The Consistency of Automatic Helping in Games

Recently I’ve been reading Robert Cialdini’s new book about psychological tricks of persuasion Pre-Suasion1 and revisiting parts of his other book on the same topic, Influence.2 One of the major psychological levers of persuasion that Cialdini discusses is the principle of consistency: we feel pressure to act in ways that are consistent with our reputation, stated intentions, or past behavior.

It sounds simple, but it can be very powerful. Consider one study where researchers called people on the phone and asked them if they intended to vote in an upcoming election.3 Everyone said yes. Not surprising given that people don’t generally want to say that they plan on shirking such a civic duty. But what was surprising is that when the researchers went back to the voting rolls to verify such claims, they found that the subjects who said they were going to vote actually did so much more often than those in a control group. Because they wanted to be consistent with their stated intentions and behaviors.

It’s a trick that I saw being used frequently in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, as well. Hillary Clinton’s party, for example, directed visitors to The website not only provided information on how to vote, but asked them to click on a button labeled “Confirm Where I’ll Vote” which can be read (consciously or not) as a pledge to get out and cast a ballot.

Other researcher has shown that honesty can be increased simply moving the part of a tax form where the user signs his/her name next to a statement along the lines of “I promise that all the information I provided here is true.” Moving this signature line from the bottom of the form (where users encounter it after they have filled out the form) to the top (where they encounter it before filling anything out) increased their honesty.4 Even if you’re exhibiting consistency only to yourself, the effect is still there.

Oh here, maybe you’re a fan of horse racing. WHO ISN’T? Consider this excerpt from my own book about the psychology of video games.5

Psychologists Robert Knox and James Inkster once decided to visit the Exhibition Park Race Track in Vancover, British Columbia so they could spend the day at the horse races. The park was near the University of British Columbia where the pair worked, but they weren’t into horses or gambling. At least I don’t think so. Instead they were interested in certain people: the track’s resident gamblers themselves. Knox and Inkster employed the help of over 140 race track patrons to test a theory they had about how placing a bet on a horse affected one’s judgments. The researchers approached about half of the patrons just before they reached the front of the line for the window where one places bets on upcoming races. The other patrons were approached just after they had made their bets.6

Some of the gamblers didn’t speak English or told the nosey little men to get lost. But most of them happily responded to a simple question: “What chance do you think the horse you are going to bet on [or have just bet on] has of winning this race?” The bemused race track patrons were to answer the question with a scale including anchors for 1 (“Slight”) to 3 (“Fair”) to 5 (“Good”) to 7 (“Excellent”).

Knox and Inkster found that something in the few seconds between heading for the betting window and walking away from it had a big impact on the gamblers’ perceptions of how awesome a horse is. It didn’t represent a gigantic change, but just the act of putting down two dollars on a bet was enough to change people’s opinion of a horse from “fair” to “good.” What had happened in those few seconds, of course, was that the gamblers had committed themselves to a horse by placing a bet.

Anyway, revisiting all this stuff about commitment as a persuasion technique made me think of a 2015 Game Developer Conference presentation about antisocial behavior in games by Ben Lewis-Evans.7 Towards the end of the talk, Lewis-Evans mentions what he calls “automatic helping behaviors” in multiplayer games as a potential way to combat bad behavior. These are helpful things that players don’t necessarily set out to do but which they instead do automatically in the course of playing the game. Examples include:

  • Generating orbs to power up other players when you use your ultimate ability in Destiny
  • Recharging other players’ scarves in Journey by standing near them
  • Having your character compliment another player with a bark like “Woah, nice shot!” in Overwatch
  • Providing in-game currency or other bonuses when you visit another player’s town in mobile city building games
  • Pooled money or experience point systems in MOBAS like Heroes of the Storm.

I agree that these are great things for game designers to experiment with because of the consistency principle of persuasion. If we or our character do something helpful in the game, we may be more likely to want to be consistent about that kind of behavior going forward. If a game asks us if we will help other players or exhibit sportsmanship, we may be more likely to do so. If our character automatically compliments another player, we may be more likely to follow suit in voice chat or text chat. I’d love to see research testing this kind of thing.

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1. Cialdini, R. B. Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade (2016). New York, New York, USA.
2. Cialdini, R. (2009). Influence: Science and Practice. Boston: Pearson Press.
3. Greenwald, A. G., Carnot, C. G., Beach, R., & Young, B. (1987). Increasing voting behavior by asking people if they expect to vote. Journal Of Applied Psychology, 72(2), 315–318.
4. Mazar, N., Amir, O., & Ariely, D. (2008). The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance. Journal of Marketing Research, 45, 633-644.
5. Madigan, J. (2015). Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on the People Who Play Them. New York: Rowman & Littlefield. Yeah, that’s right. I cited my own book. So? Big whoop. Wanna fight about it?
6. Robert Knox and James Inkster, “Postdecision Dissonance At Post Time,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 8, no. 4, (1968), doi: 10.1037/h0025528
7. Click here to watch Dr. Lewis-Evans’s talk. Also noteworthy: I had him on an episode of my podcast once.

One thought on “The Consistency of Automatic Helping in Games

  1. Curious Idea, and I think this might help build rapport in games like League of Legends where the Toxic Community is one of the things that often scares people away.

    I wonder if you could build teamwork Mastery / achievements into the game the same way we build them in for individual characters.

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