Think Design : Social Proof

Update: Wow, apparently this article is one of the most read posts on the VFS Arcade!

GTA V just came out. Tons of people will buy it. New console launches are happening within the next few months. If you’re anything like me, and I think most gamers, you will feel compelled to buy most or all of these things as soon as you can. Why? Because of something called Social Proof. (Admittedly, the force of In-Group Out-Group Bias is also at play here, but we’ll leave that for a future post.)

Will anyone not buy this game?

Social Proof says that we tend to do what others are doing. Further, it says that as more people do something, it becomes increasingly likely that we will do that same thing. For example, imagine you go out to dinner with some friends. If someone puts her napkin in her lap, you might ignore it. If a few other people at the table decide to put their napkin in their laps, you will feel very tempted to follow suit. If everyone else has done it, you will almost certainly put your napkin in your lap. And at the end of the meal, if they all order dessert, you will be more likely to do so, even if you feel full.

What, this? Totally normal.

In the world of games, let’s say you’re on the fence about whether to get a PS4 or Xbox One when they launch. You can only afford one right now, so even though you’ll probably own both eventually, you have to choose which one to get first. Now let’s say you see that more people are pre-ordering one of them than the other. Does that start to sway you? What if most of the gamers you know decide that they’ll get a PS4 – will you start leaning toward PS4?

Decisions, decisions.

We often talk about social proof in other language when we say someone is ‘following the herd’. And, usually, the more people are doing something, the more normal we think it is. There’s an episode of Seinfeld where George hears that Elaine’s boss eats his chocolate bars with a knife and fork. George thinks this approach sounds pretty classy, so he starts doing it too. His colleagues see him doing it in a meeting and mock him, but pretty soon everyone is doing it, and no one thinks twice when everyone in the café is eating chocolate bars with a knife and fork. It has become completely normal. This is an illustration of social proof, and it can create some bizarre behavior in people.

“I am eating my dessert. How do you eat it, with your hands?”

So where does social proof come from? It’s part of our evolution.

Here’s a little story. One day, Harry the caveman was out scouting with other members of his tribe, looking for food and water. They were walking along a mountain path, when they heard a rustling in the bushes. The group stopped and listened. There it was again! But this time the rustling was followed by a slow, deep growl. The rest of the tribe starting running down the trail as fast as they could, but Harry stayed behind to listen. The tribe never saw Harry again, but the sabertooth tiger who lived in the bushes had a fantastic dinner that night.

Heeeere kitty kitty kitty.

Social proof can be a powerful influencer of our behavior. In the distant past, it helped keep us alive. So why do we still fall victim to it? Because none of us are related to Harry – he got eaten, remember? Instead, we are related to the members of the tribe who ran and survived by following the rest of the tribe. This behavior is so ingrained in us that these habits can be very hard to break.

So social proof applied to cavemen, and it’s hard to avoid today, but how is it used? Some TV shows have a laugh track to cue you when to laugh – after all, if everyone else thinks something’s funny, you are more likely to think you should find it funny too. And many advertisements claim that they are the top selling product, because our tendency is to think “well, that many people can’t be wrong, can they?” This happens with games, too. Just check out the last line of this infographic for League of Legends.

Now let’s apply some of those principles to game design. If you have a lot of people playing your game, let other non-players see how popular it is via sales charts, Facebook feeds, and articles. The top games in the App Store and other online storefronts tend to stick around for a while because other people think that if a game is popular it must be good, so they download it, keeping the game at the top of the charts for yet more people to come along and draw the same conclusion.

If you are making a free to play game and want to try to boost virtual item sales, display a few of the most popular items at the front of the in-game store, with a Top Buys label. If you want to be really nefarious, you could simply tag a few random items you want to sell as ‘Most Popular’ and the label alone would likely drive some sales.

Notice the Top Sellers category in the bottom right of the League of Legends storefront.

Show leaderboards if appropriate so that players can see how many people play your game. In your game description text, indicate how many millions of players have already bought or downloaded your game. If you get a lot of critical acclaim, advertise it “Chosen Best of E3 by over 12 top gaming sites”.

You could even use social proof within a game to tell the player what to do. Imagine your game has a zombie outbreak (since they’re in all games these days) and you want to show the player which way to run. If you have all of the civilians running in a certain direction, it is extremely likely that the player will start to run in that direction too. The Last Of Us did this during some of the game’s early sequences.

Well, everybody’s running this way, so I’m guessing the zombies are in the other direction.

Social proof can be a useful tool to help us navigate daily life, and it can be used (or abused) by designers to encourage players to take the actions we want. Now that we’re aware of it though, we need to remember to think for ourselves sometimes too.

Which reminds me of Harry’s cousin, Mary. She lived in the next tribe over, and was out wandering with her tribe on the same day Harry disappeared. They too heard a rustling in the bushes. Like Harry did, Mary stayed to see what it was, and discovered a beautiful bird. She turned to show the rest of her tribe, only to discover they were gone. At the first sound, Mary’s tribe had bolted into a nearby cave, where they ran into Harry and joined him for dinner.

Oh, and by the way, I have no idea how popular this article is. Sorry about that, I just wanted to see if it would compel more of you to check it out!

Ryan Donaldson teaches Business of Games at VFS Game Design