What makes you come back to the game for “one more try” or “just a little longer”? Once again, it can be tied back to the pleasure centre (nucleus accumbens), as we saw with the enjoyment of all games.
You may have noticed Raph Koster and others linking to a Cambridge University study of the neurobiology of gambling showing that the part of the brain involved in reward – the pleasure centre – lights up when we nearly win, as well as when we win. Interestingly, the researchers report that subjects report this experience negatively, even though the pleasure centre is being stimulated. But of course, even though this may be a negative experience subjectively, most subjects who experienced a “near miss” continued to play on. The researchers note that this behaviour happens in both games of skill and games of chance.
I call this phenomena of compulsion in play Grip, and consider it to be a complimentary behaviour to Csikszentmihalyi's Flow, which I deconstructed in neurobiological terms the other week. If Flow is the constant and steady supply of the “reward protein” dopamine from the pleasure centre associated with a period of intense focus, then Grip occurs as a team-effort between the pleasure centre and the decision centre (orbit-frontal cortex), two parts of the brain that are very closely linked. The decision centre generates rewards (dopamine from the pleasure centre) when we make good decisions, and thus encourages us to learn good strategies and behaviours.
A team of Canadian researchers in 2003 reported that the reward system was activated in anticipation of uncertain rewards, which they suggest promotes the learning of better predictors of reward, and the new study is effectively a special case of this observation, showing that the degree of reward (the amount of dopamine released) peaks in the case of a “near miss”. This for me is an expected result, but it is still a highly significant paper not only for confirming this element of the research, but also for confirming that the response is the same in both challenges of skill and in games of chance (Caillois' agon and alea, respectively).This also tallies nicely with Thomas Malaby's conception of play as a disposition toward the indeterminate.
Almost all gamers understand the experience of Grip, although they do not use that term. It's what makes you give the game “one more try”, and why you find yourself still playing that cRPG at three in the morning, despite your intent to stop hours ago. In the recent straw poll on failure in videogames, a common response was that what motivated players to try again was their assessment of being close to success. Grip, which is the activation of the pleasure centre in anticipation of indeterminate reward, can happen in at least four distinct ways.
In games of what Nicole Lazzaro calls “Hard Fun”, Grip occurs when you can almost overcome the challenge. The game frustrates you, slaps you down in failure, but because your decision centre assesses that you could have beaten it you keep playing. So the fight of the fight-or-flight mechanism riles you up and makes you angry (norepinephrine, and epinephrine), while the triggering of the pleasure centre in response to what you perceive as a “near miss” (whether or not you were close to winning or not, as players can often be deceived as to how close they are to victory) provides the Grip to compel you to continue fighting. As I have mentioned before, despite the fact that many games industry professionals consider this to be precisely what games are about, this is a minority approach to play – 20% of players recognise that they enjoy this “angry fun”, while over 40% strongly dislike it.
Closely related to angry Grip is what happens in a game of chance, which connects with the Cambridge paper: when the player comes close to winning, it encourages them to try again. A sense of agency (the paper talks of decisions, but agency need not be based on decision, as in the case of dice) seems to be required for this form of Grip to connect.
This also applies to reward schedules based upon chance, such as the random treasure tables in a cRPG like Diablo (which was discussed briefly last week in the piece on the top cRPG franchises). The mechanism is exactly the same, but the level of frustration does not rise to combative anger as in the previous case. Rather, while the individual becomes a little angry (a small release of norepinephrine), the experience may register more as mild sadness than as anger (likely a change in the neurotransmitter serotonin). Because we recognise that we don't have the direct capacity to influence chance, this kind of Grip isn't combative, it merely compels us to try again in the face of a “near miss”.
Distinct from the anger-motivated forms of Grip, we can also experience this push towards continuing to play when we are in the grip of a reward schedule of the kind that constitutes the central progression structures of cRPGs and MMORPGs (again, discussed previously in the context of the top cRPG franchises). The circumstances here are slightly different as what is involved here is not the “near miss” effect we saw previously, but rather the promise of assured future reward. The decision centre seems to be the primary driver here – it knows you will get to the reward, and thus helps push players on towards that next reward.
The classic example is levelling up – you level up your character, gain new abilities, and perhaps see the promise of what you will get at the next level, and this motivates you to push on to achieve it. If every level your character gains gives you this anticipation of an even greater reward at a future level, the power of habitual Grip is maximal, and players can find it especially difficult to stop. (This seems to be especially true in the case of Goal-oriented players, those who strongly express the Judging axis in Myers-Briggs, or the Guardian temperament).
There is little or no uncertainty involved here – you know you will level up if you keep grinding, the only indeterminacy is how long it will take to get there. For some reason, this is enough to trigger Grip, the brain's response in the face of indeterminate reward. It can be even more compelling among players with highly developed decision centres (which I recently suggested correlates with the Rational temperament) who seem to get sucked into the question of determining the optimal manner of levelling up. Since good decisions stimulate the pleasure centre, the process of determining an optimal course of action helps players maintain interest in grinding – which helps explain why some (but by no means all) cRPG players lose interest when the optimal solution to levelling remains the same, thus denying the pleasure of devising a new optimal strategy.
However, it would be incorrect to assume that this strategic angle is a requirement. In this regard, an interesting comparison can be made between levelling up in a cRPG and playing old fashioned slot machines, penny falls or pachinko (a Japanese gambling game, pictured above - essentially a cross between Bagatelle and a slot machine). The feeling of continuing to play because "a win is coming" can be found here, and with greater uncertainty since despite the player's conviction it is still possible they may not get a payout before they run out of coins or balls. Penny falls machines (common in British seaside arcades) are even closer to the cRPG reward schedules, as prizes such as small stuffed toys ride along with the slowly-advancing tide of coins – players know they will get the prize eventually, but generally misjudge how many coins it will take to get there.
A fourth and final way that we may experience Grip is in the desire to extend an experience of Flow – of which the most commonly manifested form is “one more game” of Tetris, or some other experience that can produce a Flow state (an experience of intense focus within a goal framework, but with the focus upon the experience and not the achievement of the goal). The indeterminacy here seems to relate to a perceived degree of performance – so the player begins a new game in the belief they can do slightly (or greatly) better in the next game.
Since the experience of Flow is intrinsically pleasurable – indeed, Csikszentmihalyi calls it “optimal experience” it is natural that we want to experience more of it. This compelling Grip happens almost entirely absent of anger, and as such appeals to a very broad spectrum of players. The strength of the compulsion is significantly less than in angry or frustrated Grip, and considerably weaker than habitual Grip too, but it is enough to encourage us to play again in the future. You could argue that this was the healthiest form of Grip, but that doesn't mean that players under its influence don't end up playing far longer than they intend to some of the time.
Grip is the term I am proposing for the various mechanisms involving the pleasure centre (nucleus accumbens) and the decision centre (orbito-frontal cortex) that compel players to continue playing a game in the pursuit of indeterminate reward. The immediate experience of Grip need not be pleasant – in angry and frustrated Grip it is perceived as negative – but when it happens it produces compulsive behaviour in which it is difficult for players to let go of the pursuit of the next reward, whether victory in the face of a difficult challenge, the big score in gambling, the next level in a cRPG, or simply the continued pursuit of the intrinsic pleasure of the state of Flow.
I welcome your perspective on Grip in the comments.