Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
October 24, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 24, 2014
PR Newswire
View All

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Marketers: Exploit game players with this clever psychological trick!
Marketers: Exploit game players with this clever psychological trick! Exclusive
July 5, 2012 | By Jamie Madigan

July 5, 2012 | By Jamie Madigan
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

I recently found out, via this article on, about an interesting paper by researcher Jeremy Bailenson in The Psychologist. In it, he gives an overview of some recent research on how viewing online representations of ourselves --like our avatars on the Xbox 360 or our Miis on the Nintendo Wii-- can affect our behavior.

He talks some about modeling healthy behavior and implanting false memories, but to me the most interesting and possibly the most grim part of the article was where he discussed how to advertise products through avatars and, by doing so, affect consumer behavior. Even if we know perfectly well that it’s happening.

Citing a research presented at a professional conference, Balenson describes how he and a colleague blatantly Photoshopped subjects’ heads onto the bodies of actors in advertisements. One participant in the study, for example, might have viewed an image of himself holding up a fictitious brand of soda and smiling like an idiot, as if to endorse it.

After the study, subjects tended not only to remember the brands better, but actually indicated greater preference to them relative to other options. This despite the fact that they were pretty sure they had never drank “Blorf brand soda” or sat in a professional photography studio and posed for the advertisements in question. (Interestingly, social/professional networking site LinkedIn is apparently taking this concept to heart and running an ad campaign where they insert users’ profile pictures directly into representations of a client companies’ recruitment literature in an attempt at getting people to apply for jobs there.)

This sort of thing may be thanks to what some psychologists call “self-perception theory.” In a nutshell, this theory refers to how we tend to look at our own actions to infer our own attitudes and beliefs: “I’m doing X, so I must be the kind of person who likes X.”

In one study researchers dressed subjects in either black or white uniforms. Those in the black uniforms were observed to act with more aggression and toughness, keeping in line with their stereotypically villainous wardrobe. The researchers also argued (and showed with data) that this is why referees in professional sports are biased against teams that wear dark colors and are more likely to call penalties against them. Think of your avatar as a kind of uniform you wear, and you see the connection.

How to apply this evil to video games

So, given all this I’m going to once again give out some evil ideas to those people in marketing. This kind of marketing-via-avatar think could easily be incorporated into video game avatars like those used by the Xbox.

It’s not unusual for games to give out “avatar awards” for completing in-game actions. My little dude has a Locust mask from Gears of War 3, a sombrero from Red Dead Redemption, and a Guilty Spark toy from Halo 3. Fun! But what if instead of watching my avatar play with a miniature RC Warthog I saw him chugging a can of Mountain Dew? Or perusing the latest issue of Wired magazine? Or gobbling french fries from Burger King? According to the research described above, I’d be more likely to remember or even favor those brands over traditional advertising because there’s something psychologically important about seeing a representation of me interacting with them.

Heck, we don’t even have to bury this kind of thing in the Xbox dashboard. I imagine games could easily pull our likeness in the form of our avatar and display them to us holding up boxes of Stay-Free feminine hygiene products or Kibbles ‘n Bits dog food while we wait for levels to load or matchmaking to happen.

Well, maybe those are extreme examples. But you’d think that game companies would at least start using this kind of thing to cross-promote games. If I were EA, I wouldn’t include a snowboard with a SSX logo as an avatar reward in that game. I mean, the customer has already bought that game, right? I’d include a NC-17 jumper from Mass Effect 3. That’s what you want your customers envisioning themselves playing at that point and that’s what you want them associating with themselves when that game hits the shelves.

Or you can show them holding up a box of dog food. Your choice.


Ahn, S. & Balenson, J. (2011). Embodied Experiences in Imersive Virtual Environments. Paper presented at the 97th Annual Conference of the National Communication Association, New Orleans, LA.
Balenson, J. (2012). Doppelgangers -- A New Form of Self? The Psychologist, 25, 36-38.
Frank, M., & Gilovich, T. (1988). The Dark Side of Self and Social Perception: Black Uniforms and Agression in Professional Sports. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 74-85.

Related Jobs

Next Games
Next Games — Helsinki, Finland

Senior Level Designer
Activision Publishing
Activision Publishing — Santa Monica, California, United States

Tools Programmer-Central Team
Crystal Dynamics
Crystal Dynamics — Redwood City, California, United States

Senior/Lead VFX Artist
Magic Leap, Inc.
Magic Leap, Inc. — Wellington, New Zealand

Level Designer


Duong Nguyen
profile image
Not surprising the human brain has amazing ability to project and re-create memories through fragments, though anyone using this form of advertising would be pretty creepy having your likeness usurp to sell soda or condoms. We'll if they are willing to pay the average actors fees then I wont mind. Personally I don't think people associate Xbox Avatars as being themselves anymore than they would associate a video game character as being "them", but it's worth a study.

