Clicker Games & The Hedonic Treadmill

What do you think of “idle” games like cookie clicker? Do they offer anything of value?

They basically play on the hedonic treadmill to foster addiction. They’re like a game you can’t ultimately lose and you can’t ultimately win. I hesitate to call them games, but I think the description is appropriate, because I think they stimulate similar centers of the brain. You have an inconsistency between consistent growth and explosive growth. They’re dangerous like gambling, and only safe in that they eventually peter out.

So basically, there’s this thing called the hedonic treadmill. We have kind of a base level of happiness and it’s high or it’s low. It largely depends on genetics, I think, to a lesser degree environmental factors and upbringing. As long as our settings remain consistent, we pretty much default back to this base level of happiness no matter how good or bad things are. Before clicker games were more basic idle games, like Progress Quest, which was basically, wait a long time and stuff grows. Candy Box then was like, “Hey, what if we made it so you could buy things that increase the rate at which stuff grows?” Then Cookie Clicker took that idea and made the entire game about it.

So just clicking the cookie is kind of boring, you can click, maybe mash pretty fast, but you’re just gonna get cookies at a consistent rate, and maybe you’ll do it long enough to get a bunch of cookies, but that’s extremely boring and eventually you leave. So then you can buy things using the cookies you’ve earned that increase how many cookies you get every click. So you buy one, and suddenly your clicks earn twice as much, and you’re back to the amount you just lost way faster than you took to get there the first time, and it’s like, “Whoa. This is cool.” Then you add auto-clickers on top of that to automatically generate revenue, but clicking the cookie itself is still the most profitable thing. The whole concept of the game is growth on top of growth. You earn money, spend it on things that improve your growth, and there’s always things over the horizon that take your growth and create an even exponentially higher amount of growth on top of that in a runaway cycle of positive feedback into more positive feedback. And this is crazy addicting because you cannot acclimate to any particular level of growth, it just keeps preempting the set-in of the hedonic treadmill again and again.

Cookie clicker isn’t a particularly fun game considered in abstract, it’s just clicking a button over and over again, you’re not really developing any skills, and you’ll have explosive growth no matter what you do practically. However it hijacks the way we process rewards so heavily that if you start playing it, it’s nearly impossible to put down, even though at the back of your mind you’re not really enjoying what you’re doing.

Of course, if you know this is the case, you can get smart and choose to break the addictive cycle. It’s hard because, “oh man, I’m earning more than before, I’m making progress, lets keep doing this,” but it’s possible.

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