Game Apps that I Love to Hate

Do you guys have games that you play on your smartphones or tablets that drive you crazy? You know, the ones that, for the life of you, you can’t figure out WHY IN GOD’S NAME you are wasting your life playing??

I do.

So it got me to thinking, why do I keep playing? Then I thought, WAIT! I know the answer to this one! I’m a behavioral scientist!!

First, the culprits:

candy crush sagaCandy Crush Saga. I blame my sister for getting me hooked on this one (though she will deny it). It’s one of those basic games where you have to clear items (in this case, candy) from a board by grouping similar items together. The game gets progressively harder and unless you want to pay crazy money for lives, you have to get your friends who are playing the game to give you lives. So basically, you are limited in how many rounds you can play at a given time. Then you have to wait for some friends to give you lives (or for your lives to refill based on time passed) before you can resume your quest to….yeah, well, your meaningless quest, basically, unless you count wasting more time!!

happy streetHappy Street. This one is even worse than Candy Crush Saga because it’s not even fun! I tried Happy Street as part of my usual app review responsibilities over at Balefire Labs. Happy Street doesn’t claim to be educational (or I’d be on a totally different rant right now) but it does claim to be fun. The idea is for you to build your own village, complete with characters, homes, businesses, etc.  I tested this app about two weeks ago. I’ve been playing it ever since. I have no idea why. It’s making me crazy. I can see it being fun (maybe) for kids. But why am I, a grown adult woman, in there spending time collecting rocks, making a seagull poop on pedestrians’ heads and having a tailor make bizarre hats??  I clearly have some kind of problem.

So in the midst of berating myself I got to thinking about my behavior. I keep going back to these apps again and again. Why?

What I realized is that it’s all about the intermittent reinforcement, something that is basic Behavioral Psychology 101. What is intermittent reinforcement? It’s reinforcement that is delivered on an unpredictable schedule. The unpredictable piece of that is what’s key: we’re not sure which time we respond will produce the desired consequence. The classic example is the gambler playing the slot machine, but I bet you can think of other examples as well…continuously checking email when expecting correspondence, looking out the window for a friend to arrive. Oh, and, um, playing Candy Crush Saga and Happy Street. Heh.

So we know that intermittent reinforcement leads to more robust behavior. As far back as 1953, Skinner reported,

The resistance to extinction generated by intermittent reinforcement may be much greater than if the same number of reinforcements are given for consecutive responses. Thus if we only occasionally reinforce a child for good behavior, the behavior survives after we discontinue reinforcement much longer than if we had reinforced every instance up to the same total number of reinforcements. (p. 70)

In examining my own behavior, I have to think that I would have quit playing Candy Crush Saga and Happy Street if the reinforcement in those games was continuous. Surely they would have gotten boring by now? But dammit, they keep making me wait for consequences!!!  And consequences that I don’t even care about! Oh, fine! You’re right, my behavior says that I must care about them!  Grrr!!

So hey, educational app developers, what can you learn from these games??  And what can you incorporate in your ed apps that would make those games addictive too?? How can we leverage the effects of intermittent reinforcement for education?


Well, maybe just one more game….


What dumb games are you addicted to?? Please share!

References: Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior, New York: The Free Press.





About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
This entry was posted in App Reviews & Recs, Gaming, Learner Behavior, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Game Apps that I Love to Hate

  1. Malena says:

    Interesting! I will definitely think about this for our next game, because obviously you want to create a game that the kids want to continue playing! At the same time it’s a bit tricky because rewards have to be frequent enough so you don’t give up. (If your friend never arrives you will stop looking out the window eventually.) And when it comes learning kids are different, if they find a task difficult they will give up quicker than if they find the task easy (unless it’s too easy then they will quit because it’s boring). And how do you make sure the game adjusts…. Obviously I don’t expect you to answer these questions, just some of my reflections on yet another great post! 🙂

    P.s the only game I have been addicted to was Tetris (in the 1990s!) but I haven’t dared trying candy crush saga……

    • karen mahon says:

      Malena, there is a TON of research in this area that might be useful to you. You can just do a google search for “schedules of reinforcement research” or I can send you some references. You are right, during acquisition of new skills you want very frequent delivery of reinforcement, but as the learner becomes more proficient, you want to increase the difficulty and make the delivery of reinforcers less predictable to build the persistence. You’re also right that all of this has to be adjusted on an individual basis. There is no “one size fits all” in terms of WHEN to adjust, but the philosophy of adjusting dependent on learners’ meeting of criterion performance standards works for every learner! Hey, maybe I should come over and consult on your next app! 😉

  2. Malena says:

    Cool! This is the kind of research that I’m not so familiar with. I will defenitely remember your offer to come to Sweden, just keeping my fingers crossed for good apponomics! 🙂

  3. Jackie Rose says:

    There have been times I’ve found myself hooked on a game only to realize, “I am a rat in a cage, and I keep pressing the lever expecting food.” then I continue pressing the lever, mining the game, trying to get a high score regardless.

  4. karen mahon says:

    Jackie, me too! Then one day, after I wrote this post, I ACCIDENTALLY DELETED CANDY CRUSH. I don’t know how I managed to do that, but I did. It was the best mistake I ever mad. I couldn’t face the idea of starting all over again, so I didn’t re-install it.

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