A Closer Look At The Psychology Behind The Steam Summer Sale

This is your brain on Steam.This is your brain on Steam.

I'll be the first to admit that I probably spend far more than I should whenever there's a Steam sale on - even moreso now that I have a system capable of running most titles. It's for that reason that I always look towards this time of year with an odd combination of elation and dread. Elation because there's bound to be a bunch of titles I really want to play on sale. And dread because, well...

My wallet only has so much cash in it, and I suspect my Steam library is getting bloated enough that it might soon become a hive mind. Or have a digital coronary. Whichever comes first. Worse, I'm not even sure if I'm going to play any of these games. I've already got a backlog considerable enough to keep me playing well into the next century, yet I still buy, and buy, and buy. 

I was always aware that there was some breed of psychology underlying how the Steam sales were set up. After all, when you get right down to it, 9/10 of marketing is understanding how your customers think - and how you can use that to make a sale. What I didn't realize was just how much psychology plays into each of Steam's annual sales, and the degree to which everyone, myself included, is manipulated every year.

I DID say I wanted to find a way to use this image in every article.I DID say I wanted to find a way to use this image in every article.

Jamie Madigan of the fantastic Psychology of Games blog  shed a stark light on Valve's marketing game plan when it comes to ensnaring their users. Madigan outlines five key factors which the organization utilizes to push people towards a purpose. These are, in order, Artificial Scarcity, Psychological Reactance, The Endowed Progress Effect, Commitment and Consistency, and Random Reward Schedules. 

I'm actually browsing the Steam store while I type this, and barely resisting the Siren's call of Alan Wake. It's only $3.00! And it's usually $30.00! I don't know when a deal like this will ever crop up again? 

How about every year, several times a year? 

There are actually two hooks in play here. The first of these, Artificial Scarcity, is the perception that I'm not going to be seeing this deal again for a while. This whole -90% offer is a limited-time thing, and if I don't snatch up the game now, I might never get another chance. Logically, this seems absurd - likelier than not, the game will be on sale again at some point in the near future. Thing is...people don't think as logically as we'd like to believe we do. 

Imagine Gabe Newell as a used car salesman.Imagine Gabe Newell as a used car salesman.

"All of the Steam deals are time limited and feature prominent countdowns," writes Madigan. "If you're thinking of buying a game, you have no idea if it will come up again before the sale is over, so you're more likely to grab it than lose your shot."

At the same time, I'm tempted by several other titles in the sale, like Fallen Enchantress - titles I know little about, which I likely wouldn't give a second glance if they weren't discounted. This, Madigan explains, is Psychological Reactance- the perception that scarcity automatically means a product is better. In this case, I'm likely over-rating the degree of enjoyment I'd get out of Fallen Enchantress, simply because I'm being presented with the opportunity to acquire it for a rather awesome price.

Another thing that doesn't really help my efforts to resist Steam's discounts is the fact that, whenever an item in my wish list is on sale, I'm notified about it via email. This, says Madigan, is a phenomenon known as Commitment and Consistency.

"We don't like to appear inconsistent," he writes. "Once we make a commitment or state a preference, some amount of mental inertia sets in and we feel pressure to keep our behaviors in line with our thoughts." Valve, of course, plays to this inertia like a master musician. "Ever notice how Steam will e-mail you when something on your wish list goes on sale, including during the big sales events? I throw stuff on there all the time...when I get a notification, I feel like a commitment is being called in. Steam even has a "Friend Activity" page where you can see what other people have added to their wish list."

I'll probably buy this game, whether I like it or not.I'll probably buy this game, whether I like it or not.

This also comes into play in Steam's Community Choice Polls. Basically, there's a vote every eight hours or so between three different games. Whichever game receives the most votes then proceeds to go on sale for a short period of time. "Assuming you don't already own the game you vote for...actively involving yourself, hoping for a certain outcome, and forming an intention means you're more likely to buy if your choice wins."

Don't I know it. That's how I wound up purchasing System Shock 2

Steam's flash deals and daily deals, Madigan continues, represent an example of a Random Reward Schedule. Basically, it's the same thing casinos use to keep people gambling. You never know if something you like is going to pop up as a deal, and seeing one you want is "like getting a food pellet. It's a reward you get for checking the storefront." This compels people to check back frequently; each time they check back, there's a chance they're going to buy something. Essentially, we're led along on a leash, never certain whether or not we'll get our food pellet. 

Lastly - and this is something that's fairly new to Steam - Madigan talks about The Endowed Progress Effect. To put it simply, we as human beings hate to leave things undone. Leaving a task we've started working on before we're done with it is akin to taking a bath with a school of ornery piranhas. Valve has tapped into this, with the introduction of digital trading cards. Playing a game - or in this case, participating in the votes and buying things from the sale - will get you one of a random assortment of trading cards. Collect all of them, and you'll get a badge which you can craft to 'level up' your Steam account. 

I'm still not a hundred percent certain what this actually does, but I want to do it all the same. I know for a fact I'm being played like a fiddle...but I honestly don't care. I want those damned trading cards, and I want that sodding badge. 


Oh, wait. I already crafted one...now I'm trying to level it up.Oh, wait. I already crafted one...now I'm trying to level it up.

"Just showing that you've begun progress towards a goal is enough to create some mental tension over having not yet reached it, and some people are likely to toss in one more cheap game to get them over that hump." 

With their sales, Valve's got all of us dancing to a tune we didn't even realize we could hear. But you know what? I don't begrudge them for that. Like Madigan, I still love the sales, and I still get a great deal out of them. I'm not going to stop buying anything from them, nor should you. All I'll say is this: perhaps now that I understand the avenues through which Steam pushes me to buy, I can work to inflict just a little less abuse on my wallet.

Now seems a good time to mention I've the willpower of a slug.Now seems a good time to mention I've the willpower of a slug.

You know what? Hold that thought. Mount & Blade: Warband is on sale for 75% off. Oh, and I should pick up Arkham City as well. Hey, a new trading card...

Source: The Psychology of Games

Jul 18, 2013
by HazelynU



Jul 19, 2013
by Anonymous

Mount & Blade Warband is a

Mount & Blade Warband is a great purchase! I bought it myself when it was discounted to $5, 2 years ago and thought "I'll never see this again!" lol