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About this blog

As a game designer you might not be aware how psychology affects your game. It’s only completely logical to not know since not many psychology studies are done with games. Often we see games as this magical digital medium that lets us escape reality. Games are special, why should they be affected by psychology? But yes they do. Some games even are designed around psychology. Think about games that are all about getting the player high on arousal or horror games that are all about scaring the player to death.

I’d like you to become aware of psychology, how it works and how you can use it to your advantage when designing a game. With each article I will discuss a psychological theory or theme and show you games that already apply it. I will also suggest how you can implement the theme or theory in your own game design. Hopefully these articles inspire you and create that spark of interest into psychology and HCI (human-computer interaction) as it did for me. I strongly encourage you to speculate how your game is affected by psychology or how you can use it to improve your game.

You can check our my website here: http://www.sitavriend.nl/


Entries in this blog

Why I hate fun


Ever since I decided to specialize in game design I struggled with the word “fun”. It might sound silly to struggle with a term that is so central to the art of making games but it makes sense once you start to research ‘fun’. First of all very limited research has been done and secondly the term ‘fun’ is ambiguous. Fun means something different for everyone.

Many other industries envy the games industry for making fun products. They mistakenly think that games are this magical medium that are automatically fun and engaging. As a result, they applied typical game elements such as XP and competition to apps as an attempt to make ‘boring’ tasks more fun. But game designers also struggle to make their games engaging and fun. Not every player enjoys playing every game or genre. I typically don’t enjoy most first person shooters because I suck at them. On the other hand it is not just games that can be fun. Many people think knitting is fun, others think watching a football match is fun or playing a musical instrument. What is considered fun often depends on someone’s expectations and their current context. A player has to be in the right state of mind before considering to play a game, they need to ‘want’ to play the game or do any other activity.


This can be fun too.

A researcher who attempts to understand fun more thoroughly is Lazzaro (2009). She formed the Four Fun Key model to distinguish between four different types of fun: Hard fun, easy fun, serious fun and people fun. Hard fun is very typical for many hardcore games and is fun that arises from overcoming challenges and obstacles. A key emotion in hard fun is frustration followed by victory. Easy fun can be achieved by engagement through novelty and can be found in many exploration and puzzle games. Emotions that are key to easy fun are curiosity, wonder and surprise. Serious fun is fun people have when they feel better about themselves or being better at something that matters. People fun is concerned with the enjoyment that arises from the interaction between people. You can think about competitive or cooperative games people play because they enjoy playing together rather than the game itself.

The Cambridge dictionary defines fun as pleasure, enjoyment, entertainment, or as an activity or behaviour that isn’t serious (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/fun). While we can measure pleasure and enjoyment objectively by measuring physiological changes in the body, we cannot always say we are having fun when we are enjoying ourselves. Besides that, within casual games mainly, pleasure and enjoyment are supposed to be “easy”. This means that you should be careful with challenging the player. If a player wins (often) they will have fun which is the complete opposite of many hardcore games.

Within game design we often use flow theory interchangeably with fun. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1996), flow is a mental state in which a personFlow.png.d38f812f6f2312b79ce512594c377edc.png in fully immersed in an activity. The state of flow can be achieved by matching the most optimal skill with the most optimal difficulty for a person. In the case of games, a player becomes so immersed that they forget about their surroundings and lose track of time. A learning curve is used in most games, both casual and hardcore, to account for player’s changing  skill and difficulty level. However flow theory isn’t a definition for fun but can result in a player having fun. This mainly works for hard fun as easy fun doesn’t require the player to be fully immersed.



  • Lazzaro, N. (2009). Why we play: affect and the fun of games. Human-computer interaction: Designing for diverse users and domains155.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.


By now you know that our brain is remarkable and weird. How it perceives things and how it can fool us. But you are not yet aware of the two different methods our brain uses to perceive the world: top-down processing and bottom-up processing. Bottom-up processing is automatic, we instantly know and understand what we have perceived. Top-down processing is a more deliberate process where we sometimes have to dig deep to understand what we have perceived. These two methods we use for perception are related to the dual-process theory, top-down processing is a form of system 2 thinking and bottom-up processing is a form of system 1 thinking. Bottom-up processing is always on and can help us quickly make sense of the world around us. Bottom-up processing happens when salient (outstanding) features of a stimuli draw attention. This stimuli can be a loud sound from the timer you set when you are cooking an egg or an alarm. It can also be something visual, a smell, taste or a tactile sensation. 

Perceptual_SEt.jpg.440696a0ef8fac0c463d170936e46f32.jpgBut bottom-up processing can fail us in some situations, especially when the stimulus is ambiguous or vague (Gosselin & Schyns, 2003). That’s when we use top-down processing to understand what is going on. With top-down processing we use memories, expectations and context to interpret the stimulus. We use top-down processing when we look at modern, abstract art or clouds. It isn’t very clear what we perceive (beside from the fact that we are looking at a canvas with paint or a white fluffy cloud) so we have to think effortful to attempt to understand.

Most of the time we use bottom-up and top-down processing interchangeably to perceive the world around us. For this we use perceptual sets: the readiness to interpret a stimuli in a certain way. Perceptual sets prepare us to perceive things in a certain way like the ‘13’ or ‘B’ in the picture to the right. Perceptual sets depend on what you expect to see and the context of the stimuli. In the picture your expectations depend on whether you read from top to bottom or from left to right.

These different methods of perception processing are quite useful for game design (and art) as you can see in the Borderlands 2 screenshot. Using bright, saturated colors and heavy lines for objects of interest such as an enemy immediately draws the attention of the player. These ‘standing out’ or salient features help the player distinguish between what is important and what is not.


Borderlands 2 aided visual bottom-up processing. They used bright and more saturated colors for objects of interest such as enemies.

Signal detection theory plays with the ideas of bottom-up and top-down processing. The theory states that the information the player is getting from the game consists of ‘signals’ and ‘noise’. The visual and auditory information from any game are made up of noise and signals. Signals are objects of interest for the player such as collectable or special items, enemies, health packs or a direction the player should go. The signals in a game is any information that is important for the player to know. Noise would be anything that is less important to the player such as the environment art or the background music. As a designer and artist, you can play with the ideas of the signal detection theory. Many games should aim for weak noise and strong signals, important things should be easy to spot and recognize within the blink of an eye. Though hidden object games can benefit more from strong noise and weak signals else the game would be too easy.

