give you gifts (usually items to use on your farm), and World of Warcraft mobs only drop the loot you need for missions sometimes and not all. time.


Loss aversion is a behavioral characteristic of human nature demonstrated by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1979 as part of their prospect theory.) It describes how people are inherently fearful of loss when choosing between probabilistic alternatives that involve risk. Basically, instead of looking at the “big picture” or the bottom line, we view each loss as its own event, making those losses irritate us more. We don’t like to lose more than we enjoy to win.

Prospect theory says that there are two stages in the decision process: editing and evaluating. During the editing part of the decision-making process, people will analyze their choices and then set a goal or benchmark. Then they will look at that point during each event; relative to that benchmark, they call negative results “losses” and positive results “gains.”

In the evaluation phase of the decision, people will choose what they perceive as the best option; This is usually the most useful option, which is based on the potential results and their respective probabilities at the time of obtaining that result. For example, let’s look at this: if someone gave you 2 options; the first, you are given the offer of $ 50 with no stipulations. The second gives you a chance to win $ 100 just by flipping the coin. Which of them would you choose? Both options are mathematically equivalent, but most people would choose to get the $ 50.

Loss aversion is the most powerful game mechanic present in many games. For example, at FarmVille, you don’t return, your investments die, and you feel like you’ve wasted time and money. Loss aversion is also present in poker, when a player decides to bet less money than he should (based on his odds) just because he doesn’t want to risk all his chips and be eliminated from a tournament. The thought of losing it all carries more weight than the potential amount you could win on this particular hand.


Achievements are, in short, a representation of a specific achievement. In some cases, they will give you something to help you progress through the game. In other cases, they are a great way to show off to your fellow players about your accomplishments. But why do people love achievement? How do they drag us further into our virtual experience?

That’s where Abraham Maslow comes in. His research revolved around something he called the “hierarchy of needs.”

Needs in Maslow’s hierarchy work from the bottom and go up. The concept is, in short, that we have all these needs in our lives. As life progresses, the needs we have have become much more complex by nature and also become much more difficult to meet. We feel fulfilled when we make sure these needs are met; we feel like we’ve accomplished something in our lives.

Achievements are the fourth step of any individual’s needs. We like to feel that we have accomplished something. If you defeat a raid boss in World of Warcraft, you feel like you’ve accomplished something and it gives you a sense of satisfaction and pride. But what if you are a non-raid player? How can Blizzard help you feel fulfilled? The achievements they give you give you little “breadcrumbs” that tempt you to go back and achieve those things. Some of them may seem trivial; others are incredibly difficult. Either way, you feel like you’ve accomplished something and that the achievement system has satisfied the need for esteem.

So where do we see the achievements?

In World of Warcraft, achievements give you something to fight for while doing missions and raids, by asking you to do something different than you would; you accumulate points that you can show to your fellow players. In the Pokémon game series, you earn badges when you defeat gym coaches. Consoles like the Xbox have even included achievements in everything you do on your account, from playing particular games to performing certain actions while on the console. Achievements are everywhere and can challenge games that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

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