Scarcity in video games and gamification

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Author: Sergio Alloza Castillo >> @PsycGamer

Reviewed by: Dr. Flavio Escribano >> @ludictador

Spanish version / Versión en castellano: Descargar

Dynamic To Deal with Scarcity from GMC

Retrieving the theme of our previous article… Has anyone wondered why legendary Pokémons are so valuable? If you know something about Pokémon you will know that they are not legendary only by their statistics, their form or their movements. They are valuable because they are scarce. They are difficult to achieve, unique. This is a dynamic that can also be found in the CANVAS model, reflected in the image above, To Deal with Scarcity.

This article is about the concept of scarcity at different levels within the world of video games and gamification. As we will see, “scarcity” is usually designed as resource scarcity to pressure the player and generate one or more behaviors. Although scarcity can be applied in some many ways, for example making game components like missions, achievements or rewards unlikely or uncommon, this is, making them scarce.

Scarcity fits very well into the final game design, let’s see why and how.

Psychology of scarcity

First of all let´s go a little deeper into the concept to understand it better. To explain the psychology behind the concept of scarcity, we retrieve Lynn’s review (1992). In summary, several authors cited in this review present the reasons why people would want scarce or uncommon objects. Postulating that possessing these items, people acquire:

  • Sense of uniqueness (Snyder, 1992; Snyder and Fromkin, 1980). So we feel unique to possess a rare object, since few people have it.
  • A basis for downward comparisons with less fortunate non-possessors (Wills, 1981). Inevitably the human being compares with the neighbor, due for both primitive and social reasons. Therefore, having a scarce object, leads us to compare (descending) with those who do not possess it.
  • Power over those who want the unavailable resource (Emerson, 1962). In a situation of exchange like I have something you want, therefore I have the power to demand something in return.
Image from video ¿Qué son los bienes comunes?

At the same time, scarcity also implies that getting the resource itself will be costly in terms of time, effort and money. People want to get scarce objects because:

  • Expensive things are usually a status symbol (Veblen, 1965). There is an established connection with another element of the much used Gamification Model Canvas: To Make Grow Status. By getting scarce objects, we rise our status up.
  • People think that scarce and costly things are generally more valuable (Seta, 1982 and Seta, 1992). Even when scarce things are considered of high value this would not necessarily be in a sense of usefulness. In real life, if a resource is both scarce and desired (depending on market or personal demand), like gold or diamonds, it gains a lot of value. It is important to mention the desire/necessity factor of an object, product or concept for this to earn value. Otherwise, for example, we could design very small quantities of an object being unnecessary. Such an object would fall into oblivion or would not be able to impact the player as much as the player would had the necessity of getting the object, for whatever reasons.
  • The barriers or obstacles that may happen when obtaining the scarce objects, suppose a cortical activation, called arousal, which increases the desire to possess the object (Brehm et al., 1983 and Wright, 1992). Or in other words, the more it costs to get an object, the more desirable it is.

Finally, a tricky concept is introduced: the freedom to prioritize possession (Brehm, 1966 and Worchel, 1992). Defined as the threat of the freedom of possession prioritization. To explain this we will use a very typical illustrative example. Think we walk into a store and see a showcase. In this one there are several shelves and in these shelves there are some pony puppets, objects that we wish all with madness. Well, as long as the number of puppets is comparable, we will have the freedom to prioritize which we want to get first (even if, at the end, we all choose the pink one). However, imagine that among all those puppets, there is one of them, and only one, different from the rest. By introducing the scarce element, our freedom of prioritization immediately changes, because by having fewer opportunities (fewer puppets available from that new type) our attention is forced to go in that direction precisely to eliminate that threat to our freedom to prioritize. Obtaining the scarce element would reset our freedom by restoring opportunities (number of dolls without the uncommon element).

We can not forget the insecurity sense either. Concept deeply linked to the dependence (vital, emotional, economic or other) on the objects. For example, in Don´t Starve (Klei Entertainment, 2013), we are forced to be alert in order to avoid our resources running out. In the moment in which something is scarce, insecurity grows in us along with other feelings that prepare us for action.

Real scarcity

As you can see, scarcity has many components that influences our motivation and final behavior. We can find countless examples of the presence of scarcity in both the real and the virtual world. It is certainly not a new concept. Humanity understands and lives with this concept since the beginning of time. And we are neither just talking about scarce resources nor physical objects.

For example, in a post-apocalyptic parallel life, food and drink would be scarce. By the way, in the zombie themed cinema, series and video games we also observe how both the concept of dealing with scarcity and the importance of resources management is very well transmitted. But there are elements that can also be treated as scarce in the field of intangible objects. For example, safety or comfort in the Don´t Starve example, high social status and other abstract concepts such as happiness, love, etc.

