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The Psychology Behind Games
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The Psychology Behind Games

April 26, 2005 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

Part Two - Designing for humans  


The core components of videogames are the learning and interaction, to recognize underlying patterns, to understand how they fit together, to exercise control over them and to improve our skills in doing so. But videogames also nest other types of media like text, sound, music, storytelling, art and film for example. It's basically a mix of as many different types of media as we care to incorporate. These media act in a supporting role to the somewhat abstract core, providing it with a context and meaning that we can relate to, understand and enjoy.

As a whole package, videogames give us the ability to forget our worries for a moment and transcend beyond our physical self to an imaginary, illusory world in which our unrealizable desires can be realized. A world where we can experience new things, visit new places and be someone else for a while. We exercise control over our environment and we are rewarded for our efforts - and all of this without putting ourselves through any actual danger. We leave this make-believe world with a strengthened sense of self-worth, with the feeling of having pushed our skills to the next level. With this in mind it's easy to understand the captivating nature of videogames and its growing appeal to the wider market. 

The role of the game designer

The game designer's role is ultimately to create a product that caters for the needs, desires and abilities of their target audience. This means to support, teach, nurture and reward the player. To create an atmosphere where the player can feel comfortable and in control because they trust you to not challenge them with anything that they have not yet been given the opportunity to prepare for. Your role is to care for the players needs - give them exciting new things to see, things to learn, skills to master and challenges to overcome. Don't bore them with the stereotypes they've seen before - refresh them with new concepts, new ideas and new experiences.

Designing for humans

So if videogames offer vast opportunities to entertain players, how can we maximize the pleasure that players get out of our games? How can we make our games more fun? I think that Marc Laidlaw from Valve Software put it quite well: "It's only half what you put into it; the other half is what people get out of it". In this last section of the article I will suggest some steps that can be taken to help us create games that our audience will get the most out of.

1. Market analysis and user profiles

At some point in our life, we tend to somehow end up in the situation where we have to buy a present for someone we don't know very well. It's quite difficult! We usually end up getting them something like flowers, chocolate or wine - things that we know most people at least don't dislike. And if they do, they can always give it to someone else if they should end up in the same situation themselves. As a game designer, you are in a similar position if you attempt to design a game for an audience that you don't know very much about. This is why we do market analysis and create user profiles.

Creating user profiles is about interviewing people within your target audience to collect information like age, gender, what they're good at, what their favorite games are, how much they play, which movies they like, which music they listen to etc. This gives us various information about our audience that we can use to create our user profiles. Once collected, each different piece of information is put down as a dot on a user grid. Once all the people we've interviewed have been mapped out on the grid, we can look at the grid to see where the dots align. At this point we'll hopefully be able to distinguish some groups of people with similar background, interests, skills and taste. We use the information about these people to create a fictional typical user - a user profile - that becomes the representative for their group. If you have a wide target audience you will most likely create many different user profiles in order to cover the many facets of your potential buyers. The user profile can be given a name like Bob, Susan or John to help us treat them as real people during the design process. For example: "Bob" can be our 27-year-old, middle class male that buys four games every year, plays approximately four hours per week, likes sport games, likes to play compete against his friends etc. During the design process we can bounce our different ideas off "Bob" and the other profiles to make sure that the game we create is something they will all enjoy. At a later point, when the game is up and running we can bring in people that match our user profiles to see how well our design works with them in practice.

When we are interviewing our target audience it is very important that we do not forget that people's interests, skills and taste reflect their needs, desires and past experiences. If we can understand why they like the things they do, we can perhaps figure out more effective ways of pleasing them. We may also realize that people who seem very different on the surface may have more in common than we think. Therefore, it is crucial that we ask the types of questions that can give us replies from which we can extract this information.

I should mention that it might not always be wise to ask the audience directly what type of game they would want you to make. Most people don't know what they want until they see it. However, if the person you are interviewing has good knowledge of games and game design, they may be able to provide some very valuable input. There are many people out there with great ideas for games - Counterstrike, Desert Combat, Natural Selection and Day of Defeat are all examples of great game mods that were created by players. If we do not listen to these people, chances are that we will miss out on some great ideas.

