Five behavioural nudges keeping us busy in Animal Crossing

It makes perfect sense that the game of choice while we’re all stuck indoors is one where we can roam freely on a very socially distanced island. And while all games are designed to keep us hooked, Animal Crossing has kicked things up a notch.

Alongside the usual quests and rewards, there’s a wealth of compelling behavioural nudges on board right from the first minute. Here are just a handful.

1. Reciprocity (look what I did for you)

Everything in the early stages of the game is designed to make you feel a sense of obligation. You’re regularly reminded how much effort is going into making it the perfect place for you to thrive. Like a bunch of little John Hammonds, you feel like the good animals of New Horizons are “sparing no expense” to make everything just so: choose your island! Here’s a tent! Shake a fruit tree!

Oh, and by the way, you owe your landlord - an avuncular tanuki - several thousand in set up costs. By now you feel so invested in their investment, you can’t help but want to pay it back.

It’s easy to see how you could use this in your business comms. You can even try the ‘door in the face’ technique (though Animal Crossing doesn’t). That’s making a very big ask upfront - expecting people to say no - then following up with a smaller one which they now feel obliged to fulfil.

2. The IKEA Effect (you built it, you bought into it)

Chances are, you hold at least as much (if not more) affection for your Billy bookcases as for furniture that doesn’t have your blood, sweat and bruised thumbs built-in. Whether it’s a side table or a business strategy, if you had a hand in making something, it’s worth more to you (likely disproportionately more than any objective value it might have). That’s the IKEA Effect.

You create everything on your Animal Crossing island: your home, a museum, the local shop, the landscaping. In fact, while all the versions of this game have been based on customisation, this is the first to strip back the setting to bare bones - and it’s now bigger and more successful than ever.

It’s an effect we use a lot. Like when we run tone of voice workshops and involve legal, HR and finance teams - not just brand and comms - right from the start.

3. Commitment (what will you do for me?)

There’s always a reward for giving up treasures you could otherwise sell or use for yourself. You’ll get a museum to play in, or a community shop. In each case, you’re asked to commit directly to the project: yes, I will help build this for everyone. 

On one level, that’s just game functionality (OK / Cancel). On another, it taps into a very powerful bit of behavioural science. The more formally we commit to a goal - especially publicly - the more likely we are to reach it.

Think about that the next time you watch a friend ticking off milestones during their marathon fundraising.

4. Repetition (for people to act differently, consistency is key)

The writing in Animal Crossing is thoughtful and lovely. The characters are beautifully realised, with distinct vocal foibles and vocabulary. But certain tasks, reactions and conversations are identical every single time. When we experience the same context, trigger and reward over and over again, we are nudged into making certain behaviours into habits. (And the game goes on to positively reinforce repeat behaviour through prizes.)

Consider how it took our government a while to get their crisis messaging to click. But now there’s nothing coming out of any official body that doesn’t have ‘Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.’ on it (and quite right, too). 

5. Social norms (follow the herd)

Interestingly, the game was inspired by social distancing. Its 21-year-old creator moved from his home in the Chiba Prefecture to Nintendo’s offices in Kyoto, and had to start a new life (without video calling, it being the late 90s). Perhaps that’s why you’re regularly encouraged to interact with other characters, play online with real friends or visit random islands to pillage for plunder. 

Wherever you go, there’s always someone modelling things to do: fishing, catching bugs, collecting shells. And you’ll get rewards for doing things that help the island flourish. So while everything about Animal Crossing is about individual success, the most direct way to it is to fall in line with group approved behaviour.

That’s an instinct you’ll sometimes want to tug on to get people to do something you want them to. Like when you get a bill that tells you that “most people pay online”. 

Behavioural science isn’t just about little nudges, of course (though if you want to know more about those you can read our free End of the Hunch ebook). You can apply it practically to solve business problems. Give us a call if we can help with that.

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