Harlan Sumgui
profile image
Anyone else picture ad that featured their face on Mitt Romney's body while reading this?

Chris Hellerberg
profile image
The link in the article is broken. It leads right back here thanks to this error:

http ://" nipulation/"

(edit: added the space after http cause the link wouldn't show up otherwise; ignore the space between a and n in manipulation too...)

Frank Cifaldi
profile image
Wow, what a rookie mistake, I haven't done that one in a while! Fixed, thanks for letting me know.

Royal Connell
profile image
I'm pretty sure you meant an N7 jumper from Mass Effect 3. In any case SSX did include unlockable ME3 snowboards for undoubtedly this very reason.

Luis Blondet
profile image
Please don't give Zynga any more ideas -_-;

Iain Nicholas
profile image
I would say games already have been doing this to a less extent.

The first that comes to mind is NBA 2K11 which is based around Michael Jordan. The game has a very immersive character career mode called "My Player" that I feel (havent played NBA2k12) is the best single player sporting career mode around. In this your player that you create obtains a sponsorship through Nike/Jordan and starts hawking Nike/Jordans products.

Living in Australia where basketball is not a very dominante sport this has definelty shaped my opinion on Basketball based products. Thinking now if I was to buy a Basketball shoe the first and foremost that comes to mind are Jordans.
This being said I am probably not being as bombarded with advertising of competing products like people in the USA would be however this still stands as a good example of how this form of advertising has reached people it would have otherwised missed using a different medium.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
profile image
Somehow, selling your product based on psychological flaws instead of product quality doesn't seem to be in our best interests long term.

Carlo Delallana
profile image
A fool and his gold...

Chris Hellerberg
profile image
There's no such thing as a 'psychological flaw'. Science doesn't work that way. What you mention is not how marketing works either... Use of one marketing technique does not rule out the use of another. In fact, if you based your entire marketing strategy on one technique alone it wouldn't be much of a strategy.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
profile image
"There's no such thing as a 'psychological flaw'."

Of course there is. Here's a list: Here are a few more: (confirmation bias), (motivated reasoning). (explanation of the gambler's fallacy with a section on the psychology behind it). Oh, here's another list:
ases. And I can think of more mundane-sounding psychological flaws: Addiction. Hoarding. Phobias. Stereotyping. Humans are _riddled_ with psychological flaws.

"Science doesn't work that way. "

I don't understand what you mean. Science is a process for verifying or falsifying hypotheses. It isn't a volitional agent. It doesn't "work" or "not work" beyond the proper application by an agent applying it. Anyway I'm not talking about "science" I'm talking about "psychology". Perhaps you could clarify what you mean?

"What you mention is not how marketing works either"

To be fair, I said that a certain way of marketing doesn't seem to be in our best interests long term -- not that it is what we are doing, ie. not that this is "how marketing works". But to further be fair, I did implicitly (and will now explicitly) state that it does appear to be a trend that we are experiencing. For starters, here is an interesting infographic with examples of manipulating marketing channels:
lation.php. Also, here is an article illustrating how manipulative marketing can be via subliminal advertising:
how-ads-manipulate/. That site has an interesting demonstration given by Derren Brown, if you believe there's anything factual to what he does (I don't know him enough to know if his tricks are simply stage tricks or based on real psychology).

So yes, what I mentioned -- selling your product based on psychological flaws instead of product quality -- does happen. So is it "how marketing works"? Depends on how strict you want to be with that claim. Does it have to be something that all advertisers do for it to be "how marketing works"? Does it have to be something that at least one advertiser does for it to be "how marketing works"? Does it have to be something that more than 50% of advertisers do before it can be considered "how marketing works"? I feel this is a bit moot because 1.) it happens, and 2.) I am concerned over it happening at all. I am expressing a concern, not writing a paper on advertising, so I have not spoken erroneously.

"Use of one marketing technique does not rule out the use of another."

Sure. But any form of marketing does have an opportunity cost: time that we spend studying how to manipulate people is time that we could otherwise spend studying how to make people happier by producing better products. Also it leads to an arms race, a pattern in which many sides (companies competing in a market) expend resources to not "lose" to the "other guys", leading to a result where since everyone expended resources they are back where they started except for the lost resources. If instead we all agreed to not expend these resources, we could be in the same situation but with the resources intact.

