Thursday, July 25, 2013

You, Me, Myself and I: Candy Crush Saga is “ruining” our lives!

Petra Kottsieper Ph.D.

I never thought it could happen to me, until the sister of a close friend offered me a little taste of it.  Sure I had known about it, seen other people do it, but I thought I was immune, until that day, that day when I was handed an iPhone and told to play a game of Candy Crush Saga.  Now I find myself absently staring at my phone, will forgo a new episode of a real life crime TV show, and sometimes sneak in a game before my first cup of coffee. I am in need of help, and apparently so are 15.5 million other users who play this game multiple times a day to reach or crush one of the game’s 385 levels.  My hairstylist in level 60, the receptionist on level 90, and one of my girlfriends who I never thought would touch an iPhone game is in level 30.
If you are not familiar with the game, I suggest you read this brief article published through ABCNews[i], which does a great job describing the game and outlines two main reasons why it is so attractive.  The first, the game has tons of built in social aspects; you can link the game to Facebook, compare your scores to your friends’ scores, and also get your friends to give you extra chances when you have run out (in lieu of waiting). The second, the game is fun and challenging, exploiting our natural tendency for pattern recognition in a cute puzzle matching game.

Perhaps what is really most ingenious about this game is that it is both “ethical” and “unethical.” Apparently the game’s creator King, stated that the game could be played in it’s entirety at no cost.  But in order to do this, you have to be either really, really good, or you have to have PATIENCE with a capital P, which is where the “unethical” part comes into play!  This is because at each level of the game you get 5 chances to get it right and if you do not, the game locks you out.  Then it gives you the option to a) buy more levels, b) get them from a friend, if you play the game via Facebook, or c) WAIT.  And it not only makes you wait, which confused the hell out of me when it happened the first time, but  it varies the wait time, sometimes it is 30 minutes, sometimes less, sometimes more.  This can become a minor crisis when it is 12am and you are super close to finishing a given level. You barely missed it on your last try, and now what?  Do a load of laundry and then continue?  Grade some papers? Play with the kittens? Go to sleep and try again the next day……….. , right!
What is even worse, when you are ready to move to certain levels, for example 36 or 51, you cannot.  Some levels have additional barriers built into the game.  Now, again, if you do not want to buy yourself to the next level, or rely on friends for extra chances, you need to play “3 mystery quests”, in order to be able to continue.  However, as I recently learned doing this, you can only play 1 quest PER DAY.  Talk about needing P.A.T.I.E.N.C.E. now!

Apparently there are enough people, who are not willing to or are unable to wait, and handsome amounts of money are being made on an ostensibly free game.  Which seems fair, given someone created this game, and keeps developing it; and most things in life made for our entertainment by other people cost money. However, what is “unethical “about the game is that the developer so expertly exploits several aspects of our human condition, including some behavioral principles that we probably all recognize from our undergrad intro to psych class. (Of course, I am also open to the interpretation that I am just annoyed that someone is getting rich on what we psychologist research and teach…….but that is another blog post.)
Initially, you will most likely be pulled into the game because humans have an innate need to perceive or see patterns, a basic function of perception to order, sort, and make sense of incoming stimuli.  Once you are playing, learning principles and possibly some of your personality traits/tendencies start operating on your behavior.  The early levels are not too easy as to be unchallenging but are still relatively easy.  Your interest is kept up, because at each level some type of learning is involved, given you have to figure out the specific objective of each level.  This requires some slight variation in your strategy via insight or trial and error learning.  When you meet a level, even if you need many attempts, you are reinforced by your experience of success aka a bit of a rush of your dopamine system (accompanied by little mini explosions on your screen and all sorts of other cutesy things).  The dopamine spike occurs, because you are activating your brain’s “pleasure center” by having met a goal and unlocking another level of the game. In these situations extra dopamine is your friend, as it will give you pleasure, which in turn makes you persevere to and through the trials and tribulations of the next level.   I am sure that when a friend of mine, who was apparently stuck on a level for 3-months (!), finally succeeded, her dopamine rush, was a bit like the Niagara Falls.

