Candy Crush Saga is one of the most downloaded free apps of all the internet age. Launched in 2012, in app terms it’s ancient, yet over 50 million people constantly play it on devices — while on the bus, at the metro station, in the queue at the post office or waiting to see the dentist. And now it’s making its debut on television.
Last month the US commercial television network CBS announced that it will be broadcasting Candy Crush, the live action game show. “We are huge fans of Candy Crush and, like so many others, we know the ‘rush’ of advancing to the next level of the game,” enthused Glenn Geller, President, CBS Entertainment.
That “rush” explains why up to 600 million games are played every day. Indeed, Candy Crush Saga has spread like a virus. It crosses generational boundaries from children to housewives, university students to managers.
And this is where the revolution lies, in having passionate followers in a public not traditionally known to play videogames and who have almost treated them with hostility. Yet now, housewives and even retirees are typical players.
What lies behind those colourful candies?
This needs explaining. How has this pixelated confectionary been able to seduce a female audience that, until a few years ago, made fun of men hypnotized in front of a game console?
Certainly, the spread of smartphones and the removal of navigational costs of mobile Internet has facilitated the penetration of video games into all age groups, and made them accessible in practically any moment of daily life — for example, while waiting in a tedious queue.
And yet the dynamics of the game are basic and inferior to those of many others. It involves overcoming not particularly complex levels by lining up three candies of the same colour either vertically or horizontally. Further, Candy Crush does not have outstanding or innovative graphics; rather, it’s as elementary and basic as early video games from the 1980’s.
Then why so successful? According to some investigators the secret lies in what those innocent colourful candies and simple graphics do to your brain. The bright colours and shapes that evoke our childhoods, and other features of the game are based on a deep and targeted study of psychology and neurology. The mechanisms work on the primary reflexes of input and output, continually sending stressful neurological stimuli to the brain. These are almost like light electric shocks, spurring the player constantly into action. That’s why we’re so attracted to playing with these candies, and why it is so difficult to stop.
But there’s more. The game leverages and mobilizes simultaneously five human emotions: frustration, gratification, curiosity, desire and enjoyment. In particular it stimulates the first two to the point of exhaustion. The secret of the addiction lies in knowing how to expertly stimulate tandem feelings of frustration-gratification. On the one hand, players deep frustration when they get stuck at a certain level of the game. On the other, they are rewarded when they finally manage to reach a higher level.
This achievement comes with a powerful injection of adrenaline that brings a sense of relief and satisfaction, and, like a drug, induces players to continue.
Of course, this is nothing new. The triggering of emotions is the basis of every videogame, as previously discussed in our ‘Video games and surroundings, instructions for use‘. However, Candy Crush Saga manages to do it better than others, in a more subliminal fashion, using the candy like a battering ram, with strong and vibrant colours to leverage emotions and deepest and hidden desires, even awakening those that have lain dormant since childhood.
Symptoms of addiction and loneliness
The psychological mechanism is hellish, and without self-control the risk of dependency is very high. If, in fact, the most common question asked when among friends is no longer “How are you?” but rather “What level are you?”; when almost physical as well as mental pleasure is felt as square shaped candies collide with those that are round, crushing them into smithereens, it means that we too are in the vortex.
Friends who often play Candy Crush admit to have swung from euphoria or depression, depending on the outcome of a game. When you win, you feel like a genius, if you lose, like a nobody. It’s all largely a matter self-esteem.
These are all dangerous signs of addiction. It takes very little to move from a simple and harmless pastime to an obsession, one that even keeps you awake at night. It is like a drug that affects users of all ages, but particularly women, perhaps more prone and vulnerable to the dynamics of exaggerated stimulation of the latent emotions. Surely loneliness, experienced by more and more and more peoplein our society, provides a fertile ground for this type of addiction, which no one can escape without strong self-discipline and defences.
Fabrizio Piciarelli is the web editor of Rome-based Family and Media, where an earlier version of this article was published.