What Game Designers Can Teach You About Influencing Buying Behavior



Earlier this year, we started to explore how video games and ecommerce sites can tap into behavioral design strategies that satisfy the core psychological needs as outlined in “The Self Determination Theory.”

In particular, we found that when the mechanics of interaction are well crafted in either medium to enhance the players sense of competency, it can trigger a chemical response that’s been scientifically proven to reduce stress and decrease signs of depression.

In case you’re unfamiliar with The Self Determination Theory, or missed the last article, the three core needs that we’re talking about are:

  • Competence
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness   

This week, we’re going to continue that exploration, and examine how video game designers can build “Autonomy” into their virtual environments, and how those lessons can be translated to the online shopping experiences we create.

What is Autonomy in a Virtual World Really?

Autonomy is a tricky thing to talk about when it comes to video games, because by definition it means “independence or freedom, as of the will or one’s actions.”

Games (like ecommerce sites) are their own self contained universes created with pixels and code, there are finite limitations to just how much “freedom” a player can actually have. There are only so many dungeons to explore, moves to master, and powerups to be acquired. Eventually, with enough time, you will see and do everything the game has to offer.  

Regardless, for modern games to be considered “good”, the player needs to feel like they’re making some interesting decisions along the way, and that their choices matter to the world around them.

In simulators like The Sims, or “open world” games like Skyrim - you’re presented with a virtually unlimited amount of decisions, and the choices you make will have a resounding impact on the world around you. There are multiple outcomes and making a different choice can dramatically change your entire game experience. For this reason, it’s rare that two players will share the exact same experience of the game.   

In other more linear games, like Batman: Arkham City or Ninja Gaiden, the main character’s fate is already determined. As long as you play through the game, the threat will be neutralized and you’ll save the day. While the character’s choices are limited, you, the player can usually find freedom in the combat system and in how you chose tackle various challenges and puzzles.

Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan say in Glued To Games,”it’s true that autonomy is most likely to be satisfied when we feel we have been presented with interesting choices and opportunities, but this is different than “freedom.” Instead, autonomy is about being able to “see real opportunities for yourself within your environment.”

They argue that “we only truly feel a sense of choice when we perceive the situation as providing intriguing or valued alternatives” that feel personal to us, that we can own, explore and fully realize.  

“At its heart, autonomy means that one’s actions are aligned with one’s inner self and values; that you feel you are making the decisions and are able to stand behind what you do.”

How Autonomy Works in Ecommerce

Autonomy in online shopping is no different.

Sure, there are plenty of online stores, and if you look hard enough, you could probably find what you’re looking for somewhere else.

But the truth is, once a company has found product/market fit, and embraces what makes them different from the competition, many “options” become far less meaningful to the customer.

For example, if you were a Sriracha fanatic and wanted a portable Sriracha solution, a quick Google search would quickly inform you that the only meaningful solution to your problem would be to buy a bottle of Sriracha2Go.

And just like a game character whose fate is already written through scripted cutscenes and endings, it doesn’t matter that there aren’t a ton of options for Sriracha keychain brands, because the option that is available is aligned to your inner self and values.

In this case, making the decision to buy reaffirms your support of Sriracha2Go in being the only meaningful choice, and that in some small way, you know that choice will impact the world around you.  

In a more “open world” scenario, a site like Sofa.com gives you the freedom to choose from a number of styles, sizes and fabrics to create the exact sofa you want.

In either scenario though, the decision to buy, and your own sense of autonomy, isn’t dictated by the choices you have available, but rather that the choices you have are meaningful and in some way are a reflection of your inner self.

Meaningful Choices Require Context

In a game like Skyrim, the context for much of your decision making is decided early in the game.

If you say “I want to be an evil mage that shoots fireballs and summons creatures to destroy my enemies” that decision provides the context for how you interact with other characters and how you build your character’s skills up in the game.

It’s the same in real life too, isn’t it?

In commerce, some context is provided because of the customer’s existing wants, likes and needs, and the rest is supplied through marketing creative and the placement of the marketing itself.

For instance, when Sriracha2Go was featured on BuzzFeed it provided the context as to why Sriracha loving BuzzFeed readers would want to get this product.

Once the article let them know an option was available, it was their existing love gave them a reason to buy.

After navigating to the site, and clicking the “buy now” button, they were presented with 4 options, which allowed them to add even more context to their next decision.  

  • Do they want to have one bottle on them at all times?
  • Maybe they want three; one for their desk, car, and nightstand?
  • Would they’d like to surprise ten of their Sriracha loving coworkers with a fun gift?

Or maybe they’re engaged to be married, and such a Sriracha fanatic, that it would be humorous to give every person at their wedding a bottle of Sriracha2Go as a table gift.

It doesn’t matter if you own a single or multi-product site, if you understand the context as to why people are making their decisions, you can apply that to so many areas of your business. This could range from where you feature your brand and how you position it, to adding new products or features to the existing offering.

This is why we stress so heavily doing your market research and conducting qualitative research with your customers, as it is is by far the best way to start understanding the context behind why they're making these kinds of buying decisions.  

How Providing Meaningful Options Can Impact a User’s Sense of Ownership

In many “open world” games, like Skyrim, you are given the ability early on to customize your character’s race, appearance, base stats, strengths and weaknesses to your liking.

