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Persuasive Games: Familiarity, Habituation, and Catchiness
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Persuasive Games: Familiarity, Habituation, and Catchiness

April 2, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Likewise, George Parker's design techniques make no claims about mastery either. He does, however, clarify one sort of appeal a game might offer over time. 

Parker is concerned with material, not conceptual durability when he says that a game should be able to be played time and time again.

While such resilience does imply some reason to want to play again, it does not imply any kind of invitation toward mastery whatsoever, whether practical or sublime.

The allure of the game must simply inspire multiple plays, not necessarily multiple unique plays, or multiple plays approaching an ideal. 

As Philip Orbanes explains, Parker Bros. valued durability. "Make it last" became a company creed.

Indeed, the matter of quality of material and manufacture helped make Parker Bros. games appealing as artifacts, not just as games.

Like any craft, a board or card game can create different levels of physical attachment. The design of Monopoly, with its modernist typography, winsome illustrations, and forged tokens create a game of material appeal, one that produces pleasure in the holding, viewing, and possessing as well as in the playing.

Monopoly becomes a place we want to go back to, just as does Rapture or Azeroth. The fact that we can enjoy  arguing over who gets to be the car or the dog in a game of Monopoly is just as important -- if not moreso -- than the appeal of the game's mechanics (which indeed are far more rapidly exhausted than those of Go).

Similarly, Pong does not reward the hundredth quarter through emergent complexity. Instead, it rewards that quarter through social context. In the 1970s, remember, coin-ops were mostly found in places like bars and bowling alleys, and indeed the game borrowed very same context that makes tavern games like darts and pool appealing: one can play them with friends while drinking.

Sure, one can get better at Pong like one can get better at Eight Ball, but the real purpose of these games is to offer a chance to commune with (or mock) one's mates over brews.

Master of None

Most people don't really care if they master Pong or pool -- or Tetris or Chess for that matter.

Instead, people like to be conversant in these games so that they can incorporate them into various practices, moving beyond the phase of learning the basics and on to the phase of using the games for purposes beyond their mechanics alone.

Indeed, idealizing the sublime mastery of the sort the Chess master or pool shark pursues may even serve an undesirable characteristic for ordinary players.

In 1906, the New York Times reported a precipitous decline in the popularity of racquets, predicting its inevitable supplantation by squash, thanks to the latter's cheaper cost and easier mastery. Said Peter Latham, then 18-year champion of the sport, "Racquets is far more difficult to master than squash or court tennis. I think racquets will remain where it is, while squash will continue to grow in popularity."[2]

Contrary to popular belief, the examples of racquets and squash suggest that a low, rather than a high-ceiling to mastery might offer greater rather than less appeal. As in the case of Chess or Go, the relative difficulty of the former sport made it seem inaccessible rather than appealing.

That's great for early 20th century indoor sports, but what does it matter for 21st century videogames?

Consider a casual downloadable game like Zuma. Like many casual games, Zuma offers a free trial, in this case one that is three levels long.

It's a well-known fact that games of this sort suffer from a low (1-3%) conversion rate from trial downloads to full purchases.

One conclusion we can draw from such figures is this: the Zuma trial offers enough habituation to serve a gratifying purpose for most players.

Becoming adept at the three or so levels of Zuma's trial requires limited skill, drive, or persistence. It's inevitable, really. The demo is gratifying enough as it is, habituating players toward a certain level of performance they are able to accomplish easily.

This is not mastery, at all; in the case of Zuma, the habitual activity of repeated play is likely to relate to biding time or zoning out more than it is to encourage increased performance. Arguably, the same is true for Tetris -- imagine a "free demo level" of the latter game. Who would really need anything more?

Given their numerical scores, highscore lists, achievements, and myriad other ways to measure performance tangibly, it's true that videogames, board games, tavern games, and sports sometimes do invite us to pursue certain accomplishments.

But more frequently, we feel compelled to return to games that we have habituated ourselves toward for other reasons. Airport Mania lets us play air traffic controller for a few minutes. Tetris affords a feeling of control and organization in a world of entropy.

Like "easy to learn," "hard to master" turns out to be a rare secondary property of games, one most frequently left for the pro ballplayers, chess masters, and card sharks -- all specialists, not generalists as the casual games lore would have us believe.

[2] New York Times, "Decline of Racquets as an Indoor Sport," January 4, 1906. Thanks again to Jesper Juul for bringing this example to my attention.

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