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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 [email protected]]

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