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The Psychology Of Games: Priming, Consistency, Cheating, and Being a Jerk
The Psychology Of Games: Priming, Consistency, Cheating, and Being a Jerk
September 16, 2010 | By Jamie Madigan

September 16, 2010 | By Jamie Madigan
More: Console/PC, Design

[Continuing his series for Gamasutra, psychologist and gamer Jamie Madigan looks at how a few simple psychological manipulations could tip players in online games in the right direction.]

How can developers of multiplayer games get their players to behave, cooperate, play their role, and not be such incredible jerks? I have an idea. Psychology is involved. You probably guessed this.

One of my favorite little experiments in psychology was done by John Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows who were interested in how stereotypes were triggered.

In one experiment, they had participants unscramble sentences that made heavy use of words like Florida, old, bingo, wrinkle, ancient and the like. A control group did the same thing, but with words not reminiscent of the elderly. That wasn't the real experiment, though.

The important part of the experiment actually happened after the participants left the lab. Another experimenter sat in the hallway outside and discretely used a stopwatch to time how long it took participants to walk from one end of the hall to the other. Those who had been working with words related to old people actually walked significantly slower (you know, like an old guy) than those who had worked with other words.

Bargh, Chen, and Burrows also did another experiment where some people unscrambled sentences with words related to rudeness (bold, bother, brazen) and some worked with words indicating politeness (patiently, courteous, unobtrusively). All subjects then walked in on a scene where they had to interrupt a conversation to get some needed information. Those in the "polite" condition waited 9.3 minutes on average. Those in the "rude" condition jumped in after just 5.5 minutes on average.

These are examples of what psychologists called "priming," which is basically getting people in a particular state of mind or getting them to think about what you want them to. It's a staple of advertising and surprisingly easy to do. I've been thinking for a while that game developers should take better advantage of it.

What if, for example, certain words of phrases were thrown around on loading screens between levels or in the matchmaking lobby for a multiplayer shooter? Would simply showing words like "sportsmanship" or "communication" or "fairness" prime people to behave themselves during games? If you didn't want to be that transparent, you could include little stories, vignettes, or even comics or movies that included those words or illustrations of them. Or maybe you could use real data, like the number of heals provided by players in the previous game or awards for best defense.

In his book, Predictably Irrational, behavioral economist Dan Ariely suggests some even better ways of making this kind of thing work. He describes some experiments that he, Nina Mazar, and On Amir did where they asked students at MIT to solve as many math problems as they could in a fixed time.

Everyone was entered into a lottery where the winner would receive $10 for each correctly solved problem, so there was incentive to answer lots of problems. Some subjects were given a chance to cheat at the task by self-reporting the number of problems solved, and some couldn't cheat because a research assistant graded their answers.

But let's back up a bit. Some subjects in the "cheating is possible" condition were asked two write down the Ten Commandments before starting the math problems, and others were not asked to write anything. Relative to those who didn't have the opportunity to cheat, those who did and who did not write down the Ten Commandments supposedly answered 33% more questions --a clear indication of cheating since that's way more than could be expected by chance alone.

But what about those who had the chance to cheat but were asked to write things like "Thou shalt not lie" and "Thou shalt not steal?" Dude, they didn't cheat at all. They answered exactly as many questions on average as the people who didn't even have a chance to cheat. In a follow-up study, the same researchers replicated these results by omitting the Ten Commandments and having students acknowledge understanding that their actions were "subject to the MIT honor code" Which, ironically, was a lie; there was no such official code.


It seems that the Ten Commandments or a reference to an honor code was enough to prime people for behaving themselves, but I think the study also tapped what's called "the consistency bias." This is where we tend to behave in ways that are consistent with our stated intentions, especially if stated publicly.

So what does this mean for gamers? Again, I'm thinking of loading screens and between rounds of multiplayer and matchmaking lobbies. What if you presented subjects players with simple yes/no questions like these?

  • Will you change classes if your team has too many of the class you wanted to play?

  • Will you stick around to the end of the match even if it looks like you're going to lose?

  • Are you going to curse and be rude in this next match?

  • Will you hang back and play defense if your team needs it?

  • Will you fortify your team's defenses if needed?

  • Will you give other people a chance to drive the damn tank once in a while? Please? Pretty please? You always just drive it off a cliff, anyway. C'mon, what do you say?

