Rat in a cage: why your mind loves Steam sales

Monday, 20th August 2012 08:20 GMT By Julie Horup

You have a gigantic library of Steam games you buy in sales then never play. Why would you spend money on something you don’t use? Julie Horup searches for answers.

“It’s absolutely fundamental for the human being to react quickly when offered something, and we have very strong urge to gather and hoard. Sometimes this exceeds our abilities to reconsider whether or not we actually need a game that’s only available on sale for a certain period.”

In the 1950s, American psychologist BF Skinner coined the term ‘Operant Conditioning’. His theory attempted to explain how we learn through behaviour, and how we repeat actions if they’ve positive consequences, or how we refrain from doing something if it repeatedly turns out to have a negative effect.

To prove positive reinforcements can make us repeat certain behaviour, Skinner invented an operant conditioning chamber known as the Skinner Box, in which there was a rat, a lever and a food dispenser. At first the rat wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do in its new-found cage, but when it accidentally pressed the lever food would be dispensed. The rat’s behaviour was positively reinforced with a yummy reward. It didn’t take long before the rat would learn to constantly press the lever in order to get food.

Operant conditioning still stands as one of the most renowned behavioural theories; and it can help explain why we spend a lot of money during Steam’s sales even though we’ll probably never play most of the games we buy.

The Steam Box

Initially it might seem a bit strange to compare rats in a box to people buying games on Steam, but it actually makes a lot of sense, especially given Steam’s reputation as the most popular digital platform online.

“If it was some random online store that you never had visited before, then you’d be less inclined to buy from it, but because you’re so familiar with Steam it actually makes a difference,” explained Johan Eklund, psychologist and co-founder of Checkpoint Therapy, a company that offers consultation and counselling to people dealing with excessive video games use.

“It’s a very basic thing when we’re exposed to some sort of stimuli or perform an activity, like playing a game on Steam, and it turns out to be a positive experience. The whole experience becomes extremely positive, and the next time you see a game on sale on Steam, and you have to pay less for it than usual, you’re even more prone to buying the game, even if you have limited knowledge of it. Because of the positive, earlier experiences you’re more motivated to actually click ‘buy’.”

Valve’s extremely effective at creating positive experiences, and the company knows how to plan perfectly executed sales. This Summer we saw the introduction of community voting in polls to decide which games would go on sale next. While users might think of their involvement and voting as something to their benefit, this is just the employment of basic psychology that’ll most often lead to improved sale figures. You’re being treated like rats pressing a lever to receive a reward.

“If you vote on a game, then you’ve invested in something that didn’t even cost you anything. But you’ve also prepared your mind for the possibility of the game going on sale. If it does, it acts as positive reinforcement since your mind believes that you’ve made a difference.

“If you have to go through the process of responding to a poll, and it ends up being in your favour [your pick going on sale], then there are already a lot of positive feelings present, which makes it much more likely that you’ll buy the game,” said Eklund.

“It doesn’t cost Steam anything to make a poll, so it’s actually quite clever. They get to see which games people want to buy while also observing how motivated people are. If you look at it from Steam’s perspective, then it’d be rather sensible to believe that they’re maximising the amount of games being sold.”

Involving users in this way can be compared to companies asking their employees how they work best, what their interests are, and then delegate their assignments accordingly to their response. While the approach is somewhat different from the community-driven sales, the final result is the same: the persons feel more involved and thereby more motivated to show their support and perform at their best – in this case by preferring Steam as the place to buy games instead of visiting competitors like Origin.

Playing to the mind’s way of reacting to certain situations is also present in Steam’s time-limited offers.

“If you make something limited or make it seem like a sparse resource, it triggers a reaction in our mind and starts our need for hoarding, which then translates into trying to maximise the possible yield,” explained Eklund.

“It’s absolutely fundamental for the human being to react quickly when offered something, and we have very strong urge to gather and hoard. Sometimes this exceeds our abilities to reconsider whether or not we actually need a game that’s only available on sale for a certain period. When Steam succeeds in triggering this response, where reflection is tossed aside, then the consumers are much more likely to buy something.”

Easy access

According to Eklund, it’s obvious – besides the psychological aspects – why gamers choose Steam as their primary digital platform even when ignoring their famous sales, and it’s the same reason why Apple proved successful with iTunes as the go-to place for buying music online.

“Valve knows how to make [Steam] a pleasant experience, which can make a huge difference when buying a product.

“There’s always a barrier to overcome before getting what you want. The barrier at Steam is a lot smaller because you don’t have to type in thousands of passwords and click several times before the game you want is being downloading.

“I’m sure they’ve given it a lot of thought how to make the experience as easy and pleasant as possible.”

