I sit on the train going over the Williamsburg bridge on my way back home to Brooklyn. Just outside the window, the New York City skyline and a million twinkling lights are passing in view:
Over 60 million tourists come to the city every year just to get views like this. But I don’t look at any of that.
Instead, I’m dressed in black and completely engrossed in a screen about half the size of my face. I’m tap-tap-tapping on the screen and pinching and gesturing. I’m gorging on colorful visuals and drinking in shimmering sounds of affirmation and new loot.
I’m consuming little dopamine pellets like a hamster nibbling treats in a cage.
You’d think that I would stop looking at the damn screen when I get off the train, but nope — I have the app open as I walk out onto the platform, down the steps, and even as I cross the street. I have the app open as I turn the keys to my door, put my stuff down, go to the bathroom, and open my laptop to continue looking at a bigger screen. I keep the app charged next to my laptop as I eat dinner and continue internetting. Before bed, I continue tap-tap-tapping; I wake in the morning and I’m tap-tap-tapping; I continue doing this even as I go to work and intermittently throughout the workday.
My life had somehow reached this sad state of affairs within 24 hours.
What’s happening here?
For about 2–3 weeks of my life, I was heavily addicted to a smartphone game called Merge Dragons. It’s okay if you haven’t heard of it.
Have you heard of Candy Crush? It’s like Candy Crush but multiplied and put on steroids. With dragons.
Oh, you haven’t heard of Candy Crush? Well, how about Bejeweled? Still no? Well then, clearly you’re not a casual gamer and you’ve got your shit a lot more together than me.
For everyone else in the same boat, similar boat, or relatable boat — this is why Merge Dragons is so addictive and why no one should ever play this game.
1. Sensory stimulation
Merge Dragons caught my eye when I saw their ad on my Instagram feed. My first thoughts — “So pretty! and “Yay, dragons!”
The quality of the graphics was the main source of the appeal. Really bright, vivid colors with incredible detail, shading, and animated effects. Beautifully rendered dragons, plants, items, and levels. Pure eye candy. Merge Dragons is at the forefront of free game apps (4.7 out of 5 App Store rating) and exploits the capabilities of retina displays. Accompanying the vibrant graphics are sounds and effects that trill pleasurably every time something good happens in game.
2. Candy Crush game mechanic
Candy Crush isn’t the first game to build puzzle levels based on the “matching” game mechanic — match three or more of the same items to progress in the level. I just use Candy Crush as the baseline because it’s one of the more well-known phone games that pretty much describes the mechanics of Merge Dragons. Everything in Merge Dragons is based on matching three or more of the same items. To beat a level, match items to get access to more items that need to be matched until you get the combination to beat the level. Levels slowly increase in difficulty with the addition of side quests, monsters, or newly discovered items. The slow increase in difficulty and reinforcement of game mechanics also appeals to all age ranges.
Why is matching three or more of a kind so addicting?
Perhaps because it’s easy and anyone, even a small child, can pick it up. The increasing difficulty of each level also keeps the game interesting.
3. Variable rewards at the end of each level
At the end of each level, the game offers some reward items — and you won’t know what all the items are until you’ve beat the level. Sometimes you can even get a treasure chest that is filled with more items of varying value. Variable rewards are inherently addictive the same way slot machines are addictive — you don’t know what rewards you’ll get, you just know it could be nearly worthless, good, pretty good, or very good. It’s something that keeps you playing, thinking that the next level you beat might give you “something really good!”
4. Time-based variable rewards
Some treasure chests are time-based, meaning you need to wait a few hours to open them. More valuable treasure chests require a longer wait time. In this way the game almost guarantees that you’ll come back and continue your habit — just to see what new rewards the game has for you.
The game also gives you a daily treasure chest, in addition to the ones acquired from game levels. More time-based variable rewards!
Adding to wait times and increasing engagement rates is the game mechanic in which each level requires a different number of “chalices” (turns) that refill once an hour until the maximum number of chalices is reached. Levels that require more chalices generally give more valuable rewards when you beat it. The game is metered and prevents you from burning out on the game too early.
5. Camp level with variable rewards
Alright so where do all these items and treasure chests go?
This is where Merge Dragons ascends from a mere Candy Crush+variable rewards formulaic rip-off to a completely new plane of game addiction.
There is a “camp” level in addition to the normal game levels. The camp level is essentially a permanent level where all your dragons live (the game is called Merge Dragons, after all). The map on the camp level starts off small and the only way to expand the map is to have more “dragon power.” The only way to get more dragon power is to acquire more dragon eggs from the normal game levels and treasure chests or acquire more powerful dragons by merging three or more eggs/dragons/bigger dragons.
