Video games offer a case study in how to get kids hooked, but it’s not just the graphics that do the trick. Game designers say they also use standard motivational strategies that apply to school work, too.

Start off simple:

Whether it’s blasting space aliens or maneuvering a race car, the first few levels of a video game are simple enough to give any player a sense of mastery, explains Jason Della Rocca of the International Game Developers Association.

If the game is too tough at the start, players give up: “I just picked up this game, and I’m being beaten left and right. I must really not be good at this.” In contrast, he says, early success boosts confidence and invests the player in the game. “They want to beat the fourth race because they already beat the third race.”

Slowly raise the bar:

Now that players are flush with victory and craving more, it’s time to up the challenge. If every race is as easy as the previous one, there’s no sense of accomplishment and no motivation to improve, Della Rocca says.

As players hone old skills, they gradually learn new ones. Steering around the figure ‘8’ race track on the fourth level is trickier than maneuvering the single loop on level one. Obstacles appear, requiring the player to learn a new skill, handling the clutch.

As the skill level increases, so does the intensity or duration of effort required to master it, adds Della Rocca. “I have to concentrate more. I have to be more precise with my steering. [Or] the race track is twice as long, [and] the time I need to be concentrating is twice as long.”

Reward progress with greater autonomy:

A standard element of game design is to unlock new features and add more options as the game progresses, he says. “That’s part of the enticement. The player wants to win the race so he gets more access to the advanced features.” Choices not only give players a sense of control that further invests them in the game, but choices also allow the developer to please a variety of players. “Maybe one kid likes to paint his car blue, and another kid likes red. It allows a wider audience to make selections that favor them.”

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