But let’s get back to the present. Please take a look at these examples to observe the scarcity that surrounds us:

  • Marketing strategies when advertising products that are apparently running out and a significant increase in sales are observed. There are also certain strategies that are based on limiting the production of certain products so they do not lose economic value but in the other way the perception of the client about the product remains as scarce and value.
  • Some years ago the master’s degree had much more value. Now, there are more students with one or more master’s degree and, at the same cost, getting the same knowledge and requiring the same effort,  now the title has lost value for its abundance.
  • Here is a clear example of the social status acquired when buying a scarce and expensive product: a long time ago an application that cost around 800€ appeared and its only function was to show one red diamond spinning on the screen. Without apparent utility, there were users who bought the application only because they could acquire that status linked to the uniqueness and economic value of the application. In addition the application made very clear the benefit of social identity by buying the app, only with its name: I am rich.
 I am rich app screenshot

Virtual scarcity

Let’s now look at some examples of the presence of scarcity in the ludic world, and how it can influence the behavior of the players:

  • Competition and collaboration. Scarce objects possession is usually exclusive so a competition is generated between users to possess that scarce items and to obtain all the benefits associated with the concept of scarcity, establishing a relation in this way with another CANVAS letter, To Compete.
    • In competitive multiplayer games, the resources and rewards scarcity greatly enhances competition. In many video games there are few resources and rare rewards with unique possession. If one player has it, he/she benefits and the resource stays inaccessible for other players. For example, diamonds or gold ores in Minecraft (MOJANG, 2011) or gold medals in any type of competitions that we already know.
    • In other processes as group competitions or even in collaborative dynamics, there are also scarcity dynamics. For example, in World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004) you can perform certain actions (Missions component in the CANVAS) in a collaborative way to achieve certain achievements. These achievements are easy to get if carried out jointly, however it is practically impossible to achieve without help from others, such as band achievements (dungeons for at least 10 players). This makes such rewards scarce, providing them with value and promoting the motivation among users to group together and try to get them.
Some of World of Warcraft’s achievements (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004)
  • Objects or resources.
    • As we have said before, objects may be rare, in fact it is the way most used to transmit scarcity. A clear example of scarcity of resources/objects is Don’t Starve (again), as a survival game you have to take advantage of the resources that you have at your disposal to survive. In addition, as already mentioned, we must also take into account the scarcity of “states” such as vitality, sanity and hunger, since low levels of these states imply negative consequences.
    • But there may also be a scarcity in objects that define the characters of a video game. The concept is called density and basically says that the more elements that build the image of the character, the less importance they have. To understand the concept, try to remove the mustache from Mario, from Super Mario Bros (Nintendo, 1985). What a change! Why? Because Mario has only a mustache and a cap, not a mustache, a cap, a pin, glasses, earrings, a blond hair… Removing 1 item from 10 is not as noticeable as removing 1 from 2.
  • Missions or objectives.
    • One recent title released before Christmas is Final Fantasy XV (Square Enix, 2016). Like almost every video games in the same saga, the player can get involved in an adventure, usually linear, with a clear objective. In parallel the player can decide whether do or not to do the many secondary missions that can be found. When we have 30 missions to choose and we do not make one, the difference is very small. Now, if we have only 5 missions, psychologically we would have more discomfort when ignoring one (like Mario´s mustache). By reducing the number of missions or objectives (becoming scarce compared to the scenario of 30 objectives), these gain importance.
      The same can happen in a gamified process. We must take into account the total number of objectives (or fragment them in time) to maintain the importance they deserve and preventing then to go unnoticed by the large number of tasks.

Given the psychological components behind the scarcity, some examples in our daily life and how it can be shaped in the ludic world, it must be said that many times all the components go together, hand by hand.

Don´t Starve screenshot (Klei Entertainment, 2013), extracted from

Scarcity is a widely used resource in the ludic world (and in real economy also), we have seen why and how it affects players’ behavior. No doubt in the times to come we will see many more uses of this mechanics.

The existence of scarcity causes in the player a change of strategies in order to make itself capable of being adapt to it. At the same time, a competition can be generated between individuals or groups to possess that scarce through the achievement of objectives or missions and also to be able to enjoy the benefits as social status or added power.

The set of cards of Gamification Model CANVAS formed by the Dynamics: To Deal with the Scarcity, To Compete and To Make Grow the Status; and the Component: Missions, offer without any doubt an unique and very attractive experience to be implemented in our Gamification projects.

GMC elements mentioned above

Bibliographic references

  • Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York: Academic.
  • Brehm, J. W., Wright, R. A., Solomon, S., Silka, T., and Greenberg, J. (1983). Perceived difficulty, energization and the magnitude of goal valence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 21-48.
  • Emerson, R. M. (1962). Power-dependence relations. American Sociological Review, 27, 31-41.
  • Lynn, M. (1992). The psychology of unavailability: Explaining scarcity and cost effects on value [Electronic version]. Retrieved [18/11/2016], from Cornell University, School of Hospitality Administration site:
  • Seta, J. J., and Seta, C. E. (1982). Personal equity: An intrapersonal comparator system analysis of reward value. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 222-235.
  • Seta, J. J., and Seta, C. E. (1992). Personal equity-comparison theory: An analysis of value and the generation of compensatory and noncompensatory expectancies. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 13, 47-66.
  • Snyder, C. R. (1992). Product scarcity by need for uniqueness interaction: A consumer Catch-22 carousel? [this issue]. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 13, 9-24.
  • Snyder, C. R., and Fromkin, H. L. (1980). Uniqueness: The human pursuit of difference. New York: Plenum.
  • Veblen, T. (1965). The theory of the leisure class. New York: Kelly.
  • Wills, T. A. (1981). Downward comparison principles in social psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 90, 245- 271.
  • Worchel, S. (1992). Beyond a commodity theory analysis of censorship: When abundance and personalism enhance scarcity effects. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 13, 79-92.
  • Wright, R. A. (1992). Desire for outcomes that are more and less difficult to attain: Analysis in terms of energization theory. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 13, 25-45.