The game also has an element of “chance” and unpredictability built into it.  When you crush some candy, new candy appears.  The candy’s type and color is variable and seemingly unpredictable, which can make a big difference to your particular game.  It is the polar opposite from an experience we may have all had: the refrigerator experience.  You open the fridge, there is no ice cream.  You open it again, still no ice cream, you might open it again, but eventually you stop and resign yourself that it will not magically appear.  Your behavior is extinguished.  Not so in candy crush.  Here your crushing behavior is sort of intermittently reinforced on a micro level.  You are merrily (or desperately) crushing away, and every once in a while the King game god's gives you the right candy you needed just in that situation. It has been known for a long time that intermittent reinforcement works best when you have already established a behavior and want to maintain it, in other words this will keep you crushing away….. pop and pop and pop.
Levels become progressively more challenging, but now you have also build skill and hence this game appears to perfectly illustrate the concept of “flow” first outlined by M. Csikszentmihalyi.  What this means for gaming was outlined nicely on a blog written by Sean Baron in March of 2012, where he noted that Csikszentmihalyi found that when a person’s “skill is too low and the task too hard, people become anxious. Alternatively, if the task is too easy and skill too high, people become bored. However, when skill and difficulty are roughly proportional, people enter Flow states.”[ii] Baron went on to outline four conditions that help promote a flow state that game developers should consider, and consider them they have- in Candy Crush Saga.
But to go back to my original point, flow or rather the ability to experience flow, is interrupted in this game on purpose at many different levels. And that brings me to back to the “unethical” part of the game, except of course I say this in jest, because we all get manipulated knowingly or unknowingly all the time.  So Candy Crush Saga is exploiting our need for reinforcement, for mastery and for flow….. Is it also addictive in the true meaning of the word?
How many of you have stayed up until 3am and had to get up at 6am and were subsequently sleepy and unproductive at your job all day?  Have you used the money you were going to buy a birthday present with to purchase additional games?  Oh, you are exaggerating you may say reading this.  You may say, psychologists and mental health types always have to diagnose everything.  After all, buying additional levels in Candy Crush Saga is “relatively” cheap and therefore can be easily excused, at least by people who can afford a $5 special coffee several times a week.  Spending a dollar here and there is hardly going to ruin most peoples’ lives.  However,  the mechanism underlying your need to buy the next Candy Crush Saga level instead of waiting , are not all that dissimilar alas probably less intense and less life shattering than urges to keep gambling, or even using substances.  It has been found that gaming indeed can be addictive, just as gambling, sexual activity and internet use. Preliminary research indicates that in individuals who are addicted to online gaming the same neural substrates are utilized as in individuals who have a substance abuse addiction (Ko et al., 2009). Of course, the operative descriptor here is that this study used individuals with a gaming addiction.  I am absolutely not saying at all that the 15.5 million people are who are playing candy crush saga several times a day have a gaming additction.  What I am saying is that some of them might be, or might become addicted.  I am also saying that maybe those of us who fall into the non-addicted but definitely impulse control challenged group should not be so quick to judge people who do become addicted to certain behaviors, or substances.   We might also want to learn about how we are manipulated and why this work so well!
Finally, the game can teach us a very important albeit possibly unintended lesson, which is how much patience we have, and how to delay our gratification.  A whole host of positive outcomes are associated with our ability to self-regulate and delay gratification, and maybe therein lies one of the biggest gifts of this game. But wait, before I go into that, I just gotta cram in one quick game…..
Note: If you think you, or a loved one, is addicted to online or other forms of video gaming, please read this paper for a review and treatment options. Also please contact a mental health professional, who is qualified in the treatment of these types of behaviors.
Griffiths, M. D, & Meredith, A. (2009).Videogame Addiction and its Treatment.Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy.

Ko, C.-H.  ,  Liu, G.-H. ,  Hsiao, S.,  Yen J.-Y., Yang, M.-J., Lin, W.-C., ….. Chen, C.-S.(2009). Brain activities associated with gaming urge of online gaming addiction. Journal of Psychiatric Research,  43,  739–747.


  1. Text on a site about mental health:

  2. This is my favorit game and i allways play it this site

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  3. Very excellent blog for the hints and tips about Candy Crush game.Its really very useful and entreating blog for the information of Candy Crush Saga,,Thanks for sharing the wonderful article for helping us.

  4. You are allowed to post names, but not links, unless they are approved and on topic.
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  5. our cheats and tips will get you through this challenging game … Candy Crush cheats

  6. I think it's silly to classify video game addiction as an actual, legit, psychiatric illness

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Coffee addiction, believe it or not, is a more serious underlying problem that can lead to repetitive thoughts and a lack of clarity during withdrawal. Perhaps rehabilitation from caffeine may be a good starting point, then candy crush.