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Retail

The Psychology Behind Steam Trading Cards

The Psychology Behind Steam Trading Cards

Wed 17 Jul 2013 7:45am GMT / 3:45am EDT / 12:45am PDT
Retail

How your mind processes a trading card system and the mental tricks at play in Valve's latest addition to its digital marketplace

A few weeks ago the digital distribution juggernaut Steam rolled out a curious new program involving levels for your Steam account, badges, and trading cards - virtual trading cards. If a game supports them, you get free cards from that game's set just for playing it. But you can only get about half the cards in each game's set this way. The remaining cards must be traded for with other players or bought from Steam's Community Marketplace.

"You can't not get the cards. Just showing that you've begun progress towards that goal is enough to create some mental tension over not having yet reached it"

If you don't want to sell or ignore the cards, what do you do with them once they show up? After completing a set, you can perform a little digital origami and craft them into a game badge. Besides sitting in your inventory, these virtual items grant cosmetic features for your Steam account, such as backgrounds or chat icons.

But wait. We're not done. Building badges out of trading cards also earns you experience points for your Steam account. It's like you're turning in a quest. Get enough experience and you level up, which brings rewards like a larger number. You're probably familiar with the concept.

If this all makes you arch one eyebrow and suspect that Steam just might be using some psychological tricks to get you to buy and play more games, you're not alone. There are well understood psychological phenomenon at play, representing disciplines like consumer psychology, behavioral economics, and social psychology. Let's look at some of them.

2

2K and Gearbox Borderlands 2 cards.

The first psychological phenomenon that stands out to me has to do with a bias we have towards completing what we start - something often called the endowed progress effect. Once we feel like we've begun progress towards a goal, it nags at our minds and checking it off our list or filling in the final bit of progress to fill up a bar makes us feel good. In one experiment researchers gave car wash customers a card that let them earn a wash if they collected enough stamps. Half the customers got a blank "Buy 8, get 1 free" card. The rest got a "Buy 10, get 1 free" card, but with two complimentary stamps to get them started. Thus, both groups needed to buy 8 to get 1 free. But those who got the "Buy 10, get 1 free" card with the 2 starter stamps tended to come back more often and to wait less time between purchases.

This effect has its roots in research done by Russian psychology Bluma Zeigarnik, who noticed that waiters were easily able to remember orders not yet delivered to tables, but forgot them as soon as the food was put in place. Ever felt hesitant to move on to the next area in a RPG because you have so many side quests unfinished in your current area? Same thing. Further research confirmed this gestalt idea that we easily remember the details around incomplete tasks - indeed, they're sometimes difficult to take our mind off of.

"Valve has created a special, limited set of trading cards for its Summer Sale. Since the sale is the game, you earn these particular cards by spending money"

I can, for example, tell you right now that I am missing the Soldier, Spy, and Engineer cards from Steam's Team Fortress 2 set without looking up anything. Steam kickstarts this quirk of human nature with its trading cards by giving you random cards just for playing a game. You can't not get the cards, so like the car wash customers receiving two free starter stamps you can't not start your progress towards completing the set. And Steam gleefully (or so it seems to me) points out how many cards you have left to earn for every game and alerts you whenever you get a new one. Just showing that you've begun progress towards that goal is enough to create some mental tension over not having yet reached it, and some people will pester their friends or spend a bit of money to buy the missing cards off the Community Marketplace. Valve, of course, wets its beak a little on every sale in the form of a transaction fee.

Valve has also doubled down on this effect during its Summer Sale event by creating a special, limited time set of trading cards themed around the sale. But since the sale is the game, you earn these particular cards by spending money. For every $10 you spend, you get a card.

Steam even provides a helpful progress bar showing how much more you have to spend to complete the quest it has imposed upon you. Again, just feeling like you've begun work towards this goal is more likely to make you come back more often and buy more games if it releases the mental tension.

1

Steam's Summer Sale limited edition cards.

But what if you don't want to complete sets and craft badges? What if you want to drop a little spare change into your Steam Wallet by selling your complimentary cards on the Community Marketplace? Sorry, there's a psychological trick at play there, too.

