Dedicated gamers and novices alike often report an intriguing phenomenon: becoming completely immersed in their favorite games and feeling compelled to pursue gaming goals and storylines. This is an experience like no other and can make gamers feel as if they've stepped into exciting new worlds. Game designers deserve all the credit for this level of immersion.
A lot of moving parts go into modern game design and no single quality or feature can guarantee a game will be well-received. Essentials like visuals, music, storyline, and mechanics all contribute to an enjoyable gaming experience, but even these can be present in otherwise lackluster games.
The hidden secret to success? Drawing on the psychological concepts that drive people in all walks of life. Motivation, in particular, determines whether games feel compelling—or forgettable. To that end, we've highlighted the essentials of game design psychology: What motivates gamers and what does it take to design a game that will keep enthusiasts coming back for more?
Motivation and Psychology in Game Design
Several psychological factors underscore gamers’ behaviors, along with the processes used to design games that appeal to the most discerning players. Understanding the relationship between psychology and game design begins with a basic grasp of what happens in the brain when gaming and how these responses can be strengthened based on various game design components.
It has long been established that gaming releases high levels of dopamine, which is often referred to as the feel-good neurotransmitter. Many types of games are believed to also boost serotonin levels, which regulate mood and are associated with general feelings of happiness. Furthermore, games can impact levels of the stress hormone cortisol, although the effects vary greatly from one game to the next, with some types of games increasing cortisol levels and others reducing them.
Game design elements aim to bump up the release of “feel-good” neurotransmitters to increase the perception of fun and enjoyment. How this is achieved will depend on the type of game, its mechanisms, and storylines -but there is great potential across gaming categories to create a fun and highly motivating game experience.
Psychology of Fun
In Psychology Today, Travis Tae Oh, PhD, references the concepts of hedonic engagement and liberation as central to the perception of fun. Hedonic engagement involves the pleasure receptors and is characterized by pleasant sensations or, as Oh explains, "active involvement and immersion into an activity that is intended for pure enjoyment."
Meanwhile, a sense of liberation is possible when a feeling of release has been created, freeing the individual from everyday restrictions or obligations. This liberation may be temporary, but there's no denying the joy of letting loose.
Gaming delivers both qualities: The games are highly immersive and intended for enjoyment, but they also make players feel liberated, at least for a time. By blending these two qualities and making them readily available to people from all walks of life, gaming produces an impressive equation that keeps players returning for more fun and freedom.
As Psychology Today explains, motivation involves the "desire to act in service of a goal," adding that this is "one of the driving forces behind human behavior."
This concept is typically divided into extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, which form the why behind various activities or behaviors. Extrinsic motivation involves outside forces, such as tangible rewards. This is certainly present in gaming, with loot and achievements driving many players to keep playing even after a game feels less novel or compelling than it did in the beginning.
Meanwhile, intrinsic motivation describes inspiration that comes from within. For many, this is the sheer enjoyment of playing a game, even when extrinsic progress is lacking. Specifically, this is where hedonic engagement and liberation come into play.
As long as games feel fun or relaxing, players will continue to gravitate to them. The gold standard, of course, is any game that blends the best of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to hook players, ensuring they enjoy themselves every step of the way.
All players seek to have fun, but how this is achieved can differ from one person to the next. The Bartle Testprovides intriguing insights into personal sources of motivation, revealing that those who play multiplayer online games tend to fall into one of a few key categories.
Richard Bartle (whom we will reference in more detail below) offers an easy way to remember these based on the suits from a typical deck of cards: "Achievers are diamonds (they're always seeking treasure); explorers are spades (they dig around for information); socializers are hearts (they empathize with other players); killers are clubs (they hit people with them)."
However, these classifications are more complicated than such simple descriptions can convey, and many times, gamers will demonstrate a mix of these qualities Still, most gamers will gravitate toward one of these approaches, as explained below:
Most modern game players fall into the socializer’s category, at least to some extent. With the explosion of online gaming in the 1990s came a new wave of players who derived more enjoyment from communicating with other players than playing the actual game.
While the first social gaming generation has remained active over time, younger counterparts are also getting into the game. Social media has made finding new players and connecting with friends easier than ever. Streaming platforms like YouTube and Twitch assist by allowing players to interact with viewers around the world.
Open-world games like the Grand Theft Auto series and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim allow players to go at their own pace to reveal the living, breathing world around them. These players feel as if they simply must uncover every inch of the game world.
As these games increase in size and scope, developers keep players hooked by continuously adding new content. Explorer players find surprises delightful and regard the act of discovery as more of a reward than any tokens or points they could accumulate.
In the 1980s, arcade enthusiasts left their initials behind to let everyone know they owned the top score in Pac-Man or Donkey Kong. This inspired others to empty their bank accounts quarter by quarter to bump their friends and competitors from the leaderboards. Microsoft revived this effort with the Xbox 360's Achievements system, which gave players new ways to enjoy games and show others their high scores and accomplishments.