If, while waiting for the match to start, each player could answer those questions, what do you think would happen? Would they be primed in good ways? Would they want to behave consistently? Would having their answers shown to other players have an effect?

Personally, I think this could work. It's at least worth experimenting with. C'mon, someone out there try it and let us know how it goes.


Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Bargh, J., Chen, M. & Barrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2)

[Jamie Madigan, examines the overlap of psychology and video games at and for GamePro magazine. He can be reached at]

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Ben Lewis-Evans
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Those are a couple of my favourite experiments as well, and it would be cool to see what happens if you do implement them in a game but my only concern would be that habituation might occur. As far as I am aware experiments like the ones you mention have tended to be just one off events, and I don't know if anyone has looked to see what would happen if people were exposed to such messages over and over and over again like they would be in a mutliplayer shooter.

Bungie has kind of implemented this in Reach mutliplayer in that you can pick what type of player you are (team player, polite, etc) which may then lead to, as you suggest, people playing to match that statement. It will be interesting to see if it improves things. Also it would be cool to have, based on your gameplay, a pop-up come up that says things like "you indicated that you are a team player, yet your behaviour tells us otherwise - we will change your setting to "lonewolf" if this continues".

Yensei Sensei
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I like your last idea, but sometimes players actively switch between classes or weapons that require (in the case of an FPS) different behaviours i.e. a Medic might be an awesome team player, but that's only because his role requires this, while a sniper might be a lone wolf only because he has to use the range/nests to his advantage (while he might be supporting his team-mates by covering their advance).

My point is, it might take some more time to test and pan-out the best working rules for such a system, where as just reinforcing positive behaviours through well written or thought out 'pop ups' is cheaper and might be more effective in terms of priming, so subconsciously modelling the players behaviour.

Yensei Sensei
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Of course, rewarding the Player for actions that enable victory for his Team in co-oprative games is a MUST, and games such as the Battlefield series have had time to perfect these mechanics.

Rewarding players for saving allies from enemy fire, healing allies, defending objectives, following orders by performing actions in a specified area, damaging enemy vehicles, various levels of kill assists etc. The list goes on, all yield bonus points, badges or rewards! This is obviously a very active incentive system, that already tries to encourage teamwork and objective centered play.

You talk about priming, which I think is worth the experiment, since it’s not a costly one in terms of development. I think the idea of question, such as you mentioned, is flawed because, asking players before every match a set of 3/20 questions might finally lead them to just stop caring and giving you false feedback.

‘Tips’, ‘pep talks’ or ‘images’ (short strips) reinforcing certain behaviors and portraying negatively others, could work – based on what you’re saying. Although it would have to be done in a smart way, so the player doesn’t feel pounded over the head with it (how I would feel if an Online Shooter flashed me with the 10 commandments before every game :P) Feels a little evil though :P

Alan Jack
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Rewarding players for cooperative actions also alters the basic intent of the action - they don't run around dropping health packs because they want to heal their fellow players, but because they're trying to get the "heal 20 players" achievement. The mechanic doesn't promote cooperative player interaction, and it doesn't support interaction beyond the very specific objective being rewarded. Worst of all, you end up - as most multiplayer games do - with multiple players playing a single-player game in parallel, rather than people playing together. The full spectrum of inter-player cooperation possible in most games - especially those that allow in-game real-time communication - is far too vast for a game to be able to reward all possible interactions.

I wonder - have any studies been done into whether people are more or less willing to cooperate on tasks that are not as confrontational? Perhaps if all our multiplayer games weren't about teaming up to physically destroy someone else, people would be willing to play nicer with one another.

Yensei Sensei
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" Rewarding players for cooperative actions also alters the basic intent of the action - they don't run around dropping health packs because they want to heal their fellow players, but because they're trying to get the "heal 20 players" achievement. The mechanic doesn't promote cooperative player interaction, and it doesn't support interaction beyond the very specific objective being rewarded. "

But in the end you achieve the final goal, the player heals other players, so that they can complete the task at hand, so I don't quite understand how that is NOT co-operation, or that is BAD design?

In essence they do their jobs to complete the objective, win the game.

"The full spectrum of inter-player cooperation possible in most games - especially those that allow in-game real-time communication - is far too vast for a game to be able to reward all possible interactions."

That is true, but as in any team orientated task, the team members all have primary objectives to complete, that add up to a team victory.

