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Pokémon GO statistics don’t lie: the hit mobile game is addictive. It’s estimated to make $1.6 million in revenue every day, more money in-game than the rest of the mobile gaming market in one day altogether. It’s played by all ages, not just childhood Pokémon fans: half of the players are 18-34 years old while just under 50 percent of players are 35 and older. It has more Android downloads than the most popular dating app, more daily users than Twitter, and more engagement than Facebook.

When a mobile game has more traffic than the busiest social networks within days of launch, there’s something afoot. How does Pokémon GO keep us coming back for more?

Addictive Game Design

You can’t avoid them if you tried. For the last three weeks throngs of mobile phone-dwellers have taken over sidewalks and parks, staring at their screens and running toward invisible goals. You’ve seen special deals at retailers just for players. Some dedicated Pokémon catchers have been reportedly losing weight playing the game:

(Pro tip: you can lose a pound a week if you catch 50 Pokémon every day!)

Perhaps Pokémon’s decades-old nostalgia caught the attention of millions but its clever game design is what keeps them playing.

Chris Bennett, Game Designer in Residence at the Stanford Peace Innovation Lab and Founder of the Game Design Thinking Research Group, has shared that the best games rely on a core loop to keep players engaged. “A core loop is a short series of steps that are done over and over by the player because they want to do them,” says Bennett. “Pokémon GO contains a tight core loop.”

Let’s take a look at the steps the Pokémon trainer goes through on a typical hunt that make a core loop.

ASSESS

Pokémon trainers assess if the journey will be successful. Are they in an area where Pokémon are likely to show up? Are there enough PokéStops (designated landmarks) nearby to keep supplies stocked? Will they be able to reach the next level on this round?

Players assess if playing will be worth their time.

Pokemon Collection
Image: Swift Gale via Flickr (CC)

CHOOSE

Now that the player has decided to go out and catch Pokémon, what will they choose to do? They could go to the next PokéStop for supplies, battle an opponent and take control of a nearby gym, or they can follow the tracks of a wild Pokémon hiding nearby.

Giving players open access to a variety of activities allows them to choose their fate.

ACT

The player has decided and takes action on their next move. This step is critical to making the player invested in Pokémon GO and keeping them at “the center of the story”.

REWARD

The player will stumble across rewards on her journey that will keep her repeating the steps of the core loop. What if she walks to a PokéStop highlighted by a lure to attract more Pokémon? She will likely be rewarded with the appearance of several Pokémon, and if she’s lucky, one of them might be a rare Pokémon.

This step is critical to keep players invested. Random and earned rewards release dopamine, a brain chemical that gives us the quickest hit of pleasure and keeps us wanting more.

Pokémon GO’s Clever Behavior Design

Steps in Pokémon GO are carefully designed to keep players sticking around—the game is persuasive in convincing players they should take the next step. And the next step. And the next one, too.

“Pokémon GO uses an interesting form of persuasive design,” says Margarita Quihuis, Researcher in the Persuasive Technology Lab and Co-Director of the Stanford Peace Innovation Lab. “The game encourages players to explore the world through technology that has a sensor [for where the player is positioned] and also acts as a trigger [that launches events based on location].”

Pokemon GO game screen
Image: Penn State via Flickr (CC)

Pokémon GO’s technology trigger players to keep playing. Keeping players in the core loop comes down to a simple equation created by Behavior Design expert Dr. BJ Fogg:

Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Trigger

Pokémon GO’s creators are counting on players sticking around as long as possible to build on its success. A series of behaviors will make its players feel more invested in the game. But how does it persuade players to take action (engage in a behavior)?

The player must feel motivated to go outside and open the game in the first place. They must be aware of the benefits and accomplishments that lie in wait.

The player must have the ability to travel their neighborhood while using a GPS-based technology to play the game. Without the ability to get around and without the right technology, playing the game is impossible.

The game must provide a trigger to urge the player to the next step. That trigger might be a phone vibration signaling a nearby Pokémon, or a landmark in the distance such as a PokéStop or a Gym that will keep them walking.

“The Behavior Model is embodied in the technology,” adds Quihuis.