Spirits is a mobile and pc game that is a good example of how our methods of perception work in combination with the signal detection theory. In this puzzle game you guide spirits across dangers to a magical swirl. The game has three layers of objects: the boundaries of the level in black, the colorful background and the objects of interest. The main objects of interests are the spirits with which you play and the swirls which is the destination of the spirits. There are also gusts of wind represented by floating particles in the direction the wind is blowing. See how the characters and swirls are the most salient (outstanding) objects on the screen, they draw your attention. The designers and artists chose white as a color for the most important things in the game to make them standout more. As a player you immediately figure out that you have to do something with these characters and swirls. This is a good example of bottom-up processing. The artists and designers used size and shape to clarify the difference between the spirits and the swirls. The colorful background could have easily drawn more attention than the spirits, but the use of sharpness prevents this. The colors of the background are blurry and not the brightest things in the game. Spirits really aids the player’s perception with bottom-up processing by using color, brightness, sharpness and size.


Ideas and suggestions
Perception will mainly affect the artists’ work but it also has a place in game design. Both the designer and the artist should be aware how their work affects how the player plays the game. Any game can benefit from the different processes we use to perceive a game no matter the quality of the art. Of course it’s good to realize that the screen size also has an effect on the player’s perception.

Depending on the type of game you are working on you should decide if the objects of interest in your game should standout or maybe which ones should standout (more). In many cases you want the player to instantly notice most of the objects of interest so they should draw attention. You can achieve this by changing the size of the object. Objects that are bigger that the others immediately standout. Color also have an effect, especially red draw attention. Player can easily find red objects even if they are partially covered. Artists might want to be careful using red for less important things or the background. Using a different, more vibrant color scheme for objects of interest and a more monochrome color scheme for less important information can help as well. The use of sharpness also works to grab to player’s attention. Think about a door that is more detailed and sharp compared to doors that are more blurry and less detailed. The sharp, detailed door draws the most attention.

Often in a game there are more than one different objects that are of interest to the player, or the environment art is quite detailed. In that case you can benefit from redundancy: alternative physical forms make it easier to distinguish between similar types of information. Do not just use different color that attract attention for different objects of interest use sharpness, brightness and size as well. Using other features such as shape can help, and allows colorblind people to play your game.

Level designers should benefit from these perception techniques as well. Making some places in a scene bigger, brighter or more colorful attracts the player’s attention. As a result, players are naturally drawn to where you want them to go and the game will feel less linear.


59a980d0ee302_flat1000x1000075f_u2.thumb.jpg.8187d866dc8680b8585b79b088d9026d.jpgThe Gestalt laws explain of why we perceive patterns in a certain way. Perceive patterns relies on how our brain organizes the raw data from our senses, it makes use of perceptual sets quite a lot. Our brains are inherently wired to create order in things we see, even if there isn’t any. They will always try to fill up the gaps. Remember the illusion to the right? I showed it to you in the first article on perception (link). There is nothing more to the picture than three white flat1000x1000075f.u2.jpgpizza’s all with a slice missing and three lines with the same angle. Somehow your brain fills up the gaps and you perceive a black and a white triangle laying on top three white circles. The gestalt laws offer us an explanation why that happens.  These laws are much like heuristics: mental shortcuts for problem solving. We use them to quickly make sense of what we see, they mainly apply to our visual sense.

In general the laws state that the whole is different than the sum of its parts. This means that the whole element is different than the elements it is made up from. Think about a dotted line, the whole represents a line but the parts are dots. The gestalt laws are often used in UI and graphic design to make the displayed information more readable or to play with our perception.

The Gestalt laws were first put to paper by Wertheimer (1923, 1938). Later contributions have been made by Köhler (1929) and Koffka (1935). The 6 laws in the picture are used often in UI and graphic design, however there are many more.


Law of Proximity
Regional or chronological closeness of elements are grouped by our mind, they seem to belong together. Proximity is what you would use when you design the UI of an inventory system or a HUD in general. Group items that have similar functions or fall under the same category by placing them closer to each other. Of course that also means that you should leave more space between items that fall under another category.

Law of Similarity
Our mind groups similar elements to an entity. The similarity depends on relationships constructed about form, color, size and brightness of the elements. Like proximity, similarity should also be used for the UI design of an inventory system. Use a symbol and/or color code different items from a certain category. Items with the same color or symbol will be seen as a group. You can also make items more similar when they all have something in common like since or a certain shape.

Untitled.pngLaw of EnclosureUntitled.thumb.png.1c3fbe2291aec366d02a04dd5f47b79c.png
Enclosure states that you can group items and information by enclosing everything that is supposed to go together. This law is used in UI design to group different kinds of information such as text and pictures that belong together. Applying the law can be as simple as adding a border around the items or information. Often UI designers use a card metaphor, it almost look as if pieces of information are put on cards. Facebook uses enclosure and displays individual stories on cards in your news feed. They used color and line to separate information that doesn’t belong together.

Law of Symmetry
This law states that we perceive objects as belonging together when they are symmetric regardless of their distance. Symmetry can be used to group elements together or to create the idea of wholeness. Adding symmetrical borders at the left and right side of the screen can create the suggestion that the players views the game through a border or lens.

Law of ClosureCarcRiverLayout.jpg
Our mind adds missing elements to complete a figure. The black triangle from picture 1 is not actually there, CarcRiverLayout.jpg.a6585c6ee0646a1074a6d3fa5d649c18.jpgour brain filled up the gaps from the missing pieces. The board game Carcassonne is a good example how you can design elements that use this law. As the players build their castles and roads they can already imagine which pieces they need. Players need little cognitive resources to imagine the missing pieces because our brain already filled up the gaps. When you are designing for closure make sure that the player can fill up gaps of missing information.

Law of Continuity
Continuity states that the mind continues a pattern even after it stops. Our brains are remarkable pattern machines, we perceive patterns even if they are not there. The law of continuity prove this. In our picture example of the Gestalt laws you can see this one long squiggly line with missing parts. Actually it is not one line, there are three separate lines. The law of continuity doesn’t just work for lines with parts missing, any figure can be used in patterns to make up something else. In level design you can use this law to display a path or movement in a certain direction. It is a good way to point the player in the right direction or to give them an occasional hint. Portal 2 uses this method to guide the player using a dotted line. The player can fill up the gaps even when debris is covering parts of the line like in the picture below.

Law of Connection
We perceive elements as being together when they are connected with each other. Graphic designers use this law for infographics or flowcharts to show how elements are connected and that they belong together. The key here is to connect elements with the use of lines to show that they are related or that they belong together.