Once you sell a card (or any other item) on Steam's Community Markeplace, Steam takes a cut, then puts the balance in your Steam Wallet. Those funds can be put towards anything Steam sells, but once they're in our Steam Wallets, we tend to think of that money differently. We form what psychologists call a "mental account." It's like any account in any budget, but because it's only held in our minds the use of that account is subject to all kinds of biases and irrational thinking. We have, for example, a difficult time thinking about using that money outside the context it was created in - in this case, the Steam trading cards or the Community Marketplace in general. So we're more likely to use it for that purpose than any other.

On top of that, the old saying "easy come, easy go" is very much a real thing. If we experience no pain associated with a gain, we are less likely to feel pain letting go of that money. That means we're more likely to think of the money as "already spent" and use it on trading cards, cosmetic items for DOTA2, or any other marketplace item that we might not have typed in our credit cards to buy. The exact same mental foible happens with buying dumb stuff in the real world just because you got store credit, or thinking that the money you've won on a lucky night out gambling can be blown on an expensive hotel room upgrade without regrets. That money is already spent, and the feeling of loss has already occurred. So it's easier to let go.

"Money in Steam Wallets is thought of differently - a mental account. Because it's held in our minds, the use of that account is subject to all kinds of biases and irrational thinking"

And you know what? Once you take that step of selling off your freebie trading cards in the Marketplace, you're in the ecosystem. Even if you think the cards are stupid, you've crossed the line from "I don't use the Marketplace" to the other side. And consistency matters to humans.

We feel mental inertia to keep our thoughts in line with our behaviors, and if one changes we'll often nudge the other so that they match. This means that faced with the fact that you're a Marketplace user (even just that once), you're more likely to change your attitude about how dumb the whole thing is.

So there you have it. I'm playing around with the Steam trading cards myself and have made a few Marketplace transactions to see what it's all about. In some ways it's fun. I've completed some sets and got some dumb little trinkets. And if you want to do that, go for it. Play the market, craft your badges, get some glee out of finding that rare foil card and the emoticon that's selling well in the marketplace. But arming yourself with knowledge about how your mind processes the trading card system will let you dictate your own terms.

Jamie Madigan writes about the overlap between psychology and videogames at www.psychologyofgames.com. Follow him on Twitter: @JamieMadigan

16 Comments

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing

1,186 1,273 1.1
Popular Comment
Just showing that you've begun progress towards that goal is enough to create some mental tension over not having yet reached it
Dear Valve,

congratulations on progressing towards me not caring about trading cards since their release. Feel free to tense up and reach the goal of me not caring at all. Btw, nice sale.

Sincerely,
Petasus Podex Internetticus

Posted:A year ago

#1
I didn't really pay attention to them, until a friend PMed me and requested all my cards 'since that's not something you would want, right?' - I immediately got possessive of my dumb little cards. I love the Summer Sale on it's own merits, but the cards do add a little something. Good Job Valve, on using novel psychology!

Posted:A year ago

#2

Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer

585 323 0.6
Using psychology to manipulate your audience is nothing new.

Harlequin romance novels and cheesy mens action pulp fiction, for example, have done that for years.

Creating that way is called "formulaic".

Formulaic art is ultimately dead. The audience - the more critically-thinking ones - can smell it.

Posted:A year ago

#3

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic

1,630 1,509 0.9
We form what psychologists call a "mental account." It's like any account in any budget, but because it's only held in our minds the use of that account is subject to all kinds of biases and irrational thinking. We have, for example, a difficult time thinking about using that money outside the context it was created in - in this case, the Steam trading cards or the Community Marketplace in general. So we're more likely to use it for that purpose than any other.
2 things here.

1) Selling trading cards gets you cash into your Steam Wallet. This cash cannot be withdrawn (unlike the cash gained from creating a TF2 item, say, and selling it). This means that the money is already "spent", in the sense that it has to go on something Steam related. It can't go on food, that nice watch you're saving up for, or a night out down the pub. Physically, this isn't limited to just Marketplace goods, either - it's anything on Steam.

