Candy crack: Casual gaming addiction is not child’s play
Candy crack: Casual gaming addiction is not child’s play
Lost hours, huge expenses and lies - this is what the lives of mobile game addicts look like, and this is how the addictive mechanism works
Shani (not her real name) seems to be the opposite of the stereotype of an addict. She is over 40, lives in the center of Israel, is the mother of two teenagers, and is employed in the high-tech sector. She appears very normal. Like everyone else, she also started playing on her cell phone innocently, when she received a link from her son for the popular Match Masters game. "It's a kind of Candy Crush on steroids," she explains. "You have to match shapes in rows and connect them to all kinds of sequences, and what's cooler and more sophisticated than Candy Crush is that you compete against someone online. There is one board and everyone in turn has to arrange the sequence, and you not only have to find a sequence but also block the opponent. As you move up levels, you upgrade and gain more powers, but the opponents also become more difficult. There is a limited amount of lives, and if they run out, you have to wait a period of time for them to fill up and you can play again - or pay.
"In the beginning I didn't play very much, only in bed before going to sleep. But it was a lot of fun, and the games are short, lasting only a few minutes, so you finish one and say, 'Well, just one more,' or you plan to just keep going until you reach a certain landmark, and when you arrive at it you say to yourself, 'okay, only until the next level'. Each round is limited in time, and you have to be alert to the other side's moves as well, so you can't put your phone down in the middle of the round or even answer WhatsApp messages. And even though the board is random, and you know it mainly comes down to luck, you convince yourself that it's a bit like chess, and if you're good, you'll win. There are also a lot of nice mechanisms to earn things, all kinds of side tournaments or monthly goals, which if you meet them open up more abilities and more cool challenges. And before you know it, you're sucked in.”
Soon the indulgence at the end of the day turned into a real addiction. It started with another half an hour a day, then another hour, and in a short time Shani was already playing all hours of the day, spending increasing amounts, missing deadlines, avoiding clients and friends and neglecting her family - until she took back control of her life and went through a process of detoxing everything from the game she was addicted to.
Shani is really not alone. In recent years, more and more people are addicted to casual games: short games, usually on a smartphone, which are limited by the number of turns per game ("lives"), which are renewed every fixed period of time - from half an hour to a day. The tasks in the game are simple, such as creating sequences of shapes, and the number of steps is infinite. The player accumulates coins for each level they pass, with which they can purchase boosters - all kinds of increased abilities in the game, which are limited in use. The games themselves are free, but offer the options to purchase "lives" or pay for in-game currency. And as these games become more and more popular, the circle of addicts expands. They spend days playing just to progress one step further, and are ready to pay again and again for more abilities.
What the players do not understand is that what they experience is not accidental, but well engineered by the game companies. "The surest way to get a player to come back to the game is to make it a habit, a part of their life. Then, once they return to playing it all the time, you have the opportunity to make money out of them," explains Alon (pseudonym), a game designer and product manager, who has been working for more than ten years in the field. "In a free-to-play game, the beginning is always super fun and super generous. You want the user to be able to play freely, so you don't put too many obstacles for them to progress, accumulate property within the game, and feel that they have ownership of it. Only after the soft and pleasant landing, do you move up a gear, and make progress more and more difficult.
"Take Candy Crush for example: at the beginning the board is simple and the goal is easy: collect 30 blue candies. There is a small selection of shapes, and a relatively large amount of moves. Later on, the board is larger and the goals are more complex. You have additional obstacles that need to be dismantled and special candies that need to be collected in a limited number of moves. The complications and the challenge increase. If at first the user goes through each step on the first try, suddenly they need several attempts to succeed. This is the point to which the creators of the game are pushing — the stage where the player returns to the game several times a day."
How do you do that?
