are all familiar with the feeling we have when we are completely caught
up in a great game. The state where we are completely focused on
playing, and all other things become irrelevant. This article is about
that feeling - why we get it when we play games, and how we can design
games that give us more of it.
the first part of the article we will look at how we function as
humans; what our drives are and why we enjoy certain activities. At
first this may seem a bit unrelated to games, but soon we will see that
the actual game is only what we see on the surface - what we experience
is something else completely. In order to fully understand why we enjoy
certain games, we need to look at what lies below the surface and try
to see them the way our mind sees them.
second part of the article focuses on how games can be designed to
cater to the player's needs, interests and abilities. We look at the
importance of understanding your target audience, and how games can be
built to adapt to the person who is playing. People both have
differences and similarities to each other, and the game's design needs
to reflect that.
the purpose of this article is to provide a better understanding of why
we enjoy certain games so much and how to design games that focus on
those aspects. My view is that if we can see games the way our mind
sees them, we can perhaps get some new ideas on how to design our games
to be more fun for the player.
Part One - Why brains love games
Needs and motivations
Maslow's pyramid of needs.
humans, we have developed many needs over time that are closely related
to our survival, existence and evolution. In a way, everything we do in
our daily lives is in either a direct or an indirect way related to
these needs. Abraham Mallow was the first to summarize the research
related to human behavior by creating a list of human needs and sorting
them in hierarchic order. Maslow's hierarchy of needs was based in two
groups: deficiency needs and growth needs. Within the deficiency needs,
each lower need must be met before moving on to the higher needs. If at
a later time a lower need is detected, the individual will act to
fulfil that need before resuming focus on higher needs. When the
deficiency needs are fulfilled, the individual's attention will turn
towards the growth needs.
1. Physiological needs: To breathe, drink, eat, sleep, bodily comforts, etc.
Safety and security needs: To feel safe, out of harms way, protected,
to live in a safe neighborhood, to know ahead what the plans are.
Belongingness and love needs: To affiliate with others, be accepted, be
part of a group, to love and be loved, to have a family, to be social.
Lower esteem needs: To be respected, to get attention, to have status,
power, reputation, dignity, to express oneself through words, clothes,
4b. Higher esteem needs: To have self-respect, to be competent, to achieve independence and freedom.
Cognitive needs: To know, to understand, to explore, to seek adventure,
to experience new things, to travel, to feel excitement.
6. Self-actualization needs: To realize one's potential, to be all that you can be.
7. Transcendence: To help others to self-fulfilment and realize their potential.
Rewarding good behavior
order to make sure that we listen to our needs, evolution has developed
our brain with designated reward areas that serve to reinforce healthy
behavior, such as drinking when we are thirsty. Dopamine, a
neurotransmitter associated with pleasant feelings, is released by
these reward areas to encourage the body to repeat these behaviors.
This is the reason why fulfilling needs is often associated with
feelings of pleasure. It could be said that our body helps us to
distinguish positive behavior by rewarding it with an induction of
pleasurable brain chemicals.
we look at lower needs, things seem to be quite simple: we are hungry,
we eat, and we get rewarded. But when it comes to rewarding higher
needs - like gaining the respect of others for example - things tend to
get a lot more complex. The higher needs are not based around our
physical needs, but rather around the psychological needs. So how can
there be a specific behavior or activity to reward, if everyone has a
different view of what the needs are?
interesting fact of the matter is that it is completely up to our own
view of what respect is to decide whether we have accomplished what we
should and deserve a reward. Quite simply, from an objective standpoint
it does not really matter what we do, how we do it, or why - as long as
we feel that we are doing the right thing, for the right reasons, and
getting good results, we will get our fix of dopamine. For example,
there is no difference between winning the lottery and thinking you
have won the lottery - they are both just as fun up until you start
trying to spend the money.
can be said that on a personal level - as we perceive it - the ultimate
goal for all our activities is to get pleasure and/or avoid pain. If we
have an activity where we can conclude that the possible gain in
pleasure outweighs the possibility of failure and pain, we will most
likely want to do it. The amount of pleasure or pain that is then
derived from the activity relies on how much we've learned (was it
interesting to me?), our subjective view of the activity itself (was
this okay for me to do?) and the measurement of its success (did I do
problems we face in our modern society is that our options are so
plentiful, the boundaries between right and wrong are not always clear,
and we can seldom get a good measurement of the results of our actions.
This means that it can many times be difficult for us to decide what we
should be doing, and perhaps even more difficult to get the pleasure
from knowing that we have done something well. We tend to measure
ourselves against other people, and there is always someone out there
that appears to be smarter, happier, more talented or just plain better
looking. So what can we do to ensure that our activities give us
are specifically designed to deal with this issue - and not just
videogames, but all types of games. Games can be played against other
people, against yourself, against a computer, or perhaps even against
the forces of nature - but what they all have in common is that they
have set goals with set rules that you have to follow in order to play.
This makes it much easier for us to decide what to do and makes
measuring the outcome much simpler. We also have the learning aspect in
games since in most games we will have to keep improving our skills in
order to beat the competition (or our previous record).
Roger Caillois is the theorist behind the book Man, Play, and Games.
In his book, Caillois proposed a useful system of classifying the
different types of experiences that are present in games. A game can
include just one or all of these different types of experiences.
where players use their skill to overcome the challenge that their
opponents offer. The pleasure lies in developing your skills to
outmaneuver the opposition. Football and chess are examples of such
where elements of chance can have an impact on the outcome of the game.
