Compulsion Loops

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Compulsion Loops in Video Games

Compulsion loops are also found in all video games. In Super Mario Bros., for example, the reward is reaching the next level, and the method of reaching it is completing the current level. When a player's skill in the game is below the threshold required to complete the level, they become frustrated and feel the outlay to achieve the goal is too high, and are lost. Conversely when the outlay is very low the goal is devalued, which can also lead to disengagement.

Compulsion Loops and Email

Part of our cyborg future will be the creation of artificial incentive systems in digital space. This has already occurred with E-mail.

As for that bit of rat psychology I promised to follow up on: The concept is called "intermittent reinforcement". It came out of Skinnerian experiments that found that rats who got irregular rewards from food-bar-pushing were far more driven to compulsively push the bar. [1]

"Farmville is like Harvest Moon with Tamagotchis. One becomes obligated to continue playing. One size fits all".


"FarmVille is a real-time farm simulation game developed by Zynga, available as an application on the social-networking website Facebook. The game allows members of Facebook to manage a virtual farm by planting, growing and harvesting virtual crops and trees, and raising livestock"[2].

FarmVille launched in June 2009 and subsequently became the largest and fastest-growing social game ever [3] surpassing 80 million users in Feb 2010[4].


In real life, the time and space between goals and accomplishments is often large. For some, it is physically impossible to achieve certain things, like purchasing a Ferrari or rising above middle management in their career path. Online gaming, especially sites like Farmville,step in to take care of that void.

Whereas one doesn’t have the money, time or room for a real garden, Farmville gives you one without the back aching labor. All reality is replaced by small icons, and time is compressed so that goals and accomplishments are right next to one another. Everything has a point value and a reward. When real life takes so long to reward someone, online gaming is often a better and more enjoyable alternative.

Cultivated Play: Farmville

The structure and obligations of Farmville are very similar to those of the Tamagotchi. This article is probably the best article I've read on anthropology of digital web.

"The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because in entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each others’ farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies. As the French sociologist Marcel Mauss tells us, gifts are never free: they bind the giver and receiver in a loop of reciprocity. It is rude to refuse a gift, and ruder still to not return the kindness.[11] We play Farmville, then, because we are trying to be good to one another. We play Farmville because we are polite, cultivated people.

(1) Farmville is defined by obligation, routine, and responsibility; (2) Farmville encroaches and depends upon real life, and is never entirely separate from it; (3) Farmville is always certain in outcome, and involves neither chance nor skill; (4) Farmville is a productive activity, in that it adds to the social capital upon which Facebook and Zynga depend for their wealth; (5) Farmville is governed not by rules, but by habits, and simple cause-and-effect; (6) Farmville is not make-believe, in that it requires neither immersion nor suspension of disbelief.

Of these points, the fourth is the most troubling. While playing Farmville might not qualify as work or labor, it is certainly a productive activity, as playing Farmville serves to enlarge and strengthen social capital. Capital is defined as “any form of wealth employed or capable of being employed in the production of more wealth.”[13] New media companies like Zynga and Facebook depend upon such wealth in generating revenue, just as President Obama depends on social capital to raise money, to organize, and to communicate. Unlike President Obama, though, Zynga is not an elected official, and is not obligated to act with the public’s interests in mind".[5]

Related Reading

External Links


  2. Wikipedia Article on Farmville
  3. Market Watch (August 27, 2009). "Zynga's FarmVille Becomes Largest and Fastest Growing Social Game Ever". Press release. Retrieved October 11, 2009.
  4. [ Mashable - Farmville Surpasses 80 Million Users
  5. Cultivated Play Liszkiewicz, A. J. Patrick. SUNY Buffalo (Amherst). Accessed March 09, 2010.