While it doesn’t seem apparent right away, the choices you make will greatly influence your style of gameplay, how non player characters will interact with you, and in some instances, restrict and/or enable access to certain areas of the game. In other words, they are very meaningful.

What’s interesting though is how also this influences the player’s sense of “ownership” of the character.

In a 2010 study by Juhani Mertsalmi of the Aalto University School of Economics, it was found that of the gamers use character creation to create self-representations in the virtual environment. “These self-representations can draw from players self-image, but also from past or desired self-images.”  

In this research, Mertsalmi cites Ron Tamborini + Paul Skalski’s research on presence in virtual world, which essentially finds that when a player can “see themselves” in the game, there is a more personal sense of ownership and invested in the outcome of the game.

As it turns out, research indicates the same is true in ecommerce.

In a survey of over 1,000 people conducted by Bain & Co.  It was found that between 25-30% of online shoppers are interested in having customized buying options.

With estimates of clothing and shoe sales in the US being around $45 billion, that would mean if 25% of these online sales were customized there would be over $11 billion in sales from customizations alone.

Of course, in this context, customizations are talking about services like Nike id or Upper Street shoes, but it certainly isn’t the only way for company to provide meaningful options that allow the customer to feel more ownership over the item they’re looking at.

Modcloth for example, said in July of 2014 that had doubled the size of it’s plus size business in the span of one year, and that plus sized clothing was the fastest-growing segment.

“There's no other opportunity like this in fashion right now.”
Susan Koger, Chief Creative Officer for Modcloth


In another scenario, such as this example from the automobile industry, adding variety to existing inventory - like having more colors for the same model car - had a positive impact on sales. Interestingly enough though, the inclusion of new inventory had a negative impact on sales.

In either case, simply adding more variety to existing products, such as color and size, gave the visitor a stronger sense of autonomy, allowing them to choose the styles they like, in a way that best expresses themselves.  

Manipulating Autonomy Through Design to Achieve A Desired Outcome

What I really find interesting about well crafted videogames though, is that even though you might have the sense of “freedom”, it’s the overall design of the game that guides you towards your end goal.

In an SNES classic, MegaMan X, the design of the very first level simultaneously introduces you to the new controls and the central conflict of the game, without beating you over the head with exposition or in-game prompts.

Youtuber Egorapter talks about this in great detail in this very informative video below I recommend you watch. (WARNING: Extremely NSFW Language!

In ecommerce, the same thing exact things are done all the time, where a user is subtly influenced to spend more than they normally would have, yet are happy making the choice to do so, because it was their decision to make.  

Here are three common examples:

Tiered Pricing

We saw this earlier with Sriracha2Go:

  • Buy 1 bottle for $7
  • Buy 3 bottles for $15
  • Buy 10 bottles for $35

This kind of pricing model makes it difficult to justify buying at the lowest price point, because the next step essentially offers you a third bottle for only $1 - “what an incredible value!” you say to yourself.

Apple has mastered this and has been doing it for years with the iPhone, where essentially you get double the storage for $100 more. Being in that position of making that choice, I’ve personally said “Well, I’m already spending the money, what’s an extra $100 more to get the one I really want?”

In this table, you'll also notice the use of price anchoring to show you how expensive certain models are without a contract, to guide you into the 2-year plan, while also influencing your decision about which model iPhone you also want to buy;

  • The full featured iPhone 5s
  • The iPhone 5c with fewer features but more colors
  • Or the old iPhone 4s with minimal storage.

In many ways, these aren’t just prices, they’re monetary values to who you are as a person, and which model you choose is a reflection of you.

If you wanted to introduce tiered pricing to your store, check out the app Quantity Breaks.


Richard’s written extensively about up-sales and cross-sales recently, and I’ve covered it before as well, so I won’t get into heavy detail here.

However, if you’re presenting your up-sale at the buyer’s moment of truth, you’re working on their sense of autonomy and causing them to question if the new option is “more meaningful” than the one they’re currently considering.

Product Upsell in the Shopify App store can help you create upsell and cross sell opportunities for your visitors.   

Free Shipping Thresholds

This is my personal favorite, because not only does free shipping enhance the customer’s experience, it’s been has been proven to increase order values as well.

For example, 2 Big Feet was able to increase their orders by 50% by including free shipping, and NuFace saw a 90% increase in orders by adding a free shipping threshold.  

Fortunately, adding free shipping thresholds in Shopify is simple, and can be set up in the shipping settings section of the admin.


There is a lot more that can be said about the role autonomy plays in online shopping, but what it really boils down to is that the person has to feel like the choices being presented to them have meaning, and their decisions will have some impact on the world around them.

About The Author

Tommy Walker is the Editor-in-Chief of the Shopify Plus blog. It is his goal to provide high-volume ecommerce stores with deeply researched, honest advice for growing their customer base, revenues and profits. Get more from Tommy on Twitter.

About the author

Tommy Walker

Tommy Walker is the Long Form Content Editor at Oberlo. It is his goal to provide high-volume ecommerce stores with deeply researched, honest advice for growing their customer base, revenues and profits.

Follow Tommy Walker on Twitter