Dopamine Loops

Dopamine Loops

This Guest Feature was written by Matthew Moynihan.


750 Words on Dopamine Feedback Loops

Video games have been a source of fun, pleasure and escapism for almost sixty years. From Pong and Colossal Cave Adventure to Gears of War and Breath of the Wild, people have turned to games for comfort and a reprieve from normal life. But games may or may not actually serve the mood boosting purpose so many seek- depending on how you’re playing.

First ‘discovered’ at the National Heart Institute of Sweden in 1957 (just a year before Tennis for Two became the first video game released for entertainment), dopamine is a chemical released in the brain that is frequently associated with pleasure.  This view of dopamine mistakenly conflates ‘wanting’ with ‘enjoying.’ More accurately, dopamine is less like pleasure and more like an anticipatory reward. Brains release dopamine in anticipation of completing an action more than in the actual completion of the act. In essence, Pavlov’s dog gets more pleasure from the ringing of the bell then from actually eating the meal.


Many sports games have a ‘potential’ rating, building the anticipation of future rewards directly into the interface of the game.


But how does this apply to games? Why does this matter? Because of the damage that can be done by compulsion loops. Dopamine loops create patterns in which a small repeatable action creates a consistent feed of dopamine releases, simulating prolonged pleasure. Kill dragons, get treasure. To buy better gear. To kill better dragons. And get better treasure. And so on. These compulsion loops are everywhere: scrolling through social media feeds, replying to texts, and sending emails all create these loops. It feels good to browse. But if asked to recall a happy memory, would a you come up with a great time spent scanning Instagram? Or a particularly memorable night clicking links after link after link online? Now what about your last six hour grind?

Many games have aspects or modes that employ compulsion loops to encourage gameplay, sometimes to promote micro transactions, or to drive demand for DLC. Game designers even openly discuss compulsion loops as a decisive technique. The Upgrade-By-Playing-More style of franchises like Call of Duty, or the Ultimate Team and Manager Mode play of sports games have the anticipation reward system built into them. With more kills, a player can win skins to customize their appearance. With more play time, a rookie goalie will gain experience and grow into a star worth millions. The anticipation of meeting these goals makes playing the game feel good. But it doesn’t provide an end or way out. Seeing the results of your hard work isn’t satisfying, only the potential for more ‘success’ is. You feel great while you play the game, but when you turn off the console to make dinner or go to bed, you may be left in a spiral.


Online multiplayers don’t wait until after sessions to give dopamine triggers. Points and rewards pop up mid-game, feeding the anticipation reward cycle.


This is how addiction works. Use creates withdrawals that drive use, etc. The cycle is hard to stop. While dopamine is less dangerous and destructive than the opioids plaguing the nation with overdoses, they cue the same neural reactions. For all the small doses of dopamine we receive in compulsion loops in game, we can experience a sense of failure and stagnation out of game: a false sense that by ending the loop, we are no longer achieving or succeeding. Grinding for experience in RPGs has the same potential, yet story heavy games like Bioshock: Infinite, or Breath of the Wild have a more distinct tendency to create memorable moments. Whether great battles, or clever puzzle solutions, the pieces exist more independently and have a clearer role in a greater narrative. The story elements stay present after they are completed. Victories build into one over-arching accomplishment: they don’t negate and replace the previous achievement.  


This graph (from Stephanie Morgan) is used to teach building these loops into games as a mechanic: highlighting the compulsive structures integrated into games to keep players in a mission based game.


This does not mean that shooters and sports games are bad. They often carry a unique social ability for cooperative play. I have played through dozens of seasons of NCAA Football and have almost no specific memories of individual games or play sessions.  But I do remember moments and details down to scores and individual plays from FIFA games six years ago with college roommates. I only remember map layouts from killing time playing Call of Duty, but I remember matches played online with my brother when we lived two thousand miles apart. The social aspects of these sessions kept the gaming alive, and prevented me from falling into mindless loops of endless play. So if you want to relax or distract yourself from the stresses of the day: choose carefully and avoid the trapping of compulsive looping play. Don’t let games become a catalyst for the stress you seek to relieve.