Expanding the camp level map is addictive because each time the map is expanded you get more variable rewards. In other words, as a user you might think “There could be more dragon eggs in this next map area!” and “I want to see what new items this next map area has!” which keeps you addicted to the game loop.
Also, human brains are wired to seek completion so of course you’d want to fully expand the map as an end in and of itself.
6. Merge chains
Aside from beating levels for the inherent satisfaction of solving a puzzle or fully expanding the camp level map to satisfy the completion principle, another user incentive is discovering the biggest and best dragon/item.
To get the biggest and best dragon/item, match three or more of the same kind. Then take this evolved dragon/item, and match three or more of that again, and again, and so on until you reach the final form. These are called “merge chains,” and they play upon the user’s desire to see the best and final merged form for [insert any desired item in the game, like dragons, money, rare plants, etc.]
Merge chains feed into the desire to expand the camp level because more camp space is needed in order to make more advanced forms of merged items.
So I was addicted…but then I stopped?
As a product designer with previous experiences of game addiction, it was pretty easy to see all the little details of the game feeding my habit. But that’s not why I quit.
I quit because I hit up against inherent limitations to the design of the game.
1. The biggest and best X was just okay
Merge Dragons exploits human psychology in various ways and not all of the ways worked in its favor. Finally, after what felt like forever, I was able to make the biggest and best item in one merge chain. Unfortunately due to impact bias the actual event of tapping the Most Valuable Item and getting all the rewards wasn’t as fulfilling as I‘d overestimated it to be. At that moment, my motivation to continue playing the game more than halved. It killed my motivation to make the Most Valuable Item in other merge chains because — maybe it’s not going to be that great.
2. No more mystery
At a certain level of game addiction you start going onto the Wiki to learn more about items. Wikis are the mark of a legit game; it means there’s a community of dedicated users who care enough to make content and help other users advance in the game. However, it can also be a source of ruin because Wikis are the digital embodiment of game spoilers. One of the game mechanics feeding my addiction to Merge Dragons was discovering the final merged form of valuable items. Unfortunately, I was so addicted that I ended up looking at the final forms for all the merge chains on the Wiki and spoiled the game for myself.
…I mean, c’mon Merge Dragons, you used all these psych tricks on me; what do you expect me to do — not look at the Wiki?!
After awhile, even variable rewards become predictable. There’s always a pattern behind variability in these smartphone games, or in literal terms, an algorithm. Once that pattern is revealed, the novelty disappears and you start thinking “The rest of this camp map will be more of the same” or “The next level will be more of the same.”
There’s no incentive for the game creators to bring in attributes of better games that resist predictability like re-playability, story line and character development, more complex algorithms, easter eggs and so on because the entire reason for the existence of games like Merge Dragon is to generate revenue for the game creators via in-app purchases (IAP). The equation is: make users addicted to the game via a “matching” game mechanic + variable rewards = get revenue when users pay real money for reward items, in-game money, or power-ups to help them get through the next level. There is no actual desire to create a worthwhile game here, only an intent to use psychological manipulation to make money.
Designers need to stop designing phone game addictions
We all get that money is useful and everyone needs a certain level of income to obtain a general level of happiness. I’m not going get into the giant debate on justice, equality, the “best” kind of social impact, or speculate about the socioeconomic motivations that drove the creators of the Merge Dragons to create this game.
I’m just saying — everyone who worked on this game could have been doing something else that doesn’t:
- Create mindless zombies glued to their smartphones on public transit, at work, and at home
- Cause said mindless zombies to leave their smartphones on to stay in game consuming electricity and exacerbating climate change (which wouldn’t be an issue if electricity was generated through renewable resources but unfortunately most of the world is still burning fossil fuels to do that)
And yes, I realize I had conscious control over whether or not to become a mindless zombie. But after picking apart the game, I’m not using the word “addiction” casually; there are triggers and patterns in this game that can cause game addiction in varying degrees in everyone. This was a conscious act on the part of the game creators to incentivize in-app purchases.
The crux of my issue with Merge Dragons and similarly addictive smartphone games is this: The designers of Merge Dragon have the power to change user behavior. There are so many problems in the world needing solving that could benefit from their insight into human psychology. Is this really the kind of social impact that they want to make?
Putting aside Merge Dragon’s questionable social impact, at the end of the the day, nobody will say, “That’s a really great game” — just, “That’s a really addictive game.”