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The Psychology of Video Game Avatars

Are you more dominant, kind, assertive, clever, or flirty depending on how your character appears in-game? Both new and old research has shown that the avatars we adopt can influence our behaviors not only inside the game, but outside as well.

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How Not to Compare the Xbox One and PS4

With the Xbox One and PS4 in stores this month, many of us are comparing bulleted lists of features when trying to decide which to buy. That’s a step up from blind fanboyism, but such an approach can still trigger a couple of mental errors in judgment. Here’s how to avoid them.

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The Psychology of Video Game Nostalgia

With the help of researchers in psychology and marketing, let’s explore why we tend to get nostalgic about old games, why we may be fooling ourselves about how great they were, why it may be a good thing anyway, and why it makes us vulnerable to marketers.

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Less Humble Bundles Are More

The “less is more” effect can make one product seem more valuable than another even though it has less to offer. The Humble Bundle deals provide a great real-world example of how you might be willing to pay more if the deals were presented in just a slightly different way.

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Why You Don’t Burn Out on Candy Crush Saga

Candy Crush Saga is the most popular game on Facebook, iOS, and Android. Unsurprisingly, it uses a few psychological levers to move its players, and this article focuses on one of them to answer the question: Why do they limit the number of lives you have per day instead of letting you play as much as you want?

Gone Home's game world is relatively small, but incredibly dense and rich

Why Gone Home Is So Immersive

The first person exploration game Gone Home is one of the most immersive games I’ve ever seen, and it was done with just a tiny budget and team relative to AAA games. Let’s look at what theories of spatial presence have to say about what the developers did and why it works so well.

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The Psychology Behind Steam’s Summer Sale

Summer is here! Time to pump up your video game backlog until it’s bloated, gurgling, and making vaguely taunting motions from over in the corner. In other words, the Steam Summer Sale has begun. I just bought Hotline Miami, Fez, and The Swapper for like 14 cents while typing that. Like last time, Steam is…

How Kinect sees you: a pulsing sack of meat and emotions. (Image from Wired's Kinect demonstration.)

Can The Xbox One’s Kinect Read Your Mind?

Well, no. Of course not. That’s a silly question. Why would you even ask it? That said, the updated supercamera on the Kinect 2.0 is capable of some pretty amazing things. Microsoft demonstrated how it can tell where you’re looking, estimate your heart rate from the color of your skin, and even infer your mood…

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I’m Writing a Book. You Can Help.

When I started this blog over three years ago, I did it because the topic interested me and I thought it would be fun. I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of reception, but it was actually pretty good! People found the site, passed links to it around, and editors at a few magazines…

Like most online shops, there's lots of prices that end in .99 here in the Mann Co. store.

The Left-Digit Effect: Why Game Prices End in .99

Why, when you saunter into a game store or navigate your favorite e-tailer, is everything priced $59.99, $29.99, or $19.99? More specifically, why do all those prices end in “.99?” Why not just be honest and price them at $60, $30, and $20? Retailers aren’t fooling anyone by pricing them one cent cheaper, are they?…

The Psychology of Nostalgia

Articles for Edge Magazine Online

Last year I wrote several articles for Edge Magazine about the psychology of various video game topics. Somehow I missed that Edge put these online for viewing, so in case you didn’t catch the print editions I’ve helpfully aggregated them all here in one post. Wait …hang on, I’ve got to check something. Okay, yes.…

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A Tale of Two Talent Trees

Can the presentation of choices on an upgrade screen or talent tree affect how we feel about those choices? Consider the two screenshots of talent trees below. No, look, don’t ask why just yet. Just consider them! The first one is from the first person shooter Syndicate while the second is from the latest Tomb…

Nathan Drake and the traveler from Journey represent the two high points on either side of the uncanny valley.

