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The Compulsion Loop Explained
by Joseph Kim on 03/23/14 05:07:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I initially published this post in my personal blog 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:

  1. Habitual: The purpose of the loop is to create a long lasting and constantly repeated habit
  2. Designed Chain of Activities: The compulsion loops should consist of a set of specifically designed activities within each step in the chain
  3. 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."

  1. Ratio: How much of a reward to give based on an activity?
  2. 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?

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):

Screenshot 2014-03-16 15.16.43

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Action: The specific activity we want to incentivize and condition as part of the overall behavior.
  3. Reward: This is the part where we give the user a reward for doing the specific activity.

Screenshot 2014-03-16 15.29.56

4. Compulsion Loop Application to Gaming

As John Hopson describes in his post on Gamasutra in 2001, a number of Skinner research conclusions can be applied to gaming and other application areas where we want to condition behavior. Here is a summary of some of the key conclusions:

Skinner Research Conclusions

Source: John Hopson 2001 via Gamasutra

5. Innovations From Gaming

Skinner's research focused primarily on the Reward phase within a compulsion loop (at least as per my articulation of it):

Skinner Compulsion Loop Research Focus

However, we have seen examples in social and mobile gaming where additional advances have been made.

Before proceeding further stop and think:

  • What other features have we seen to optimize compulsion loops in some of the other activity areas? e.g., in Anticipation or Action phases?

The below diagram shows an example within each of those other activity areas:

Screenshot 2014-03-16 16.38.57

Aspirational Neighbors:

The objective here is to anchor an objective or desired user state into the mind of the player: this is what you could become in the game! A couple examples of this from the folks at Supercell:

  1. Clash of Clans: Providing easy access to visiting the super high level cities of other players in the Leaderboards
  2. Hay Day: You are forced to visit "Greg" as part of the tutorial and see his more pimped out farm

Clash of Clans:

COC - Aspirational Neighbor

Hay Day:

HayDay - Aspirational Neighbors 1

Hay Day - Aspirational Neighbors 2

Another common tactic that has been used in RPGs is to put the player in the role of a high level user at the very beginning of the game to give them a taste of what they could later become and then strip them back to being level 1.

Variable Design in Action Phase: 

In games with PVE (player vs. environment), there have been attempts to make this phase of activity more interesting by giving players a "variable ratio" action. And further making the variable ratio action a type of reward. In Final Fantasy Air Brigade for example, PVE can include not just a typical battle but has a chance of encountering and capturing a Chocobo as well:

Variable Ratio Action


Many card battle games now routinely will mix up PVE with PVP or other types of encounters.

5. Future Opportunity

So where is the future opportunity with this?

Compulsion loop design can significantly drive retention. Further, some games like slots or progression/completion type games such as Mafia Wars or Farmville are, in my opinion, purely compulsion loop driven. Understanding how to design new tactics here can drive a winning game and open up new opportunities. In the mobile game market today, the smallest advantage from a retention or monetization perspective can make or break a game's economics.

I believe that significant innovation can come from taking a closer look at compulsion loop principles and applying them in smarter ways... and not just in gaming.

For example, with what we know about variable rewards and with current technology is there any good reason to maintain fixed loyalty rewards programs?

pnkberry stamp card

Yo Pinkberry that last free froyo should be variable!

We will likely see more compulsion loop innovation especially in mobile gaming where the stakes are so high and also particularly in mid-core and hard-core games where retention can be especially poor. Hopefully, better design at the compulsion loop level can help avoid situations like Game of War, where they stick appointment mechanic everywhere in the game to do whatever they can to retain players:

Game of War Appointment Mechanic

How many timers do you see above? :-)

I believe new disruptive compulsion loop tactics can and will be designed.

Currently we are just limited by our imagination... what new idea do you have to create a stronger compulsion loop?

Compulsion Loop Future

6. Sources and Additional References

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Nik Blumish
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Thanks for an excellent post.

Do you have any other examples of compulsion loop tactics in non-gaming contexts? This seems to be a concept that marketers of all types of industries should understand completely.

Jacek Wesolowski
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I'm worried that the focus here seems to be on how to make players spend more time in game, rather than how to make it quality time for them. You used the word "retention" three times, but you didn't use the word "fun" at all.

So I need to ask: how do you prevent compulsion loops from becoming compulsion traps? An example of a compulsion trap is when player keeps playing for the sake of habit, or because of a sense of obligation, but the activity isn't fun anymore.

Just to be clear, video games have first faced this problem too a long time ago, before Facebook. For instance, in some games, the optimal route to a goal is to repeat the same action or loop of actions over and over, rather than trying all the various actions available. Some players choose the optimal route, because it's what makes them win, even though they would have more fun if they tried a more varied approach. It's a problem because then those players become concerned that they are not having fun. This is called grinding and is generally considered poor design in most contexts. One question I feel is worth asking is whether you can use a compulsion loop to actually prevent a grinding pattern from emerging.

