On October 17, the ‘addictiveness’ of the game Candy Crush made the national newspapers when the Daily Mail published the story with the headline ‘How women blow £400,000 a day playing Candy Crush, the most addictive online game ever’. The Mail article said:
“Look around any busy train or bus and it seems every other person with a smartphone or tablet is hooked on Candy Crush Saga, the latest online game to have taken the world by storm. With its twinkly lights, hypnotic music and comic sound effects, it has millions of people in its grip – and, like 2010's Angry Birds, which even numbered [British Prime Minister] David Cameron among its fans, it has become an online sensation…An astonishing 700 million games of Candy Crush are played every day on mobile devices alone, according to AppData, a leading authority on social media trends. But, unlike so many video games, it appears that instead of teenage boys and men, it's mostly women who are in thrall to Candy Crush. According to the game's creators, King.com, women aged 25-55 are the demographic most loyal to the game…According to ThinkGaming, Candy Crush makes an estimated £400,000 a day for King. That's £146m a year, figures which have prompted the Office of Fair Trading to voice concern that guidelines are needed to stop firms exploiting young users.King claims that 90 per cent of its players are over 21, but maturity doesn't seem to prevent women…from falling under Candy Crush's spell”.
I was interviewed by the journalist that wrote the article [Jill Foster] who wanted to know why it was such an ‘addictive’ game and why so many women played it. I told her that Candy Crush is a gender-neutral games that has a ‘moreish’ quality (a bit like chocolate – although this analogy didn’t end up in the article) and can fit in flexibly around what women do in their day-to-day life. The game takes up all the player’s cognitive ability because anyone playing on it has to totally concentrate on it. By being totally absorbed players can forget about everything else for a few minutes. I speculated that this may be particularly appealing to many women whether they are a stay-at-home mother who has ten minutes to play it in between childcare, or a business executive on her commute. It’s deceptively simple and fun. I also noted that unlike many online games, Candy Crush doesn't involve killing or fighting, and it doesn’t feature strong male characters or highly sexualized female characters. For those of you reading this that have yet to play Candy Crush, the Mail report provided a good description of the game:
“The rules of Candy Crush are indeed simple. Players move a variety of brightly coloured sweets - or candies - around a grid and line up at least three of the same sweet in a row. Every time a row is completed, the line explodes, making way for more sweets to drop in. With more than 400 different stages, each more difficult than the last, and more being added all the time, players never need run out of challenges. As a so-called 'freemium' product, basic access to the game is free, but users must pay for 'premium' services. Players aren't charged to advance through the first 35 levels but after that, it costs 69p for another 20 levels, although it is possible to avoid paying by asking your Facebook friends to send you extra lives. However, the cost can rise as players are encouraged to buy 'boosters' such as virtual 'candy hammers' for around £1”.
In typical tabloid style, the Mail article had interviewed a number of women that were used as examples to demonstrate the existence of Candy Crush ‘addiction’. For instance, Lucy Berkley, a 44-year old company director from Ashford in Kent told of how she came into her office on a Monday morning with severe back pain. All of her work colleagues could clearly see she was in much discomfort. The cause of her back pain was Candy Crush that she had played for ten hours over the weekend hunched over her iPad. She claimed “I couldn't help it, it was so addictive. The extraordinary thing was that almost everyone else in the room admitted they too were addicted. Now we're all competing”. Another woman, Steph, a mother-of-one interviewed for the Mail article said:
“I'm thinking about it all the time. I call it "crack candy" because I imagine giving up is like trying to break a crack habit. I hadn’t heard of it until I saw that many friends - all intelligent, creative women - were playing it on Facebook. I've never played any other game on my phone. But I don't like going a day without my ‘fix’. I play it whenever I have a free moment. In the morning I play on my commute and when I look around the train, nearly every other person seems to be doing the same. I'll have a sneaky game or two at lunchtime. When I get home, I’ll leave the ironing or the housework and have half an hour - or more - on the iPad. [At the weekend when] I’ve got up and read the papers, I'll start playing and that’s me sorted for the next three to four hours. In fact, I only usually stop when my iPad runs out of battery. My boyfriend thinks I'm mad. My son Ben, who is at boarding school, can't understand my obsession. I've been known to meet him off a train and rather than give him a hug I've said ‘Just a minute Ben, I’m just getting on to the next level!"
She then went on to say:
“Over the past four months I've probably spent around £150 playing it. But it's worth it…I'm thinking about it all the time. I wake up and the first thing I do is pick up my phone to have a game, then I'll be playing if I get a spare second before work. I play it on my walk from the car to the office. When I come home, I play it while I'm cooking the evening meal or watching TV. [My partner] Martin thinks I'm bonkers. When the lights go out and we're in bed he'll say: ‘I know you’re playing it because I can see the light from your phone’ so I have to play it under the covers. My son asks: "Why are you playing that game again Mum?’ It's as if our roles have been reversed. It's taking over my life. I don't know if I’ll ever be able to stop”.