Brain Chemicals and FOMO

You couldn’t avoid it if you wanted to: it feels like your feeds are overwhelmed with Pokémon chatter. Screenshots of Pokémon sitting on friends’ shoulders. Declarations of team pride. Midnight Pokémon hunting meetups. Even oblivious accidents that might have given non-players a touch of schadenfreude.

Fear of missing out (FOMO) has strong psychological sway. Being connected to friends on social networks around the clock gives us a peek into their life. However, those friends are giving an abbreviated peek into their day, carefully curating an image of fun and success without the struggles of everyday life.

A hug for Pikachu
Image: Nabeel H via Flickr (CC)

We see only what our friends want us to see, which makes us compare the unedited struggles of our own lives. In fact, social comparison leads to depression. One study found that 68 percent of social network users share to give people a better sense of who they are and what they care about, and 94 percent carefully think about how what they post will be received by others.

The drive to bond with others

Pokémon GO can feel like a party where non-players are left out in the cold. This spurs more to try the game so they can feel included in the fun. In fact, it’s so simple to start playing that anyone with a smartphone can try it: the app is free and available for most mobile operating systems.

According to Bennett, “When players bond with others playing Pokémon GO, their brains will get a hit of oxytocin. This is the feel-good chemical that decreases aggression and increases generosity.”

You wanna be the very best

Now that you’re in there’s a whole new level of FOMO. Trainers unlock new content and can participate in more battles as they level up. They level by earning experience points (XP) that accumulate through capturing more Pokémon, winning gym battles, and even simply walking.

Endorphins are released as players earn new achievements and overcome difficulties in the game, such as capturing stubborn Pokémon that keep escaping. The harder the challenge, the stronger the endorphins hit when it is overcome. (Just think of being a Level 8 “David” who defeats a Level 17 “Goliath” at an opponent’s coveted gym.)

In Pokémon GO, the cause of addiction is the cure

The lure of completing a collection you’ve been carefully curating is powerful. A key component of what has made Pokémon GO so popular is its ability to put Pokémon in the real world so it’s highly relevant to the player. This makes the fear of missing out even more insatiable: there could be a Pokémon appearing right around the corner.

The around-the-clock accessibility of a constantly changing game in the “real world” can draw in the player easier than a static game. But what happens in a player’s brain when FOMO makes them cross the line of just having fun to a serious addiction?

Serotonin release

Serotonin is the chemical that’s responsible for regulating our body’s functions through messages sent through our brains. Examples include sleep, memory, and social behavior. It’s the managing chemical that helps us feel the other chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin by plugging them into our brain’s “pleasure receptors”. When serotonin can’t plug those feel-good chemicals into our brains, it can make us feel irritable or impulsive.

Pokemon Pokeballs
Image: phantomm_ via Flickr (CC)

Pokémon GO players expect to feel those warm fuzzies when they capture a rare Pokémon or take over a gym. But when those feelings diminish, the player might get stuck in a loop playing the game, waiting for the next feel-good hit to come. One study shows that children who played video games for more than three hours per day exhibit the stress that’s common with serotonin imbalance. The children who played just one hour of video games every day showed more positive signs such as a boost to creativity and social behavior.

However, if walking outdoors is a key component to accessing achievements in Pokémon GO, that might supplement the release of endorphins when the game’s achievements alone might not be providing them. Sunlight and exercise are proven ways to boost serotonin levels. Sunlight provides your body with Vitamin D, and bright light stimulates serotonin delivery. Exercise, especially aerobic exercises that elevate heart rate, will be the most effective way to increase serotonin and endorphins. (Here are more ways playing video games help our mental and physical health.)

A glorious combination of brain chemicals + behavior technology

Pokémon GO has become a phenomenon thanks to careful design, nostalgia, and luck. The popularity of the Pokémon franchise has opened the door to players while the game’s design has kept them coming back for more—in droves.

Brain chemicals such as serotonin and oxytocin are released when players unlock achievements. Environmental benefits such as social interaction and exercise boost endorphins. Clever behavior design reinforce a commitment to the game’s core loop. And the technology Pokémon GO is based on (such as GPS) make it all possible.

What benefits have you experienced playing Pokémon GO?

Header image: Nabeel H via Flickr (CC)

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