2) So much Steam Wallet cash can be made on the cards that there's many people (myself included) who have bought games and DLC with the money gained. Not just cheap indie games, either. I bought the £7.49-priced Psycho Borderlands 2 DLC with card money. I sold a HL2 Foil card for £10. That's £10 that went straight into buying a game on Steam. Whilst there may be a psychological barrier that "earmarks" the money for use only on the Marketplace, that barrier is easily overcome when the chances of buying honest-to-God games with money that isn't yours becomes a real possibility.

The psychology is nice to know, and interesting. But I think the real news is that Valve have created a way in which micro-transactions for the general consumer can generate enough money that a game can be bought at the end of it, and developers and publishers end up profiting in the final outcome.

Edit to add:

Psychologically, there's a couple more points that really need expanding upon with the trading card system. One is that there are no doubt some people who already say "If it doesn't have trading cards, I'm not buying it", in the same way that quite a few people already say "No Steam key, no buy". And the other point is related to the race to (almost) zero that trading cards have experienced since coming out of Beta. Rising Storm cards, for example already go for less than 10p, even though cards were only added last night.

Edited 5 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 17th July 2013 5:35pm

Posted:A year ago

#4

James Berg Games User Researcher, EA Canada

190 250 1.3
Excellent article, wish you'd linked to your full one - Link. Our research group kicked this around today as well.
Ever felt hesitant to move on to the next area in a RPG because you have so many side quests unfinished in your current area? Same thing.
I'd say this has a lot to do with loss avoidance as well. Same principle as buying tickets to an event - you're far more likely to attend that event than if you're just given tickets off-hand. Hurricanes and meteor strikes, but you bought tickets? You're not going to waste your hard earned money by not going. If someone gave you the tickets, you're not writing off a loss, so it doesn't matter as much to your brain.
But I think the real news is that Valve have created a way in which micro-transactions for the general consumer can generate enough money that a game can be bought at the end of it, and developers and publishers end up profiting in the final outcome
This is an important bit - when you create something that you then sell from using the cards, there's a good chance that some of that money will then see it's way to a developer. That's Valve paying the developer, not the consumer, which is why I like it so much. Valve is making an investment in the ecosystem, and doing it in a way that every other party involved benefits.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Berg on 17th July 2013 5:44pm

Posted:A year ago

#5

Steve Ball Software Engineer, Ubisoft Montreal

18 5 0.3
It's important to note that Valve has been trying to gamify Steam for a long time now and the trading card system is just another step in that process.

I think so far this is their greatest achievement in that process as I can easily see how people will naturally want to collect, trade, sell and horde the trading cards, as is our nature with collectible things. The fact that they have tied the card collecting, and having limited card, to buying games, and giving them your money, is a very clever move and I can see this being a big success for them in terms of making Steam a more enjoyable and fun community (rather than just a digital library of your games), and also further increasing their revenue during the sale period.

I don't doubt that we will be seeing more and more features added to Steam in the future that feel more like they belong in a game, rather than a digital storefront, but it is exciting to see Valve spearheading this campaign.

Posted:A year ago

#6

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development

961 1,759 1.8
It seems everything today is:

1) Psychological manipulation.
2) Oppressive to someone so should be banned
3) Destroying the art of video games.
4) Etc. Yawn.

My reaction to all of it is "so what". Lighten up people, or if unable to, don your tinfoil hat and pretend the world is the nice place you'd like it to be, where everyone is like you. But without the ability to dictate to you.

Posted:A year ago

#7

Edward Buffery Pre-production Manager

149 96 0.6
@Paul, neither the article nor the majority of comments look negative to me. I find the psychology of gaming to be a very interesting topic, and have been following Jamie's main site for a while. Reading about, acknowledging and discussing all the little 'tricks' that are used in our favourite industry to encourage or discourage certain behaviours (especially new ones) does not imply disapproval. As with most things, there's a whole spectrum of 'good' and 'bad' examples. I personally haven't been interested to find out more about the cards that have popped up on my Steam profile due to lack of time recently but after reading this article, I'm a little more curious than I was before.

