· 8 min read

What Is The Compulsion Loop?

We explain and expand the concept, as well as describe the potential opportunities that can be made by leveraging it in future titles.

A man can surely do what he wills to do, but cannot determine what he wills.

– Arthur Schopenhauer

Since the concept of the compulsion loop applied to video games was introduced as early as 2001 by John Hopson (while a researcher at Bungie), we’ve seen compulsion loop mechanics integrated into video games fairly broadly. The compulsion loop concept regained popularity in the 2010-2012 period with the application of compulsion loop principles in social games and especially by companies such as Zynga; however, I believe this is an area of future opportunity that will potentially gain a renaissance especially in mobile gaming.

To date there hasn’t been (as far as I can tell) a very compact and easy to understand coverage of the compulsion loop concept. Hence, this post attempts to detail the concept, expand the concept a bit with my own interpretation, and describe the potential future opportunity leveraging this concept.


First, what is a compulsion loop?

My definition of the compulsion loop is a very slight variation of a definition put forth by Adam Crowe as follows:

Compulsion Loop: A habitual, designed chain of activities that will be repeated to gain a neurochemical reward: a feeling of pleasure and/or a relief from pain.

There are three key notions to understand comprising this definition:

  1. Habitual: The purpose of the loop is to create a long lasting and constantly repeated habit;
  2. Designed Chain of Activities: The compulsion loops should consist of a set of specifically designed activities within each step in the chain;
  3. Neurochemical Reward: Compulsion loop theorists believe that human free will does not exist and that the creation of habitual behaviors can be instituted and programmed.

To the last concept around the neurochemical reward, Crowe explains that the compulsion loop derives its power from basic human elements of psychobiology and neurochemistry. Hence, the point of a compulsion loop is to induce a biological response such as the release of Dopamine to help train behavior.

Dopamine is released… as a result of rewarding experiences such as food, sex, and neutral stimuli that become associated with them.

– Wikipedia 2014

Concept Origins

Much of the thinking behind compulsion loops stems from BF Skinner’s psychological studies on animals such as rats, pigeons, and chimpanzees. Skinner invented the concept of an “operant conditioning chamber” (aka “Skinner Box”) which is a laboratory device used to study animals for the purpose of behavioral conditioning: teaching animals specific behaviors.

Skinner Box
Skinner Box

The image above shows Skinner’s operant conditioning chamber, which attempts to train specific behaviors to the rat, such as pressing the response lever to obtain food. The studies by Skinner concluded with specific observations particularly around contingencies: “a rule or set of rules governing when rewards are given out.”

  1. Ratio: How much of a reward to give based on an activity?
  2. Interval: How long to wait between giving rewards for an activity?

The compulsion loop in games originated from the notion that we can map the loop of activities within an operant conditioning chamber to game loops. Therefore, we could apply the principles of Skinner’s research to users playing within a game loop.

Hence, the concept of compulsion loops has historically been tightly linked to Skinner, but in my view are not equal. In my view, compulsion loops need only support the 3 core principles of the definition I included above, and opens the door for additional mechanics or tactics that can be applied outside of Skinner’s original research.

Compulsion Loop vs. Core Loop

There seems to be some confusion in the industry about the difference between a compulsion loop and a “core loop.” Often these words are used interchangeably but I differentiate them as follows:

The core loop is the chain of activities associated with the primary user flow. What is the user primarily doing over and over again?

Here’s an example of what I would consider a core loop in a typical RPG game. Further, we can equate this particular behavior to the behavior of a rat in an operant conditioning chamber (press lever -> get food -> satiate hunger):

Core loop in a typical RPG game

However, the difference in terminology now comes from the design of the various phases within this particular loop. I like to think of the steps within this particular core loop as comprised of three phases in the following way:

  1. Anticipation: The user anticipates some desired user state. In the case of the rats, it’s the satiation of hunger. In an RPG, it could be finally getting enough gold to buy the Holy Avenger +5 Sword or enough power to kick the ass of the dude who’s been stomping him in PVP.
  2. Action: The specific activity we want to incentivize and condition as part of the overall behavior.
  3. Reward: This is the part where we give the user a reward for doing the specific activity.
Anticipation Action Reward
Anticipation Action Reward

Compulsion Loop Application to Gaming

As John Hopson describes in his post on Gamasutra in 2001, a number of Skinner research conclusions can be applied to gaming and other application areas where we want to condition behavior. Here is a summary of some of the key conclusions:

Source: John Hopson 2001 via Gamasutra
Source: John Hopson 2001 via Gamasutra

Innovations From Gaming

Skinner’s research focused primarily on the Reward phase within a compulsion loop (at least as per my articulation of it):

Reward phase
Reward phase

However, we have seen examples in social and mobile gaming where additional advances have been made.

Before proceeding further stop and think:

  • What other features have we seen to optimize compulsion loops in some of the other activity areas? e.g., in Anticipation or Action phases?

The below diagram shows an example within each of those other activity areas:

Aspirational Neighbours
Aspirational Neighbours

Aspirational Neighbors:

The objective here is to anchor an objective or desired user state into the mind of the player: this is what you could become in the game! A couple examples of this from the folks at Supercell:

  1. Clash of Clans: Providing easy access to visiting the super high level cities of other players in the Leaderboards.
  2. Hay Day: You are forced to visit “Greg” as part of the tutorial, and see his more pimped out farm.
Clash of Clans Aspirational Neighbour
Clash of Clans Aspirational Neighbours
HayDay Aspirational Neighbours
HayDay Aspirational Neighbours
HayDay Aspirational Neighbors
HayDay Aspirational Neighbors

Another common tactic that has been used in RPGs is to put the player in the role of a high level user at the very beginning of the game to give them a taste of what they could later become and then strip them back to being level 1.

Variable Design in Action Phase:

In games with PVE (player vs. environment), there have been attempts to make this phase of activity more interesting by giving players a “variable ratio” action. And further, making the variable ratio action a type of reward. In Final Fantasy Air Brigade for example, PVE can include not just a typical battle, but has a chance of encountering and capturing a Chocobo as well:

Final Fantasy Air Brigade
Final Fantasy Air Brigade

Many card battle games now routinely will mix up PVE with PVP or other types of encounters.

Future Opportunity

So where is the future opportunity with this?

Compulsion loop design can significantly drive retention. Further, some games like slots or progression/completion type games such as Mafia Wars or Farmville are, in my opinion, purely compulsion loop driven. Understanding how to design new tactics here can drive a winning game and open up new opportunities. In the mobile game market today, the smallest advantage from a retention or monetization perspective can make or break a game’s economics.

I believe that significant innovation can come from taking a closer look at compulsion loop principles and applying them in smarter ways… and not just in gaming.

For example, with what we know about variable rewards and with current technology is there any good reason to maintain fixed loyalty rewards programs?

Pinkberry Stamp Card
Yo Pinkberry that last free froyo should be variable!

We will likely see more compulsion loop innovation especially in mobile gaming where the stakes are so high and also particularly in mid-core and hard-core games where retention can be especially poor. Hopefully, better design at the compulsion loop level can help avoid situations like Game of War, where they stick appointment mechanic everywhere in the game to do whatever they can to retain players:

Game of War Appointment Mechanic
How many timers do you see above? 🙂

I believe new disruptive compulsion loop tactics can and will be designed.

Currently we are just limited by our imagination… what new idea do you have to create a stronger compulsion loop?


Sources and Additional References