Pleasant it may be, but why does the human mind keep enjoying the stimuli from sales even though we tell ourselves it makes no sense to buy cheap games that’ll just gather dust in a dark, virtual corner?

These psychological mechanisms are exactly what drive you to advance in the very games Steam sells. The structure of Steam sales has a lot in common with game design, how it makes your mind seek rewards – whether we’re comfortable with it or not.

“It might be possible to be aware of the negative effects like buying a lot of games you’ll never play, but it’ll only happen momentarily. Unless it’s absolutely and constantly clear, then most people will forget about it,” said Eklund.

“If you go to the supermarket and buy a lot of toothpaste you might realise that you’ll never be able to use all of this toothpaste you’ve just bought, but you’ll have forgotten about it the next time you see toothpaste on sale. The mind’s ability to organise and plan long-term is overridden because we’re caught up in a moment where spontaneous urges take over, and it’s difficult to intervene when those urges block our otherwise logical way of thinking.

“If Steam made a status bar of how much money you spent last sale, and how many hours you’ve actually played the games you bought, then the users would be more aware of their consumption pattern. But obviously they won’t do that as they’re very selective in the information provided to the users.”

If you’re starting to feel like chopping off your head and removing your brain, you shouldn’t feel too bad. These psychological mechanisms are exactly what drive you to advance in the very games Steam sells. The structure of Steam sales has a lot in common with game design, how it makes your mind seek rewards – whether we’re comfortable with it or not.

“If someone points a light to a certain part of the ground, then you start digging and you end up finding gold. This would give a feeling of shrewdness and that you somehow figured out how the system works, which is kind of like what games do. You realise that your behaviour has positive consequences.

“It’s exactly what good games do: providing small challenges that you can handle well. When you finish a boss fight, you might get a positive reward, and then you feel like you’ll be able to handle a slightly more difficult challenge. It’s basically the same rules and mechanisms that apply every time people do something.”

At least there’s one good thing about how the mind works; you aren’t in danger of becoming addicted to Steam sales.

“Before we talk about addiction, we’d like to examine the specific case and see if there’s a reason why something has become such a rewarding behaviour that you’d spend all of your time on it, and because of this I’d go a long way before saying it’s an addiction.”



  1. Talkar

    I’ve actually been less and less inclined to buy games on Steam over the years. I’ve gone from buying 10-30 games during the half year sales, to about 1-3 games. They do have amazing deals, absolutely, but they also have lousy customer support (they don’t even have a phone number o.O) and i’ve had more than a few problems with the DRM side of Steam (servers are too busy, even if it is just a SP game i’m trying to play). The store side of Steam is absolutely great! However the other aspects of Steam are still lacking…

    #1 2 years ago
  2. Patrick Garratt

    I only buy when I really want something. I think I did Left 4 Dead 2 for €10 and I play it loads. I still haven’t bought Portal 2, even though I think it was €5 the other day. I clearly have a back-wired brain, but I have a big problem with buying anything unless I know I “need” it. I haven’t bought Portal because I know I won’t play it at the moment.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. Giskard

    @2 While I won’t dispute your claims, you MUST play Portal 2. That’s all I’ve got.

    The Steam sales are also somewhat useful for an avid gamer. I usually don’t pick up all titles as they are released, but still want to play them. The Summer Sale in particular is good for this, as summer is the perfect time to squeeze in an extra game or two, as the weather in Sweden is 100% guaranteed rain whenever, wherever.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. alterecho

    Nice analysis. Eklund should have also considered adding the social aspects into this discussion. Like gifting/friend’s list/in-game chat/Achievements etc.
    People should start looking into options such as Raptr. It really is awesome.

    My urge to get those awesome offers hit a brick wall when Steam started splashing a certain dialogue box and wouldn’t allow me access to MY library unless i clicked I Agree.

    @2 Yeah you ABSOLUTELY need to play Portal 2. Some may not find it awesome though.

    #4 2 years ago
  5. Patrick Garratt

    @3 Yeah, I will play it eventually. I have zero time at the moment, so I just can’t justify buying it. I understand the logic in the article, but I do find the incessant impulse buying a little odd.

    #5 2 years ago
  6. schnide

    Did you speak to anyone apart from this one expert? Because I don’t think it’s anything to do with the Skinner box theory.

    Instead, it’s simply that Valve sell quality titles in their sale at greatly reduced prices. If you know that something usually costs X, and you have a time-limited chance to get it for X/5, that’s a positive outcome for your brain if you buy it because you feel like you’re getting something for less than it’s worth. So even if you don’t play it, it doesn’t matter, because you know you’ve got it there if you want to and you don’t feel like you’ve wasted much money if you don’t.

