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?

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.

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…

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…

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?…

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…

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…

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,…

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 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…

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…

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 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…

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…

Burnout, Crunch, and the Games You Play

The need for “crunch time” in the game development business has been a perennial drum that gets pulled out and beat upon from time to time. The biggest kerfuffle in recent memory was caused by “EA Spouse” who composed a magnum opus on Livejournal in which she recounted the cringe-inducing conditions under which her husband…

Benign Envy and The Psychology of Tiny Tower

I’ve been messing around lately with Tiny Tower on the iPad . If you haven’t played it, the gist is that you build up a tower full of “bitizens” who live in your tower’s apartments and work in its shops. Employed bitizens make money over time, which you can spend to build ever more floors…

Netflix, GameFly, and Predicting the Future

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has a great article in the current issue of Wired Magazine (also available to read here) where he discusses how online companies use psychology to squeeze more money out of us. (Incidentally, I have an article in the current issue of GamePro magazine about the same things in the context of…

The Psychology of Fair Play

GamePro.com recently put up my article on the psychology of fairness as it applies to video games. You can read it here once you’ve managed the art mouse clicking. Again, it’s in the form of a nicely formatted pdf file so you can see the nifty layout work they did. This article also has one…

The Psychology of Microsoft Points Part 2: Conversion Factors

Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part article on the psychological effects of using point-based currencies like Microsoft Points or Nintendo Points. Part 1, which you can read by executing precision clicking acts here, dealt with the psychology of waste. Below, I’ll look at how research on anchoring and consumer behavior using foreign currency…

The Psychology of Microsoft Points Part 1: Waste Aversion

Note: This article got a little out of hand, so I’m breaking it up into two related posts. Enjoy Part 1 below, and Part 2 here. Doesn’t that feel like you’re getting more for your money? Woo psychology! Ever bought something from Xbox Live Arcade? The first time you may have been a bit bamboozled…

Situational Judgment Tests as RPGs

As is my habit, I recently attended the annual conference for the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology (SIOP), which is the professional organization for people who apply psychology to understanding human behavior in the workplace. Trust me, we I/O psychologists actually do know how to party. Apparently some of us also know how to play video…

The Psychology of Loot

UPDATE: GamePro is gone, and so is the link for the article. Sorry! GamePro.com has posted my article from a recent print issue on The Psychology of Loot. The article aims to look at what psychology has to say about why gamers love loot and loot drops so much. Turns out it’s not so much…

Just World Hypothesis and Homefront

Years ago I watched a friend (hi Chris!) play through some of the later levels in the original Deus Ex and commented on how he was repeatedly subjecting Majestic 12 security personnel to death by natural causes, in so much as shooting them in the face would naturally cause their death. I noted that there…

The Unit Effect and Player Perceptions

Hey. Hey! I’ve got a some questions for you: Do you think you’d be more likely to buy a new MMO if it came with a 28 day trial vs. a 4 week trial? Would you be happier if your game character got a new ability with a 1.5 minute cooldown or a 90 second…

Book Review: Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

Unlike people who apparently pay attention to what’s going on in the gaming industry, I only recently became aware of Jane McGonigal, a Ph.D. in Performance Studies best known for designing alternate reality games and thinking really big thoughts. After reading her book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How they Can…

The Psychological Weight of History

Despite a huge backlog of games trying to get my attention, I found myself playing a lot of Team Fortress 2 (TF2) lately. This is in part because of the loot system, which drops random items –mainly hats or weapons– for you to use in customizing your avatar. This system has been in TF2 for…

Procedural Justice and Nerfing

Most of us have been in a situation where we feel that we’ve gotten the short end of a pointy stick. Maybe we were booted from a game server, banned from a message board, or had our favorite MMO game character weakened by a patch in such a way that left us shaking our tiny…

Freezing Your Decision-Making Synapses

A reader sent me a tweet recently pointing to something that reminded him of an article he’d read here: the pre-order options for Frozen Synapse, a PC strategy game in development by Mode 7 Games. BEHOLD: Here’s the gist of the options, with US Dollars Option 1: game + copy for a friend ($25.99) Option…

The Psychology of Game of the Year Debates

Ah, late December. The time when the gaming press gets its members together and tries to convince each other that one awesome game is more awesome than other awesome games –also known as the Game of the Year Awards. When I worked as part of the creative team on GameSpy.com we would lock ourselves in…

Steamed Endowed Progress a la carte

I recently wrote about the endowed progress effect, which makes us more likely to complete progress towards a goal if we have the impression that we’ve already begun taking the necessary steps. For example, people who get 2 free stamps on a “buy 10 get 1 free” card are more likely to put in the…

Kinecting With Your Emotions

Apparently the Xbox Kinect is a retail success despite the fact that I haven’t personally bought one. Enough people seem to enjoy flailing their extremities about and barking simple commands that Microsoft has sold 1.5 hoojillion of the devices and the holiday shopping season has only just begun. I’ve written before about how motion controls…

Why We Get Nostalgic About Good Old Games

Imagine for a moment that you’re a Swiss mercenary away from your homeland and fighting for some European king during the 17th century. Now suppose that over cups of hot coco and hair braiding you and your fellow mercs begin to pine for the good old days when video games came with thick manuals and…

Endowed Progress Effect and Game Quests

Imagine that two people, Kim and Carlos, notice that their cars are filthy and both go to the same car wash to make things right. With their wash they each receive a special card that lets them earn a free car wash if they get the card stamped enough times during future visits. Kim’s card…