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The Psychology Behind Games

April 26, 2005 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next


We 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.

In 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.

The 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.

Overall, 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.

As 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.

Deficient needs:

1. Physiological needs: To breathe, drink, eat, sleep, bodily comforts, etc.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4a. Lower esteem needs: To be respected, to get attention, to have status, power, reputation, dignity, to express oneself through words, clothes, or self-creations.

4b. Higher esteem needs: To have self-respect, to be competent, to achieve independence and freedom. 

Growth needs:

5. 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

In 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.

When 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?

The 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. 

Measuring results

It 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 well?).

The 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 pleasure? 


Games 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).

Game experiences

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.

1. Competition

Activities 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 activities.

2. Chance

Activities 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.

3. Vertigo

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.

4. Make-Believe

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.

Pleasurable activities

So 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."

People 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

Any 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.

Playing 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

When 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 activity itself.

A 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

Without 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.

For 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

In 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.

In 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

In 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.

Even 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

In 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.

If 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

When 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 accomplishments.

8. Our perception of time is altered

Our 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. 



Games 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.

However, 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.

In 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.

Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

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