2. Game width

What I mean with "game width" is basically how many different needs and desires the game touches upon. If we cater for a wide array of needs and desires we will potentially be able to reach a wider audience. The Sim- and GTA series are successful examples of this where a great variety of needs and desires are represented in an open structure, and it's left to the player to decide which ones they want to pursue.

Prince of Persia - The Sands of Time

However, catering for many needs and desires does not necessarily mean fulfilling needs and desires - we are much more specific than that. We have to look at the specific interests of our target audience and what they can relate to. If the game's setting or style is not something they find appealing - or if it is something they do not understand - then they can easily be put off by it, regardless of whatever other qualities it has. Prince of Persia - The Sands of Time, is an example of a game that was very good in many ways, but sold less than expected because it turned out that many people had trouble relating to the main character. In the sequel, one of the large changes made was to change the appearance of the main character into something that people would find more appealing.

Creating a wide game is good in many ways but the more things we want to include in our game, the more difficult and expensive it will become to make it. And if we don't have the means to manage this, then it can have a negative effect on the quality of the game which in turn may result in less "flow" for the player. What it all comes down to in the end is how much money we want to (or can) invest, how much risk we are willing to take, and how much return we seek from our investment. Wider games can potentially make more money, but they are also riskier and more expensive to create. So in many ways it can often be more prudent to do two, more narrow games instead of one wide game. 

3. Imitation

Imitation is our inherent way of learning new things and we learn our earliest lessons by imitation. As children we spend a lot of our time imitating action from our social surroundings and incorporating them into our play. Symbolic play with imitation allows us to put into practice what we have learned about people, objects, animals, right and wrong etc. This type of play becomes one of our key methods of understanding the world around us since our language and ability for abstract thinking is not yet fully developed. When we play, we often find special interest in iconic personalities like superheroes, princesses, film- or book characters, athletes or pop stars. This is because they are in a way the role models of our society. By imitating them we learn about the values of our culture and form an understanding of what we should strive for as adults. The icons that we choose to imitate are often the ones that we feel similar to, and that we can relate to - this may be one of the reasons that Harry Potter is so popular among children for example.

As we grow up, we still have role models that we imitate but perhaps in somewhat different ways. In most cases when we imitate, the entertainment aspect has more significance to us than the learning aspect. But why would we imitate if it wasn't to learn? The interesting side-aspect of imitating a character is that we shift our mind into a state where the skills and traits associated with this character can actually feel like skills and traits of our own. And like with any activity - if we give it enough focus we become less self-absorbed, and the more real it can feel to us. So if we want, we can imagine ourselves being a rock star and get our brain to reward us for our imagined success in the music industry. We can basically fulfil needs in our imagination that we may struggle with in our real lives.

Another interesting aspect of imitation is that when we become less aware of ourselves, we also become less aware of our needs. This can just be a nice relief from our everyday worries, but it can also reach the point where we let the needs of the character we are imitating take presence over our own needs. A friend of mine told me a story about how he was playing The Sims one night, and that he was worried because he had forgot to put his character to bed. The reason he was worried was that if his character would oversleep the next day then the character may lose his job. When he had finally managed to put his character to bed in the game, my friend realized that it was 3:30 in the morning and that he himself had to go work in just a few hours.

Videogames often feature imitation, either in the form where you get to play as a certain character or when you play as "yourself" but with a new set of skills and options that you may not have in real life. When designing games it is important to remember that in most cases when we choose which game to play, we don't just choose what we want to do, we also choose who we want to be - and who we are is something we can be quite picky about. As designers we need to listen to our target audience and learn which characters they find most interesting. And if there isn't a consensus, perhaps the game will need to feature multiple characters that you can choose from - or perhaps even let the player design their own character.

4. Emotional impact

A videogame is built from an abstract core game with actions, patterns, rules and objectives that are visualized and explained through various media. Over the years as technology has moved forward and enabled us to do more things, these media have come more and more into focus - as it stands now, they are an essential part of what we regard to be a videogame. Game design today has become very much about finding interesting new ways for game and media to work together and complete each other. What's interesting about these different media is that even though they affect us in different ways, they have a lot in common in the way in which they affect us. Each media can deliver an emotional impact on their own, but our emotional response to the climax of a musical piece can be very similar to how we feel when we are about to beat our previous track record in a racing game. So if we can trigger them together for the same effect at the same time, we can reach higher peaks of enjoyment. This is in no way a novel idea, but the difficulty can lie in successfully judging the emotional state of the player at a given time.