Law of Figure and Ground
Certain objects take a more prominent role while others recede more into the background. mosaic-ii.thumb.jpg.8a7511ae94e3973387c3331b1ad6e951.jpgThis law is used quite a lot in logo design to make the most important element standout and attract attention at first. Use the law of figure mosaic-ii.jpgand ground to attract attention to important information or option to make the player pay attention to this first. The use of color is key here, highlight the option that is important or needs to attract attention quickly. Think about using a complementary color scheme or red since it immediately attracts attention.

Law of Common Fate
Elements with the same moving direction are seen as a unit. If certain elements all have the same direction they are seen as one. The direction can be an animation but it can also be a movement the player is making. The Mario platformer games a good example of how common fate can be applied. Enemies in the platformer almost always move towards Mario when he first encounters them while useful objects always move away at first. You can apply those ideas to your own game design as well, when a player first encounters an enemy have them walk to the left. You can do the opposite with friendly NPC’s, let them walk to the right.


Perceiving is believing, or is it really? We have five basic senses which we use to perceive the world with: smell, taste, touch, seeing and hearing. But there is a difference between sensing and perceiving. Our senses provide us with raw data from the environment around us. This raw data can be visuals from our eyes, airborne chemicals our noses pick up, tastes on our tongue, soundwaves via our ears or tactile (touch) information from our skin. Perception, on the other hand, is the way our brain organizes and interprets this raw data. We use our perception to make sense of what we sensed. Perception can be influenced by the context in which the stimuli (what we have sensed) presented, our expectations and our current mood. What you see isn’t always what you get and that is true for all senses. Perceiving isn’t always believing.


Our brain works in weird ways which affects our perception too. Sometimes you don’t perceive something you’ve sensed or you perceived something that wasn’t there in the first place (Gosselin & Schyns, 2003). Our brain can also play tricks on our perception. It can interpret the stimuli in weird ways. Optical illusions are a fun example of how our perception works, below are a couple examples. How can two colors be the same while you perceive them as different? Illusion 1 is an example of how context and expectations shape your perception. Square A and B are the same shade of grey but your brain interprets them as completely different. You see a checkerboard and expect a certain pattern, A is supposed to be black and B is supposed to be white. Combine this with the contexts of the shadow: your brain expects the squares in the shadow to be darker. Sometimes your brain makes you see things that aren’t there. You probably sees a black triangle laying on top of three circles and a white triangle in illusion 2. That is your brain filling up the gabs. There is no black triangle, the triangle is a lie! There are just three white pizza’s all with a missing slice and three lines with the same angles.  Illusion 3 is a picture of two faces or a vase. It all depends on the angle you are looking from, but you can never see both at the same time.


How we perceive these illusions depends on our perceptual sets. A perceptual set is the tendency to interpret a stimulus in a certain way only. It is what makes you see the faces before the vase in illusion 3 (or the vase before the faces). Our perceptual sets are heavily influenced by our emotions, expectations, beliefs, context and past experiences.

Perception is sometimes weird and that our brain words in strange ways. You might wonder why we have such a thing as perception in the first place. Why can we not just perceive the world as we sensed it? And what is the function of perception? Perception is quite useful for filtering out the necessary information only. We would go crazy by all the stimuli around us if we would perceive the world as we sense it. We use our perception for attention, to figure out what information is coming in. The incoming information can be filtered through our selective attention, that way our brain ignores anything else but the stimuli of interest. Selective attention is what we use when we become immersed in a game. We only focus our attention to the stimuli from the game and ignore the outside world. Perception is also used for localizing where the information of interest is coming from. When you walk through your town and smell something amazing you might want to wonder where it’s coming from. Or your perception already did the work and you know it was from the bakery across the street. Perception can also help you recognize a stimuli. You smell the bakery and immediately recognize that they just finished baking their bread.

We can also filter out unnecessary information with our senses directly. Our sensory cells respond less and less when a stimulus stays the same for a while. After a while we no longer register the stimulus. This is called sensory adaptation. Think about the pressure of your clothes, you notice it when you put them on and when you move. Most of the day you just won’t notice them due to sensory adaptation. The same happens to the noise your fridge makes or the ticking of your clock. The smell cells in your nose will even stop responding for a while. They need to be given a chance to recover before you can smell again (Dalton, 2000).

Not all senses are equally important to games. Smell isn’t used in games since the smell-o-console hasn’t been invented yet. You’re also not very likely to lick your screen to see what the game tastes like. The only senses we can use in games are vision, hearing and tactile (touch, vibration and pressure). As designers we only have to account for hearing and vision. We have very little control over the feel of the keyboard or controller. Do think about adding vibration occasionally when your game is played with a controller.

Thomas was alone is a favorite of mine because of the excellent use of emotional narration but the game also works well perception-wise. When you play the game for the first time you immediately understand who Thomas is. Considering Thomas is a red rectangle, that is kind of amazing. Thomas was alone shapes the player’s perception with its title, expectations and context. From the title you immediately expect to play or interact with a character named Thomas. You expect Thomas to be one of the characters or perhaps the playable character. The narration adds to this as well once the player starts the game. There is no need to show a big arrow with the word ‘playable character’ written on it, your perception worked it out already. Without its art, the game would be nowhere. The choice for abstract art was a conscious one. It’s not just to play with our perception, it helps our perception. The color scheme of the game is mostly monochrome except for the characters, they really pop-out. From the first interaction it is clear that these colorful rectangles are the objects of interest. Your gaming knowledge matters to your perception as well. It helps you understand where the characters need to go, where you can and can’t go and how to interact with the game in general.


Tips and suggestions
These tips and suggestions can be applied to all types of games. For some genres it might be easier than others but it is good practice to make use of player expectations. Do a little research into other games your target audience plays or research similar games. Find out what these games have in common with each other or what popular gaming conventions are in the genre. If you plan to make a mobile game where players have to slice things in half, look at other games where players slice things in half (hint: Fruit Ninja). How do players interact with the game? Is it a common way to interact with these types of games? Are all good questions to ask yourself. Don’t just blindly copy mechanics and features from a similar game, find out what is common knowledge among your players and what they expect.

Help the player’s selective attention by making use of the pop-out effect for objects of interest. Think about the little shake animation in candy crush. The shake grabs the player’s attention immediately, it’s even visible from the corners of your eyes. Or make use of colors that are brighter than others for objects of interest. This might be the domain of the artists but it is very important for game designers to take this into account as well. It’s the game designer’s task to guide the art team into making decisions that benefit and complement the game design. Audio can also be used in interesting ways to help the player’s perception in the game. You can use it as a mechanic to lure the players or as a way to foreshadow an upcoming monster. Perception is an interesting thing our brain does. We can aid it through our game design or play with it. The possibilities are endless.