Admittedly a certain level of "informing consumers" is not a waste of resources (when you are aligning a customer who is interested in your product -- see here for some shades of gray:
ation), but as the marketing arms race escalates into a multi-million dollar shouting match where you are no longer trying to inform but merely trying to saturate attention, there is a net loss for society that could be avoided by changing our behavior and cooperating.

Just to give an example of an unnecessary arms race caused by advertising that hurts not only companies but individuals: the spam wars. Spam in your email leading to man hours spent developing spam filtering systems. Spam on your blog posts leading to man hours spent devising a "nofollow" policy for search engines. And the time-cost of dealing with the spam that gets through.

"In fact, if you based your entire marketing strategy on one technique alone it wouldn't be much of a strategy."

Perhaps. But you have to admit -- advertising costs money. That money could go toward the product. Black hat advertising budgets could go toward White hat advertising budgets. Companies do not have a finite amount of money. There is a trade off, even though it's not black and white "some companies behave 100% ethically others do everything unethical they can think of".

Chris Hellerberg
profile image
Thanks for the reply, Jeffrey. I'll keep mine short since it's late.

The examples you have given are observed phenomena not flaws. Psychology is a science and as such does not attribute such relative terms (in the colloquial sense of that phrase) as 'flaw' to phenomena. That is also what I mean by 'Science doesn't work that way' which, by the way, is a meme. Your statement that you're talking about psychology and not about science doesn't make any sense as psychology is a science. You can talk about science while not talking about psychology, but you cannot do the reverse, but that's just an aside.

With 'what you mention is not how marketing works' I was referring to my following argument that the use of one technique does not rule out the use of another which, so it seemed to me, you were implying. Since my assumption was wrong we can drop this argument, I think.

I have no interest in discussing the ethical aspects of marketing but thanks for sharing your oppion on the matter!


Edit: Well, to be fair the point whether psychology is a science or not is debatable, but my point that psychology does not use such relative terms still stands.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
profile image
Okay, thanks for clarifying. If there is a better phrase than "psychological flaw" that is scientifically kosher but still describes the phenomenon I intend to describe (such as the ones I linked to), please let me know as I want to make sure I'm using the right terminology.

Chris Hellerberg
profile image
What you describe is a purely ethical distinction of human behavior patterns so may I suggest a philosophocial approach? 'Human weakness', perhaps?

Jacob Germany
profile image
Flaw is fine. Psychology is not nearly so trait-neutral as implied above. Disorders exist, as do treatments widely accepted professionally, even among the growing voices who want to move away from the medical and pathological models.

Research data, of course, is always value-neutral. Conclusions derived from that data, value-laden.

Epona Schweer
profile image
So much time, energy and money spent on trying to figure out how to convince players to click "buy more".

Just imagine how many more awesome games we would get if all of that was poured into creating great gameplay experiences.

Entire industries have built up around advertising alchemy!

You'll find just as many charlatans, snake oil salesman and info aggregators swimming around the health and fitness industry.

And just as the most straight forward way to be healthy is to eat real food and live an active lifestyle...

The most straight forward way to increase your chances of people clicking the "buy" button is make something worth paying for.

Great article Jamie :)

Tomas Augustinovic
profile image
Spot on! Great comment. :)

Roger Collum
profile image
Great points. I think the article can be used as much for 'good' as for 'evil'. I can imagine scenarios in which game designers use this to 'guide' players into game play experiences such as advertising for an in-game shop in a detective game which more organically leads the player to the next clue or case. Nuclear power can be good or bad depending on how you use it.

Tomas Majernik
profile image
You might have a great product, but when the competition is big, you want to use something like this to give you an edge. Though quality should be your top priority, I agree. ;)

Manuel Plaza
profile image
This makes sense. It's similar to when you go to the store to buy a product you are unfamiliar with and purchase the one you saw on TV because it gave you a sense of knowledge that you don't actually have and makes you familiar (or so you think) with the product.

Personally, I'd find in-game advertising extremely annoying. Also, (for me) having an avatar prop or clothing is a visual representation of either (Self-proclaimed) achievement or fond memories. Kibble's and Bits does't facilitate either of those criterion.

David Navarro
profile image
Maybe that's what finally tips me over into dumping LinkedIn.

Philippe Lacroix
profile image
That the problem i see with that idea. I could see people starting to dislike there Avatar if he do thing they wouldn't. Like eating a burger for a vegetarian or vegetable for a teenage ;).

Ben Lewis
profile image
N7, not NC-17.

John Flush
profile image
When I see a Mii or an Xbox Avatar I instinctively loath whatever they are doing. So I might recognize the brand better, but only negatively. It is the same thing for the EA logo.