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Pokémon Go – 10 Cognitive Biases That Explain the Game’s Success
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We decided at the Convertize office this week that it was about time we tested out Pokémon Go for ourselves. Along with the rest of the world, we’ve been hearing about nothing else for weeks. As soon as it was officially released in the UK we launched ourselves into the game.

Barely after downloading the app and signing up, we all realised that we’d already “fallen down the rabbit hole” along with everyone else. The Pokémon Go creators are clever folks indeed and they use numerous cognitive biases to get us to test out the game in the first place and then, once signed up, to leave us completely hooked. We were adamant we were just going to test it out a little….not naming any names but certain colleagues are already on level 10!

So what are these psychological principles so effectively utilised by Pokémon Go?

 An appealing app


 1 Mere-exposure Effect

If you are between 20 and 30 years old, then there’s a strong chance that Pokémon featured heavily in your childhood. You played the games and collected the cards with your friends, or perhaps you even had the red or blue versions on your GameBoy…ah, those were the days! So, of course, as soon as you heard there was a new mobile augmented reality version of the game, you just had to download it! Welcome to the Mere-exposure Effect. This cognitive bias explains the way in which something that is familiar to us immediately evokes a positive reaction: simply hearing the term “Pokémon” puts you into a more favourable state of mind and makes you more inclined to positively receive whatever is related to this.

 2 Extrinsic/ Intrinsic motivation

There are two types of motivation: intrinsic (coming from an internal factor) and extrinsic (coming from an external factor). Those people who had been real fans of Pokémon, who know the names and the characteristics of each one, they will already have a strong intrinsic motivation to play. For others, it could be a more extrinsic motivation perhaps linked to one of the cognitive biases below.


Pokémon Go – 10 Cognitive Biases That Explain the Game’s Success

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 3 Social proof 

My motivation, for example, came from Social Proof. My initial desire to get on board came from the fact that everyone I knew was playing it and talking about it, and that my friends had started organising “Pokémon Go” outings to which I wasn’t invited! This Social Proof showed me how popular the game was and therefore automatically made me think that it was a game worth playing – the best testimony a product can get comes from our peers. Obviously I wanted to conform to the behaviour of my friends and get on board with this new phenomenon so I too downloaded Pokémon Go on my phone.

 4 Psychological Reactance

We’d all heard so much about this game that I’m sure it was a source of frustration for many when the game was finally launched in several countries but not in the UK. However, did you know that the creators of the game willingly allowed you to download and play the game anyway? Even before it was released here, you simply had to download it from a foreign store in order to have it and start playing. Of course it would have been very easy for the creators to block this from happening by using a localisation limitation…but they didn’t. They instead benefitted from your Psychological Reactance in order to encourage an even greater number of downloads. When we feel as though we are being deprived of the freedom to do something other people are doing or that we want to do, it can often lead us to rise up in rebellion and try to find a way to get those “rights” back. The download limitations of Pokémon Go was like the idea of the forbidden fruit all over again – and we all know what happened there!

An addictive app

Attracting players is only the first step..! In order to create real lasting success, the game needs to keep people playing, get them opening the app as much as possible, and get people talking about it. To make Pokémon Go the outstanding success it has become, nothing was left to chance! In order to make the game seriously addictive, several cognitive biases are at play.


 5 Fear Of Missing Out (or FOMO)

The first thing I noticed, and the most important in my opinion, is that this game is based on a sort of MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing game). Meaning, the universe of the game continues to “live” even when you’re not playing. This means that Pokémons will appear – and disappear – when you’re not online, which gives rise to the Fear of Missing Out.  You know that if the app isn’t open on your phone you could well be missing out on finding Pokémons and this encourages constant engagement with the app and game.

 6 Scarcity Effect 

FOMO combined with the Scarcity Effect is a winning recipe. The Scarcity Effect is the psychological principle that explains how we place a higher value on things that are rare than on those that we can get in abundance. So the fact that certain Pokémons are more rare and only appear infrequently is a foolproof way to keep people hooked: if you’re not playing, then you risk missing out on these rare Pokémon that could, in fact, be just next to you at any given moment..!


Pokémon Go makes the most of a number of other key elements for rendering a video game addictive, such as:

 7 Goal Gradient Effect

At the start, progression from level to level is quick and satisfying. This gets players hooked on the satisfaction of unlocking new Pokémons and other “prizes”. As it is relatively quick and easy to reach each goal, we are held in that constant state of excitement and interest that comes from being close to completing something, which motivates us to keep playing – this is known as the Goal Gradient Effect. Even once the goals then get further away and more difficult to achieve, we are already hooked on the feeling that comes from previous level completions and will keep playing to recreate it.

 8 Motivating-Uncertainty Effect

Also, the game doesn’t really give a lot away in terms of what objects and features will be unlocked as you go through the levels, or which Pokémons you might find or any hints at where to find them. This layer of mystery intrigues us and so the progression of the game, filled with the unknown (and therefore with infinite possibilities) becomes all the more appealing – this is in part due to the Motivating-Uncertainty Effect.

 9 IKEA Effect

As you progress through the game, you encounter new Pokémons, and have to start making choices: which ones to train and which ones to look for? These decisions will lead to the formation of your very own Pokémon team – one which has been entirely made my your own effort and love. In the same way that we attach more positive feelings towards those flatpack pieces of furniture that we have to toil to construct for ourselves, this investment of time and energy in the game greatly increases our attachment to our team of Pokémons and to the game as a whole: it’s known as the IKEA Effect!

 10 Sunk Cost Effect 

The cherry on top of the cognitive bias cake is the Sunk Cost Effect, which explains how people tend to be influenced in their decision to do something by whether they have already invested time, money or effort into it.  We’ve all sat through that awful film at the cinema for three hours just because the ticket cost us £12 that we couldn’t get back! Once we’ve put our money or our time into something then we feel as though that would all be lost and pointless if we didn’t continue on with it. This is particularly effective with a game such as Pokémon Go where there isn’t a set end in sight (well, level 40 is currently the end goalpost but it seems as though it could be practically unattainable)! We could all be trapped until the end of time trying to reach that final level!

Now you have a clearer idea of the cognitive biases that are cleverly utilised in the Pokémon Go experience to get you playing – and then get you completely hooked – do you have any desire to give up the game? I’d guess not. Not least because knowing the mechanisms at work doesn’t change the fact that the game is fun to play! But also because you simply couldn’t think about quitting right now, not when you’ve just caught your 50th Pokémon, reached level 15 and still haven’t managed to get Pikachu yet..!  Maybe next week…


Benjamin Ligier

by Benjamin Ligier

Benjamin is CRO Expert at Convertize, based in London. Passionate about design and webmarketing, he started out working in email marketing and then specialised in Conversion Rate Optimisation (CRO).