The game Burnout is a good example of this where game and media work closely together to maximize the impact of the experience. In Burnout, the more skilfully you play, the more nitro fuel you are awarded, and the more nitro fuel you have, the faster you can go. Your speed (i.e. skill) is then linked to the sound- and visual effects so that you get more spectacular effects the faster you drive. There's basically a connection between the emotional impact of driving skilfully and the emotional impact of the sound- and visual effects. 

5. The pleasure of learning

The human mind can handle and interpret seven different sensory impressions at the same time. During one second we can handle as many as 125 different sensory impressions. Different activities require us to process different amounts of impressions - for example, we need to process 40 impressions per second in order to understand what someone is saying. If too many people are talking at the same time, we will get an overflow of input which may result in us not being able to understand any of them. However, the brain has an extraordinary ability to simplify large quantities of information into models that it can process much easier. For example, the first time we drive a car most of us have trouble focusing on anything else than just driving the car. But after a while when our brain has been able to process the information and simplify it into models, we can pay more attention to other things, like the traffic or road signs.

We go through the same process with everything we learn. When we get a sensory impression, we try to make sense of it by seeing if we have a model to support it. If we don't have a model we try to acquire some more information about it so that we can figure it out. Once we have gathered enough information, our brain can complete the model.

This desire to understand, to seek new knowledge and build or revise models is the reason that we enjoy hearing stories, reading newspapers and watching movies. But it is interesting to see how we have been able to make these media more entertaining by adapting them to the way we learn. One thing we often play on is the desire to acquire more knowledge once we've seen something we do not fully understand. For example, a typical episode of CSI will start with the investigators finding someone murdered. Immediately our brain tries to figure it out - How did this happen? Who was she? Who did it? Why did they do it? In the remainder of the episode we follow the investigators as they secure evidence, interrogate people and find clues. We get to see some possible suspects and we start guessing who it might be. Towards the end of the episode, the final pieces of the puzzle are unravelled and we can finally complete our model for the murder that we saw in the beginning. If the episode would instead have started with a confession from the murderer, it would not be as interesting.

When we design games we often seem to forget this. Instead of letting the player decide what they need to learn, and how long they need to practice, we push them through obligatory tutorial courses where they get to spend as much time with the things they already know as with the things that they have never tried before. We let them play two similar levels in a row where the second one just has more enemies - it's not a greater challenge, it just takes longer to complete. We have a background story that they can figure out almost immediately. We have control schemes so awkward that the player may never master them. We use stereotypical characters that the player has seen a million times before, making it impossible for the player to find any interest in them. We have to keep in mind that games too are learning experiences and the enjoyment of a game is closely tied to how the learning aspect is featured and catered for. Just do not forget that the player still needs something they can relate to - unimaginative games with stereotypical characters will always sell more copies than an original game with a setting, character or gameplay that the player has trouble relating to.

6. Pacing and difficulty

As players we want to experience new things, we want to constantly improve our skills, and we want challenges to overcome. But we don't want new challenges until we have had the chance to improve our skills enough to overcome the last challenge, and we don't want to experience new things if we have not yet processed our last experience. Some people want a game to be so difficult that they have to fail a couple of times before succeeding, while others want to make it the first time. Some people have an easy time learning new control schemes, while it takes longer for others. So how can we make a game where the challenge, difficulty and pace works for everyone? I think that there are different solutions for different problems here.

Self-regulated pace

Why not let the player set the pace themselves? Call of Duty is a good example of this, where the player decides how fast they want to progress through the levels. If they move forward at a high pace they will be engaged by multiple enemy soldiers at the same time, but if they progress slowly they can pick them off one at a time. This means that the player has the ability to adjust the difficulty and pace after their own taste. Racing games are quite obvious examples of this, where you essentially just drive as fast as you can. If you feel that you are starting to lose control, you just slow down. 

