We recently got a new addition to our office: a retro 1980s arcade table (see picture). It’s needless to say that I quickly regressed to my teenage years. As a result, I got inspired and collected some examples illustrating the psychology and economics of video games.

Here’s a list of my favorites:

1. Don’t play bricks on me. We all know that video games can bend reality, but have you heard the term Tetris effect? (In case you’re not familiar with Tetris, it’s a game where falling blocks of different shapes have to be rotated and placed in a manner that creates a horizontal line without gaps.) As Sally Adee (New Scientist, December 24, 2011) notes, the term was coined in 1996 “to refer to a peculiar effect caused by spending a long time moving the game's falling blocks into place. Play long enough and you could encounter all sorts of strange hallucinatory residuals: some reported witnessing bathroom tiles trembling, for example, or a floor-to-ceiling bookcase lurching down the wall. In less extreme but far more common cases, people saw moving images at the edge of their visual field when they closed their eyes.” Yep, I can definitely relate to that! There’s nothing worse than playing Tetris right before trying to have some quality face time with another person, for example. The falling blocks are quite distracting and will prevent you from focusing on your conversation. That said, the Tetris effect may come in handy if you’re a brick layer or Lego artist.

2. Playing in the big leagues.  Do you remember Space Invaders? It’s probably the first shooter game I ever played. It was also the first hugely successful video game, made by the Japanese Taito Corporation. In fact, it was so successful in the late seventies that the Japanese economy developed a shortage of 100-Yen coins. The Japanese mint had to triple 100-yen production in response to the coinage crisis. In the U.S., Space Invaders machines were fed more than four billion quarters by mid-1981. Amazing! We probably didn’t see that sort of effect on the U.S. economy when the first coin-operated laundromat opened in the 1940s.

3. Play for keeps. Arcade games used to—and maybe still do—have a simple mechanism to make players spend more money. Along with the instruction “insert coin(s) to continue”, a count-down timer puts extra pressure on the player to part with another quarter (or several, nowadays). I wonder if anyone ever did research on the optimal number of seconds needed to increase pressure on the player, while providing a sufficiently large time window for the player to make a decision, get hold of another coin and put it into the machine to continue the game. In any event, Julian Kücklich argues that the method to influence players’ loyalty to the game (read: make them spend more) has changed over time. In the original arcade games (e.g. Pac Man), progress was mainly based on a numerical score. Players were persuaded to keep spending money because the games did not have an end. Console games (e.g. Super Mario Bros.) introduced a game narrative. Players could progress by buying a new game. Finally, online multiplayer games (e.g. World of Warcraft) have introduced a new business model where players are kept loyal via a monthly subscription fee.

4. Playing it safe. Excessive video game playing could be avoided if arcades put over-indulgence prevention mechanisms into action, such as US Patent 7210998 (issued in 2007). Although the patent is an invention for gaming machines (e.g. slots), it may well work for video games as well. The basic idea is to help players “regain a sense of reality” as soon as a pre-determined maximum number of plays has been reached. The patent outlines several different ways in which this is achieved. First, there is the inhibition image: TV images televised at the time are displayed on the machine, allowing the player to snap out of it. Then there’s the inhibition sound that alerts the player of his or her excessive gaming. This has an important social dimension, since other persons in the casino (or arcade) will hear it as well. Finally, there’s something similar to the phone-a-friend option in the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Once the maximum number of plays has been reached, the machine will call the pre-registered telephone number of a person known to the player who may then encourage the player to stop playing. I wonder how well it works.

5. It’s play back time. It’s probably been known for a number of years now that violent video games can be associated with aggression. A recent study by Peter Fischer and colleagues has a more 21st century take on the phenomenon and looks at the effect of character personalization. In their experiments, participants played either an aggressive (boxing) or non-aggressive (bowling) video game on a Nintendo Wii console. Individuals were further split into two groups, one making participants use a non-personalized game character (Nintendo cartoon figure) and another one where people were allowed to personalize their character. The usual ethical restrictions in experimentation helped the researchers come up with an ingenious measure of aggressive behavior: the amount of chili sauce participants would dispense for another person, whom they thought would have to sample it later. (This experiment was conducted in Germany, where chili tolerance levels are generally quite low, so the chili sauce measure of aggression may well have bordered on sadism!) The results: Compared to participants who played the non-aggressive game, those who played the aggressive game also administered larger quantities of chili sauce. Most importantly, those playing the aggressive game with a personalized character also scored higher on the chili-aggression measure than those with the non-personalized character. We’ve come a long way since the bland Pac Man!

Available from July 2014: The Behavioral Economics Guide 2014 on BehavioralEconomics.com (free download)

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