Although none of the cases covered in the piece appear to be genuinely addicted by the criteria I use to assess addiction, that doesn’t mean the cases are uninteresting psychologically or that games like Candy Crush are totally innocuous. I have noted in a number of my more general writings about games played via social networking sites that ‘freemium’ games are psychological ‘foot-in-the-door techniques that lead a small minority of people to pay for games and/or game accessories that they may never have originally planned to buy before playing the game (akin to ‘impulse buying’ in other commercial environments. I’ve also argued that many of the games played on social network sites share similarities with gambling. As I noted in my interview with the Mail:
'On first look, games like Candy Crush may not seem to have much connection to gambling, but the psychology is very similar. Even when games do not involve money, they introduce players to the principles and excitement of gambling. Small unpredictable rewards lead to highly engaged, repetitive behaviour. In a minority, this may lead to addiction”
Basically, people keep responding in the absence of reinforcement hoping that another reward is just around the corner (a psychological principle rooted in operant conditioning and called the partial reinforcement extinction effect – something that is used to great effect in both slot machines and most video games). Another woman interviewed for the Mail story (Jenni Weaver, a 40-year-old mum of four from Bridlington) is worried that she's addicted to Candy Crush (and based on her interview quotes, she certainly appears to disply some signs of bona fide addictive behaviour) She told the Mail that her Candy Crush addiction was beginning to affect family life:
'I'm playing it for eight hours a day now and it's become a real problem. My daughter told me about it. I was hooked straight away. The longest I've played for is 12 hours with just a few short breaks in between. It's worse than smoking…Housework has gone to pot. I've even been late picking my ten-year-old up from school because I've been stuck on a level. I've burnt countless dinners and let vegetables boil dry because I've been engrossed. I'm trying to limit myself, but I can still spend eight hours a day playing it. It's ridiculous.'
Earlier this year, I was interviewed at length by Mike Rose (for Gamasutra, the online magazine about gaming issues), who wrote a really good set of articles about free-to-play games. In one of Rose’s articles I argued that even in games where no money is changing hands, players are learning the mechanics of gambling and that there are serious questions about whether gambling with virtual money encourages positive attitudes towards gambling. As I have noted in a number of my recent articles, the introduction of in-game virtual goods and accessories (that people pay real money for) was a psychological masterstroke. It becomes more akin to gambling, as social gamers know that they are spending money as they play with little or no financial return. The real difference between pure gambling games and some free-to-play games is the fact that gambling games allow you to win your money back, adding an extra dimension that can potentially drive revenues even further. The lines between social free-to-play games and gambling is beginning to blur, bringing along with them various moral, ethical, legal, and social issues. The psychosocial impact of free-to-play games is only just beginning to be investigated by people in the field of gaming studies. Empirically, we know almost nothing about the psychosocial impact of gambling or gaming via social networking sites, although research suggests the playing of free games among adolescents is one of the risk factors for both the uptake of real gambling and problem gambling.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Foster, J. (2013). How women blow £400,000 a day playing Candy Crush, the most addictive online game ever. Daily Mail, October 17. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2463636/How-women-blow-400-000-day-playing-Candy-Crush-addictive-online-game-ever.html
Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online gambling, social responsibility and ‘foot-in-the-door techniques. i-Gaming Business, 62, 100-101.
Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gaming in social networking sites: A growing concern? World Online Gambling Law Report, 9(5), 12-13.
Griffiths, M.D. (2012). The psychology of social gaming. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, August/September, 26-27.
Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Social gambling via Facebook: Further observations and concerns. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 17, 104-106.
Hall, C. (2013). Just how addictive are mobile games? Yahoo! News, October 18. Located at: http://uk.news.yahoo.com/how-addictive-are-mobile-games--143654713.html#P1M3U7a
Lagorio-Chaflkin, C. (2013). Candy Crush Saga’s intoxicating secret source. Inc.com, July 25. Located at: http://www.inc.com/christine-lagorio/candy-crush-secret-sauce.html
Pressman, A. (2013). Candy Crush: Insanely addictive today, but likely on borrowed time. The Exchange, July 11. Located at: http://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/the-exchange/candy-crush-insanely-addictive-today-likely-borrowed-time-171103788.html
Rose, M. (2013). Chasing the Whales: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games. Gamasutra, July 9. Located at: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/195806/chasing_the_whale_examining_the_.php?page=7