If they can be summarised as something I get given for free by playing games I would be playing anyway, that I can either ignore or sell to people who are interested in them for credit that I can spend on more games, that's awesome!

Posted:A year ago

#8

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development

961 1,759 1.8
The title is about examining the psychology?

Getting a bit tired of seeing everything ripped bare tbh. If you want to go right to it, we can start on the fact that everything you think you think is just a chemical reaction and we're all just automatons, arguably with our future decisions already decided anyway.

And in large part a lot of this psychobabble isn't even done deliberately by the defendents. We've been accused of manipulation before on how we introduce our iap's in a non-f2p game. The truth is the buttons are in the only place that fits on the gui. etc.

Lets just get back to where the fun is.

Posted:A year ago

#9

Keldon Alleyne Handheld Developer, Avasopht Ltd

472 480 1.0
@Paul: that's awfully defensive.

There's nothing wrong with manipulation and distraction per sae. At the end of the day it is in everyone's best interests to get more for as little as possible, and to give as little for as much possible. So it's no surprises that consumers want bargains and companies want to capitalise on profit.

It would be foolish to ignore psychology and how the mind works as that would mean missing out on the opportunity of making more. Of course common sense dictates that at some point it will become pernicious, which is what you seem to be concerned with and defensive about. Responsibility is king. Let people gamble but let's be responsible with our profits and at least be mindful of having our profits depend on negative or disorderly behaviour. Again it's everyone's prerogative to do whatever they please and to affect the world however they choose. I get nihilism. Whatever goes goes man.



Oh, and free will still exists because we still make a decision based on our information. I guess some people just can't cognitively model the two scopes simultaneously and therefore have difficulty understanding that although we are governed by the rules of physics, our decision is still our own - we hold an internal state and respond to input. We are an enclosed system that executes on top of the layer of physics.

Posted:A year ago

#10

Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany

846 732 0.9
@Paul

The bottom line, from my perspective is: nobody forces you to burn money on those card, neither in anything related to games.

So although It may sound a bit Darwinian in general: If they want to expend 1.000€ in nonexistent cards then let them; it's their money, their problem and their self-control (when applicable). I personally play games to have fun, nothing else, Don't need Steam, Xbox LIVE or PSN to tell me which is "my level" according to trophies/money extent/cards in my inventory. My REAL level is, for example, those 300+ hours I have registered in Skyrim.

So to each its own...

Posted:A year ago

#11

Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters

528 788 1.5
@Paul - Then why did you bother reading it? I found it interesting, but oh wait, you're bored of it so it shouldn't have been written. GI, please remember to get Paul's approval on every article you're thinking of doing from now on. There's no harm in trying to understand something in detail.

@Morville - You're right that the money has already been spent because you can't pull it out of the system, but if I buy something with Wallet credit that I was going to buy anyway with real money, effectively I've now saved some real world money and can now spend that outside Steam instead. So your point is only true in the case of people who would never have bought anything from Steam otherwise. The point in the article still stands that you may buy something you wouldn't ordinarily have bought because some people will see that money in a different light.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dave Herod on 18th July 2013 10:03am

Posted:A year ago

#12

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development

961 1,759 1.8
I think there's some heavy editorial in what I said there. I'm a big fan of just leaving people alone to make their mind up. Probably moreso than most people here. For example, I'm not sure if you're trying to argue with me Alfonso but I agree with everything you've said.

@David, simply to see who was getting the bile today.

Can we not have "why these cards are fun" instead? If you can't see what I'm trying to say here, it's because you've been sucked into this cynical pipe too far already.

Posted:A year ago

#13

Henry Durrant Programmer, SUMO Digital

52 43 0.8
Gotta Catch Em All!

Posted:A year ago

#14

Robert Aiking Product Manager, InnoGames

22 12 0.5
Nice article, thanks.

Posted:A year ago

#15

Keldon Alleyne Handheld Developer, Avasopht Ltd

472 480 1.0
Gotta Catch Em All!
Just what I thought!

Posted:A year ago

#16

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