Super Meat Boy Uses Psychology to Keep You Playing

By: Thomas C Adams

Super Meat Boy (2010) is an indie platformer developed by Team Meat. This game is commonly considered one of the most frustrating games to play much less actually complete. In fact, I still haven’t beaten it myself (I’m on the last level). Being a very frustrating and challenging game, you would think most players fiddle with the game for a few minutes, maybe an hour, and eventually give up. However, many people who play the game play it to completion (or almost-to-completion in my case). How can such a frustrating game keep players interesting and wanting to progress?

The beauty of Super Meat Boy (SMB) lies in its replay system. Once you complete a level, you get to see all your previous attempts at the level play at the same time. Here’s a video of a replay so you can understand what I mean:

As you can see, the game gives you feedback as to how you are learning and progressing on each single level. After you spend numerous attempts (maybe even hundreds) to complete the level and finally do, it’s a very rewarding experience. Moreover, you see this replay on your screen of your attempts. You will see many of the first attempts die within seconds. You will see how you learned from past attempts and changed your strategy. And in the end, you will finally see the one meat boy who finally made it to the end of the level.

Feedback is a very important part of maintaining a behavior. In this case, that behavior is playing SMB. Numerous psychology studies have shown that if you give feedback for a behavior change (such as playing a certain game or recycling), subjects are more likely to continue that behavior. (Larson et al. 1995, Seligman and Darley 1977, DeLeon and Fuqua 1995).

As you progress through the challenging levels and then see your progression at the end of each level, you are noticing your improvements and are becoming optimistic about future attempts. Of course, the game gets harder as you progress, but you’ve seen yourself get better and better each step of the way, so there’s nothing to say that you wouldn’t be able to complete any of the later levels. I’m not sure if it was deliberate or not, but Team Meat’s incorporation of the replay system very likely has a cognitive affect on players using feedback and could be what keeps them playing, despite their hours of frustration.

– Thomas

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2 thoughts on “Super Meat Boy Uses Psychology to Keep You Playing”

  1. This is really interesting! I wonder if this was intentional. Certainly they knew that the replay feature would be fun for players to see, but they seem to have stumbled upon a really effective motivator to keep players engaged.

    I’m trying to think if there are any comparable features in other games. I mean, I know there are trophies and achievements in many games, but I’m not sure that falls under the umbrella of “feedback”. Seeing your improvement in real time is pretty unique. I predict more games will start to incorporate features like this.

  2. Its so funny that you decided to write about Super Meat Boy because I just finished watching Indie Game, a documentary following a couple of indie game developers, Team Meat being one of them and actually also Jonathan Blow, the creator of Braid. I haven’t actually played Super Meat Boy, but its cool to see the comparison between the developer’s inner psychological journey from the movie in the movie and your analysis about how the game hooks the player’s psychologically.

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