References and stuff

  • Crash course psychology: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unWnZvXJH2o&t=9s
  • Gosselin, F. & Schyns, P. G. (2003). Superstition perception reveal properties of internal representations. Psychological Science, 14(5), 505-509.
  • Dalton, P. (2000). Psychophysical and behavioral characteristics of olfactory adaptation. Chemical senses, 25, 487-492


Last week I wrote an article on the dual-process theory which covered how we make decisions. This week I’ll discuss if it is possible to have too many options to choice from. As you know from last week’s article people can use system 1 thinking to narrow down their options and then use system 2 thinking to make the actual decision. It is important to narrow the options down to just a couple since system 2 is effortful and slow. Unfortunately, narrowing down your options is getting more difficult in this day and age. This is exactly what choice overload is about: there is just too much to choose from. 


Choice overload was first mentioned by Iyengar and Lepper (2000) when they conducted a study about people choosing jams. They compared two conditions where people could sample a number of jams in a supermarket. During condition 1 the researchers displayed 6 different flavors of jams and during condition 2 there were 24 different flavors to choose from. During both conditions people were given coupons to buy the jams with as well. They found that when they displayed 24 different flavors, 60% of the people tasted but from those only 3% went on to buy a jam. Surprisingly, when only 6 flavors were displayed 40% of people tasted but a whopping 30% of those people bought a jam. Iyengar and Lepper concluded that people are initially attracted by many options but then had a difficult time choosing. We are better at choosing when we are presented with fewer options. This surprising result let Schwartz (2004) to develop the idea of choice paradox. Choice paradox states that people like the idea of more options but when you are given more options they have difficulty choosing. The idea takes into account that all options are somewhat equal and that not choosing is also an option. Both the choice paradox and choice overload are related to the dual-process theory. If we want to make the most optimal decision based on reason and logic we have to rely on system 1 thinking. However this system of thinking can only help when there are just a few options to choose from (Payne & Bettman, 2004).

Why do we experience choice overload?
Of course we need to have lots of options to experience overload. So many options that we get overwhelmed and decide not to choose. But why do we get overwhelmed? Why can’t we just make a decision? If all options are equal in some way than there is no optimal choice. We won’t have a problem choosing if one of the options is better than the others in some way. Another problem is that when we choose anything we limit our freedom. People tend to react negatively to the limitation of their freedom, we don’t like it. This reaction is known as reactance. Keeping your options open and not choosing means we don’t have to feel bad because of reactance.

Age of Wonders 3 – a micromanagement game
During my internship I worked on Age of Wonders 3, a strategy game with a huge number of options. As a player you can decide on which strategies to use but there are also options to customize your hero, chose a race, a class etc. There are many choices the player has to make right from the start. According to the choice overload theory, there probably are too many choices for a newbie. But a fan of the series would be used to it. They expect the next Age of Wonders to have more options and features. Furthermore, the nature of the strategy game ensures that while there are many options, they aren’t balanced equally and not all options are unlocked right from the start. Take for example the units, not all units will be unlocked right from the start of a session. The player has to unlock them by doing research or building the right city structure. Once the player processes, there the option of units increases. Early-game units will be less attractive to players since units that are unlocked late game are much stronger.


Micromanagement games – design tips and suggestions
Just like last article, micromanagement games are the ones to look out for when it comes to the choice overload theory. Strategy games, city builders and many simulators can benefit from many well-balanced choices but can also overwhelm the player. However, games are a bit special in a way because a wrong choice can easily be undone. Players can simply by going back to a previous save or restart the game. But still games can have so many options right from the start that players get overwhelmed and quit the game. Luckily there is a way to maintain a large number of options and reducing choice overload at the same time. Break up the choices the player can make into a series of choices, each with a limited number of options (Besedes et al. 2014). You can do this in the form of categories like for example Tropico does.

Pokemon Go – a mobile game
Think about Pokemon Go, which was a very successful game in many countries last summer (2016). They kept the number of items in the shop limited. They didn’t add 8 different options for the number of pokeballs you can buy, there are just 3 options. You either buy 20, 100 or 200 poke balls at a time. The different options for the number of coins you can buy is also limited. They have 6 different options for buying coins. Although I would have opted for 4 different options (for choice overload sake), I can understand they chose 6 to increase the money with small steps for the player.


Mobile games – design tips and suggestions 
Especially mobiles games in which players can buy items should keep the choice overload theory in the back of their mind. You don’t want your players to be overwhelmed by the many item they can buy. In that case, players will view not buying as their best option. It is the cheapest option for them anyways. Keep the number of options small especially when they have equal value within your game. You can also add a ‘recommended’ or ‘best value’ label to certain items to make them stand out. An option with such a label will seem like a more optimal choice to the player. Do you still want your players to have many options? Consider selling a few package deals: boxes that contain several items (random) items.



  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qosYJvMZJFA
  • Besedeš, T., Deck, C., Sarangi, S., & Shor, M. (2015). Reducing choice overload without reducing choices.Review of Economics and Statistics97(4), 793-802.
  • Schwartz, G., Ward, A. H., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1178-1197
  • Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing?.Journal of personality and social psychology79(6), 995.
  • Payne, J. W. & Bettman, J. R. (2004). Walking with the scarecrow: The information-processing approach to decision research. In D. J. Koehler & N. Harvey (eds), Blackwell Handbook of Judgment and Descision Making. Malden, MA: Bkackwell Publishing.
  • Scheibehenne, B., Greifeneder, R., & Todd, P. M. (2010). Can there ever be too many options? A meta-analytic review of choice overload.Journal of Consumer Research37(3), 409-425.



Last week I talked about the power of groups. I discussed the advantages and disadvantages of groups and how we behave in group. This week I’d like to continue on about groups, how we behave in them and how we behave towards other groups. Knowing how we behaving in groups and towards other groups is very useful in social games and multiplayer games, especially games where groups compete against other groups.

On one summer’s day, eleven 12-year-olds went to a camp in Robbers cave state park. Over the course of a week the boys bonded while playing games and formed a tight friendly group. The boys gave their group a name as well: the Rattlers. Soon the Rattlers found out there was another group of eleven 12-year-old boys who stayed at the other side of the park. The other group of boys also bonded over games to form a tight friendly group. They called themselves the Eagles. Both groups of boys started to dislike each other and decided to fight out which group was better over a series of competitions. The rivalry between the Rattlers and the Eagles got worse over the course of the competition. The boys became aggressive and hateful towards each other. The camp staff changed the situation around. They integrated the groups and gave the boys shared goals they could only complete if all boys helped out. Soon, the two groups became one big group of 22 boys. All boys had become friends and formed a big tight friendly group.

