How did 2K Games get that cover for Borderlands approved by the ESRB?
In psychology there’s a concept called “the contrast effect.” Basically, it means that some perception (say, weight, brightness, or sweetness) will appear greater or lesser depending on a perception that came immediately before it. Because they contrast so strongly and the memory of one affects your perception of the other.
To test this out, next time you’re at the gym pick up a 15 pound weight. Then pick up a 35 pound weight. Then pick up the 15 pound weight again. Does the second 15 pound weight feel LIGHTER after holding the 35 pound one? Bam! Contrast effect. Or try noting how much more brightly colored a tie appears when paired with a white shirt than with a colored one. Bam, contrast effect again.
Of course, this works for more kinds of perception than just weight or colors. It’s why you should pick your ugly, slovenly friend as a wingman next time you hit the singles bar –he just makes you look much more handsome than if you were alone. This is SCIENCE, people, and it can be used for ill or good.
Take, for example, the cover art for Borderlands, shown below:
Wow, that’s pretty extreme. It’s got a dude holding his fingers up like a gun and pretending to literally blow his own mind with the insane action of this first person shooter-slash-loot game. Even for a title rated “M for Mature,” that’s the kind of thing that you might expect the Entertainment Software Rating Board (the ESRB, the organization that assigns content ratings to video games) to balk at.
So how did 2K Games, the publishers of Borderlands, get that cover approved? I don’t have any citations, but while the story of its approval may be apocryphal, even as a thought experiment it illustrates a possible use of the contrast effect by crafty producers. Rumor has it that the current cover is really what 2K Games wanted, but they thought it might get shot down by the ESRB. Since most retailers won’t stock games without a Board rating, they wouldn’ have any choice but to capitulate.
So, the story goes, 2K Games originally sent in an even more graphic version of the cover where the bandit is seemingly blowing his brains out with an actual gun. The ESRB predictably responded with “Yeesh! No way! Change it!” and 2K Games then shot back, no doubt in a curiously timely manner, the current box art. Because the ESRB had seen the more graphic cover first, this one seemed more tame than it would have if they had seen it right away. And they said “Oh yes, much better. Approved.”
And so psychology wins the day, assuming you fancy pictures of Mad Max-style bandits glowering at you and pretending to shoot themselves in the side of the head. And assuming that this story isn’t just some video game urban legend. But even if it is, the point still stands –bam! Contrast effect!
Here’s another bonus example of the contrast effect in practice. Say that a company (like, oh, EA) had a game (like, say Battlefield: Bad Company). And they said to their customers “Hey, y’all, guess what? You’ll be able to BUY exclusive weapons in our game. With real money! Besides the $60 you already spent! How awesome is that?”
And then say that gamers had the entirely reasonable response of freaking the hell out over that. Because it’s ridiculous. So the company says “Oh, okay, be cool, be cool. We’ll give them to you for free. You just gotta give us all your personal information and sign up for a bunch of crap you don’t want. We’ll call it, oh, ‘Find All Five’ or something.”
And gamers were all like “Yeah, that’s totally acceptable! And it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that you put that horrible option out there first!”
Bam. Contrast effect.