As far as sales figures go, the Call of Duty franchise is the biggest thing to ever happen to gaming. In fact, its moneymaking potential is making Hollywood blockbuster films blush with their inadequacy to compete. So I think it’s pretty fair to say that there are a lot of people who like Call of Duty.
So why is the series so popular, and why do people spend so much time with it year after year?
Some would claim that there’s simply some raw, primal satisfaction that comes from shooting people in the face over and over again. Others will claim that there’s also a type of adrenaline rush that is derived from being shot at, as it kicks our survival instincts into high gear. And while those people make interesting points, their arguments are also extremely lazy. See, there’s way more to Call of Duty’s staying power than the testosterone-fueled urge to shoot at things or the manly urge to pit our survival skills against those of other players.
I would argue that Call of Duty’s developers understand—perhaps better than anyone else in the industry—how to make an addictive interactive experience. Yes, Call of Duty is designed from the ground up to hook players. In fact, you might even say that the player is being manipulated the entire time he or she is playing a game of Call of Duty.
See, people love rewards, and Call of Duty is constantly giving out rewards to players. And rewards generally make our brains happy. In scientific terms (that I learned while reading Wikipedia, so you know they’re accurate), these small rewards cause dopamine levels in your brain to increase. And, typically, the higher your dopamine levels, the happier you think you are.
When you’re playing a multiplayer round of Team Deathmatch in a COD game, you are rewarded for every bullet that strikes an opponent. Firstly, there’s the sound of the bullet hitting the flesh, which is one of COD’s hallmarks and perhaps one of the best-designed sounds in modern gaming. There’s just something immensely satisfying about hearing that fleshy thud that makes every landed bullet fun. See, this sound let’s you know you’ve done something good, and you instantly know you’re being rewarded. It’s like a pat on the head.
And then, more obvious, there’s that X that shows up on your crosshairs whenever a bullet hits its target. Not only do you have an audio cue to provide instant gratification, but you have a visual one as well. You will never fire a bullet in a Call of Duty game and wonder if it hit its target.
(An interesting variation on this is Borderlands 2’s damage numbers that radiate from struck enemies. This is why, in my opinion, damage-over-time weapons—ones that deal corrosive damage, for example—will always be more fun in Borderlands than standard weapons. You get to see that constant flow of numbers spilling from the wounds of your enemies like a sort of mathematical blood.)
So as long as you’re doing well in a COD game, you are constantly being handed short-term rewards.
But, as enjoyable as that is, we still need some long-term rewards in order to feel justified in continuing to play. You see, according to a study done by a bunch of scientists at a bunch of accredited universities, long-term and short-term rewards basically cause this sort of mental war inside your brain. The more impulsive section of your brain will prefer short-term rewards, while the more logical part of your brain will prefer long-term rewards. Call of Duty silences this mental battle by satisfying both of these at the same time.
It satisfies your need for long-term rewards with its level progression system. Everything you do to earn points—be it getting kills, deploying UAVs, earning medals, winning matches, or what have you—causes you to earn XP, which is tallied at the end of each match and shown to you visually on an XP bar. Earn enough XP, and you’ll level up. Of course, with each level you earn, you unlock something cool, like a new perk, new weapon, or new killstreak reward.
This is the carrot that COD is constantly dangling in front of players. The game is constantly saying, “If you keep playing, you’re going to earn something cool." Your brain responds by saying, “Yeah, I think I’ll play one more round and see if I can hit the next level and unlock the next cool thing."
But every level-up system comes with a cap. So what happens when players hit that cap? Well, it gets harder to keep them interested. But this is another issue that Call of Duty has successfully conquered. You see, it has a Prestige system, which means that once you hit the level cap, you can start over from level 1 and do it all over again. You will lose most of that cool stuff you unlocked, but you’ll now be “Prestige 1." And since you now have to re-unlock all the level-up rewards, you will once again be rewarded for every level you gain.
Now, I’ve already explained why the Prestige system is probably the laziest development decision in gaming history (essentially allowing hundreds upon hundreds of levels of advancement to be added with very little work on the programmers’ end), but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. In fact, it’s brilliant, because it keeps us playing. It keeps us constantly working toward a goal, and every tiny step toward that goal is rewarded with an audio cue, a visual cue, and a small amount of XP. It’s constantly doling out long-term and short-term rewards that trick your brain into thinking you’re doing something productive.
So basically, Call of Duty is perhaps the most manipulative game franchise ever made. Does this make it bad? Of course not. The franchise’s developers have a duty to provide an entertaining experience—essentially, we are demanding our games to increase the dopamine and adrenaline levels in our brains. Call of Duty takes a very scientific, psychological approach to doing so.
Does knowing all this make the series less fun? I guess that’s up to you to decide. Personally, I’ll keep enjoying the things COD does to my brain chemistry, no matter how manipulative those things may be.
Editor / Social Media
Date: December 21, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*