"You build a system with limited energy, let's say a life in Candy Crush. You get five lives, and every time they run out, you have no choice but to come back later, because you have to wait half an hour to receive another life. It frustrates the player, but from the company's point of view it is ideal. They would rather you play four times a day for ten minutes than 40 minutes straight, because that way you create a routine of playing the game regularly throughout the day, which increases the desire to play it again.
"Even in other games, where you can play as much as you want, it won't necessarily advance you. In Clash Royale, for example, you fight an opponent, and if you win, you win a box that brings you more powers or powerful characters. But they let you collect a maximum of four boxes, and these only open in another hour or 24 hours, so you have no choice but to stop and come back later."
"True. At this stage, when you make it difficult for the player to advance, they are unable to recover the high from the beginning of their journey in the game and it is difficult for them without it. At this moment, you are pushing them options to jump forward in the game with payment. In a good game, 95% of the players will stop and move on to the next game, but it does not matter to you as the game owner. You only care about the 5% that remain. These are the players who pay and maintain the game."
This is an industry built on the people who "maintain the game" and makes a lot of money off them. Casual games brought in $17 billion last year — three times more than in 2017. About half of the amount comes from paying users, and the rest from advertisements. "Most paying users will pay very small amounts, single dollars," says Dan Lipa, VP at the casual games company Jam City, who has 12 years of experience in the gaming industry. "But the tiny proportion of very heavy users pulls the numbers up, so that the successful games bring in $25-$30 per day per paying player on average."
How many heavy casual games addicts are there? It is difficult to estimate precisely, but if you take into account that more than 3 billion people define themselves as "gamers", about 60% of them play on a smartphone and the estimates are that 3%-5% are defined as "addicts". According to this calculation, there are about 90 million addicts around the world.
Expenses: NIS 2,000 per month for game upgrades
"I remember very well the first time I paid," says Shani. "It was during the Corona pandemic. I had just bought a ticket for NIS 50 for an online lecture, and I said to myself: 'Well, what will happen if I buy an hour of pleasure for NIS 35, that's even less than the price of a lecture.'"
What did 35 shekels buy you?
"A package of game coins at a discount. For me it was a kind of investment, like in the bank. I assumed that with the coins I could occasionally buy some strong boosters, which would help me continue to win and accumulate more coins organically. But the package ran out really quickly. And the strong boosters, which up until then had helped me to win a series of games, suddenly were only enough for just a few games or only one game. So very quickly I got stuck with basic abilities again."
So did you buy another package?
"No, at first I held back because I was scared by the large amount I put in. It was the first time I ever paid for a game. That's why I started buying really small packages, 6.90 NIS here, 10.90 NIS there. And over time I felt it was stupid to buy several small packages a day, so I bought a larger package, one that is more financially 'attractive' and will also last longer. And very quickly I reached several purchases a day for 50 shekels, 100 shekels - not something I would go bankrupt because of. But as time went by, the prices of the packages also went up, and what used to cost 17 shekels, suddenly cost 59 shekels."
"The psychological mechanisms I use on the players are no different from those used by clothing companies or shoe stores," explains Lipa. "Just as they offer end-of-season promotions, I also offer the user promotions, discounts, etc. There is a delicate game here between Reason To Play - a new feature, new content and prizes that will make the player play - and Reason To Pay - a certain difficulty level or discount, to encourage them to pay to continue.
"Nowadays there are entire departments whose entire purpose is to generate this monetization, the transformation of features into income generators. The developers prepare the entire game in advance, and there is actually a detailed monthly diary in which it is defined which new feature comes out each day, how it comes out, with which campaign, etc. Everything to make you want to play more."
All of these features use basic behavioral psychology to deepen the player's commitment to play. "For example, there is one mechanism that everyone uses, called ‘near miss’," Lipa explains. "You make sure to put the player in a situation where they almost succeed in doing what they wanted: in a fighting match, for example, the opponent has only a drop of strength left, but at the last second he knocks you out; or in a car race you see the finish line, but two seconds before you get to it, you run out of gas; or in a slot game, where you have to get three identical icons, the system will give you two, and the third will be almost correct. This is a mechanism that must of course be done smartly, in a relatively random way, so that its matches the player's ability and also makes sense statistically. It is very important because with it you make the player feel that the game is under their control, that one more game, a little more, and they’ll win - even though in practice they have zero control, because everything is engineered."
