Hook Me Up, I’m Learning

Do the game mechanics that make Candy Crush so addictive have a place in educational resources?

The relative popularity of Dana Smith’s This is what Candy Crush does to your brain - recently posted on the Guardian’s online science desk – could mean one or two things: either people are genuinely interested in the idea that it is, as Smith says, a by-design addictive game, or any article including the words ‘candy’ and ‘crush’ in its title is sure to get a portion of misdirected traffic.

Whatever the truth, there’s no doubting Candy Crush Saga’s popularity. Played 1 billion times daily by over 90 million people, it is one of the planet’s highest earning games, its apparent simplicity, suggests Smith and others, foil for a game mechanics that simulates the main addict-making push-and-pull factors found in the typical slot machine: a system of easy-to-get rewards; the sense of being on top; treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen inclusion-exclusion mechanism; and sensual aural and visual primers, in this case, sweets and the imagined effects of sweets. If you’ve never played it, then you've probably seen it, and been surprised, perhaps, by the sight of an adult playing a game that looks like it’s been made for a three year old. Strapline: Ain’t it the sweetest game?

Needless to say, the makers, King Digital Entertainment, disagree. For them, Candy Crush ‘provides highly engaging, differentiated entertainment’, an experience whereby ‘the combination of challenge and progress drives a sense of achievement.’ It is ‘free’, contains ‘social features’ and is the product of a ‘company culture predicated on collaboration, humility and respect.’ For King, the game’s success rests on the fact that its players identify with its values, and those of the company itself.

Sounds great, but, as every user knows, there’s a caveat: five strikes and you’re locked out, the choice being that either you wait for your allotted timeout to pass, or you pay to get back in. No addict, Smith might say, waits. Choice, King will argue, is the inalienable right of the consumer. Them’s the rules. Wait or pay. Your choice.

It’s easy, when presented like this, to question, as Smith does, King Digital Entertainment’s motives. Certainly, Candy Crush’s recent public offering would appear to indicate a company culture predicated more on the business of profit than ‘humility and respect.’ Creating a game, Smith might argue, that makes addicts of its customers and then floating it on the market is, at best, merely money-facing and, at worst, a work of enormous cynicism.

This may be true. But it may not be true. (Profit and having a social conscious aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Smith merely makes a case for Candy Crush's addictive properties. There’s no research, as far as I know, that categorically proves the game’s mechanics inherently addictive). However, if we take, for the sake of argument, it to be true that the game is addictive, then the criteria by which Smith identifies it as such is applicable to almost all video games. And if this is the case, then it raises important ethical questions regarding the use of such games as a means of educating young people.

A thorny and deep issue, you’d need a very large brush to sweep this one away. Estimations are that a $67 billion industry is likely to become an $82 billion industry by 2017. The largest segment of gamers is the 14 to 19 year old bracket, with the younger end dropping yearly. No surprise that the education sector is awash with games. Schools are as much part and parcel of the societies they serve as are the young they educate. Technology has played a great part in human development. The technology of games, as source, method and stimulator for learning, is not in question: they work. Children, disaffected or not, generally enjoy playing games, and games, what’s more, whose contextual expectations – both thinking and physical – are often very complex.

Which doesn’t necessarily vindicate companies like King. Compare Candy Crush to the games like Civilisation IV. No comparison, really. Nevertheless, it’s an unfair one. Lots of educational games aren’t nearly as sophisticated as these. Many, in fact, are necessarily simple, repetitive, reward based and use similar aural and visual stimulators to those in Candy Crush. Many even have the same lockout game mechanics, though these would result merely in being locked out of a part – the honeypot part – of the game. No doubt, following Smith’s argument, our educational games exploit exactly the same dopamine droppers as Candy Crush – though perhaps less obviously.

Meaning a question: Does the means warrant the educational ends? If, for example, a literacy based game designed on similar game mechanics principles as Candy Crush results in the player learning to read, does the fact that he or she has – perhaps unknowingly – succeeded off the back of a regular and temporarily increased injection of neurotransmitters matter? Put so starkly, I’m reasonably sure most of us will be scratching our heads for a better solution. However, only if the game is understood either as the totality of the individual’s learning experience, or as the destroyer of real-world education. For some of us, the future is here, and we’re not happy. For others, it’s here, and we’re going to do what we can to accommodate it. For champions of the digital, it’s here and here to stay, so best face, please, shake hands and let’s go find solutions to the world’s problems.

For me, the virtual, in education as in everywhere else, is ideally a complement to real-world teaching, in much the same way that speaking complements writing, or exercise complements concentration. Clearly, reward-motivated behaviour structures, virtual or otherwise, are no substitute for internalised, self-motivated systems of learning, but saying no to the educational benefits of gaming on the basis of its addict making mechanics is short sighted, perhaps idealistic and, certainly, scapegoat’s the virtual for a culture predicated on reward.

Image: Dmitry Morgan / Shutterstock.com

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