These boy camps at Robbers cave state park were more than just camps, they were Sherif’s experiment (1961). He wanted to test his Realistic conflict theory: conflict happens when you combine negative prejudices with competition over resources. While isolation and competitions made enemies of the boys, common goals and cooperation turned the enemies into friends.


The boys were a classic example of the outgroup-ingroup phenomena or “us vs them”. The two boy groups became aggressive toward each other based on very little more than because they belonged to different groups. The boys favored their own group and hated the other group, even though all boys were the same age and had a similar background. The fact that people favor in-group members based in very little is called minimal group effect and it happens even if membership of the groups is randomly determined.

People who belong to the same group as you are ingroup members. People who belong to a different group are outgroup members. The boys who belonged to the Rattlers would be outgroup members for the Eagle boys. The Rattler boys would view each other as ingroup members. Members of a group will start to view members from another group (outgroup members) as more similar to each other than their own members. This phenomena is called outgroup homogeneity bias and it is what happens when we are stereotyping for example people from other countries. Of course Germans aren’t all beer-lovers and always on time. The same is true for Americans, not all Americans are obese and only eat at McDonalds. The opinions of ingroup members can shift towards more extreme views because of group discussions when members of the group have similar opinions. This is called group polarization and it is what often happens when people share their opinions online. Your opinion of view might be confirmed when someone of your group shares their opinion online.

Multiplayer games and the community
The ‘us vs them’ or ingroup-outgroup phenomena is a huge problem for many games, it drives online rants, bullying and harassment. Now-a-days there are many games that offer an online multiplayer that should keep the ingroup-outgroup phenomena in the back of their minds. The ingroup-outgroup phenomena is a problem that designers need to deal with, with sexism at its core  in many hardcore multiplayer games. I hear you thinking: “oh no not another article about sexism in game”. Yes, I’m sorry but it is one of the biggest problems the entertainment industry is dealing with at the moment. You might think why can’t women or girls who enjoy video games not just avoid the sexism online. Just avoid Gamergate and other online platforms. But this is not possible when you enjoy playing hardcore multiplayer games, sexism is still present among its players. Many female players are afraid to ‘come out’ as a girl and turn off their microphone so other will not find out (McLean & Griffiths, 2013).


Many of these games have a predominantly male audience, they all belong to a group: gamers (or male gamers). Similar to the Rattlers and the Eagles, this gamer group see their domain being taken over and invaded by another group: girl gamers. The internet has a role in all this as well which is where male gamer group discuss their (negative) views and opinions among each other. While you might have been just a little annoyed by female gamers at first, now your views are being confirmed and get more extreme. The same happens to female gamers and group polarization is complete. Sherif’s Realistic conflict theory is very much present in the gamer community, both online and in games. However it’s good to keep in mind that not everyone falls victim to group polarization. Most of the time there are only a few that spoil it for the rest.

How can we fix group polarization? It won’t be easy but the Robber’s cave experiment can be a good start. Remember how the researchers turned the situation around for the Rattler and Eagle boys? Both groups were forced by the researchers to work together. The boys were given goals they could only complete when they all worked together. While this might be impossible for the gaming community as a whole, we can start small with one multiplayer game at a time. Keep the Realistic conflict theory in the back of your mind when you are thinking about adding multiplayer to your game. Design systems where all players need to work together from time to time, just like the researchers did with the Rattlers and the Eagles.

female-male-gamer.jpg.583e6852e0529af5d7ed98b1aebb0a5e.jpg We’re all just gamers

Knowledge is power, knowing about group polarization and realistic conflict theory can help you understand why someone acts sexist in a video game or why someone becomes a social justice warrior. I don’t believe in social justice warriors and their rants about sexism. It can only make group polarization worse and making the gap between the groups bigger. Instead of ranting towards either of those groups react more nuanced and empathize. It might be very difficult but it’s the best way.

References and further reading

  • https://simplypsychology.org/robbers-cave.html
  • University of Oklahoma. Institute of Group Relations, & Sherif, M. (1961). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The Robbers Cave experiment(Vol. 10, pp. 150-198). Norman, OK: University Book Exchange.
  • McLean, L., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Female gamers: A thematic analysis of their gaming experience. International Journal of Game-Based Learning (IJGBL)3(3), 54-71.


There are two different kinds of pleasures we experience every day, we have anticipatory pleasure or ‘wanting’ and consummatory pleasure or ‘liking’. ‘Wanting’ is pleasure for looking forward to future events. On the other hand we have ‘liking’, this is pleasure for things in the moment. Think of it this way: when you play a game right now and enjoying it, you experience consummatory pleasure (liking). You might experience anticipatory pleasure when you are at your day job or school but can’t wait to be home this evening so you can play your favorite game. It might surprise you, it certainly surprised me, but these two pleasures are very different from each other and even have their own neural system in the brain. This means that according to your brain, liking and wanting aren’t the same thing. The wanting-type pleasure relies of the dopamine system. Dopamine is released each time you’re looking forwards to something you enjoy. The liking-type pleasure relies on your reward-driven system. When you do something you enjoy doing, opiates such as endorphins are released as a reward. These chemicals of the brain make you feel good. While wanting and liking are very different, it’s good to realize that you have to like or enjoy the thing at first before the wanting system for that same thing kicks in. However, you can have liking without wanting and wanting without liking. Think about a party you are dreading to go to. You really don’t ‘want’ to go but you know that you will ‘like’ being there once you get to the party. Addiction is probably the best example of wanting without liking. An addict will ‘want’ his drug but he doesn’t ‘like’ the effect of the drug anymore.


So be careful with too much wanting though, this can create addiction (Berridge & Robinson, 1998). I realize it’s an ethical debate whether you as a designer are responsible for a player being addicted to your game. In most cases you simply want people to enjoy your game on a regular basis and a healthy player shouldn’t become seriously addicted (where gaming becomes a problem for their daily lives). While not everyone is equally susceptible for addiction it’s important never to design for it.

The difference between ‘liking’ and ‘wanting’ doesn’t seem to be very logical and not much research has been done. It’s only logical that I couldn’t find many games that apply this theory. The closest application of the wanting-system to a game I could find was

candy-crush-no-lives It takes forever before I can play again!

Candy Crush. Candy Crush and other similar mobile games want their players to come back every day. The design of these games is driven by retention and that’s why they often have a lives-system and short levels. The short levels encourage the player to try another level. Once the player fails too many levels and runs out of lives, he or she has to wait before they are restored. Most games with such a lives-system have cycles of about 20 hours. This means that if a player runs out of lives, it takes about 20 hours for all lives to be fully restored.

