The Compulsion Loop Explained

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I initially published this post in my personal blog Quarterview.com. Check it out to learn more mobile gaming design techniques, analysis, and industry opinions.

A man can surely do what he wills to do, but cannot determine what he wills.

– Arthur Schopenhauer

Since the introduction of the concept of the compulsion loop applied to video games was introduced as early as 2001 by John Hopson (while a researcher at Bungie), we’ve seen compulsion loop mechanics integrated into video games fairly broadly. The compulsion loop concept regained popularity in the 2010-2012 period with the application of compulsion loop principles in social games and especially by companies such as Zynga; however, I believe this is an area of future opportunity that will potentially gain a renaissance especially in mobile gaming.

To date there hasn’t been (as far as I can tell) a very compact and easy to understand coverage of the compulsion loop concept. Hence, this post attempts to detail the concept, expand the concept a bit with my own interpretation, and describe the potential future opportunity leveraging this concept.

1. Definition

First, what is a compulsion loop?

My definition of the compulsion loop is a very slight variation of a definition put forth by Adam Crowe as follows:

Compulsion Loop: A habitual, designed chain of activities that will be repeated to gain a neurochemical reward: a feeling of pleasure and/or a relief from pain.

There are three key notions to understand comprising this definition:

 

  • Habitual: The purpose of the loop is to create a long lasting and constantly repeated habit
  • Designed Chain of Activities: The compulsion loops should consist of a set of specifically designed activities within each step in the chain
  • Neurochemical Reward: Compulsion loop theorists believe that human free will does not exist and that the creation of habitual behaviors can be instituted and programmed

 

To the last concept around the neurochemical reward, Crowe explains that the compulsion loop derives its power from basic human elements of psychobiology and neurochemistry. Hence, the point of a compulsion loop is to induce a biological response such as the release of Dopamine to help train behavior.

Dopamine is released… as a result of rewarding experiences such as food, sex, and neutral stimuli that become associated with them.

– Wikipedia 2014

2. Concept Origins

Much of the thinking behind compulsion loops stems from BF Skinner’s psychological studies on animals such as rats, pigeons, and chimpanzees. Skinner invented the concept of an “operant conditioning chamber” (aka “Skinner Box”) which is a laboratory device used to study animals for the purpose of behavioral conditioning: teaching animals specific behaviors.

The image above shows Skinner’s operant conditioning chamber which attempts to train specific behaviors to the rat such as pressing the response lever to obtain food. The studies by Skinner concluded with specific observations particularly around contingencies: “a rule or set of rules governing when rewards are given out.”

 

  • Ratio: How much of a reward to give based on an activity?
  • Interval: How long to wait between giving rewards for an activity?

 

The compulsion loop in games originated from the notion that we can map the loop of activities within an operant conditioning chamber to game loops. Therefore, we could apply the principles of Skinner’s research to users playing within a game loop.

Hence, the concept of compulsion loops has historically been tightly linked to Skinner but in my view are not equal. In my view, a compulsion loops need only support the 3 core principles of the definition I included above and opens the door for additional mechanics or tactics that can be applied outside of Skinner’s original research.

3. Compulsion Loop vs. Core Loop

There seems to be some confusion in the industry about the difference between a compulsion loop and a “core loop.” Often these words are used interchangeably but I differentiate them as follows:

The core loop is the chain of activities associated with the primary user flow. What is the user primarily doing over and over again?

Bog hay Here’s an example below of what I would consider a core loop in a typical RPG game. Further, we can equate this particular behavior to the behavior of a rat in an operant conditioning chamber (press lever -> get food -> satiate hunger):

However, the difference in terminology now comes from the design of the various phases within this particular loop. I like to think of the steps within this particular core loop as comprised of three phases in the following way:

 

  • Anticipation: The user anticipates some desired user state. In the case of the rats, it’s the satiation of hunger. In an RPG, it could be finally getting enough gold to buy the Holy Avenger +5 Sword or enough power to kick the ass of the dude who’s been stomping him in PVP.
  • Action: The specific activity we want to incentivize and condition as part of the overall behavior.
  • Reward: This is the part where we give the user a reward for doing the specific activity.

 

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