How Some Games Keep You Playing

In his book, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping psychologist and security camera footage enthusiast Paco Underhill reported on his research into a variety of triggers for our shopping behavior.1 One of his findings involves butts. Literal derrieres. And I think it explains why I’ve been playing so much of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy on the PS5.

Underhill incorporated a lot of direct observation of shoppers in their native retail habitats. One thing he noticed in narrow, crowded shopping aisles was that people would often turn away from one another to scooch past, resulting in butt-on-butt brushes. Sorry, I’m not TRYING to be titillating here, this is the SCIENCE we have to deal with. When these butt-brushes happened, the person who had been happily browsing a moment ago would suddenly decide that it was time for them to move on from their browsing or even to leave the store entirely –often without making a purchase. It was a remarkably consistent finding and these subconscious decisions cost the stores money.

And it wasn’t that they were upset by the interaction with the fellow shopper. When Underhill’s researchers interviewed them afterward, shoppers usually didn’t even register the contact. They certainly didn’t cite it as their reason for leaving the store. They needed to go home. They hadn’t found what they were looking for. It was getting late. Surely this was sometimes true, but the evidence was there that if someone experienced this disruption to their browsing, they were more likely to leave than if they hadn’t.

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Author Adam Alter wrote about this research in his book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked where he referred to butt-brushes as a specific example of a larger category of experiences called “stopping rules.” 2 These experiences are those that trigger us to consider whether or not we should stop what we’re doing and move on to something else. Alter writes about how these stopping rules show up –or more to the point DON’T show up– in many of the most successful websites and apps. The endless scroll of Instagram or Pinterest, for example, avoids exposing users to stopping rules so that they’re less likely to pause mentally and think, “Should I take a break? Should I do something else now? Have I picked up my kids from daycare?”

Looping this back around to Guardians of the Galaxy, I’ve noticed that it and other games like Gears of War 5 seem to have been specifically designed to avoid the gaming equivalent of butt-brushes. Guardians just smoothly moves you from one chapter to the other and immediately has you doing things, listening to conversations, and making progress. There’s never a “level complete” screen with statistics as there is with many other games. There are no levels per se; you just have one unbroken experience that sweeps you along and never stops unless you have to reload from the last checkpoint because you died or flubbed a quick time event. As a result, I’ve found that I …lose track of time and just keep playing. Every time I’ve stopped I have felt like I’ve done it in the middle of something and am leaving things only half done. The lack of stopping rules is surely deliberate, and it works well.


1. Underhill, P. (1999). Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. New York: Simon and Schuster.
2. Alter, A. (2017). Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. New York: Penguin.