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It's Not So Bad: Cognitive Dissonance and Full-Priced Games
by Jamie Madigan on 08/29/13 11:02:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


All else being equal, do you enjoy the games you pay full price for as much as the ones you buy on sale for cheap? While it of course first depends on the game, a certain well known theory in psychology suggests that paying $60 for the new Tomb Raider game when it came out last March, for example, might lead to your enjoying it more than waiting to buy it for $15 for it a few months later.

Back around 1959, Leon Festinger and one of his ambitious undergraduate students, Merrill Carlsmith, conducted an experiment at Stanford University. For an hour straight, the subjects carefully removed and replaced a bunch wooden spools from a tray over and over again and meticulously twisted rows and rows of wooden dowels on a rack. It was, in other words, a stupefyingly boring series of tasks.

For an hour they had to do this. But at the end of the experiment, the researcher pretended to be in a bind, saying that he needed someone to describe the task to the next subject waiting to take his turn at the boring tasks. But the thing is that the subject had to really sell the tasks and make them sound super fun and interesting –a service for which the researcher offered to pay. Depending on which experimental condition the subject was in, he was offered either $20 or $1.

 “Now, match three spools of the same kind and they’ll disappear in a delightful little burst of color and sound.” said no experimenter ever.

Subjects then went and met with the person who they thought was the next subject, but who was really another experimenter who prompted the subject to explain what was so great about what they were going to be doing. The subjects then dutifully lied through smiling teeth about how much fun the tasks were going to be. Boy howdy! Twisting knobs! SO MUCH FUN! Then, some time later, the subjects were asked to fill out a form and rate how enjoyable the boring spool moving and knob twisting tasks really were.

The results? Those who had been paid $1 to lie about the tasks rated them as more fun than those who had been paid $20. Festinger and Carlsmith theorized that this was because of what they called cognitive dissonance –a state of mental tension brought on by holding two contradictory thoughts at the same time. People are motivated, the researchers said, to eliminate this tension by abandoning or changing one of the thoughts.

In the case of the experimental subjects who were paid a paltry $1 to slump their shoulders and lie, the two incompatible thoughts were:

  1. Man, those tasks were f’ing boring.
  2. I was willing to lie to a fellow student for next to nothing.

Subjects were unable to do anything about #2, but Festinger argued that they were able to remove the cognitive dissonance by deluding themselves that #1 wasn’t true. Thus, they really did think that the tasks were enjoyable.

What about those in the $20 condition, you ask? Good question. Festinger argued that $20 was quite a bit of money –in the 1950s, $20 could buy as much as $150 can buy today, and these were college students. Those subjects were able to convince themselves that this bribe was sufficient reason for them to lie. “Those tasks were boring” and “I was paid a huge wad of cash to tell a lie” did not necessarily create much cognitive dissonance. Perhaps, at most, it would get them to insert “harmless” before “lie.”

So with this in mind, let’s get back to video games. Earlier this year I bought the new Simcity game. Unfortunately it was so wrought with bugs, server problems, and broken promises that publisher Electronic Arts offered customers a free game on which to gnash their teeth. With my credit, I chose Dead Space 3. I thought this was a pretty awesome deal, since the game had been selling for a full $60 just a few weeks earlier. I was getting it for free.

Now, I really liked the first two Dead Space games, but after just a few hours of tromping through another space station fighting more necromorphs, I felt completely bored. I didn’t like it. I stopped playing.

What a deal! 

This made me think about the subjects in Festinger’s experiment, and whether or not I might be feeling the LACK of cognitive dissonance. Or more to the point, if I had paid $60 for Dead Space 3, would I have convinced myself that I was enjoying it, rather than face the fact that I had decided to spend all that money on a full priced game? Even worse, would I have gone online to tell people who didn’t like the game that they were wrong and that all their arguments were invalid?

Probably. A little, at least. Research on cognitive dissonance theory and consumer choice exploded in the 1970s and researchers found that shoppers were generally willing to change their attitudes towards purchases in order to confirm their belief that they were worth the price. Researchers have also found that cognitive dissonance after purchases (a.k.a., “buyer’s remorse”) can be reduced by getting directly involved with the purchasing decision (as opposed to just following the advice of marketing material or salespeople) and taking more time to make the decision. Probably because shoppers can more easily convince themselves that they were well informed and not duped.

In the case of full priced video games, “I thought this was worth spending $60 on” and “I’m not liking it” are bound to cause some mental tension. Absent generous return policies, you can’t do much about having paid full price for a game. But it’s comparatively easy to convince yourself that you’re enjoying it more.

Did you like this article? Visit and follow the author on Twitter at @JamieMadigan to read more.

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Eric Robertson
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This reminds me of the Ben Franklin effect. Even back then, the founding father knew how the brain can be worked to create 'customer buy in'.

Heck, he convinced France to bankrupt itself to finance America's revolution vs Britain.

Christian Nutt
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It goes along with what many F2P developers say -- players will immediately abandon a free game. Sure, supply also governs this, but it makes sense. No investment, no need to convince themselves to enjoy the game.

