Developers of video games or gamified systems use compulsion loops to oblige continued use of their product. A compulsion loop is a iterative process that instills in you a new habit. Conveniently, your new habit normally makes money for someone else.
Compulsion loops create the illusion of value, as South Park stated brilliantly in S18E6: Freemium isn’t Free.
If you must exploit human psychology to keep users, then your product lacks intrinsic value. If it weren’t for compulsion loops, someone should still find reason to stay with you.
But we live with compulsion loops, and those prone to addiction arguably suffer the most. Addicts end up stuck in compulsion loops on a downward spiral for the next dopamine hit. Take Runescape, a MMORPG by Jagex Ltd. designed to keep you playing regardless of your mood or health. I don’t even need to mention World of Warcraft. I’ve played both games and had fun, but not because the games were fun in themselves. Because the games had no intrinsic value, I had to rely on friends and the anticipation compulsion loops offer to tolerate the grind.
This is not to say compulsion loops are bad, just that they are powerful. We can only hope to get stuck to compulsion loops that make us want to diet, exercise and keep the house clean. Unfortunately businesses are excellent at programming your habits to suit them before you set yourself up for success. Neale Martin, author of Habit: The 95% of Behavior Marketers Ignore, helps businesses shape their own customers in this way.
I am a staunch opponent of bad compulsion loops. This is not to be taken as an active and hypocritical push to make people behave differently. Rather, I would hope to guide people out of compulsion loops themselves if they want out but are struggling to leave.
If you knowingly choose to stay in a loop and maintain the cost, more power to you. My favorite self-proclaimed alcoholic comedian Doug Stanhope has more to say on that subject.
Stanhope says (likely in jest) that addiction doesn’t exist. Even if that were true, the purpose of this article series is to break an addict’s spiral and compulsion loop so they can find more control and enjoyment that benefits them more.
For convenience I will refer to both gamified systems and video games as “activities,” because we should talk about when it’s okay to cheat them both.
But why cheat? It’s not the only way to fight addiction. You have cold turkey and habit substitution, so why pick this more controversial approach?
We need the rewards from cheating to cheapen the value of our own work. If you were banned from a game for cheating or simply went cold turkey, you still have anticipation for reward, which is one of the drivers keeping you in a compulsion loop.
In my experience having spent more time and money than I want to admit addicted to games, cheating breaks a compulsion loop so emphatically that you feel no anticipation, purpose or drive to continue. When you run
iddqd in DOOM or max out all of your stats after running a bot, you start your last joyride. With nothing left to anticipate, cheating means ruining the game for yourself. You won’t play it again for a long time after the novelty of god-teir gameplay runs off.
This is why cheating ruins games for the player on an individual level. Now, if pulling the lever in the Skinner box for a food pellet takes more away from you than the pellet can ever give back, then cheating is an underrated detox program that breaks a downward spiral. Cheating becomes the right thing to do. You WANT to ruin the activity for yourself before the activity ruins you.
Even if you enjoy some addicting activities and wish to keep doing them, you should learn how to cheat as a way to control your habits and the influence that compulsion loops have on you. If something changes in your life and the habit starts to take its toll, you need that out.
I can’t cure addiction, but when possible I can teach addicts to cheat as a means to regain lost control. Next in the series we will discuss GUI automation with Sikuli to cheat our way to fake points on Khan Academy, a gameified education platform. Our goal will be to break the compulsion loop in Khan Academy so that only the people who value education for it’s own sake will consume its content.
Addendum: What about the other players?
Cheating in games that involve money and competition raises one simple question: Is it ever right to cheat if one player can gain an advantage over others that play legitimately?
It’s never right. That’s an easy answer because this question assumes a cheater is competing. There’s a difference between using a memory editor to win addictive single-player games and using a bot to win a Rocket League season.
Cheating in competitive environments must stop immediately because the reward for the obvious cheating harms others. Otherwise, cheating sabotages addictive activities, which is a good thing.
Morals become grey for me when cheating hurts only the activity’s owning business. Mobile freemium games or MMOs might create a perfect storm where businesses wins at the expense of addicts.
Designers should allow players to cheat so long as the cheats don’t affect competition. Reverting a character to a point before they started cheating is a good approach. This gives serious players an incentive to grind and train legitimately, and gives addicts an out.
Games like Runescape won’t allow this because real-world currency is tied an in-game market. Any cheating would vaporize their business and reduce the game to blind rage and liability issues. If Jagex could capitalize only on the competitive nature of the game, maybe they wouldn’t be in this mess.
Despite the harm it would do to Blizzard, Jagex, etc., cheating their games frees addicts. Addicts cannot make lucid or informed consent. Businesses should not take money from addicts because those transactions aren’t legitimate.
Giving addicts an out so that they can invest more in themselves is the motivation behind this series. That, and encouraging for intrinsic value in products once again.