The addiction: "The players look normal. It encourages you"
"Gaming addiction was defined as a mental disorder already in 2013, but it is very difficult to know who is really addicted to casual games because we are all on the phone, all the time," says Inna Artzi, director of addictions at the Dr. Tal Center for Emotional & Mental Support. "While computer games give you an alternate reality, phone games don't completely cut you off from the world. We usually play while we do things. If smartphone addiction was defined as a mental disorder, then 50% of us would be defined as addicts, because we all misuse them. Precisely because of this, this phenomenon of casual games is so unspoken of, it is part of our total addiction to the phone, and only rarely does the user reach a point where they are completely broken and must seek help. In other addictions there is real harm to a person, whether it is spending very large sums or harming their relationships. We don't have that here, so it often goes under the radar."
Shani's addiction also went under the radar for a long time. She worked from home as a freelancer during the Corona period, so she had no bosses or colleagues to notice her condition. And the spending was relatively small at first, so she could lie to her husband and say they were related to her business. "Until at some point it became non-stop," she says. "I no longer played only at night in the room, but all the time. I would walk around the living room while playing. It was no longer possible to do things while I was playing. The children would ask me to come and I would say 'I can't, I'm in the middle of a game'. I disappeared from my clients. After all, I couldn’t answer an SMS or WhatsApp because I was always in the middle of a game. I would do the minimum necessary, but after a while even that didn't happen. I postponed what I needed to do for the clients, and then I disappeared from them so as not to inform them that there was no progress. The climax came when one of the clients worried I had disappeared, so he reached out to my husband via Facebook to check what was going on."
Shani's credit card bills tell the story: five days passed between the first in-game purchase and the second, four between the second and third, and from there there is a rapid escalation until she started paying every day, then several times a day. In the first month she spent NIS 200, in the second it already jumped to NIS 1,000 and at the peak almost NIS 2,000 a month on various packages. In total, in five months, she spent more than NIS 7,000.
Did you understand at this point that you were in trouble?
"No. I hadn’t even called it an addiction yet. I would tell myself that I was only playing a short round while my slow computer was booting up. I thought I could do both. But things also got worse and worse, especially when I discovered the group option in the game."
What does membership in the Match Masters team give you?
"If you are a member of a group, you earn points not only for yourself, but also within the group, and then there are tournaments for groups that can win you more prizes. The game encourages you to join a group, so I joined a random group that was open, and thanks to it I was able to get more boosters. Then there is a ranking of daily, weekly and seasonal performance of the teams, and at the end of the season, the outstanding teams are noted on the game's Facebook page, and the members of the outstanding team receive a badge designed for their profile, like a medal."
Is there interaction between group members?
"Yes, there is an internal chat within the game, which allows you to talk to the team members, and there are chats on platforms outside the game, such as Facebook, where you are given cheats (ways to crack stages), and you can exchange all kinds of stickers that you accumulate in the game. The head of the group has a direct relationship with the game company and can arrange things.
"At one point I was 'headhunted' because I was successful. Someone contacted me on Facebook and said that he saw that I was good, and that they had a strong group - if I wanted to join. It stressed me, but also flattered me. So I checked him on Facebook, I saw that he looks good and we have two friends in common so I joined. I even bragged about it to my kids. The good teams have admission requirements and a minimum number of stars you need to get per week - so it deepens your commitment to play.
"If in the random group I assumed that the friends were just enthusiastic kids, here I discovered people like me, and it gives you the feeling that you are fine, there are other people around you, who seem normal to you, and they normalize your addiction. You are not an exception. So I was really sucked in."
