Video Games That Subtly Trick You

List Rules
Vote up the tricks that you're now realizing have been fooling you for years.

Behind the scenes, your favorite video game is probably playing you. The smartest game developers know exactly what makes us tick and use that to insure that we stay locked into their games for as long as possible. While games need to be fun, there are also a host of psychological tricks video games use to keep players in front of the screen. 

Some games scatter hidden collectibles all across their worlds, whereas others include secret alternative paths for players who enjoy seeing how much they can cheat the system. Then there are free-to-play games, which take psychological manipulation to new heights so that players spend real money on digital goodies. When you think back on the best video games, chances are you'll recognize a few of the tricks developers used to keep you playing.


  • 1
    127 VOTES

    Games Rely On Our Basic Need To Gather Supplies

    The entire practice of collecting — whether it be Beanie Babies, Pokémon cards, or agility orbs in Crackdown — is driven by an evolutionary need to gather and horde goods. Historically, these urges were based around the need for sustenance, and can be seen in hunter/gatherer societies. As humanity has evolved, that urgent need to collect still exists within us, even if our physical needs are being met. 

    Video game developers take advantage of that by offering a bevy of virtual goods to collect within their games.

    127 votes
  • 2
    137 VOTES

    Games Use Behavioral Psychology To Hook Players

    One of the best ways to keep gamers playing is to dole out a steady stream of rewards. Whenever a player fulfills the necessary requirements for a game's contingency (or guidelines for success), they should receive some type of tangible feedback. This feedback can take on all sorts of forms including Grand Theft Auto gradually increasing a player's wanted level to gaining a higher rank and receiving a new gun in Call of Duty's online mode. 

    This type of response conditioning dates back to the work of behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, who performed experiments on rats in the 1930s. Skinner noted that his rats would continue to repeat the actions that garnered them the best rewards. Humans are equally capable of being conditioned through positive reinforcement, which makes it easy for game designers to keep us chasing that next big in-game upgrade. 

    137 votes
  • 3
    125 VOTES

    Players Prefer Games With Rare Collectibles

    John Hopson of Gamasutra uses the term "variable ratio schedules" to explain how often different pieces of loot appear in games. According to Hopson, every collectible item in a game has "a specific number of actions... required [to produce a drop], but that number changes every time," which makes some items appear less frequently than others. 

    Studies have shown that games that employ variable ratio schedules typically yield higher play times, as the lack of predictability makes the experience feel less predetermined, and potentially extends the amount of time it takes a player to collect everything they want. After all, there's nothing more satisfying then stumbling upon a super rare shiny Pokémon after wandering through the grass for several hours. 

    125 votes
  • 4
    93 VOTES

    Sequels Tend To Offer More Of What You Already Enjoyed

    The unwritten rule of video games requires sequels to double down on every facet that made the original entry so successful. If the first Borderlands has several hundred thousand guns, the sequel needs to feature some 18 million. If there are four special zombies in the original Left 4 Dead, then you'd better believe there are eight in Left 4 Dead 2. 

    Pulling this off sometimes requires a suspension of disbelief, especially when a prequel comes out part-way through a series. The official reason why Batman has the more gadgets in the Arkham Origins prequel than he does the rest of the series is that he always had them, but chose not to use them in the prior games that take place after Origins. 

    93 votes
  • 5
    103 VOTES

    Shorter Levels Encourage Longer Playtimes

    Shorter Levels Encourage Longer Playtimes
    Video: YouTube

    Video game levels are like potato chips: when they're small, it's impossible to stop after just one. For this reason, many video game developers create levels that can be completed relatively quickly. If each level takes only a few minutes to complete, the player is more inclined to continue playing, and they'll get through more levels before they get tired.

    Anyone who has ever won a race in Mario Kart knows how difficult it is to call it quits when you're on a hot streak. It'll only take you four more minutes to play another race, so you kind of have to, right? 

    103 votes
  • 6
    126 VOTES

    Free-To-Play Game Makers Know That Self-Control Has Its Limits

    Self-control can't last forever and after spending dozens of hours grinding away to reach the next level in Mafia Wars, that $5 booster looks tempting. To illustrate this phenomenon, Gamasutra's Tejas Jasani points to social psychologist Roy Baumeister, and a term he coined, "Ego Depletion."

    Jasani writes, "Think of self-control as a muscle. Overusing a muscle at some early stage will likely tire out the muscle, and during subsequent stages, it will already be tired." He applies this analogy to free-to-play games, explaining that a gamer might start out believing that they'll never spend money on in-app purchases, but over time, their resolve will weaken. If developers can be patient, even the most frugal of gamers will eventually shell out a little cash for a game they've been entrenched in. 

    126 votes