The Uncanny Valley and Character Design

Attention, Internet: I have a new article on the psychology of the uncanny valley up on gamesindustry.biz. You know what the uncanny valley is, right? It’s that theory originally from the field of robotics that says if you stick a couple arms and googly eyes on a trash can it looks cute, but if you…

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The Availability Heuristic is Always On

One of the stories that’s making the rounds right now concerns Adam Orth, a (former) Creative Director at Microsoft who caused a ruckus by cramming his foot in his Twittermouth. He did so while weighing in on a potential “always on, always connected to the Internet” nature of Microsoft’s next Xbox console. The gist of…

The Psychological Appeal of Violent Shooters

I have a new article up on gamesindustry.biz exploring the psychological appeal of violent shooters via self-determination theory. I draw from work by Scott Rigby, Richard Ryan, and Andrew Przybylski that looks at how this theory of human motivation can explain why violent shooters are so popular. SPOILER: It’s because good shooter design also happens…

Heuristics, Ho!

This pricing I just saw on Bioshock Infinite inspired me to make a quick note: This is just a nice example of what psychologist and influence connoisseur Robert Cialdini would call a “click, whirr” moment. Bioshock Inifinite is only discounted three cents here, but we’re so used to thinking that something is a good buy…

The Zeigarnik Effect and Quest Logs

What do waiters in a 1920s Venetian restaurant and today’s average role-playing game fan have in common? They both tend to remember what they have yet to finish. Sometime during the 1920s, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was sitting in an Austrian restaurant (or maybe German; accounts differ) when she noticed something peculiar: waiters displayed an…

Modifying Player Behavior in League of Legends With Honor

One of the blind spots in my gaming experience is the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre, which consists of competitive multiplayer games like DOTA, Heroes of Newerth, and League of Legends. Part of the reason I’ve never jumped in to any of these massively popular games is the one-two combination of a daunting learning…

The Walking Dead, Mirror Neurons, and Empathy

Oh man, have you all been playing The Walking Dead from Telltale Games? I have, and with every installment of this episodic game I’m newly impressed by how hard it yanks on my emotions. Like the comic that spawned it, the game is unapologetically bleak. Its appeal largely comes from watching characters getting crammed into…

How Game Tutorials Can Strangle Player Creativity

Okay, let’s do one more article on creativity and games, based on this question: Is it better to hand hold new players through a game tutorial to teach them all the mechanics and intricacies of a game, or is it better to let them figure things out on their own? The “tutorial level” has become…

Creativity, Puzzle Games, and Brain Damage

Have you ever encountered a puzzle in a game that utterly stumped you, then wondered why it seemed so trivially easy when you stepped away and came back to it after doing something else for a while? I have, especially on a recent playthrough of an indie puzzle game called “QUBE” (http://qube-game.com/). For those not…

Competition, Cooperation, and Play

One of the topics that’s conspicuously absent from this blog is that of the relationship between violence and video games. The short version of the reason why is that I think the issue is too polarizing and too much tends to get read into findings on either side. Something I did recently find worth discussing,…

The Psychology of High Scores in Edge Magazine

Did you find that last article on social comparisons and leader boards interesting? Really? Weird. Well, If you want to read more about social comparison, competition, and video games, you can do so in this month’s Edge Magazine, issue #243. It contains the last of my series of “Psychology of…” articles for them, The Psychology…

Trials Evolution, Social Comparisons, and Second Place

Is it worse to come in second to last or second to first? I’ve been playing a lot of Trials Evolution lately and this question kept occurring to me as the results of my run at each track came up. Trials Evolution is a side scrolling, motorcycle driving game with a heavy emphasis on physics.…

Seven Psychological Sins of SimCity Social

I have recently been hearing a lot about SimCity Social, the “Farmville with a candy coating of SimCity” game from Bigfish and EA. Mostly I’ve heard about how the game pulls all kinds of tricks to get players to spam each other, trade items, recruit new players, and spend real money. All of these things…

The Psychology of Game Nostalgia in Edge Magazine #242

Another of my articles on the psychology of video games has been published in Edge Magazine, Issue #232 July 2012. This time I wrote about the nostalgia we feel for good old games and how game developers and marketers capitalize on nostalgia to sell us reboots, sequels, and retro games. I have written about nostalgia…

