I took the train a few times last weekend, and on every trip I saw people playing both Candy Crush Saga and Puzzles & Dragons.
Both are very different in style and mechanics, but at their core they’re both puzzle games.
If we look beyond mobile, millions still play Sudoku, despite the “fad” being close to 10 years old. And countless millions more enjoy filling out the daily crossword puzzle (yes, newspapers still exist).
Studies have shown the release of dopamine associated with solving a puzzle - the aha moment - clearly there’s pleasure in puzzles.
A fascinating new study shows how ingrained into our evolutionary makeup this behaviour is.
Research by the Zoological Society of London using a game designed with dice, pipes and holes found that chimpanzees are motivated to complete puzzles even in the absence of external rewards.
“We noticed that the chimps were keen to complete the puzzle regardless of whether or not they received a food reward. This strongly suggests they get similar feelings of satisfaction to humans who often complete brain games for a feel-good rewar.”
- Fay Clark, ZSL researcher
The fun of solving puzzles appears to be wired deep.
Double the pleasure?
So does the pleasure come just on completion of the task? And does it only flow in one direction?
Other research has shown the that being in a playful state can help solve puzzles more easily, and interestingly, anticipating solving a puzzle puts the brain into a more open and pleasurable state.
So in addition to the satisfaction of finding a solution to a difficult level in CCS, there is also the sweet anticipation as you start loading up the game and prepare to play.
What does it mean for game designers?
So does that mean we should drop our space battle, shooters or farm games and all switch to Match-3 puzzlers?
No, not really.
But some takeaways I’m thinking about:
- Games that align with human “brain wiring” are more likely to do well
- There’s more opportunity to meld puzzle games into other game genres to make them more addictive (this is an interesting one I’ll expand on in a later post)
- Puzzles can often lose the fun factor easily by being too easy or difficult - the researchers from ZSL could and did increase complexity by making pipes opaque and balance difficulty for the chimps. The trick is to be positioned between apathy (too easy*) and over frustration (see Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s research on “flow”). Note - this state of energized focus is different from mindless repetition which can be associated with hypnotic states.
- To get people to do better in your puzzle game and enjoy it more, go for playful loading screens and audio to get them in the mood
- Animals are smarter than we think :)