And yes there are games that require co-operation that are not focused on obliterating the opposing team with the most efficient means of weaponry available :P

Sport Games, LittleBigPlanet, yet you still get the feeling, like in ANY OTHER REAL LIFE interaction, that maybe that player is hogging the ball too much, or he could pass earlier, but he was selfish and wanted to shoot at the goal. Or that the other Sackboy is just rushing ahead, instead of trying to help me cross that obstacle :P

Cody Kostiuk
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Yensei Sensei wrote: "But in the end you achieve the final goal, the player heals other players, so that they can complete the task at hand, so I don't quite understand how that is NOT co-operation, or that is BAD design?"

The goal is not to have players heal one another more, but to promote polite behavior and good sportsmanship in and around the game. Being a jerk and not healing people are not the same thing.

Yensei Sensei
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Yes, but the author mentioned;

"Or maybe you could use real data, like the number of heals provided by players in the previous game or awards for best defense. "

And my point was, that this has already been somewhat implemented.

If you read on, Alan Jack, mentioned that this point system 'alters' the behaviour of the player, because his playing for gain. My response was, that well, yes, but is that bad? Is that not co-operation at the fundamental level? Dose a player need to be selfless, and expect to gain nothing in return for co-operation and 'helping out'?

Then of course, I add that such a system, that would promote just 'politeness' or 'good behaviour,' would be a good idea. Because we could all use less tea-bagging and trash talking in our games. Especially at a time, when our medium is developing at such alarming speed and is becoming more compelling then 'just fun' puzzle solvers.

Cody Kostiuk
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Fair enough. I just don't want people to think that encouraging players to perform certain "beneficial group game actions" has anything to do with encouraging good behavior. I can see how some people could think they are one in the same, is all.

Alan Jack
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I don't think it is co-operation on a fundemental level. It doesn't promote good behaviour, as noted, and it doesn't make the most of the potential for inter-player interaction.

Essentially, you end up with multiple players having, essentially, a single-player experience in parallel with one another. I've written a blog post about it that I'm just about to port over to Gamasutra.

Marc-Andre Caron
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Multiplayer shooters are all about the economics of rewards. Experienced gamers understand this intuitively. Priming would only work for the first few sessions, for unexperienced players. After that, the reality of the reward system would kick in.

On top of this, jerks would only relish even more in tormenting noobs, knowing that they expect to make friends. Even I feel like laughing when I think about it.

When winning a game is about pwning faceless anonymous people halfway across the world, you get players that behave accordingly. And there is a demand for this. Let jerks have a game for jerks to play, while the rest of us (or *them*, depending on your perspective) play games about something else.

On the other hand, if your reward system is in line with the message, I agree that priming would make the experience even more pleasing. Players would enjoy seeing their gut feeling justified.


Chris Crawford
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It does seem a little brain washy but I think worth experimenting with for sure.

100% with Yensei, I was going to bring up Battlefeild as well. If you compare Battlefeild BC2 to Modern Warfare it's like night and day. The encouragements don't work perfect but they make a massive difference. It's also the setup of the modes, and squads reinforces this further.

And sure it may all be because of points (at least at first.) But when the player realizes, Not only does this net him the most points, it's also the best way to WIN.(assuming that is the case.) I think players begin to change the way they play.

Chris OKeefe
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"It does seem a little brain washy"

Not any more than it is brain-washy to allow other players to provide their behavioral cues. People act differently in multiplayer games than they do in day to day life, it's not like priming from the developer would be different or worse than priming from other players, and it's not like the behavior of other players isn't priming many people to behave poorly.

We're very much at the mercy of our environments when we choose how to behave, we're influenced by everything that occurs around is, directly and indirectly(influenced, not controlled directly, to make the distinction). It's not like priming on the part of the developer would be the only case of environmental influences being levied upon players when they join a game. It would simply be adding to the noise of influences that already exist.

I'm skeptical that such an experiment would have a large longterm impact. People have a tendency to mentally rebel against overt attempts to influence their behavior, and subtlety is difficult to achieve in a medium such as multiplayer games. Over time the priming methods would likely lose their impact and be glossed over. The hope, I would think, is that the priming would be enough to influence the community's overall mood and the environment of the game enough to be self-sustaining; instead of priming players, players would police themselves.

The trick is to generate a culture within a competitive game that accomplishes that goal. Easier said than done, but it has certainly been done before. Effective priming might be a possible way of accomplishing that goal.