A cottage industry of "speed runners" has found new ways to complete favorite games in the fastest time possible. These achievers encourage game developers to implement specific modes that appeal to the most competitive enthusiasts. In the achiever category, points and status are the clear focus, along with opportunities to show these off through badges and other distinctions.
While social players are happy to enjoy a laid-back online experience with their friends, killers are not satisfied unless they slay the competition in the most fearsome way possible. First-person shooters like Call of Duty and Overwatch have millions of fans who chase the thrill of the kill. These players enjoy unlocking new weapons and abilities that make them even more lethal to their opponents. Single player experiences such as the Dynasty Warriors series allow gamers to mow down entire armies of opponents, giving them an outlet for their baser gaming urges.
At first glance, this category may seem to resemble that of the achiever. There is a major distinction: The achiever is all about personal wins, while the killer is determined to see others lose. Interestingly, Bartle's findings indicate that killers represent a very small subset of the gaming population.
Importance of Motivating Players
Across all categories of gamers, video games are enjoyable when they are both fun and freeing. Still, even novel gaming experiences can quickly start to feel stale or even create the perception of undue effort. When this happens, games start to feel more like work than fun. By drawing on deep-seated sources of motivation, however, games can continue to feel fresh and can keep players motivated.
Player behavior references how people conduct themselves within the scope of video games and can encompass responses to gaming environments and interactions between players. This is driven by the concept of the "ludic contract" in which both the gamer and the developer agree that the game will be experienced as it's "supposed" to be played. Once players cross the border known as the "magic circle," the rules of the real-world cease to apply, with the rules of the game taking over.
While player behavior relies on the ludic contract, it also builds on many real-world factors, such as gender, age, and social influence. Playing certain roles within these games can also prove impactful. Above all else, however, the Bartle categories will determine how players navigate within games and how they enjoy them.
Gaming can be a highly emotional experience, partly because of various neurotransmitters. Many players experience a genuine sense of happiness and well-being, although this can be modulated by strong emotions related to the storyline or even to the mechanisms of gameplay.
Players largely seek out video games as a solution for mitigating stress and regulating their emotions. These desires play heavily into game design player motivation, as the challenges that keep players hooked should not outweigh the overarching desire for stress reduction.
Player Goals and Achievement
Goal setting contributes heavily to the gaming experience. Players feel more motivated in the long term if they feel they are making progress toward some overarching objective. Scores, badges, earning new items, or simply defeating an opponent can all help develop a sense of achievement. Goals can also be defined based on their scope; the long-term, overarching goal is often to complete the game, but shorter-term goals keep players motivated and engaged along the way.
Player feedback is vital to game success, especially in the modern era of live games, in which iterative builds incorporate player-generated insights into the development process. This feedback can take many forms and often involves commentary on social media or shared through online surveys. The most valuable feedback involves Telemetrics, which automatically tracks gamers' activity to reveal where (within the game environment) they spend time, which items they use, and which interactive elements they find compelling.
Although Telemetrics provides the most accurate insights, vocal player feedback cannot be ignored. Many gamers find the process of sharing their insights cathartic and may even view this as a form of community building. To that end, game designers should make players feel seen and respected while relying on data-driven insights to determine where changes need to be made based on player behavior.
Improving Games Through Psychology
A variety of psychological theories can be applied to make games more enjoyable, both when they are unveiled and over time. By understanding the effects of specific types of games on specific types of players, developers can get a better sense of the gameplay mechanisms that will keep players happy and motivated in the long run.
Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology
We have already identified the player types from the Bartle Test, but it's also important to understand the theoretical underpinnings of these classifications. This was developed based on research from Richard Bartle, who was involved in creating the very first multi-user dungeon (MUD). He believed that the characteristics underscoring the main gamer archetypes would "arise from the inter-relationship of two dimensions of playing style: action versus interaction, and world-oriented versus player-oriented."
Usability and Game Development
The power of usability and game design cannot be discounted when determining what, exactly, makes a game enjoyable. Players seek games, in part, as a form of stress reduction, but poor usability limits this by preventing user experiences from feeling truly immersive. Game designers must strive to maintain the mystique of the magic circle, and this means maintaining strong heuristics, complete with consistent controls, error prevention, and easy-to-navigate user interfaces.
Contribute to the Exciting Future of Game Design
Gaming has come a long way in recent years, but there are still plenty of new ways to delight gamers. If you are passionate about game design and eager to make your mark, you can take this to the next level with a degree in game design. At Lindenwood University, we are pleased to offer game design programs for both undergraduate and graduate students. You will emerge with a thorough understanding of game design motivation, graphics, and the game lifecycle. Reach out today to learn more.