Exploring the psychology behind losses, gains, and grouping results in video games

Getting five batches of 100 gold feels better than one batch of 500 gold, and being forced to spend three separate 100 gold fees feels worse than one 300 gold fee. And that fee is likely to make all that 500 gold not feel like it mattered. You probably know all of that just from experience, but perhaps you’d like to see it in action with a new piece from the Psychology of Video Games blog discussing how grouping results (or intentionally not doing so) produces a different valuation of rewards.

To summarize quickly, we tend to prioritize losses as more important than gains, so losing 100 gold has a bigger impact than gaining 100 gold in our brains. However, both losses and gains have a certain point where we stop noticing them, so losing 1500 gold doesn’t feel much worse than losing 1300 gold. Thus, from a psychological standpoint, it makes sense to have losses come in big chunks and rewards come in several smaller chunks, so that each individual good thing gets evaluated separately while the bad stuff gets shuffled off faster. Read through the whole piece for a more thorough overview of why it works; it’s pretty interesting.

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11 Comments on "Exploring the psychology behind losses, gains, and grouping results in video games"

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Kickstarter Donor

“Player A’s character dies and his ghost must spend gold to buy two items to get resurrected. The first item is magical paper that costs 1,000 gold. The second is a bottle of magical ink that costs 500.

Player B’s character, which is of identical level and wealth to Player A’s, dies and his ghost must buy a resurrection scroll for 1,500 gold. ”

I disagree with his conclusion about losses in video games. I would take B’s choice 100% of the time and so would most people. Why? Effort. Player A in the scenario above would have to spend time gathering the materials. Then crafting the item. Then using it. Time+Effort trumps perception of losses any day of the week.

Dušan Frolkovič

Ok, but does this not go against the whole principle of microtransactions?
Would not the logical result from this be, that games should just cost a large one-time sum vs. dividing it into what ever flavor of cash shop a game has? (DLC, shop, loot boxes etc.)

Sunken Visions

We have what’s called a ‘Negativity Bias’. Essentially, we expect losses to happen more often than gains. So when losses happen often, it reinforces the bias. But when gains happen often, it helps prevent us from thinking about upcoming losses.

Loyal Patron

I feel like taking part in these discussions is just a ploy to further loot box research.

Fervor Bliss

The “loss aversion” graph comes from things not related to video games.
Then when you add in Expectation-based of the game you are playing. the perfect S-curve graphs seems unlikely.
Also i have never seen the original replicated. (I admit this might be my ignorance.) but many psychological studies are not being replicated.
I think you would find better information in the book.


It has long been established that, as far as the average person is concerned, a loss of X feels just as bad as winning 2X feels good. As a MMO designer points in the paper, if you have the players facing potential loss, you need the potential gains to be roughly 3x larger than the potential loss in order for the players to accept that.

Yeah, the average person is very risk-adverse. Even gamers, and even if the loss is merely virtual items with no real world value.

Incidentally, I believe this is part of the reason games like EVE have such a hard time retaining new players. The average, risk-adverse player will never be able to enjoy those games as they are meant to be played, so they quickly leave as soon as they notice the risk element.

Sally Bowls

In particular, look at the math:

If losses hurt two or three times as much as the happiness from gains, look at the implications for PvP games: kid1 kills kid2 resulting in one unit of happiness for kid1 from the kill and two or three units of unhappiness for kid2 for the death for a net unhappiness from the interaction.


There are a few things that can be done. One such thing is making wins feel like a gain while making loses not feel like you are going backwards; it’s why many PvP games have two different scores for each player, one that only goes up that is just for show, and one (the one that controls who the player is matched against) that can go down but is hidden from the player. Rewards based more on participation than actual performance are also an attempt to mitigate how bad it feels to lose.

Even with this in place, too many players simply avoid PvP. AFAIK most LoL and HotS matches are played against the AI and not real humans, despite those games offering larger rewards for losing against a human than for winning against the AI.

BTW: keep in mind that this is for the average person. There are persons out there for whom that average is out of whack. Hardcore PvPers are likely in that group.


I am ever so proud of myself when I realize my brain works in a completely different way than what a research found out.

My specific brand of insanity remains unique and without hope to recover from, the perfect epiphany for an evening spent gazing at the first winter snow falling down outside <3

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Cosmic Cleric

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