Derek Manning
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Great article. While I agree with what you are saying, I also don't think that the question idea would work, though I see why you suggested it. A lot of the people playing these games are male teenagers and they're basically going to ignore or answer dishonestly any type of questions you throw at them. They'll probably get angry just at the fact that you're asking them to answer questions.

I think the idea of having little vignettes or videos between rounds that *show* team cooperation, how to work with others and the like could potentially have a positive impact and possibly teach people gameplay mechanics as well. These types of things are definitely things to consider for future game-making.

Anne Andres
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I would like to point out that people seem to be missing the main point of the article. It isn't about designing games that reinforce positives, it is about the ability to change player mindset without a carrot.

The best example of a game that gives a carrot - Killing Floor medic class. You get money, literally, for healing people. Does it encourage people to be healers? Not overly, but it sure helps them feel useful.

What we need to be looking for is a way to get people to change their mindset before entering the game, as the article described. Instead of getting people to change behavior mid-game (carrots), encourage the behavior pre-game.

Real world example; boxing. The boxers must touch gloves before the battle. Or most martial arts - the fighters must face each other and bow as a sign of respect before engaging. This sets the tone that they are both looking for a fair battle and that they respect the other.

We need to find ways to implement positives like this into the games we make.

Yensei Sensei
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I agree, I understood the article as trying to promote good behaviour, not necessarily before or mid game, that's not the point. Priming works in such a way, that it has to be 'used' before the 'subject' takes on the task given to him.

The reason we mentioned SOME of the DESIGN MECHANICS because they encourage positive behaviour by players. Players are required to co-operate and help each other out, if you want to be a 'dick' then you have to do the opposite, become uncooperative, a nuisance, a medic that dose not revive players or a tank driver that drives the tank off the cliff :P

Not negating the idea of priming, just adding to the idea of encouraging good behaviour.

Geoffrey Paxson
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This is an older article, but I really think it deserves comment. I think your idea is a bad one. I have no objection to someone trying it, but I think what will happen is that no matter how you try to implement it, it will come across as ham-fisted, and ultimately there will be a backlash. Particularly if you try to do it deceptively.

People don't want to be lied to, you may not see it that way, if a peer in your academic community did something like this to you, you'd very possibly think of it simply as a way to display a phenomenon, or simply make a point, or even less, just a means to an end that you have enough familiarity with to brush off, but I don't think that's how most people will see it.

And I think people will find out. In any valve game, you can look through the files unhindered, the game company allows it. For many others, people will look through them anyway. If nothing else it will come out in communities that torrent, via people who crack the DRM for the games, and make it's way into the mainstream.

In all honesty, I think you need an honest method of dismantling the framework of those who act like 'jerks' (I would have said something far less polite, but jerks is the term at hand so...) if you want to get anything like what you're looking for here. The problem is that it's a long arduous process, and for the moment, the joy of griefing, or being an ass of whatever stripe outweighs the merits of being civil to others.

Just my thinking on it, but I thought it deserved a comment here.

Alan Jack
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I think you're being a little nieve as to the effect and use of similar psychology techniques in other media.

Do you see movie posters and get insulted by their use of colours to imply a sense of action/drama/romance? Do you feel lied to by furniture stores because they've laid out their shop floor according to psychological profiling?

I appreciate the cognitive dissonance that comes with discovering such psychological trickery. Personally, I'm adverse to using shopping trolleys and baskets after I had it explained to me in my time in retail that shoppers holding a basket are significantly less likely to think about the price of what they're buying.

I think it goes without saying that employing techniques like these must be subtle, but to say "no matter how you try to implement it, it will come across as ham-fisted, and ultimately there will be a backlash" is an incredibly defeatist viewpoint. People are already doing this the world over in other media.

One could even argue that the negative behaviour observed in multiplayer environments is the result of negative programming that we're somehow implementing without thinking!

Geoffrey Paxson
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The operative difference being that priming involves telling them. This isn't a selection of colors, nor an arrangement of furniture. You're going to prime these people with some sort of statement that runs counter to a kind of "hip" community in gaming. Griefing, if you're unfamiliar is heavily rationalized in it's behaviors. It's considered a kind of Meta-game by a lot of it's practitioners. The people participating in this crap often aren't interested in the game at all, they're interested in making someone else's life hard. Presenting a statement that runs counter to that prior to playing is going to incite worse behavior. Do you play any online games at all? I'm just curious.