Buy Moves? Nudges, Tricks, and My Favorite Smartphone Game

By Linnea Gandhi (TGG Group)

A few weeks ago, I was on level 40-or-so of one of the few smartphone games I play, just a few moves away from winning…when I lost. Not an uncommon experience for me, and certainly nothing I would ever pay money to avoid. So I clicked the button indicating I would start over, without purchasing any additional moves that would allow me to continue the current round.

Except I had purchased those additional moves, and for the magical price of $0.99. Instead of seeing the start-over screen, the game kept going and I was down a buck.

How could that have happened?

Turns out, in the latest update of the game, the game designer altered the “Buy Moves” button to look exactly like the far more innocuous “Start Level” buttons – salient, large green ovals with white writing (see below). The update was so seamless that when I thought I was clicking the button to “Call It Quits” or “Play on” with no purchase of additional moves, I was clicking a button that meant exactly the opposite.

Old version of the interface: tap the heart to purchase a refill; click "Play on" to move forward without a purchase.

Old version of the interface: tap the heart to purchase a refill; click "Play on" to move forward without a purchase.

New version of the interface: clicking "Refill Lives" comes with a $0.99 charge.

New version of the interface: clicking "Refill Lives" comes with a $0.99 charge.

Now, why am I so upset about a mere 99 cents? Marketers, advertisers, and business people in general have been profiting from the misbehavior of Humans like me for years. They tempt us with discounts so good we just can’t pass them up, with mail-in rebates that at least half of us forget to mail in, with membership deals we never use as much as we anticipate, and with goodies conveniently placed next to the cashier so that they easily find their way into our baskets.  If I fall prey to these all the time without much care, why should I be so upset about an accidental smartphone game purchase or two?

The difference is that the above examples take advantage of our limited self-control (among other biases), while the game example also blatantly takes advantage of our limited attention and, just like a magician, exploits this to engage in a bit of sleight of hand.

Often in purchase experiences, we are present-biased: the utility we immediately get from finding a “good deal” or from satisfying a craving is often greater than the actual utility we will get over time from consuming the good or service. This is true of the smartphone game as well, in that after just barely losing, the utility of a few extra moves increases to perhaps even surpass the $0.99 cost. (In fact, the entire business model of most of these games depends on lapses of self-control, by selling players more moves or lives so they can continue playing now rather than wait 20 minutes for a refresh.)

While a business model that profits from my limited self-control doesn’t make me happy, it certainly is something I can live with and ignore because the choices set before me are at least transparent. What I can’t abide is a business model that deliberately attempts to trick me, which is what the new design of the game tries to do. Specifically, the in-app purchase decision has been manipulated to mirror that of other non-purchase decisions in the game (such as the “Start level” button) giving the “Buy Moves” button a false familiarity and salience. Moreover, the button to avoid purchase is now far smaller and less clear. If the consumer, like me, is not paying attention to the change (and, of course the whole point of such games is to have a bit of mindless downtime), she could be hit with an unintended purchase.

So why does this make me upset? Taking advantage of a consumer’s limited attention, not just her limited self-control, seems to toe the line between a nudge and a trick, or even a scam. The consumer’s freedom of choice is manipulated in a way that is almost certainly misleading.

Stepping back, it’s hard to blame any organization for taking advantage of behavioral science to try to increase profits. It’s one more tool among many, and often just gives a name to marketing strategies that have been in play for years. But being able to discriminate between nudges and tricks is critical, if not for the sake of business ethics, at least for avoiding consumer anger and backlash through reduced sales. Since the publication of Sunstein and Thaler’s Nudge, we’ve seen increasing debate on the use of nudging in the public sector; today’s organizations could greatly benefit from a similar exploration of how to apply behavioral science in the private sector.


Postscript: Perhaps in response to irked users like me, the game designer has now wisely added an additional step requiring users to confirm their in-app purchases. And I am, incidentally, still playing…but far less frequently, far more carefully, and with a lot less enjoyment as I warily keep my eye out for the next trick to come.

The newest version makes it a little harder to accidentally make a purchase by requiring confirmation.

The newest version makes it a little harder to accidentally make a purchase by requiring confirmation.