Think Design : Cognitive Dissonance

Has this ever happened to you? You saw a job posting, and it sounded perfect, like they copy/pasted your resume as their ideal candidate. You applied, landed the interview, and aced it. You pictured yourself and the company running and leaping toward each other on a beach – in slow motion. You told all your friends how awesome it was going to be to work there, and you were so excited you checked your email every twenty minutes for the offer letter.

Nailed it! I’m like the Rocky of business.

But the offer didn’t come. And so you waited. Eventually, you emailed yourself to make sure your email was still working. It was. So you sent the interviewer a quick message to make sure you didn’t miss an email. The interviewer wrote back, and you opened the email expecting to see an apology and the offer letter, but instead you read that they went with someone else.

At first, you were crushed. How could they? You were everything they asked for, and then some! It was the perfect match. But as you reflect, you remember how the interviewer didn’t really look that happy to be working there. And there was that stain on the chair in the reception area that was kind of gross. Plus, now that you think of it, the commute wasn’t the best. And they probably work long hours, which means that the impressive salary works out to minimum wage when calculated hourly. Phew, good thing you didn’t end up in that torture chamber – that was a close call!

Hiiiiighwaaaaay toooo thaaaa danger zone!

We’ve all experienced this kind of thought process before, whether it’s about a job interview, a purchase we regretted but couldn’t exchange, something we ordered at a restaurant, that concert we didn’t go to, whatever. So what’s the deal? Why does it happen?

It’s called Cognitive Dissonance, and it rears its head when we’re faced with a situation where we simultaneously hold conflicting values or emotions. This usually comes about when reality doesn’t match our expectations. When it happens, it creates a very uncomfortable feeling, and so we seek to resolve the dissonance in a number of ways.

Using the interview example above, there are three ways you could resolve the fact that you didn’t get hired: a) you could call up HR and beg, plead, and threaten them until they hire you (unlikely to work); b) you could admit that the successful candidate was better than you (as if, that’s impossible); c) you could convince yourself you didn’t want the job anyway. As you can see, telling yourself the job sucked is the easiest solution.

Cognitive dissonance isn’t something that only affects adults, and we develop defense mechanisms against it at a very young age. I was at Disneyland Paris earlier this year, in a really long lineup for Crush’s Coaster, a coaster ride that’s supposed to be good for most ages (side note: it’s surprisingly deadly). Anyway, the lineup was so long that it spilled outside of the awesome mouse maze they have you walk through. After about 30 minutes, we reached the start of the official queuing area, where they had the height measuring board. The attendant measured a little boy who was in line with his family, but the kid was too short to ride. He stood up as straight as he could, arching his back, and craning his neck. Maybe even cheating on his tiptoes a little. When it became apparent that no amount of will was going to help his head clear the line, he realized he was going to have to get out of line. His parents really felt bad for him, and were starting to console him when he said, “It’s okay, I didn’t want to go on it anyway.”

If I’ve waited in line for 90 minutes, this ride must be amazing!

Alright, so now that we know what cognitive dissonance is, and agree (hopefully) that we all try to resolve it when it happens to us, how can we use it to improve our game design?

First off, if someone buys your game, they are more likely to try convince themselves that they like it. After all, the alternative explanation is that they made a mistake and shouldn’t have bought it, and we don’t like to admit that we make mistakes. For this reason, I’ve heard the argument that demos for mediocre games can actually decrease sales. The theory is that people who would have purchased the game and tried to convince themselves to like it will instead try the demo and decide against a purchase. I haven’t seen any direct evidence to back up that theory, but the principle of cognitive dissonance would suggest it has merit.

It’s not great at first, but by hour 36 or so, it gets… playable.

One of the big success factors in free to play games are repeat buyers, players who spend money in a game more than once. The data generally shows that once a player makes an initial purchase, they are more likely to purchase again. Part of this behavior can be explained through cognitive dissonance: the player already bought something, so either he made a mistake and wasted his money, or he did the intelligent thing and should therefore do it again. Of course this isn’t true in every case, but it happens very often. So if you can get players to buy once, they are more likely to buy again. Be willing to design your game with a killer purchase offered to new players – even sell it at a crazy discount just to get them to make a purchase. Once they have, they will be more likely to buy something for full price in the future.

Well I bought that guitar-playing duck, so I guess I should buy the sax-playing sheep, too.

Imagine your game has a boss battle that isn’t balanced properly. The player has been flying through the previous levels, and suddenly encounters a boss that she can’t defeat. Her thoughts are: a) I’m not a skilled enough player to defeat this enemy; b) this boss sucks, the developers suck, and I’m done with this game. She’s been doing fine up until that point, so never had any reason to question her skills. And if your game is like most these days, she’ll be re-spawned at the start of the boss battle and won’t have a chance to hone her skills anywhere else. That all but kills option (a), which means the player is probably going to choose (b) and turn your game off. This situation could be helped in any number of ways: adjusting the boss difficulty down before launch; implementing an algorithm that dynamically lowers the boss difficulty after a certain number of player deaths; offering drops and power-ups during the battle that make the player’s character temporarily more powerful; placing a special weapon in the environment that the player can use during the battle, etc.

Would I like to try this battle a fortieth time? You bet!

I’ll leave you with one final story. Back in the day, Benjamin Franklin had a rival in the Pennsylvania legislature. No matter what Benjamin did, this other guy just kept being a jerk. So one day, Ben asked if he could borrow a rare book from this rival (he didn’t want to pay the extra Amazon shipping). The guy begrudgingly lent him the book, and Ben returned it with a thank you note a week later. When the two met again, the book owner was extremely friendly to Benjamin, and the two were no longer rivals. Why? Because he surely wouldn’t have loaned his book to someone he didn’t like, and if he loaned it to Ben, well then ol’ Benny must be a pretty swell guy.

You should be in AC3, they said. It will be even better than 2, they said. Traitors.

It’s difficult to avoid creating cognitive dissonance in our players sometimes, but being aware of it helps us to design positive ways for players to resolve the uncomfortable feeling it causes.

If you finished this article, you know how great it was. After all, you’re not someone who wastes their time reading things they don’t enjoy, are you?


Ryan Donaldson teaches Business of Games at VFS Game Design