The casual companies will do anything to get the heavy players. It starts with the discovery stage, which is done by collecting information from social networks, to locate those who have already proven that they are willing to spend money on a game and target them with advertisements on Google and Facebook. In the last year, this ability was significantly damaged after Apple decided to block the transfer of information about "events" in the game (such as a payment) to Facebook. But companies have alternative ways to do this, such as fingerprinting — identifying the user's phone according to personal data such as location, free space, battery status, and more.
And once the company catches the fat fish, it works hard to get as much out of it as possible. "Every successful company has departments that specialize in segmentation - a careful look at the user in order to tailor the experience for them," Lipa explains. "I know how to distinguish between two users who play exactly the same game and are at the same stage, and treat them differently, because their every action in the game is saved in my database: how many purchases do they make per day, which purchase is it (first, fifth or tenth?), where they live, and when do they usually pay. And based on that, I can offer the user exactly what they want."
"A player of slot machines, for example, wants to feel that they are a big gambler, so I will increase the size of the bet for them, so that they can get more excitement. When they reach 5,000, I will want them to bet a million virtual coins, and not a thousand like before. And when they reach this stage, I can't give them the same experience I gave them when they bet ten dollars. I have to enhance it."
"In every game there are the 'whales', several hundred, maybe thousands of heavy players, who spend thousands of dollars per game," says Alon. "These are the VIPs, and there are departments in the company that are focused on them, with customer managers who are in daily contact with them. They are in very close contact with the players, and really develop a relationship with them. When the whales get stuck in the game, they are given a bonus, more means to continue. It is better to give them free things than if they will get fed up and stop paying."
To what extent is the game engineered by psychologists?
"There are psychologists in the big companies, but it's much less organized and planned than you think. For the most part, these psychologists will mainly know how to explain why certain mechanics work, and won't invent new mechanics themselves. There is a famous story about Playtika, which introduced a pig-shaped savings box, called Piggy, into its games. For every virtual resource you spend in the game, the Piggy accumulates game coins. After a few months, a nice amount accumulates there and the game offers you to pay a small amount of a few shekels to open the Piggy and receive what has been accumulated in it. The psychologists will be happy to explain that this is due to a bias that we have, according to which we are more likely to pay when we are told that most of the amount is already in our hands and we just have to pay a little more to get it, than to simply pay the same amount for something we don't have yet. But the idea didn't come from someone in academia who came to these conclusions, but from the sandwich vendor at Playtika. If you look at most of the mechanics you will find a lot of such stories that began through improvisation."
Rehab: "I cancelled the credit card and took a loan for the overdraft at the bank"
"Even when I realized I was addicted, it took me a long time before I did something about it. I would play in the middle of the night and not be able to stop. I would buy another package and have an actual gag reflex of why I bought it and why I was doing it. Every time I would decide this was the last time. Just one more time. And it's very easy, with the push of a button, you don't even need to swipe a card. Buy and play.
"It's really an addiction, I really couldn't stop. I disappeared from my friends, who started wondering what was going on with me. My husband started pressuring me about the money that had gone out of our account, and I didn't know how to lie to him anymore. I wanted to tell, but I couldn't. I knew it was bad and I couldn't stop. It was clear to me that I had to get out of this and I couldn't do it alone."
How did you finally manage to take care of yourself?
"One night I decided I had to do something, so I went to a friend who knew something was going on with me. I sat with him outside his building and somehow told him. I felt stupid, because I was addicted to the dumbest thing there is, not even gambling, where there is at least some chance of making money.
"The friend was very supportive, and put things in proportion, said it wasn't as bad as he thought it was, and that it could have been much worse. From him I went to another friend, who I hadn't spoken to for a long time and she had kept asking what was going on with me and didn't give up on me. Even though it was in the middle of the night she told me to come over right then, so we sat in her yard and talked and it was already easier. She supported me, but she was also practical and immediately said, 'cancel the credit card.'"