    #6 2 years ago
  7. viralshag

    @Pat, Well a few of us have 75% off coupons for it…

    #7 2 years ago
  8. silkvg247

    I did impulse buy in the first couple of sales but it’s died down a lot now. Probably because I’m fully aware I have about 3 years worth of gaming stockpiled, so I’m being quite selective about what I pick up now.

    I do get around to trying games eventually, but the thing is unless they grip me in the first 30 minutes I put them back down and forget about them; mainly because I know I’ve a lot more games to try out. It’s a shame though because it means I’ll never understand the hype around Amnesia, amongst others.

    #8 2 years ago
  9. distraet

    @6 Since I wrote the piece: Yeah, I did talk to another psychologist about it (who agreed on Skinner’s theory), but obviously there are different approaches to this subject. The Skinner box is just one of many theories that can help explain the behaviour of the human mind during a Steam sale.

    #9 2 years ago
  10. absolutezero

    You have a “gigantic pile of boxed games” you never play. You bought them from Shopto in a sale. You never play any of them. WHY



    #10 2 years ago
  11. schnide


    Would’ve been good to include the second expert in the article? ;)

    The Skinner box theory, to me, only seems to explain the benefit of buying from Steam in general – ie. because you had a good experience last time. In particular reference to the Steam sale, price is the key. I think two different principles are being confused here.

    It’s not much different to any sale, even in physical retail stores – the difference is that with Steam, as I mentioned, they’re quality products, easily accessible at the click of a button, and at great prices. You don’t need the Skinner box theory for that.

    #11 2 years ago
  12. Psychotext

    Thankfully I’ve stopped buying any games now until I’ve made progress on my backlog. That said, I’ll never make any progress on my backlog so I suspect I’ve stopped buying games for life. =/

    #12 2 years ago
  13. DSB

    @11 Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.

    It’s easy enough to get a psychologist with a certain view and just let him talk based on his own ideas. As long as it isn’t challenged, it becomes dogma.

    I’d probably go for an advertising exec, it’s more their field.

    #13 2 years ago
  14. TheWulf

    I think the specific way my mind is broken makes me immune to operant conditioning, or perhaps it’s because games usually don’t have a whole lot of what I want, and it’s only the odd particularly exceptional game that does. And then I tend to buy that as soon as it becomes available.

    I have frequently gone through entire Steam sales without making a single purchase – and those where I do? I’ve never really bought anything for myself. I’ve used them to buy copies of games that I’ve found to be truly exceptional for friends. Steam sales really don’t do a lot for or to me. I’m incredibly glad that they’re there, because it gives people who’re on a lower monetary bracket a chance to snap up some titles.

    It also gives a developer/publisher a chance to recoup some sales, whereas they might have lost some due to an outlet doing them a massive disservice. Like Rock Paper Shotgun’s intentionally horrible and purposefully sensational review of New Vegas. That hurt it. And yet it got over ten thousand comments disagreeing, which just proves that they did that to garner advertisement clicks. And what’s funny is that people have said that they avoided New Vegas because of that fucking atrocious abuse of journalistic power (RPS has no integrity in my opinion, these days, and the only person I even think of trusting is John Walker). And now those people who avoided the game have been picking it up in sales and they’ve been saying how much they loved New Vegas and how much of a truly awesome game it is.

    So yeah, there are many reasons I love Steam sales. They just don’t do a lot for me because I don’t have as generic a palette as most. I’m looking for very specific things, and amidst this sea of super violent, hyper-realistic shooters and mundane settings, I’m not finding a lot of what I want.

    So maybe my desire to horde is killed by the simple fact that most of the things on offer to horde aren’t at all that shiny.

    #14 2 years ago
  15. fearmonkey

    I love steam, but I didn’t always love it….

    I preferred buying games on the 360 over Steam until this year. MS is so stingy with their sales, and when they do have big sales, it’s always disappointing and laughable if it wasn’t so sad :(
    MS has a huge batch of old Arcade and GOD titles and they rarely have anything on sale for a great price.

    I just bought Alan Wake on Steam with the expansions and the Arcade game for $9.99, MS never has anything remotely that awesome. During the summer sale, I bought Fallout:New Vegas with all expansions for $9.99, Fallout3 with all expansions for $4.99 and Oblivion with all expansions for $4.99.
    I just bought Lord of the rings:War in the north on Green Man gaming for $4.00 which was a steam code.

    It’s really hard to care about MS’s sales anymore when Steam and the other digital game sellers have such amazing deals, and even PS3 has those amazing play for free subscriber games plus better deals than Live. Gamefly has play for free games and great sales as well.

    #15 2 years ago

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