Discovering the Zeigarnik Effect in Games UI

While playing a variety of games over the past couple of months I’ve noticed a chronic behaviour in myself. I would be playing a game and naturally have begun winding down, I’d be getting sleepy or knowing I had something I needed to do and was preparing to end my play session.

However, I would exit to a map screen or a quest log of some sort, see a progress bar closing in on completion, or even just being a portion of the way to completion and would end up playing far longer than expected in order to complete this progress bar task. Often I wouldn’t have even been aware of this progress before and very often didn’t even really want the reward offered for completion. I wouldn’t be able to rest my mind and focus or sleep knowing that a task, regardless of how arbitrary, had been begun and left incomplete in the game.

This struck me as strange and potentially useful, so I decided to look into this phenomenon and see if I could find out what was going on and why – as well as how it could apply to games UI/UX.

Zeigarnik Effect

My exploration of this behaviour took me to an early 20th Century Russian psychologist -Bluma Zeigarnik.

Back in the 1920’s, Bluma was eating at restaurant when she noticed how capable the  waiters were at remembering complex food orders from multiple tables, delivering them correctly – but forgetting all that information as soon as the orders were delivered. The waiters didn’t claim to have any secret or particular strategy for holding onto this information – instead, the orders that hadn’t yet been delivered just seemed to weigh on the waiters’ minds, nagging at them until they were checked off as complete.

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Fig 1. Bluma Zeigarnik

Zeigarnik explored her observation in the laboratory, running experiments involving the completion of different kinds of tasks and puzzles. Some of the subjects performing the tasks were forced to stop before completion. Afterwards everyone was asked to describe what tasks they had undertaken. Like the waiters remembering what orders still needed to go to what tables, subjects were far more likely to recall the tasks they had started but hadn’t completed.

The Zeigarnik effect thus came to describe how people typically find it easier to remember tasks which have been begun, but which we’ve not been able to complete.  An internal tension is created and a preoccupation with the task is developed. Completing the task provides closure, release of the tension and the person who undertook the task and can relax.

One of Bluma Zeigarnik’s contemporaries, Maria Ovsiankina, later discovered the Ovsiankina effect, which states that an interrupted task, even without incentive, is valued by the human mind as a quasi-need – so very important.

Application to Video Games

This is very powerful information for developers of mobile games. We can already spot many prominent examples of these findings being employed to retain a player’s interest. A good example is CSR2 Racing, which features a city map dotted with points of interest – races of varying type, face-off races against rivals, etc. It can be extremely hard to put down the iPad and go to sleep when you see a progress bar nearing completion on a task you’ve put time into, as well as the desire to declutter the map of task icons.

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Fig 2. CSR2 Racing Map Screen.

Now remember, the Ovsiankina Effect was measured without any additional incentives such as prizes for completing tasks – just the task completion alone resulted in satisfaction, think how much more engaging this task completion can be when combined with completion rewards or loyalty rewards for daily logins (as seen in Monster Hunter World) – it’s very desirable to have users logging in very regularly for bouts of play.

A good example of these 2 effects, Ziegarnik and Ovsiankina, in action is how Star Wars Battlefront 2‘s weapons collection keeps progress bars under each locked weapon, indicating how many more kills with their associated class will unlock the weapon for use in-game. This can be more than enough motivation to keep playing more matches in order to finish this task you’d unwittingly begun. Many times I’ve cycled to the collection tab and seen myself unexpectedly far along the progress bar towards a new weapon or a character upgrade and felt the compulsion to avoid leaving this progress incomplete.

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Fig 3. Star Wars battlefront 2 Collection Screen.

I now know the science behind my preoccupation with incomplete tasks and why it was hard to get these tasks out of my head upon ending my play session.

However now I had a new question. Why was I continuing to play on, and feeling compelled to return as soon as I could, to complete these semi filled progress bars – when really, they weren’t even upgrades or weapons I actually wanted? I could have refocused my efforts on the weapons and upgrades I really did desire, but I didn’t.

Endowed Progress Effect

There is a name for this phenomenon, that is ‘The Endowed Progress Effect’.

Two researchers, Joseph Nunes and Xavier Dreze, conceived of this in an experiment which found that 34 percent of people who received a ten-stamp card with two already stamped wound up coming back and filling out the rest of the stamp card, compared to 19 percent of customers who started with an unstamped card requiring only eight stamps.

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Fig 4. Video Ads in C.A.T.S mobile game (See Stamp Card).

Our Possibilities

So what if we reframe tasks so that people think they have already started them and the tasks seem to only be incomplete rather than not yet initiated at all. Players will feel a connection to the task as they sense progression is occurring. With this knowledge of how incomplete tasks preoccupy the mind and how the perception of established progress will encourage completion of the task – maybe we can improve player engagement mobile game features if we reframe them to imply a small amount of progress has already been achieved? For example, by setting out progress bars to be a small percentage complete from the beginning of the feature (of course lengthening the bar to account for this ‘head-start’), maybe we can encourage more users to complete our Tournament, Adventure Clubs and and Iris’ Eyes challenges.

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