Sean Sang
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Great point about F2p. With nothing invested there's very little reason for someone to put any more time into "trying" to enjoy a game. The down side of this is that many games need time for players to learn the game to find what makes it enjoyable down the line. I guess this is the big challenge for f2p game designers.

Ron Dippold
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I slogged through the buggy, badly designed, horribly scripted mess that was Assassin's Creed 3 for three reasons:

1) Gotta see what happens to Desmond (I still cared about the metastory).
2) I had been foolish enough to pre-order it at full price because of AC2 (I-III).
3) Enjoying the hate.

I took a different tack - instead of convincing myself it was good, I hateplayed it, noticing every single little defect, shortcut, and badly outsourced mission script. For instance, missions where you can catch a fleeing guy too soon (because his AI is bad) and you die instantly (because you caught him before the scripting allows for it).

It's not my normal m.o. (I can normally have fun with quite bad games), but it was quite educational and I thought more honest than convincing myself it had to be great because it was huge and because I'd prepaid for it. And it certainly wasn't all bad - as noted by everyone, the ship missions were very fun and were, unlike the rest of the game, coherently designed. And normal game between missions was enjoyable.

Larissa Krasnov
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Woooh! I know it seems like a deeply unpopular opinion, but I also really like the metastory in AC.

Ivan Causey
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Hmm.. an interesting point, and the points you were making also extend to the experience the buyer would use. For example, someone who is used to buying films, and then looks at the cost of a standard Triple-A Game. Or for example, a cosmetic item in a free to play game costing more than most Indy games.

The other point that i found slightly... mm. not sure of the word, but it's about your last point.

Dead Space 3 is following an act set up by Environment and Atmosphere of being designed for being alone and wrapped in your own head, and then plays it's own act by an atmosphere designed for two people watching their backs. So it is possible, that the feeling of dissonance doesn't stem from the price you got it at, but from playing something you still expect to be a certain way? just a thought.. cause that's the reason i put Deadspace 3 down.

Similarly, I paid full price for Final Fantasy XIII when it first came out, and after a long time of press-x-to-win that game i lost all interest in, even though i had spent quite a bit on it.

This has gotten me thinking as i write this.. i am unconvinced that price plays a part in how much effort someone will put into playing a game, because the Festinger experiments were from the opposite direction, of doing something bad and getting a reward. In this case, it would be more akin to a gamble of if the price you paid is worth the enjoyment you got afterwards.

... just some thoughts about this.

Maria Jayne
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I've been going through something like this over the past few months. When the Steam Summer sale began I looked at the offers and thought "meh" nothing I want. Then I noticed some of the flash sales were games I was mildly interested in but wouldn't have normally bought. So I spent a few pounds on each one over the week and they sat in my "not played yet" list of games on Steam.

I'm playing through them now and I realize I actually don't like playing some of them. I have paid for them though, despite the fact they were very cheap, I still feel like I need to spend time with them because I spent money on them. I'm realizing three things about myself based on this.

1) Games I spend money on have to be played for a minimum of time or until completed for me to feel I haven't wasted my money. Doesn't matter if I spent £2 or £30...they have to be played for many hours to justify spending money on them.

2) My initial gut judgment on these games before they were on sale was more accurate than I realized. I'm good at knowing what games I like before seeing how much they are worth. If I didn't like the look of a game before it was on sale, the cheaper price doesn't make the game more enjoyable to play.

3) Steam Summer Sales are dangerously effective. At the beginning I wanted nothing, unyet somehow by the end I had spent £30 and owned about 7 new games. Half of which I am battling to keep playing and just want to be over, but I can't bring myself to uninstall them yet.

Jane Castle
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Which 7 games did you buy? I need ideas on what to purchase next when I swore I would FIRST get through my backlog.... :)

Maria Jayne
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They were..

Tomb Raider - Felt very QTE reliant, lara's story journey was just silly, combat/movement was ok though.

Poker Night at the Inventory - Cool little card game, how I learned poker!

Skulls of the Shogun - Disappointed with the attrition focus, more about logistics than combat strategy.

Dark Souls - Still on the scared!

Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 Platinum - Still on the list

GTA 3 - Age hasn't been kind to the gameplay, really glad I skipped it and went straight from GTA2 to Vice City when I was younger.

Torchlight 2 - Looked fun, just wasn't. Very repetitive solo, maybe better in multiplayer.

Steven An
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So does that mean I got dirt cheap yet still really liked are SUPER DOUBLE AWESOME?? :P Which would mean that Sleeping Dogs and Far Cry 3 are the best open world games EVAR.

I wonder, however, if there is an opposite effect. Say you pay $60 and really did not enjoy the game. And it was so disappointing, you couldn't even convince yourself it was good. Wouldn't it make your MORE mad that you paid $60 for it? Heh!

