First off, it’s simple. The premise of Candy Crush is basic enough for a preschooler – just match three candies of the same colour. Initially, the game allows us to win and pass levels with ease, giving a strong sense of satisfaction. These accomplishments are experienced as mini rewards in our brains, releasing the neurochemical dopamine and tapping into the same neuro-circuitry involved in addiction, reinforcing our actions. Despite its reputation as a pleasure chemical, dopamine also plays a crucial role in learning, cementing our behaviours and training us to continue performing them.
If the game remained this easy, however, we’d quickly tire of the jellybeans and gum drops, becoming bored after a couple of binge sessions. But Candy Crush keeps us coming back in several ways. As we play, the game gets harder, the wins (and those bursts of dopamine) becoming more intermittent.
Also, despite what you may think – and what the developers of the game claim – Candy Crush is essentially a game of luck, your success dependent on the array of colours you have randomly been given rather than your swiping skills. This means that the reward schedule becomes unexpected: we lose more often than we win and we never know when the next triumph will come. Rather than discouraging us from playing, this actually makes the game even more enticing than if we won easily.
This strategy is known as a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement and is the same tactic used in slot machines; you can never predict when you’re going to win, but you win just often enough to keep you coming back for more.