Some stuff lost in a restoration…

Ack. Sorry, folks, something went awry and I had to do an emergency restore of the site from an incomplete backup. This means that comments on the last three articles –of which there were a few dozen– are now gone. I’m so sorry, there were some really good comments in there. I’ve backed everything up…

The Psychology of Diablo III Loot Part 4 Historical Items

Wait, did I say the series on Diablo III loot would be a three parter? By that I obviously meant it would have four parts. Don’t put words in my mouth. I was listening to the always excellent Giant Bombcast podcast recently and the gang was talking about their experiences using the Diablo III auction…

The Psychology of Genres in Edge Magazine #241

My latest article on the psychology of video games for Edge Magazine has been published in issue #241. It’s the one with the Crysis 3 cover. In it, I explore a bit about some theories of decision making and genre usage that may clue us in on why we like the genres we like. Why…

Draw Something Uncertain

Imagine that some wealthy lunatic comes to you with an offer to choose between the following gambles in order to win five bucks: Option 1: A stock is selected at random from the Wall Street Journal. You guess whether it will go up or down tomorrow. If you’re right, you win $5. Option 2: A…

The Psychology of Avatars in Edge Magazine

I have a new article about the psychology of video game avatars in issue #240 of Edge Magazine. It’s this one: This article was a lot of fun to write. My standard operating procedure is to look at some body of psychological research or theory that has nothing to do with video games, and then…

Needs and Gratification Theory and Game Genres

Hey, do you guys watch Extra Credits? If not, you should. Each week the team there shares insightful, animated essays on topics related to video game design, culture, and business. They’re often pretty amusing, too. A few weeks ago they did a series on the difference between Western and Japanese RPGs that reminded me of…

The Psychology of Free-to-Play Games in Edge Magazine

Good news, everyone! Well, good for me and possibly good for you if you’re inclined to read Edge Magazine. Because my mutterings on the psychology of games are now appearing there. Specifically, I have an article about the psychology of free-to-play games in the latest issue (April, #239) with the cover below. The article is…

The Dunning-Kruger Effect and Multiplayer Games

Let me describe a scenario that I think we’ve all been in. You pick up a game like Gears of War 3 or Starcraft II or the deck-building iOS game Ascension. You jam through the single-player campaign or do a little comp stomping in skirmish mode –maybe even on the second-to-hardest difficulty ‘cause you’re totally…

Two Lessons From Team Fortress 2

I’ve gotten sucked back in to Team Fortress 2 (TF2) lately and taking notes of the changes that have happened since I last played. In the course of poking around the Mann Co Shop I’ve been reminded that they have some pretty smart cookies over there at Valve and I for one welcome our new…

Self-Perception Theory and Marketing through Avatars

I recently found out, via this article on Mindhacks.com, about an interesting paper by researcher Jeremy Bailenson in The Psychologist. In it, he reviews recent research on how viewing online representations of ourselves –like our avatars on the Xbox 360 or our Miis on the Nintendo Wii– can affect our behavior. He talks some about…

Ideal Self Image and Game Choice

So why do you think you choose to play the games you do? NO! WRONG ANSWER! Well, actually, you’re probably mostly right about that, but an recent article in Psychological Science suggests that your choice of games and your motivation to keep playing them may have something to do with how well they allow you…

I Did a Podcast!

Well, I didn’t “do” a podcast as much as I appeared on one. This one on Quartertothree.com, to be exact. It’s a semiregular podcast put on by the folks at that website, where each week a member of their messageboard community sits in as a special guest. I talked about I-O psychology, Skyrim, the new…

The Psychology of Child’s Play

Many of you may be familiar with the Child’s Play charity that was started by the guys behind the video game webcomic Penny Arcade. Since 2003, the organization has encouraged gamers to donate new video games (or cash or other toys) to children’s hospitals around the world so that little Timmy can distract himself from…

Thoughts on Immersion in Skyrim

Like most Earthlings, I’ve been playing a LOT of Skyrim lately. I hated Oblivion and Morrowind, but this particular role-playing dragon murder simulator has really gotten under my skin, thanks in part to how immersive it is. It’s not uncommon for me to hunch in front of my keyboard for hours, forgetting time and space…