Both the wanting- and liking-systems  can be applied to all types of games. However, mobile games can probably benefit most from these different neural-systems. Chances are that you aim for high retention when you design a mobile game. The wanting system is important here, your players should look forward to play your game every day. And of course they should ‘like’ playing your game as well, especially the first time they play.


Games with micromanagement can also benefit from the wanting-system, especially if the player has to use a limited resource that replenished over time. Imagine that you have people as a resource and you can use them to build stuff. Of course building stuff isn’t instant, it takes time. There is nothing for the player left to do after a while because all people are building things. The player will than leave the game with the intention to come back when his people are finished building his stuff. The player won’t be annoyed or dislike the game because there is nothing left to do since it’s the nature of the game.

Some design ideas for you
When designing for retention, it’s good practice to ask yourself why the player should come back to play your game a second time. In my opinion your first answer should always be: “because they liked playing the game”.  There is no point in playing a game you didn’t like the first time. The other answers are up to you to think about. Designing your game to be ‘liked’ is much more difficult that designing your game to be ‘wanted’. whether you like something or not is very personal. Some people can’t get enough of shooters while others (like myself) aren’t a big fan. But there are a couple of things that can help the  player like your game. Completing or finishing something feels good. When your game is level-based, it helps to keep the first couple of levels short. You can increase the time spend in a level slowly as the player progresses. Finishing each level leaves the player wanting more: “just one more level, then I’ll stop”. Designing your game to be ‘wanted’ is a lot easier. Design your game in such a way that player has some unfinished business when he or she finished the first session. Think about a good cliff-hanger at the end of an episode: it leaves you wanting more. It’s the reason you and your friends are dying to see the new game of thrones season. You can design cliff-hangers for your game as well. The only difference is that you might have to “force” the player out of your game somehow. Add a resource-system to your game that is time-based but is depletes when you are playing. It can be a lives-system like in candy crush or a resource such as money or people in a micro-management game. There is no reason to stay in the game once the player runs out of the resource. Balance the resource in such a way that the player runs out of it when he or she is enjoying your game the most. It’s always important to make sure your player ends the game on a high note. It leaves them wanting more and have them looking forwards to the next session. If you want, you can send the player a reminder when the resource is replenished. But there is no need for daily rewards, this kills the player’s intrinsic motivation (I will talk more about intrinsic motivation the next time) and they won’t like to play your game anymore.

References and further research


You can make something more desirable by forbidding it. That something can be anything: an item, an action, an idea. Well this is possible and known as the reactance theory. Reactance is the feeling you get when someone limits your freedom or option. Basically when you’re not allowed to do something or when you are told you have to do something.

This feeling results in you:
1. Wanting forbidden option even more.
2. Trying to reclaim your lost option.
3. Experiencing aggressive and angry feelings towards the person (this person may be fictional as well, or and AI) who limited your options or freedom in the first place. (These feelings can be very subtle and barely noticeable but motivate you to do the opposite from what you have been told to do.)

The first scientist to talk about the idea reactance was Brehm in a theory of psychological reactance. He was the first to research the reactance theory and explains reactance as a motivational state people experience when their freedom is removed or threatened (1966). But you probably already know the reactance theory as reverse psychology. And that’s what reactance basically comes down to: Getting people to do something by telling them they are not allowed to do that something or the other way around. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work. Some people are just not as sensitive to experience reactance as others and circumstances matter too. For instance: reactance breaks down when people can rationalize why they shouldn’t do something. If someone told you not to buy the bag you really wanted, you’d probably buy the bag anyway. But if that someone explained that he bought the same bag and it broke after 2 days, you’d probably think twice before buying the bag.

Portal 2 applies the idea of reactance brilliantly in their level design when the player enters Aperture’s dungeons. Along the way back up, the player encounters several warning messages as you can see in the picture below: “warning”, “do not enter”. Of course these warnings are not to discourage the player, they are meant to lore the player closer. Reactance helps the storyline feel less linear than it actually is. Player is more attracted to this option and goes on to explore it. It also guides the player through the level more naturally because they want to explore this forbidden option rather than going somewhere else.

You probably want to know what’s behind those walls

The Stanley parable applied the reactance theory to their gameplay using narrative. The player is encouraged to try all storylines since the end is never the end in the game. In fact, the game is all about discovering new endings and alternative storylines and that means you don’t want listen to the narrator most of the time. The blue door ending is a great example of this: The narrator tells Stanley to walk through the red door when the player approaches a room with a red and blue door. When you ignore the narrator and walk through the blue door, he’ll send the player back and tells Stanley to walk through the red door again. The blue door becomes a more attractive option now, so the player choices the blue door again. The player will be send back to choose the red door again but this time the blue door is moved behind the player and the narrator stresses Stanley he has to walk through the red door. The blue door has never been a more attractive option.

Such an attractive blue door! Look at those curves!

The reactance theory can easily be applied to your own games. It can help you design interesting levels or create interesting narrative for games that rely on (branching) narration. When you want to implement the idea of reactance into your own game you can make something more desirable by forbidding it or you can make something less attractive by forcing it. This something can be anything: an item, a choice you want the player to make, a path the player should walk, an action you want the player to perform. Be creative! Keep in mind that not everybody is equally sensitive to reactance and that the effect breaks down when the player can rationalize why they shouldn’t do something.

Here are some ideas for you.
Level design:
–  Use some art! Show something is dangerous or advise the player not to go there with signs or writing on the walls. Doesn’t have to be art-heavy, just tell them a certain area is closed off and that they are not allowed to enter.

Narration games:
–  Somewhere in the narrative you can tell the player they are not allowed to make a certain choice (remember: don’t explain why). You can also “force” players to make a certain decision like the red door in the Stanley parable.
–  Empower the player by telling them they aren’t good enough to do something, they will do it.
–  Tell the player that he/she has to do something a certain way, they will do the opposite.

–  Tell your player is a forbidden item and they shouldn’t take it.

Want to read more (scientific) stuff on the reactance theory?


This topic will probably be one of the more ambitious topics I will write about for a number of reasons. First of all emotions are not a just about feeling excited about playing that new game you bought today or feeling sad because your favorite character in game of thrones just got killed. It’s very closely related to longer lasting moods. Secondly, psychologists aren’t completely sure on how to explain human emotions. There are a number of different theories that explains what happens when we experience an emotion and many of them are support by scientific studies. I’m not going into those theories because I don’t think they are relevant to this article. There is a link to a crash course video in the references below just in case you’d like to know about emotions in general.

