How Smartphone Games Keep Us Hooked

Photo credit: Meghan Vanderford
Photo credit: Meghan Vanderford

Does anyone else miss the simple life? What ever happened to a painful yet oddly entertaining game of slug bug, while sticking to the leather seats of your mom’s minivan? It seems as if many people have forgotten those days and have entered a world where smartphones rule their lives.

I won’t sit here and pretend that I have never been at the mercy of my smartphone. That thing is glued to my hand or in my purse at all times. I am a part of Generation Y, which means technology is key and has made its way into every aspect of my life.

One thing I have always taken pride in is that I never have gotten hooked on a smartphone game… until recently. I was a victim of Flappy Bird. Never have beads of sweat formed on my lip or my heart beat so fast from just moving my thumb. On no account have I ever said, “Just one more game” at least 20 times. I found myself addicted.

What is it about games like Flappy Bird, Candy Crush Saga, Angry Birds or even the decades-old Tetris that are so habit-forming?

Well, according to The New York Post, Professor Sudhir Kale, marketing and gaming expert from Bond University, said, “The brain starts secreting dopamine, the same when someone’s doing cocaine or recreational drugs. The effect is the same.”

So every time that bug-eyed bird passes through two pipes, you match four candies or get a shape that fits so perfectly a row disappears—you get a little rush, making you want to play again.

The Wall Street Journal recently posted four other theories online. These include:

1.We connect with inanimate objects when they have faces. The Wall Street Journal had Karen Collins, a professor at the Games Institute of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada explain:

“When something has a face, we find it much harder to give up or get rid of. We are sort of hard wired into that. We know logically that these things are not real, but there is still an emotional connection there.”

2. We love finding patterns. As humans we tend to notice patterns before we spot the specific details. That’s why games where finding patterns are key, such as Candy Crush and Bejeweled, are so hard to put down.

3.  We love to improve our skills. Even if they are juvenile like who can blow the biggest bubble, we still enjoy honing our talents. So if a smartphone game is just hard enough but still easy, players are more likely to engage in it and not be able to stop.

4. We like to engage in the digital world when it resembles the real world. The Wall Street Journal has Asher Vollmer, creator of the game “Threes!” and former designer at thatgamecompany, explain this theory.

“It’s much easier for people to connect with a piece of software when they feel like it’s closer to the real world than the digital one,” Vollmer said.

So, occasionally remember the simpler times. If you ever find yourself on a road trip and your phone is dying, don’t forget the sheer joy you could be experiencing while punching someone in the arm and screaming “slug bug” at the top of your lungs.

Unoccupied and Unplugged

Imagine you are sitting in a room. It is a plain room; there is not much to look at. Your phone is dead, your computer is in the other room and you cannot seem to figure out what to do with your time. You could leave, but you really don’t feel like getting up and walking around the room.

Pacing is ill-advised.

But you get fidgety, you can’t seem to keep your leg still. Your knee bounces under your palm, and your pesky laundry list of to-do items starts to lean heavily against the back of your eyes.

Photo credit: Micky Aldridge, Creative Commons, Original Photo
Photo credit: Micky Aldridge, Creative Commons, Original Photo


The list only grows: grocery shopping, homework, cleaning the kitchen, doing the laundry, going to the gym, etc. The list runs further down your throat until it nearly suffocates you.

The anxiety kicks in and you can’t help but wonder how many minutes have gone by. Three minutes. You groan in boredom before kicking to your feet and leaving the room.

No one is safe from the desire to avoid boredom. We are raised to believe that boredom is high up on the list when it comes to failure. Even learning how to lucid dream has become so popular, we are no longer allowed to merely sleep. We have to be doing things at all times.

Flappy Bird, Candy Crush and, well, any Facebook game, seem to only fuel our restlessness. Today, we can no longer sit in a room and merely be bored, wasting time.

Even simple tasks are being sung as wasteful. As if time itself is this finite resource that we must suck dry like all other pleasures this planet gives us.

We are wasting time walking from one college building to the next, we must be on our smartphones- Tweeting, texting or Vining.

We have been conditioned with the gut reaction to occupy ourselves. We cannot even watch television anymore without computers on our laps or iPhones with Instagram and Snapchat.

But what if we reject that idea? In the age of computers and flat screen televisions, I urge you to join me in an experiment.

Imagine and consider taking a single chunk of 10 minutes out of your day and simply be bored. Be brave with me, defiantly shut your computer and turn your phone on silent in the next room.

Face the intimidating silence of your mind.