Difficulty setting

Many games have a difficulty setting which is a good step towards adjusting the game to the player, but it can often fall short since difficulty is something very subjective. If I choose easy, how easy will it be for me? How hard is hard? One game played on easy level may be just as difficult as another played on normal, and one player may find easy to be quite hard, while another finds it to be too easy. Many players have trouble deciding which one to choose, and instead of choosing the appropriate level for their skill, they choose easy just to be on the safe side. This means that they may very well ruin the game for themselves, since the game will never pose any real challenge to them.

Some games let you change difficulty level between missions, which is another step in the right direction. But how many people do actually change the settings unless the game is too hard? If everything is going fine (although it may perhaps be a bit too easy) why mess with the settings? It can often be more important for us to avoid failure than to pursue the possibility of making the game more enjoyable. 

Dynamic adjustments

The only way for a game to be truly easy or hard regardless of who is playing is for it to have ways of constantly measuring the skill of the player and adapt the opposition dynamically. This is something that is probably featured in more games than we would think, since the whole purpose of it is to not be seen. A good example of this is the first time I played Quake 3. I had never played it before and decided to set up a quick death match game with just one AI-bot against me. I chose the intermediate level of difficulty, and the rules where that the first one with twenty frags would win. The game started and the AI-bot started killing me over and over again. I tried to find better weapons and figure out new tactics, but it didn't do much to help me. After a few minutes, the score was 17-0 to the AI-bot, but at that point I was beginning to see some improvements in my skills. A few seconds later I became completely ecstatic as I got my first frag. It was payback time! After that the frags just kept rolling in - I was killing him over and over again, and I felt like the hero of a movie that rose against the evil dictator in the last act. Soon the score had turned to 19-19 and it was very exciting. I finally got the last kill and won the game, which was an incredible climax. It was astonishing how I was able to improve my skills so fast, and turn the tide so that I managed to beat him in the end. What an accomplishment on my behalf!

But as you may have guessed by now, all was not what it seemed. I decided to test the AI system to see if there was any built in functionality to modify their behavior after the player. I let the AI-bot kill me 17 times in a row without fighting back, and that's when I realized that the more times I was killed, the less accurate their firing became. After 19 kills, my once worthy opponent was merely a half-wit that mostly seemed to enjoy standing still and staring into walls. It had not been my skills that had improved in my first game, but instead the AI-bot's skills that had deteriorated. I had just been too caught up in the moment to realize it. However, this experience made me realize what an extremely powerful tool this was. The game would never have been as fun for me without it, and I'm sure that many games would be more fun with it included. I still believe that there is a need for a difficulty setting in games, even if the difficulty is adjusted dynamically after the player. The reason for this is that some people enjoy themselves most if they have to try a couple of times before succeeding. Others enjoy themselves more if they make it in their first attempt. Both people enjoy challenges, but they should be allowed to choose just how challenging it should be.

Final words

A game is not great for just one reason - it is great for hundreds of reasons. If many of these reasons are unknown to us, the only way for us to make a great game is by trial and error. With better insight into how our mind works when we play games, and a better understanding of what we seek in our game experience, we can gain more control over the design and the end quality of the game. We have to realize that making a great game is not about which features and components to add - it is about what those features and components do for the player. We have to learn not to underestimate how important certain aspects of the design are to the player - for example, difficult controls alone can transform any great game into a meaningless activity. We have to remember that we do not make games for ourselves - we make them for the player.

If you would like to know more about the subject of this article, I would like to recommend the books listed below:

Abraham Maslow
Motivation and Personality 

Jean Piaget
The Psychology of Intelligence 

Bernard J. Baars
In the Theater of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind 

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience 

Roger Caillois
Man, Play and Games 

Raph Koster
Theory of Fun for Game Design 

Robert McKee
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principals of Screenwriting 

David Freeman
Creating Emotion in Games: The Craft and Art of EmotioneeringT 

Astrid Palm Beskow, Jan Beskow, Teresa Miró
Kognitiv Psykoterapi och Medvetenhetsutveckling (Swedish) 

Johan Cullberg
Dynamisk Psykiatri (Swedish)



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