How Nudge Theory Just Made You Click on This Headline (and Helped a Famous Economist Win the Nobel Prize)

It takes effort to move a mouse, point the arrow toward a headline, and click down on a button. As a writer, I know this is true–I search on Google and read headlines all day, and I write headlines like the one above that will hopefully make you interested.

The catch? We’re all inundated with many other headlines, so there has to be just enough information to make you slightly curious. And, you’re savvy enough to know when a headline is really just a ploy–a trick that’s only a level or two above an ant trap. On the web these days, headlines are all about a demonstration of perceived value. You won’t click unless it seems like there will be an obvious reward and the click will be worth your time.

It’s also a curiously apt example of how nudging works. It’s the power of suggestion, a hint of payback, and a promise of reward for your time all rolled into about 10-15 words. Of course, headlines are nothing new, and suggestions as a way to influence marketing and sales are also not new. What is relatively new, and why Richard Thaler just won the 2017 Nobel prize in economics for his work in this area, is that it has become quite a science.

A headline is a nudge in a pure form. It’s all about prompting people to action–is the promise of the article you’re about to read enough to cause people to act?

For anyone trying to generate content or write a blog, it’s incredibly important to understand the art of nudging. Create too much of a nudge (or too small of a nudge) and people won’t click. A headline has to find the right balance of suggestion versus giving it all away, and the principle applies to an ever greater degree because every headline can be measured so precisely. If you’re writing a headline, it’s worth the effort to think about how the nudge will cause a reaction (or not cause a reaction).

Let’s examine the headline above as an example.

First, you maybe didn’t know about nudge theory. It’s a new concept, so you were curious. It might lead you to discover there’s a book by that name (written by Thaler and a co-author). You might even decide to buy it on Amazon. That’s a big reward right there, because the economic principles of nudging can be invaluable for anyone responsible for product success.

Second, there’s a hint of a new angle. Thaler did just win the Nobel prize, and his accomplishments are worth noting in more ways than one. There’s an interesting correlation that might develop–it must be worth clicking if it was worth winning a Nobel prize. I have no idea if this will actually garner any attention, but I do know that nudging, the Nobel prize, and Thaler are all worth your attention. They might even change how you do marketing.

But it’s the combination of these ideas that I believe is so important, just as it’s a combination of several ideas that make an advertisement enticing, or a PR campaign, or a slideshow you plan to give to an investor. The balance of interest and carrot dangling, to the point where no one even knows there is a carrot involved, is incredibly interesting to me. It’s worthy of an entire book, actually. I’d buy it and read it to find out more–how do you strike the balance? What is the brain science involved that tips people off just the right amount? When is there just enough sugar and when is there too much?

If you know the answers to those questions, you might find some incredible success…with blogging and writing, sure. Or marketing. But also with any business endeavor.

Tech

How 'Metroid' Fans Made a Better Game Than Nintendo

Metroid: Samus Returns isn’t the first remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus. It’s just the first released by Nintendo.

A bit of background may be in order. In 2003, Nintendo released a game called Metroid: Zero Mission, which essentially updated the graphics and play of the original 1987 NES Metroid in order to bring it more in line with the later titles of the franchise. It was a fantastic title, and fans assumed that the logical next step for Nintendo would be a similar revamp of Metroid II: Return of Samus, the 1991 sequel. After all, that game had always felt like an odd fit for the series; it was made only for the first-generation Game Boy, which could only produce basic sprites with black lines and a sickly green sheen.

But that game never materialized. So fans got antsy—then they got to building.

Metroid: Samus Returns

Nintendo

Over the next 13 years, a number of Metroid II fan remake projects emerged. Most petered out before reaching completion, as fan projects are wont to do. However, there was one exception: Milton Guasti’s cheekily named Another Metroid 2 Remake, which came out last year to a surprising amount of attention and acclaim. Many game publications reviewed it like an official release, and loved it; Guasti himself was offered a level design job. It was, at the time, the first substantial Metroid game to be released by anyone since the dismal 2010 Wii title, Metroid: Other M. The gaming world was clearly hungry for more of this series, and Guasti delivered. AM2R feels every bit a classic Metroid: claustrophobic, vibrant, tense.

