Idle games, AKA incremental games, are unique in that they do not always require actively playing. That is, you can progress in the game even when it is closed or idling in the background, though there is debate on whether these can be considered video games at all (Alharthi et al., 2018). Popular examples include AdVenture Capitalist, Leaf Blower Revolution: Idle Game, and even mobile games such as Idle Miner Tycoon. These all have their own currency, themes, and ways in which to earn more money, but they all have one thing in common: an incremental reward system. Psychologically speaking, there are particular reasons behind the enjoyment of idle games.
B. F. Skinner and Operant Conditioning
To explore this, we need to go back to the late 1940s and early 1950s with B. F. Skinner and his ‘Skinner Box,’ although it’s not quite as creepy as it sounds (see Skinner, 1948; Skinner, 1951). He was a pioneer in behavioural psychology rising to renown after Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiment with dogs, food, and the ringing of bells (Pavlov, 1897/1902). Skinner, however, thought Pavlov’s classical conditioning to be too basic and therefore introduced new concepts ultimately developing operant conditioning. In essence, Skinner placed rats into a box and when they pressed a lever, a pellet of food would be released. The rats then paired pressing the lever with food and would continue to do so, even when they would not receive a reward pellet.
Humans are very much the same, albeit we need something a bit more complicated than a pellet of food. We like reinforcement. In the case of idle games, this reinforcement comes in the form of large numbers. We love to watch numbers go up, even if they don’t actually mean very much. Take Leaf Blower Revolution: An Idle Game as an example.
The entire point of the game is to increase combos and many other factors (it is a seriously complex game) in order to blow as many leaves as possible. I kid you not. You literally move your character around and blow leaves off of the screen. And yet, it is so unbelievably relaxing. I should know; I’ve been playing it since it came out in December 2020 with more hours than I care to admit.
As it is an idle game, it also runs in the background when you’re not playing, collecting more leaves and all the other various aspects involved in the game. The entire point is to collect as many leaves as possible, up even in the scientific numbers because there is no other way to depict it. I’m personally on 100e^138 in leaves.
Aside from operant conditioning, we also enjoy idle games as they satisfy our desires to accumulate big numbers without the worry of any loss when we are not playing. That’s what is ideal about idle games—you can pop in for a bit and spend what you’ve accumulated on things that will allow you to make even more money when it’s closed. This then repeats in a loop of accumulation, reinvestment, and acceleration with the simple goal of making numbers bigger.
We have an innate dislike of any sort of loss, hence loss aversion, and having a game that never takes away your income unless you’ve spent it yourself is quite nice. Having your currency grow in the background when you’re not even playing is a huge bonus.
We all also love a feeling of achievement. With each new upgrade you purchase in an idle game, you feel like you’ve accomplished something. Let’s be real, many of us are still in lockdown situations or similar and it’s not like we have been able to achieve very much over the past 18 months. Buying that next moneymaker in AdVenture Capitalist or going deeper in Idle Miner Tycoon allows us to feel like we’ve done something, even if it is just in a game. This relates back to the basic psychological need of competence in the Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Essentially, we need to feel like we are achieving things in life in order to reach happiness, and doing this in a game can supplement that.
Overall, idle games are extremely satisfying to play both on and offline. There’s something about coming back into a game after a few days and seeing extremely large numbers. We can say this is due to Skinner’s operant conditioning, our desire to avoid losses, and the satisfaction we gain from achievements. Regardless, all them zeros in a number sure do look good.
Alharthi, S. A., Alsaedi, O., Toups, Z. O., Tanenbaum, T. J., & Hammer, J. (2018, April). Playing to wait: A taxonomy of idle games. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1-15).
Pavlov, I. P. (1897/1902). The work of the digestive glands. London: Griffin.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.
Skinner, B. F. (1948). Superstition’ in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172.
Skinner, B. F. (1951). How to teach animals. Freeman.
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