What Makes Games Addictive?

In about five years of owning various smartphones, the single most addictive app that I’ve found is one called Math Workout. Believe me, no one is more surprised by this than I am. In any other context, if you asked me to do math for no reason, you wouldn’t get a very friendly reaction. But there’s a simple element of competition to this “game” that changes everything. I regularly delete apps from my phone when I get tired of them or they’re taking up too much of my time, but this is the only one I’ve never been able to delete.

It works like this: You get fifty randomly-generated arithmetic problems, one at a time, and the software times you in solving them. They range in difficulty from 2+2 to squares and roots. At the end, your time is ranked against everyone else in the world who’s played that day:

You probably don’t need me to tell you that competition is addictive. What’s interesting to me about Math Workout is that it breaks the other “rules” for addictive games in a few ways:

1. No social element. Many popular mobile games let you play against your friends on various social networks, or at least pollute their Facebook and Twitter feeds with your “achievements.” This one has nothing like that. It’s made me realize that, while playing with people you know can keep a game interesting, it also dampens the pure competitive spirit. If I lose to a friend or family member at Scrabble, well, it’s just a game, right? But the depths of resentment that I can summon against strangers like “ap0791 from Italy” are truly frightening.

2. No cumulative achievements. That leader board is wiped clean at midnight (GMT) every day. Not only can you not build on your past success, there’s not even a record of it. As with #1, it’s an example of how the absence of an addictive feature can be addictive in a whole other way. Even if you had the best score in the world yesterday — even if it was the best score ever — there’s no record of it today. You’ve got to prove yourself all over again.

3. No way to cheat. I know, I know — YOU would never use one of those anagram solvers while playing Words with Friends, or watch the walkthrough videos for Angry Birds or tower defense games. But a whole lot of people do. And cheating plays a big part in keeping people engaged with the game. This has always been true for some video games; for example, if there hadn’t been cheat books (“strategy guides”) when I played Myst as a kid, I would have wandered around that damn island for an hour and gotten nowhere, then tossed the CD-ROM back on the shelf. And if I hadn’t used a walkthrough video when I got stuck on an occasional Angry Birds level (or given it to my younger brothers to beat it for me) I probably would have quickly given up on that too. Cheating at Scrabble games feels like a more grave offense, but for the people I’ve known who admit to doing it, it’s often a way to level the playing field with friends who are better than them, and without it they’d probably get discouraged and stop playing. (Hmm, if only there was another way…) Personally I don’t cheat in Words with Friends, but in the German Scrabble app that I’ve recently found, I have no qualms about handing my phone to German friends for help.

But I wouldn’t let someone else play for me at Math Workout and then enter my own initials on the high scores list. That would feel like an outright lie. And short of actually writing your own “bot” software to rapidly answer the questions for you (and I won’t say that I’ve never, in my darkest moments, suspected people of doing this), there’s really no other way to cheat. There’s no language, culture or age advantage: it’s just a matter of how fast you can do basic math. This purely level playing field is probably one reason it wouldn’t work as a “social” game — it would seem too self-aggrandizing to play it with friends, almost like you were comparing your raw brainpower. But against strangers, it makes things somehow more real. I may not want to believe that “eddy from FR” got that 45 second time, but on some basic level I have to accept it. Even if they got a friend to do it, what’s the difference if a stranger’s friend was faster than me rather than a stranger? And if people persist in doubting them, they may even post the whole thing to Youtube.

Of course, leaving out these features also makes the app much easier to write, support and maintain. And it’s a pretty basic piece of software. But with a million downloads for the free version and tens of thousands for the paid one (and the iphone version not even out yet), I’m sure it’s outperforming hundreds of more complex, “professional” apps.

Take another look at that Youtube link. That’s 160,000 views and counting for someone doing math. Which should be a reminder that there are many different ways a game can be engaging, and the currently dominant Zynga-type games are only taking advantage of a few of them.