Alexandre Mandryka
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If we use motivation instead of retention and we make the actions and reward intrinsically fulfilling, maybe we can create "better" games.

I believe the difference between addiction and motivation is whether the focus is on the drive to get pleasure itself or on the drive to do the action which in turn results in pleasure. In a nutshell: Pleasure without learning leads to addiction.

Aurelien Nucreum
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(Sorry for my English, I'm really bad at it, I'm French)

Compulsion Loop is used for decades in Casinos to create what Jacek Wesolowski called Compulsion Traps.

In fact, most of videogames does not use the Compulsion Loop described here as "Kill Monsters -> Win Gold -> Buy stuff", but as a more powerful one which is "Kill Monsters -> Random reward".

The random is the key part here, it's playing on a combination of curiosity, superstition and frustration.

To make it quick, the cause of the extreme development of Human compared to other animals is the curiosity.
And this curiosity is what is exploited in Casinos (of course coupled with the possibility of winning great rewards): A fast succession of quick events leading to random-controlled rewards keeps the player playing over and over.
The curiosity seems to be the one cause of the "target panic" ("maladie de la carte" in french) in archery, where the archer would like to know the result prematurely, forcing him to shoot his arrow prematurely.

On the Skinner Box experimentations, Skinner worked with pigeons and discovered they were developing interesting and crazy behaviors if food were delivered randomly.
Pigeons thought food came out thanks to a particular action they were doing like turning the head or the neck, bowing, scraping... they were superstitious ; like humans when playing games like hack'n slash, MMOs... or Craps and slot machines.

The interesting phenomenon is when people are playing games like Diablo, hoping for rare gear:
If the player had nothing during a high amount of time, it leads us to two situations depending on the frustration stored in the player:

1) Nothing drops, the player can keep playing, sometimes developing some strange attitudes or thoughts supposed to "increase" drop chance. (Until the frustration is too high to keep him on the game if nothing really loots).
2) A rare item drops and if the frustration stored wasn't above his threshold, the reward will act like a frustration-reset, plunging the player in some superstitious states like: "I've finally got my loot... I'm maybe now in luck and can get another one." and the player starts another farm cycle until looting seomthing else or storing too many frustration.

The frustration managment is required here: if the loots dropped too oftenly, the player would find the game to easy and wouldn't play.
If the loots are too rare and require a too high amount of playtime, the player would find the game too difficult and wouldn't play.

The "Kill monster -> Random reward" loop is working — with the help of more constant rewards like gold and items to sell/disenchant/salvage — on the:
Frustration level: "I want items." -> The need.
Curiosity level: "What will I loot?" -> The motivation to satisfy the need.
Superstition level: "Now I'm sure it will loot." -> Second source of motivation.
Fast-pace aspect: "I can kill another one. And another one. And another one..." -> The addiction to the need.

This loop is repeated ad nauseam.

The random aspect in rewards prevents the player to estimate the time required to obtain what he desires and greatly increase it's playing time.

"Another common tactic that has been used in RPGs is to put the player in the role of a high level user at the very beginning of the game to give them a taste of what they could later become and then strip them back to being level 1."
That's what in French we called "Marcher à la carotte" (you know, like that:

When I spoke about random-controlled rewards, it's one of the control aspect: On an MMO, like World of Warcraft, when a new boss is killed for the firsts times, it has a higher amount of chance to drop "special" items or gear pieces, which become way way more rare after that:
When seeing these players walking into cities with special mounts or nice gear, others players will want it too and will farm the dungeon (sometimes for many months) to obtain it, keeping the subscription active.

World of Warcraft is using both loops after reaching max level:
1) The first one is yours: The quests rewards will allow player to complete dungeons.
2) Then the "Kill monster -> random reward" one: The player have to farm dungeons to get more powerful gear.
3) Go back to the first one: The player is now ready to clean "low level" raids and "Heroic" dungeons, granting him Tokens to buy stuff.
4) Go back to the second one, the most effective to keep player on the game: This is the end game content, the player has to play-and-pray as farming "high level" raids to randomly loot the best items of the game.

Hope it helps.

Ryan Paul
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Interesting post. But I would like to know 'what is' and 'what is not' important to add in a compulsion loop.

Can you give an example of compulsion loops for various other genres? Compulsion loops for games like MMO (Clash of Clans), Tower Defence, etc.

This is what I think what a compulsion loop is, for example: A compulsion loop for a Tower Defence game.

Play level > Kill enemy > Rewards > Upgrade power-ups/weapons > Play level > Player dies > And then back to Play level.

Does the above example makes sense? This can be shown graphically, like a flow chart.

They say a picture speaks a thousand words. So if I'm to show a game process (main points) to some one, is the above example enough for someone to understand the process on how the game will move forward?