The pleasure lies in finding ways to minimize the impact of the element
of chance, and the excitement of trying to guess the outcome. Games
that are based on chance can also give players the illusion of being
able to control or foresee the future. Slot machines and lotteries are
examples of such activities.
that alters the state of mind by disrupting the normal perception of
the world, resulting in a pleasurable state of dizziness. Roller
coaster rides and skydiving are examples of such activities.
where we create alternate realities in which we are not bound by the
constraints of the real world. The pleasure lies in assuming various
characteristics and abilities that we do not possess in our normal
life. In this state of make-believe we can feel as if we actually
possessed the powers of what we have chosen to assimilate.
Role-playing, theatre and reading books are examples of such activities.
if playing games is an activity that can give us pleasure - why do
certain games give us more pleasure than others? Mihály
Csíkszentmihályi is considered by many to be the leading researcher in
the field of positive psychology. Csíkszentmihályi has developed the
notion of "flow" - a state that he describes as "being completely
involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time
flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the
previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and
you're using your skills to the utmost."
who have played games can most likely relate to this feeling. And most
people will agree that this feeling is very pleasurable. But what is it
that makes us reach this state of mind? Mr. Csíkszentmihályi has come
up with a list of eight things that are associated with "flow" or
"being in the zone" as it is often described.
1. It's an activity that we feel that we can perform - a challenge that requires skill
activity provides us with a number of options - or challenges - that
require a certain skill to do. If we don't have the required skill for
the activity, the challenge will easily become frustrating or feel
meaningless. Pleasure comes in the area between boredom and anxiety at
the distinct moment where our options are in line with our abilities.
a game of chess against an evenly matched opponent is a good example of
this - if they were much better than we were, it could feel meaningless
since we cannot really affect the outcome. If we were much better than
they were, it could be boring since there is no challenge in it for us.
2. We need to be able to concentrate on what we are doing
a person's skill is needed to perform a task their focus will be
completely absorbed with what they're doing. We regress into a state
where our actions become spontaneous and we stop being aware of
ourselves as parted from what we are doing. In order to be able to
enter and then remain in this state it is important that there are no
distractions - neither from outside of the activity or from the
common distraction in many games is difficult controls. If the controls
are not simple or intuitive enough for us to be able to do what we want
to do, we will constantly be distracted from what we are doing. Our
focus will turn toward the controls instead of the game.
3. We need to have clear goals for our activity
a clear goal you have little means of judging whether or not we are
making any progress. The pleasure does not necessarily lie in reaching
the goal itself - it is only the end of the ruler by which we measure
our progress. It is also important that goals are set at a level where
we need to invest our skills to reach the goal - otherwise the goal
will become meaningless.
example, if our goal were just to reach the finish line in a racing
game we would not need to pay much attention to be successful. If the
goal would instead be to reach the finish line within a short
time-frame, the task would perhaps require our complete attention.
4. We need to get constant feedback on our progress
order to be able to judge if our activities are fruitful, we need to
get some form of feedback on our efforts. We may fail in certain
attempts to reach our goals, but if we get enough feedback along the
way, we can still feel that we are on the right track and that our
invested efforts are paying off. Feedback is not only about being told
that we are doing well. It is just as important that the activity is
laid out in a way where we can constantly judge our own progress.
many fighting games, there is an indication of the opponent's health
above their character. This is a good way to provide us with feedback
on how well we are doing, and to help us develop our technique so that
our attacks deal the most amount of damage.
5. We act with a deep involvement that frees us from our everyday worries
order to be deeply involved it is important that the activity has not
been forced upon us against our will. When we act out of free will with
deep involvement, we forget about all the unpleasantries in life. The
activity demands such a full concentration that there is no room for us
to reflect upon anything else.
though playing games is usually not forced upon us, some elements in
games can become boring or repetitive after a while. When they do, we
can easily become less involved in the game since we feel that we are
being forced to do these things in order to progress.
6. We need to exercise control over our environment
a structured activity we can often get a feeling of control. We are
free from the anxiety of losing control that is so common in our daily
lives - we are not afraid of failing. The important thing is that the
activity is designed so that it allows us to develop such a great skill
that the risk of failure is eliminated. It's not about having control,
but about exercising control. It is only when the outcome is uncertain
and we feel that we can affect the outcome that we experience that we
are in control.
the game contains elements that the player cannot control but that
affect the outcome of the game, the player will not be able to exercise
control. Games that allow the player to exercise full control will
almost always end with the most skilled player winning.
7. We become less self-absorbed
we concentrate fully on an activity there is no room for
self-reflection. All our attention is used to perform the activity.
Afterwards, we can look at ourselves and notice that we have grown from
the experience - our mind has been enriched with new skills and new
8. Our perception of time is altered
perception of time is mainly based on perceived changes around us, but
when the activity demands our full concentration there is no room to
register anything but the activity itself. This can make days feel like
hours and hours like minutes.
are activities that we have specifically designed to maximize the
amount of pleasure we get from them. Games are our way of having fun,
regardless of our current life situation. In games, we do not have to
abide to the restrictions of the ordinary world. We can create our own
rules where our specific talents can be recognized and rewarded -
talents that would perhaps otherwise go unnoticed.
games are not just an activity - they are also many other things. This
goes especially for videogames. For example, the game StarCraft
is not just about managing resources and planning strategic moves with
your game pieces. It is also about being a military leader in a distant
future, it is about stopping a flood of aliens that are trying to take
over your world, it is about treachery and deceit, and it is about
doing the right thing and becoming a hero.
the second part of this article, we will look at videogames
specifically and see how we can design games that are adjusted after
the player's needs and desires.