So what is an emotion? And more importantly, why should you take them into account when you design and develop games? Emotions are a bit ambiguous, even psychologists can’t agree on a unified definition. One of the definitions I found: an emotion is an internal response to an event. Something within your body might change when you experience an emotion, for example, your heart rate can increase or decrease. Some other psychologists might say an emotion is more like a feeling or mood. From these definitions it feels as if emotions aren’t very tangible and difficult to study. However, specific emotions and moods can be very useful when designing games. Taking emotions into account when designing games can definitely help you to enhance the player’s experience. And although emotion is an ambitious and broad topic, it also means there are countless ways you can apply it in your game design.

91_10_1108_S1746-9791_2010_0000006010 Russel’s dimensional model of affect

Just like there are multiple theories of emotions, there are several models to classify them. I will keep to one: the picture below is Russell’s model of affect (Russell, 1980). This is a two dimensional model in which emotions are classified based on how active (level of arousal) and pleasant (positive or negative) an emotion is. Many action games use the model to some extent. You feel your heart pounding in your chest, your arousal is up, feel stressed and tense as you approach the enemy camp. On Russell’s model this would be high arousal and a sort of negative emotion.

Now the important question: Why should you apply all this to your game? Here are a number of reasons:

  1. Emotions can help form memories so players remember your game in more detail (LeDoux & Doyere, 2011). This enhances the player’s experience, making it richer and feel more personal.
  2. Allowing your players to experience a positive mood can help them solve the puzzles and riddles in your game (Isesn & Daubman, 1987).
  3. Arousal in general can be quite useful as well. When you want something important to be noticed by the player, make it more arousing to grab their attention (Buodo & Sarlo, 2002).
  4. Arousal can also boost the player’s performance. According to the Yerkes-Dodson law (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908) easy tasks can benefit from high arousal while difficult tasks are handled best when the player’s arousal level is low. You can use this law to adjust the difficulty curve of your game accordingly.
  5. Keeping your player in a positive mood will motivate them and make them try harder (Nadler, 2010). Basically you can keep increasing the difficulty curve of your game as long as the player is in a good mood.
  6. More specific emotions can also be beneficial as well. Anger, for example, motivates players for confront a problem or pursue a goal. On the other hand, players who feel guilty about an action they did can be motivated by their guilt to do good and counteract what they have done (Parrott, 2004).

Even negative emotion, such frustration can improve your game. It can motivate your player when done right. Remember when you fought an end-boss in a game but lost? What did you do? Did you quit the game or did you go back to the last save and try again? Most games have a difficulty curve of some form to keep players challenged and when the curve is just right, you will occasionally loose and have to try again. This trial-and-error will come with a bit of frustration but quickly changes to excitement and motivates to try again. Frustration in these situations only become a problem when the difficulty curve is too steep and the player gets stuck somewhere in your game. It that case they might even quit all together which is not very good for your retention. Of course there should also be a moment of joy when the player finally overcomes an obstacle to make all the effort feel rewarding.

Be careful with too much frustration and confusion though. It’s never good when your players become frustrated because they can’t figure out how the controls work, how to read the UI of your game or don’t know what to do. Obviously you need to address this kind of frustration and figure out how to minimize it. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to get rid of the bad kind of frustration in your game for all players. Not all players are the same and for some the difficulty curve might be a little on the steep side. While others will always be a bit frustrated about your UI. In those cases you can benefit from the Halo effect (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977): certain salient characteristics bias the perception of other less salient characteristics. It’s not about getting rid of frustration all together, make desired emotions stand out more and the player will focus on them more.

You can apply the knowledge about emotions in your game design regardless of the genre, however, I’d like to show you some examples for narrative and puzzle games. Puzzle games are all about frustration, confusion and joy. The halo effect is at work here: the joy of the eureka moment when the player completes a puzzle is much more salient than the frustration and confusion from the trail-and-error. Puzzle games are a great example of the good kind of frustration as I talked about before.  A great example of a puzzle game that uses the good kind of confusion and frustration is Anti-chamber. The player is told very little when they start the game, basically it’s the game to figure out the game (game-ception!). it’s can be great example if you want to make a puzzle game without a tutorial that takes the player by the hand each step of the way.

antichamber_2Antichamber: all you need to know

Narrative games probably are the best type of games to evoke emotions in players. When done right, your player will have a memorable experience of an emotional journey. As I talked about before emotions help form memories. There is nothing better than remembering the joy you felt when you helped your character do something amazing. Narrative games can allow players to really empathize with characters when something truly sad happens. My favorite example for such a game is Thomas was alone, one of my favorite games of all time. The emotional narration makes it such a memorable journey. The designers did a great job expressing a full range of passive emotions such as sadness, happiness and serenity. Everything within the design of the game supports these emotions: the choice of the abstract art style, music and the way it is narrated. I’ve never felt so much empathy towards any video game character as I did for Thomas and his friends (and they are just colored squares!).

thomaswasaloneThomas was alone: squares with a personality!

Some tips and examples for you
Now how could you implement all this knowledge into your game or narrative design? It seems like a lot of stuff to take into account but it all depends on your game. A good place to start is to identify the overall feeling or mood you want the player to get when they play your game. Ask yourself: how should the player feel after each session? And what about when they finish your game? Maybe your game has some key-events where you want the player to feel a certain way. Of course your game design document describes how players should interact with your game but why not add a section on how they should feel when they do it?

panasPANAS example

Playtesting is where you find out if players experience your intended emotions. Set your playtests up in such a way that you can either see or film the play-tester’s face directly. The decode all the different emotions you can use the coding system for facial emotions (FACS) developed by Ekman and Friesen (1978). Even better would be to use software to decode even the subtlest emotions for you. There is a huge range of apps, software and even APIs and SDKs to use such as EmoVu (http://emovu.com/e/). When you don’t have the money for these tools, time to get familiar with FACS or you want to be more thorough with your playtests, you can use PANAS (Watson, Clark, Tellegen, 1988). PANAS is a questionnaire where your play-testers answer questions on how much they experience a certain emotion. The picture at the right is a good example of what a PANAS questionnaire can look like. With PANAS you can find out what overall emotions the player experienced during the game or during key-events in your game. It will be a bit time-consuming to set up but once you’ve created one you can use it for all future games. There is a link to a PANAS worksheet in the references below to help you get started.

