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The psychology behind the Steam summer sale

Gamers practically throw their wallets at Steam’s annual summer sale, and it isn’t a coincidence why. There are plenty of psychological tricks baked into the sale.


There’s a method to the mad grab for games that is the Steam summer sale. Gamers have a devotion to the sale and it isn’t simply because games are cheap. The Psychology of Games has an article that outlines five basic forms of psychological tricks Valve employs to ensure that our wallets are at the ready.

The first trick is called “artificial scarcity” and is a great way to attract sales. If something exists in a limited supply that will run out soon, you are much more likely to buy it. This is exactly what happens with Steam’s flash sales and daily deals: They’re discounts which only exist for a few hours, so you tell yourself you can’t afford to miss them.

“Psychological reactance” is related to artificial scarcity. We naturally feel as if a product in scarce supply is of higher quality than more readily available products. This adds desirability to those sale items we already feel an urgency towards buying before the sale runs out.

Next is something called “bias towards completion”. Humans hate leaving things they’ve started without completing them. Steam uses trading cards for this purpose. You get a random card for every $10 you spend, and Steam shows you a progress bar indicating how close you are to getting the next card, even before you purchase a game. That way, some people are more inclined to keep purchasing so they can complete their deck.


Picture credit: VGCats

“Commitment and consistency” is a trick that relies on the human desire to not be inconsistent and to respond to our obligations. A few days back, I gave a tip that you could add games to your Steam wish list, and Steam would alert you when those games come on sale. Well, that very practice is a sales trick. When you get the email notification telling you it’s on sale, you will feel a commitment to do what you set out to do and buy the game.

Finally, “random reward schedules” is at the core of how the Steam summer sale works. When training a human or animal to perform a certain action, rewarding them for successful completion is important. If you reward every other or third time they do the thing, it’s predictable. If you reward them randomly however, they’ll keep doing the thing in order to see if they’ll get the reward this time. When you see a game you want on a flash sale or daily deal, it’s like a reward for showing up at the Steam store front. You never know when the next game you want is going to show up, and that’s the point: You will keep coming back to check every few hours.

Via psychologyofgames.com

David F.
A grad student in experimental physics, David is fascinated by science, space and technology. When not buried in lecture books, he enjoys movies, gaming and mountainbiking

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