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 by the process because Microsoft doesn’t just let you put $15 on your credit card to buy a new game; purchases are done in “Microsoft Points” that you deposit into a virtual wallet. Then you spend the points on stuff.1

Gamers possessed of equal parts suspicion and curiosity may wonder why our gaming overlords adopted such a strange system instead of just letting us pay real money for our purchases. Sure, it lets parents put finite funds in kids’ accounts and lets you buy points on gift cards, but are there psychological factors at play with these kinds of point-based systems that affect how we spend our money? I’m glad you asked, because yes there are. Let’s take a closer look.

Wait, I think I'm going to have some points left over in my account...

Leaving money on the table or in our Xbox Live account2 makes most of us a bit uncomfortable because it feels wasteful. Hal Arkes, who pioneered the study of the psychology of waste, theorized that this is a holdover from what’s called “the sunk cost effect.”3 This is when not losing unrecoverable money you’ve already sunk into a losing proposition becomes the main justification for throwing new money in.

But at this point the more clever among you may be thinking “But that doesn’t really apply to unspent Microsoft Points and their ilk because they can be spent whenever you want. They’re not sunk; they’re still fungible.”4 True. But ingrained habits (or in this case, decision-making biases) die hard, and we are averse to, as Arkes says, “insufficiently utilize the item that has been purchased.”

For example, in one unpublished study5 researchers Lisa Bolton and Joseph Alba presented subjects with a scenario where a business traveler laid over in a city decided to buy a one-month gym membership for $75 and enjoy a workout, even though he was only able to use it one night. Relative to the man in another scenario who paid $75 to get an equal amount of enjoyment out of a baseball game, people saw this traveler as “less intelligent,” “foolish” and “less sensible.” This despite the fact that the two people enjoyed their evening equally for the same cost.

So, following this logic, we see that gamers may dislike leaving money sitting in an account because it represents waste, especially if you’re considering spending real money on a disk based game. So you’re a little more likely to get rid of those 400 Microsoft Points by buying something on sale that you normally wouldn’t, or even by buying an additional 800 points so you can pick up another full digital game that you might not have been interested in otherwise. It’s similar to overeating at a buffet or doubling your paper towel use after buying the 124 roll jumbo pack. Even though you could just let those paper towels or Nintendo Points sit there until you have a good reason to use them, spending real money on something else seems wasteful.

So there’s waste aversion. But there’s one other psychological phenomenon at play with Microsoft Points (and their ilk) that I’d like to point out, and curiously enough it may actually be leading us to spend less instead of more. For more on that, come back next week for Part 2. BAHM-BAM-BAAAAA!

Go ahead and read Part 2 of this article by performing semi-precise clicking actions here.


1. And Microsoft isn’t the only one –Sony and Nintendo have similar systems, and Valve has even rolled out a “Steam Wallet” for in-game microtransactions.
2. Or our Playstation Network account or our Nintendo Points account for that matter.
3. Arkes, H. (1996). The Psychology of Waste. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 9 213-224.
4. Fungible: Word of the Day April 14th, 2008.
5. Bolton, L. & Alba, J. When Less is More: Consumer Aversion to Waste. Unpublished Manuscript Submitted for Publication.

20 thoughts on “The Psychology of Microsoft Points Part 1: Waste Aversion

  1. I’m curious about the dollars-to-points conversion rate and if that has any effect on our behavior. When I first got my game systems I had a real problem with Microsoft’s 80-points-to-the-dollar conversion rate, while I found Nintendo’s 1-point-per-penny rate much easier to deal with. A couple years (and a lot of Rock Band DLC) later, I’ve gotten used to doing the math for MS points in my head. I wonder how long it takes people to overcome the conversion barrier, and how many just don’t bother.

    These days I’m more annoyed about the minimum amount of points I can purchase, but I suspect that might be the topic for part 2…

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  3. Re: $75 ball game Vs $75 workout: Even if both activities provide the same amount of “enjoyment”, the total cost/benefit is not even close. A baseball game provides value beyond the time spent at the game. It is special memory, potentially one you can share over and over in conversation. For a traveler it may be a unique event in a new and unique place. If your team wins you can brag, if they lose you can commiserate. Visiting the gym also provides benefit outside of the enjoyment, but a fraction of an ounce of muscle mass or a few extra burned calories don’t exactly match a unique experience.

    • I believe the researchers addressed some of this in the way they worded the exercise. They weren’t saying that the guy was going to a World Series game. But even given that, the effects seen were pretty big –more than you’d expect from something small like fond memories or water cooler talk.

  4. I’m not sure about the Gym vs Baseball comparison. A sports match lasts a couple of hours, plus travel etc. The gym membership was a months worth. There’s more potential going unused with the gym membership despite the equivalent cost.

    I wasn’t at all surprised when I first saw the Xbox Live Marketplace worked off a seperate currency that didn’t match how much you could order by the price of items. I bet if shops could get us to buy special ‘in store’ currency they would work exactly like that. I expect the first physical incarnation to be Apple and they’ll market them as some sort of stylish accessory.

    • Yeah, that’s kind of the point. The gym membership represented unused utility or value despite being the same cost.

      And re: special currency, I’m pretty sure that if I could only buy stuff at Best Buy with Best Buy Bucks, I’d simply buy from somewhere else. But MS, Sony, and Nintendo have locks on their platforms.

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