Variable Ratio Reinforcement (VRR) is what makes gamblers and gamers behave like a neurotically obsessed person. Take a slot machine. It is programmed to pay out money every 20 spins, for instance, on average. It might happen on the 5th pull, the 26th pull and 29th pull. But the average is every 20 pulls. Can you now see why a player might be very unwilling to abandon her slot? She knows she will receive a payout, but she doesn’t know when. Not knowing when the payout will happen is what keeps this bleary-eyed grandma trying, and hoping it would materialize on the next spin.
Slot machines and Variable Ratio Reinforcement (VRR) make gambling addicts out of men and women. Source: gambling.addictionblog.org
It’s a stroke of genius actually, to put this behavior-changing scheme into the heart of every slot machine, enslaving gamblers and compelling them to incessantly feed the slots.
Enthralling game apps are not unlike slots. They ingeniously slot in (no pun intended) VRR to make the game sticky, compelling gamers to stay plastered to them. You might just win that crucial weapon or level up on the next swipe or tap. And you have no idea why you are not able to pry your own fingers off the phone.
The evils of VRR. Armageddon-like conclusion in the case of slot machines. Many end up losing their home and family to the casinos (99% of the payouts are mediocre at best, compared to the sum fed into them). In the case of video games, many users suffer from game addiction to the point of neglecting their school, work, family and friends.
The good of VRR. It is very useful in educational and productivity apps, where when applied correctly, makes them very addictive. Consider a grammar workout app where a badge is presented for every 10 correct answers, on average. The accumulation of these badges goes toward the user’s global ranking which is made public to other users of the same app. The app makes wonderful use of VRR to play with the kid’s ego in a positive way – his need to be recognized – so that he is hooked to the grammar app for hours on end.
The child’s objective is to accumulate more badges so he can rank high up on the grammar hall of fame. In the process, he is mastering grammar. But to him, it doesn’t feel like learning at all. He is much too fixated on gaming. A very powerful approach to learning.
Combine Variable Ratio Reinforcement with Regime of Competence and you would have created an app that packs a wallop.