That ticketing system was inadvertently genius

For all its foibles, shortcomings, and outright fails, the ticketing system of the London 2012 Olympic Games had us hooked. At its mercy, we were stuck refreshing the page again and again hoping to strike Olympic pay dirt.

Olympic Park in the distance. So close, yet so far…

Doping in the stands

We place the blame for our virtual addiction on our brain circuitry. Humans, like many of our animal cousins, get bigger hits from unexpected rewards than expected ones. And as anyone who has spent any amount of time on knows, you do not actually expect to get tickets!

The psychological manipulation doesn’t end there, as we quickly get used to any new state of ticket wealth (if we are lucky enough to get achieve it). We are soon left wanting more.

Rapidly one goes from “omg, I managed to get tickets for the Women’s Group A Handball Preliminaries!” to “argh, why can’t I get any tickets for the Men’s 100m Final? Rubbish!”

Reservists rise to the challenge

This torrent of shifting expectations and emotions will be particularly familiar to those of the unofficial Reserve Team of Olympic Spectators.

It started when word broke out that the problem of empty seats in the opening days of the Games would be addressed by releasing tickets previously given to sponsors.

Even those of us who’d previously uttered emphatic bah-humbugs regarding the entire spectacle flocked to the website to snap up the discarded tickets.

It’s contagious

Our sudden drive to achieve Olympic glory was compounded further by yet another psychological factor. You may know it. It’s called “jealousy”.

Many Londoners hosted friends from out of town. Friends who’d been looking forward to the Games for months. Friends who already had tickets.

The quest begins

For those who didn’t experience it, here’s the workflow of the London 2012 ticketing system:

  1. Sign up for an account.
  2. Search for tickets and, where available, add to basket.
  3. Attempt to check out, at which point one is given a countdown, e.g. “estimated wait time approximately 15 minutes”.
  4. After an anxious but hopeful wait, one is informed that no tickets are available! (Or in 0.0001% of cases, one is shown seat assignments, a victory lap of the livingroom commences, payment details are frantically entered and one’s boss is informed that she will not be in the following morning.)

Refresh, refresh, refresh, sacrifice goat, refresh

Tickets aren’t released in any sort of predictable way. Hence one is caught in a viscious spiral of page refreshes and queuing. There is something truly addictive and compulsive about it. We don’t want to miss out!

Tantalising anticipation, evil genius

There is yet another part of the ticketing system which was beautifully (inadvertently) poised to mess with our brains.

It’s the part where one is given an estimated wait time to determine actual ticket availability — the countdown as the window repeatedly refreshes. It’s nothing short of evil genius.

This again is partly down to brain chemistry. Specifically, it has been shown that sensory inputs that merely signal a reward is on the way are enough to trigger activation in dopamine circuitry, giving us a hit even before we’ve gotten anything!

A signal kind of like the London 2012 queuing system… ‘Yes, tickets are available for the Men’s Team Pursuit in the velodrome! I’m in the queue! Fingers crossed!!’

And so when the inevitable “no tickets are available” comes up, we are ready to refresh the page and start all over again. And again, and again, and again.

Come to think of it, isn’t the Paralympics in a few weeks? Pardon me, there’s something else in this browser that I need to be attending to…