We may not realise it, but our opinions of certain games, films, and TV shows are usually formed, even before we get to experience them ourselves. This is due to all the reviews we see, hear, or read about before or straight after a product’s release. Our brains are more likely to think something is good if we’re told that it is good beforehand. This is something that’s been called the anchoring effect.

In a study done after the release of Plants vs. Zombies, different groups of people were told that the game was either reviewed well or poorly by critics. After playing the game themselves, the volunteers who were told it got good reviews gave it a higher score than those who were told it got negative reviews.

According to the anchoring effect, we base all our opinions on the first piece of data we hear about something. If we play a critically acclaimed game, we’re more likely to ignore its flaws and glitches and focus on its more positive aspects. Consequently, we’re more likely to recommend it to friends or write good reviews about it. The same is true in the exact reverse, if we play a critically panned game, every fault and error serves to add to our view of it as a ‘bad’ game. This is why game developers are selective about who they get to review the game before release.

They try to make sure that their game gets played by the more ‘friendly’ reviewers of the community so that early opinions will be more favourable. This causes a ripple effect where the later reviewers will also be favourable and positive, and, by extension, more people will end up buying the game they hear so many good things about.

“We want to make sure we get our money’s worth”

Sometimes it might not always be like this. A really critical review of a game from a long-running franchise may be dismissed by its fans as being biased or unfair. For the most part though, reviews do have a role to play to how we go about deciding which game to play or buy. And it makes sense. Games aren’t exactly the cheapest form of entertainment there is, so we want to make sure we get our money’s worth. What’s the point in investing in a product that we know is going to disappoint us? So we read reviews to find out for ourselves whether a game is worth buying and playing.

With the reviews, we already form a notion of what the game is going to be like and use it to shape our actions forward. However, this behaviour doesn’t just apply to reviews but also to things like Steam sales and game bundle deals. If a game is on sale for a price between £40-60, we’re only likely to buy it if we’re massive fans of the series or if we know for sure that this is a game we’re going to play and don’t want to wait for.

However, if a £50 game was on sale for £10, a lot of people would see this as a good deal and buy the game, even if they might not have had a very strong interest in it beforehand. The original price forms a preconceived notion of the game’s value in our heads. So when we see the reduced price and statements such as “75% off!”, we rationalise buying the game as us making good on a deal, on a price that was already formed in our head.

“It’s not a good deal to buy a game on sale if you’re not going to play it”

But was buying the reduced price game really a good deal? A lot of games we buy from Steam sales usually just lie around in our games library. In the same way that it’s not a good deal to buy a fully priced game and not play it, it’s not a good deal to buy a game on sale if you’re not going to play it or experience it yourself. It’s like buying a movie ticket but never going to see the movie. It’s a trap so many of us fall into time and time again.

Game developers use these preconceived notions to their advantage. Just like how they’re strategic about which reviewers they let play the game first hand, they’re also usually strategic about how they price the game. Sometimes they price a game or its bundles and DLC higher than it should be, so more people buy it during a sale. They also make a point of showing how much you save by buying different or larger bundles of the game; that’s them setting a preconceived notion in your head for how things are.

This phenomenon is everywhere, it affects your gaming experience, it may drain your wallet and it helps form review scores. Knowing it exists might not be enough for you to be immune to it, but if you keep your eye open, you just might be able to spot it in action.