Larissa Krasnov
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I hope this holds true, because my most expensive gaming purchase in the past several years or so was my 45$ pre-order of Starbound. I've been hoping it turns out awesome. :D

That said, I wonder how much of this is relative to the individual's spending. The most I've paid for a AAA game in recent years has been 30$ (Dishonored, during the Steam Holiday Sale), and I certainly enjoyed that a heck of a lot. A person who usually buys dirt-cheap games and occasionally decides to go for the game that's only 50% off might get the same luxury-perception-boost as the person who usually gets them 25-50% off and then occasionally goes for the full-price games.

In other words, do people who always purchase games on the cheap generally get less absolute pleasure out of their games than those who always purchase at full price? That would seem unlikely, at least to me.

Ivan Causey
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actually.. your first comment there got me thinking..

maybe this does have standing concerning preorders. You preorder a game you are excited for, and (so long as there are no game destroying bugs) the price you pay could distinguish how long you would play though a bad game, or how how much you would throw away the faults of good game, or how much you'd continue playing a game after the core content is
gone. just another thought

David Paris
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Mike Higbee
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Those bad games that I didn't enjoy that I shelled out full price for back when is why I refuse to buy anything at release, not to mention buggy releases, and DLC packages that inevitability come out in a Gold/Complete/GOTY edition not too much later.
Thanks to discounts I may have a huge backlog of games to play (a good and bad thing), but I don't feel so cheated when I come across a stinker or buggy mess.
Pre-orders even on titles I'm amped for is just a no go for me anymore, the last two I caved on have been buggy releases with one still waiting on a patch to fix major issues over a month since release.
Devs and publishers have to start regaining people's trust with quality QA work and testing and actual demos, not just pre-order DLC and such to bring back the value for a lot of core gamers.
Day one DLC isn't helping the case or having an extensive DLC plan known to the public pre-launch.

Marvin Papin
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There are too much things to take in consideration. but i think there are things that are much more important about the price :

1, direct consequence)
if you buy the game 60€ (that's much) you care more about the quality and story and you take a deeper look at "what's in", instead of a game at 15€ where you probably less are of "what's in". Even if in the case of dead space that's much about the design.

2, indirect consequence)
if there's a price cut, that means thee game is out for quite long. That means, your friends may have already done it, the multiplayer is less interesting because people are better and don't play for objectives but just for kills (bf3......). You may have tried better or different games and the "design feature" of that game could have pass away a little bit (read seems to be less interesting than when it's been released).
Note : I think that's also why indies failed so much at the beginning on XBLA, mainly multiplayer ones.

But i think price is not the factor. It's much more the mind around. After all, the player didn't buy it full price, so that mean he think that not worth it.

In your case : Dead Space 3 (DS3) is offered among a bunch of other choices. Naturally, instead of wandering on the net and do a choice, you statued that it worth more than the other ones (like i did for wipeout after psn breach) and so there's in no expectation except a natural sequel to DS1 and DS2 (you didn't get to see some images and video that are done to appeal players and show new design...), but it's a matter of too much things and should be taken as a whole.

Michael DeFazio
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I think there is a personal and social component at the core of this:

People don't want to admit they made a mistake (to themselves OR to someone else). (i.e. admit they made a bad purchasing decision)

One example comes to mind of a friend of mine who bought some home exercise equipment she never uses... when I asked her "how do you like it?" she replied : "Ohh I love it... it's great to hang my clothes on"

Human beings are very unreliable when it comes to communicating how they "feel" about something. (Who wants to admit they were "taken for a ride" and paid more than they had to for something they don't like?)

James Yee
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I'll put Mechwarrior Online into this pile as well as "Cognitive Dissonance" games. :)

See I LOVED Battletech growing up, and I played all the Mechwarrior games as well. Big stompy mechs are a staple of my sci-fi background. So when they went Free 2 Play and released what they have I've been with them every step of the way.

Even when it's the same stuff over and over.
Even when there are major bugs
Even when Balance is bad.
Even when they don't add or add what they said they wouldn't.

I tell myself I've sunk a year's worth of MMO money/time into this game, I gotta get my enjoyment out of it.

So far it's working. :)

Sean Sang
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From my personal experience I've never enjoyed a game more because I paid more for it. What I have experienced is that when I pay more for a game I didn't enjoy I found myself having greater buyer remorse. When the game was cheap, my buyer remorse was little to insignificant, for me it was "ok it wasn't good but at least it was cheap and if I resell it I'll get back close to what I paid for it". The amount I paid for a game also didn't factor into which game I would play first.

Kyle McBain
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I think I might be stealing this from another Gamasutra blog written way back but there was an article that talked about how buying a game new is a fool's errand anyway. I personally follow games and play them enough and am mature enough to know when I made a mistake in my purchase. A good game is a good game. It shouldn't matter when it is played... buy em used! Unless heavily network based you usually get a lot of cool extras at this point for free as well.

The CEO of Unity gave a keynote where he said depending on the platform games usually don't last more than a couple years. I seriously don't beleive that. There are defnitely some gems in my library that I will probably play until the day I die and there are a lot of devs that strive to make games that people will take to and involve themselves with for a lifetime.

So yeah I would rather see a game start off cheap and climb in price based on consumer feedback. I really hope people don't use this article as an excuse to rape consumers' wallets.