Unfortunately for Guasti, his ten-year development cycle was only a little faster than Nintendo’s. When AM2R began getting acclaim, Nintendo brought legal threats and DMCA takedowns against it, and only a month after the game was released Guasti announced that all his post-release development on the title—bug patches, updates, everything—would cease. Nintendo is normally litigious, but this response felt extreme, even for them. But when they announced their own Metroid II remake this past July, it suddenly made a whole lot more sense. Now, this month, in collaboration with developer MercuryStream, Nintendo has released Metroid: Samus Returns for the Nintendo 3DS. The first official Metroid game in seven years, and the first 2D one in 13. It has a lot to live up to.

The two games stand in interesting opposition to each other. Both attempt to revitalize the same source material—but they’re made in two radically divergent ways, with two radically divergent approaches to what makes Metroid tick.

Just comparing the beginnings of the two titles is illuminating. Both open in basically the same way, following the same premise: Samus Aran, the space-faring bounty hunter, has to journey to planet SR-388, the ancestral home of the parasitic and incredibly deadly metroids. Her goal is to exterminate the aliens, descending deep into the subterranean caves under the planet’s surface to destroy them before they can threaten the galaxy. The two even share an opening image—of Samus, stepping out of her ship on the surface of the planet, and walking to the right side of the screen, down a darkened hole into the death trap of a cave system below. But that’s about where the similarities end.

AM2R quickly provides the player with two paths from which to choose, both bottomed out by damaging lava. Only one path is passable at the start, and moving forward requires a basic understanding of a handful of core Metroid skills. How to jump accurately; how to collapse into the “morph ball” mode to move through narrow passageways; how to use missiles to open locked doors. The game explains none of this to you, assuming only a fan would be playing a fan-made game. The short opening journey takes Samus to a room empty save for the molted shell of a metroid, cracked and brown—at which point a new breed of metroid, evolved from the old, swoops in, bringing with it a brief but intense test in the game’s core combat. If you succeed, you keep going, descending deeper, and the adventure really begins.

Metroid: Samus Returns

Nintendo

Samus Returns, meanwhile, is … busier. Eschewing the 16-bit pixel style of the older games, which AM2R mimics, Samus Returns instead embraces a slightly cartoonish detail-rich graphical approach. Dead space marines, the remnants of a prior failed expedition, litter the earliest caverns. Ruins of an ancient alien race can be seen, vast and foreboding, in the background. The level design, too, is busier, while simultaneously being more linear. There’s no branching core path, but there are a number of side paths that loop back into the main one, offering the illusion of complex exploration while keeping the player going where the designers want.

By the time she encounters the first metroid, which takes about ten minutes longer in this version, Samus has earned several new abilities, and the player has received an in-depth tutorial on a new melee combat system. There are several cutscenes. The whole thing buzzes with modern gaming excess: ostensibly convenient but tonally uneven.

Samus Aran works alone. That’s one of the foundational principles of Metroid. She’s the quiet hero you send in when things get really bad. She goes places no one else can, and her journeys are methodical and haunted. The best of the Metroid series is lonely, claustrophobic, tinged with curiosity and a driving sense of danger. And what’s most interesting about the quiet competition between Nintendo and their most loyal and creative fans is that the fans, or at least Milton Guasti, seem to understand this about the series more than Nintendo does. In its early moments, Samus Returns feels stuffed with the presence of its developers. It’s a guided, elaborate journey into Samus’s past.

But AM2R is quiet. It’s solitary. It remembers the sense of mystery and fear that makes Metroid hum with energy. And when I want to revisit Metroid II, I know which version is going to call me back.

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