Smartphone users unlock their devices 70 times a day on average, and many of these “peeks” lead to extended engagement with global poker video games, mobile apps, and social media platforms.

Apps and games are designed to keep users coming back for more, but what exactly makes them addictive? From Candy Crush Saga to Instagram, people are consciously and subconsciously being pushed to endless engagement.


“Any gamification platform is explicitly designed to make you want not to put it down and is designed to [stimulate the] reward pathway in your brain which can suppress your perception of time,” Birmingham Southern College professor, Dr. Joseph F. Chandler says.

“Gamifying” is one of the ways developers make mobile apps and games more addictive. It is not something that can be switched on or off; it’s more an amalgamation of systems and features that make people using apps feel like they are achieving something, either through the use of notifications or pop-up scores and leaderboards.

Gamifying apps often use the idea of competition between users as a motivation for users to keep engaging with the app. They also offer rewards that are usually doled out in small hits and quick succession rather than there being a single, bigger reward at the end of an experience.

Colors and sounds

Feeding into the gamification of apps is the use of bright colors and hypnotic sounds to satiate a user’s brain. Psychology Dr. Lis Stroham says the combination of color and sound effectively creates a “classical conditioning loop” that elicits a consistent conditioned response from the user. This loop increases the dopamine flow to the brain and keeps users coming back for more over an extended period.

Shares and likes

The like button first used by Facebook is now one of the standard ways in which mobile apps, particularly the social media apps, get users to remain engaged and increase the amount of time they spend on their device. That is because people, in general, are always looking for approval from their peers, being ready and willing to share and comment on anything that interests them.

Facebook also made liberal use of red notification dots to entice more of its users to click on new posts, photo uploads, and other updates. When it was first conceived, this feature used blue-colored notifications, but developers found that it didn’t grab a user’s attention. The color red works because we are already conditioned to take heed of signals that are red as they are associated with danger.

Apple does something similar with its iPhone apps. Capital One UX manager, Maxim Leyzerovich, notes: “Red — being both the most vivid color for our ocular perception and also the most rarely used one — does significantly multiply the effect of the feedback cycle that pushes us (puns!) into these [addictive] behaviors.”


Game and mobile developers often follow a “keep it simple” mantra for designing user interfaces as a mishmash of buttons, icons, and content can put people off when they first launch content. A simple, easy to navigate UX will appeal to a broader range of people as it reduces the “work” they need to do to use it.

Optimizing gestures and the touch control is another essential part of the mobile app experience. Certain apps have become more popular due to the use of swipe left and swipe right as the main components of the user interface. This makes it easier for people to use regularly, over time, and creates the conditioning loop that stimulates the brain.


For mobile games, specifically, skill is another crucial factor. Drawing players in, building up levels of complexity, and giving them goals and objectives to target will improve the chances of the player becoming actively engaged and more addicted to a game over time.

Game developers often acquaint players with “novel skills” when they first play a game. After the user learns these necessary skills, they want to complete increasingly difficult and varied challenges after that. Mobile poker is an example of a game where users learn the basic rules and skillset and then move onto strategic thinking in an attempt to maximize winnings.


While ramping up the difficulty can keep players hooked, this higher skill level needs to be balanced by massaging or feeding the ego of the player. That is where the reward system comes in. One expert says creating a weak positive emotional response is best as users can get overwhelmed and exhausted if they are forced to have a full emotional involvement with an app. The aim is to preserve user interest and excite them for return visits.

To conclude, developers and software engineers use a range of simple and complex systems to make apps and games addictive.