Behavioral Reinforcement: An Analysis of What Makes Pokémon Addictive

For one of my previous blog posts, I wrote a brief explanation of dopamine and its significance to the videogame experience. For this post, I plan to continue in a similarly scientific fashion, and explore what it is besides dopamine that makes one of the most iconic games with which I grew up so wildly and mindlessly addicting.


That game is called Pokémon, and that “thing besides dopamine” is known as behavioral reinforcement.

Pokémon is a game that makes no attempt to hide the fact that it’s primarily about building a magpie-like collection of things for no reason other than the fact that those things exist to be collected. Yes, battling those creatures is fun, and doing so amongst friends can quickly become both very challenging and very rewarding as a result, but how much time playing Pokémon did you honestly spend battling with friends, especially “back in the day” when you’d have to tether your Gameboys to one another with those clunky little link cables?

The answer, probably, is significantly less than you spent playing through the game on your own, exploring the Kanto region (or the Johto region, or the Hoenn region, or many subsequent other regions, but we won’t go there), leveling up, and collecting various things. The primary draw and motivation of the game remained the desire to “catch ’em all,” to scour tall grass for hours on end waiting for a freaking Chansey to appear again in the Safari Zone, just to accidentally scare it away and have to start all over like some sort of stupid idiot.

Just look at that smug little smile.

In the second semester of my freshman year, I was enrolled in General Psychology (PSYC 100) in order to fulfill one of my general education requirements. As is to be expected, we eventually came to a unit on reinforcement techniques used to motivate and train lab rats and other subject animals in the clinical environment. While studying one night, I found myself sketching out a little Pikachu in the margins. “This is Pokémon,” I thought I as I skimmed through the descriptions I had written down. “Behavioral reinforcement is what ensured I played those games for so long.”

Reinforcement is any sort of consequential action that results in a behavior being repeated with greater frequency. There are various different types of reinforcement (positive and negative, and so on), but for the sake of this blog post, I am going to be focusing on reinforcement schedules in particular, as they are the most pertinent to Pokémon.

There are many different types of reinforcement schedules, the most simple of which is referred to as a continuous reinforcement schedule, in which every occurrence of a desired action (such as a dog sitting down when told to do so) is followed by a reinforcer (the dog receiving a treat). However, the most effective and addictive reinforcement schedule is actually the variable ratio schedule, in which the number of responses necessary to produce a desired outcome varies from trial to trial. For example, if a lab rat presses on a bar ten times, on average, a pellet of food would be dispensed every tenth time. The reason the variable ratio schedule typically results in the highest rate of responses in the subject is because the subject quickly learns that to get the desired result, all he or she has to do is perform the desired reaction a certain number of times to achieve it.

Because treachery, that's why.

With the above in mind, consider my previous example of my trying to catch a Chansey. The only reason I was willing to spend so many hours trudging around in little circles in that one particular path of tall grass in Safari Zone was because I knew there was a chance that I would run into a Chansey again, because I knew, even as a child, that that one particular path of grass was coded by the game’s programmers to include an encounter rate of more than 0 for the particular Pokémon I wanted, because that was the way the game functioned.

I’ll admit that I was sort of an odd kid when I was little, but unnecessary autobiography aside, if it weren’t for Pokémon’s heavy use of and dependence on the variable ratio schedule in its games, I do not think it would continue to be such a successful franchise today. Simply put, without encounter rates there is no challenge to the end goal of collection, and without a challenge to the end goal of collection, there is no Pokémon.

Although I touched on a similarly technical in my previous post regarding dopamine, I really do think it is important that we continue to study games not only within their cultural and mechanical contexts, but also in relation to their psychological ones, as it is only through the exploration of what makes games entertaining to the masses in the first place that we can better understand why we as consumers have any desire to play and study them at all.

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