When did you tell your husband?
"The next day. He went to work in the morning and then called me about another unclear charge and said that my credit card needs be canceled. So I came to his office and told him everything. He was shocked. He understood that something was happening, but he was not in the right direction at all. Even with all the shock, we were able to sit and settle on a credit plan and cancel all the cards in an orderly manner. We had to talk to my parents to give us a loan to close the deficit because not only was I spending money on the game, I wasn't making money because I wasn't doing my work for my clients. The next step was the treatment center for addictions - within a week I was at my first meeting there."
Were you able to stop immediately?
"Absolutely not. It took time. At first I still played without a credit card, then I used all kinds of old phones where I could open fictitious users, to get new life quotas to play. So I continued to play quite a bit, but little by little it decreased. I finally deleted the game only after I started working as an employee for a company, because it was much more difficult to play there. This is also one of the reasons I went back to being an employee - at home as a freelancer, no one sees what you do and it's easier to play. Addiction is a habit. I deleted the app and downloaded it again at least ten times. But over time, it calmed down. Now for almost two years I haven't played at all."
And do you have a credit card today?
"Yes, but it took me over a year to regain confidence in myself before I could reissue a card, and then I hesitated for another long time before setting up the same payment method on the phone."
Shani's case is especially troubling because the phenomenon of casual game addiction is hardly talked about. The companies that produce them do not have the negative reputation that the betting companies have, for example, even though they work on similar principles. Some of them are even proud of it. The advertising slogan of Match Masters, which is brilliantly emblazoned on the website of the gaming company Candivore, is: "This game is your new addiction!". Candivore also prides itself on the fact that even though it has a relatively small base of users, it makes a profit similar to that of much larger gaming companies. The meaning of this is clear - its few paying players spend relatively large sums of money.
Isn't it time to regulate the industry? The insiders are of course quick to reject any such notion. "There is no moral problem here," says Alon, "because the type of players who pay for these games are not people who are in a toxic relationship with the game. These are not people whose lives are being ruined by these games."
You describe whole departments in the game companies whose whole purpose is to continue to lure the "whales" at any cost. Isn't this cynical exploitation?
"It sounds exploitative, but in most cases these people are happy. As far as they are concerned they are getting a good deal and enjoying themselves. Contrary to what people tend to think - these are people who have the money to spend, not those who will mortgage their house to play. The game is not so psychologically strong that you can convince someone who has no money to spend thousands of dollars on a game. If there is a player who is specifically suspected of spending money that they do not have, a gaming company will not take the risk of messing with them. They are looking for those who have money to spend and enjoy the game."
Lipa also admits that there is an element of addiction in casual games, but is careful not to use the explicit word. "You can identify the same mechanisms in a person who is addicted to sports. Why do they go for another run? For the sense of achievement - the desire to reduce the time in which they run five kilometers. People pay money to pass the time - whether it is watching a movie on Netflix, going to a restaurant or paying for mobile game time. It's escapism."
Where does one draw the line between a fun game and an addiction? This is a difficult question. "Any activity that gives us pleasure, that generates a reward for us, can lead to abuse and addiction," Artzi explains. And there are those who would argue that there is no difference between these games and a TV series in which episodes end with a suspenseful cliff hanger only for you to come back to watch them in a week. After all, a deliberate psychological mechanism designed to generate commitment is activated here as well.
And yet the casual games are more disturbing than a suspenseful TV series, because they seem to have no purpose or added value, other than milking the players. And yet nowhere in the world do they treat them as gambling or impose regulation on their use. "You can at least start raising awareness," suggests Artzi. "If the player receives information about their use while playing, this is something that can help reduce addictions. Let's say a message that says 'you played for four hours today' or 'you spent such and such money today'. This creates a sense of control and puts it back in the hands of the user. I wish game companies could be forced to do this."
First published: 14:11, 20.01.23