Some useful links and references

  • Crash Course Psychology: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KbSRXP0wik&list=PL8dPuuaLjXtOPRKzVLY0jJY-uHOH9KVU6&index=26
  • Worksheet PANAS questionnaire: http://booksite.elsevier.com/9780123745170/Chapter%203/Chapter_3_Worksheet_3.1.pdf
  • LeDoux, J.E. & Doyere, V (2011). Emotional memory processing: Synaptic connectivity. In S. Nalantian, P.M. Matthews, & J.L. McClelland (eds), The Memory Process: Neuroscientific and humanistic perspectives (pp. 153-171). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Yerkes R. M. & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The Relation of strength of a stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459-482.
  • Parrott, W. G. (2004). The nature of emotion. In M. B. Brewer & M. Hewstone (eds), Emotion and Motivation (pp. 5-20). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Posner, J., Russell, J. A., & Peterson, B. S. (2005). The circumplex model of affect: An integrative approach to affective neuroscience, cognitive development, and psychopathology.Development and Psychopathology17(3), 715–734. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579405050340
  • Isen, A. M., Daubman, K. A., & Nowicki, G. P. (1987). Positive affect facilitates creative problem solving.Journal of personality and social psychology52(6), 1122.
  • Buodo, G., Sarlo, M., & Palomba, D. (2002). Attentional resources measured by reaction times highlight differences within pleasant and unpleasant, high arousing stimuli.Motivation and Emotion26(2), 123-138.
  • Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). The halo effect: Evidence for unconscious alteration of judgments.Journal of personality and social psychology35(4), 250.
  • Nadler, R. T., Rabi, R., & Minda, J. P. (2010). Better mood and better performance learning rule-described categories is enhanced by positive mood.Psychological Science21(12), 1770-1776.


As you might have guessed, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is all about motivation. It tries to classify our reasons for being motivated to do something and explains why we are motivated. Although much research into motivation has been done and quite some theories have been proposed to explain motivation, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is just one of those. Actually, I already wrote an article on another theory in motivation called: ‘wanting vs liking’. Here is a link if you haven’t read it already: The striking difference between liking and wanting. Back to intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and what these actually are. Any reason that explains our motivation to do something can be classified as an intrinsic motivator or an extrinsic motivator. When you are intrinsically motivated it means that you do something simply because you enjoy doing it. In other words, we think it is fun to do (Schmitt & Lahroodi, 2008). Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is when you are being motivated to do something because of an incentive. The incentive can be a reward but also a punishment, anything that motivates us as long as it doesn’t come from within our self. So if you like drawing simply because you enjoy drawing it is intrinsic motivation. But when you draw for art class so you can get a good grade, it is extrinsic motivation. The grade is the incentive. What intrinsically motivates you is very personal, it is different for everyone. What you find extrinsically motivating is also personal but also relies on something called incentive salience: how noticeable is the incentive? (Berridge, 2007). Emotion has a role in this as well: associating an incentive with a specific emotion can make the incentive be more salient and motivating (Robinson & Berridge, 2001).

It is important to keep intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in mind when you design you game because it can have an effect on your player’s behavior and how they like the game. Relying on extrinsic motivation too much can kill creativity and problem solving. According to Glucksberg (1962) people can become distracted by (monetary) rewards when they are offered one. This distraction inhabits people to solve a problem which requires creative thinking. Extrinsic motivation can also kill motivation. Especially rewards can undermine the intrinsic motivation people have for an activity (Deci, 1999). People will enjoy the activity less and not do it as often anymore. And as we know from my previous article, people can ‘want’ to do something without actually liking the activity any more. So how can you know that players are playing your game because they ‘like’ it from looking at your game’s analytics? How can you know whether your players are just mindlessly playing your game because they became addicted to it? Sure, if your goal is to just generate money and not caring whether or not your players acutely like playing your game, go ahead, it can be a conscious choice. But if you want your players to look forward to your game and actually liking to play it, consider relying more on your player’s intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsically motivation games are games without any form of reward or punishment. We often regard these kinds of games as ‘just play’. Because most forms of play are intrinsic motivation: it is a voluntarily action, there is no pressure and there are no rewards or punishment for participating or not. Some other good intrinsic motivators are exploration and curiosity. Examples of games that (mostly) rely on intrinsic motivation are games such as the Stanley parable, flow, minecraft and flower. None of these games have scores and you can’t loose or win, there are no incentives.


Games that rely on external motivation are games you play solely for the rewards. Gamification is a good example: it tries to make every day, boring tasks fun by rewarding the player. Duolingo uses gamification to make learning a new language more fun and gamy (though you might start learning a language because you’d like to learn the language, which is an intrinsic motivator). Most games, however, are a mix of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. Some games might rely more on intrinsic motivators while others rely more on extrinsic motivators. You probably start playing a game out of curiosity, an intrinsic motivator. While failing a level or dying, for example, often is an extrinsic motivator. Especially if it makes you want to try again.


Some ideas for your own games
Extrinsic motivators aren’t bad and are naturally present in games. Think of any form of punishment such as failing a level, losing a live or losing a battle. But also reward such as a score or stars you get for finishing a level. Time is also often used in games as an external motivator, to pressure players. Think about solving a puzzle within a certain time. Another extrinsic motivator is competition, especially because it is rewarding for the player(s) who won. It can also motivate the others to try harder next time. And then there are extrinsic motivators that are less part of a game like daily rewards you get if you login to the game every day or notifications to remind you that you haven’t played yet today. When designing more for intrinsic motivators keep this quote in mind: “The reward is the activity itself” (Ryan & Deci, 2002). People will play your game because they enjoy playing your game, it is that simple. Rely more on the natural curiosity people have. What if you design a match-3 game with power-up. You can choose to create guided tutorials and explain players how to create and use them. But what if you choose to leave those tutorials out and leave it up to the player to discover what is possible? Ask yourself if someone can play the game without understanding this mechanic or feature. In that case, maybe you should leave it to the player’s curiosity to discover the feature or mechanic. Of course you might consider a tutorial if your game is not playable before the player understands the mechanic or feature. You can also try to make your game “easy to play, hard to master”. Mastery is one of those intrinsic motivators that will make people play a game or level over and over. You could even consider adding an extrinsic motivator in the form on competition to create some social pressure. I always find it important to ask questions during the design process. Some good questions to ask yourself if you are designing a mobile game where retention is important are:

  • Why will player’s want to come back to my game?
  • Are they given a reward for login every day?

Could it be they only play because they get a reward that is useful in your game? Maybe they don’t play your game because they like it anymore, but because of the rewards. But maybe you design a game that require players to think creatively our to find a solution to the puzzle outside the box. It might not be a good idea to include too many rewards or punishments, player since people who are offered a reward become distracted by it and their creativity suffers (Glucksberg, 1962). Try to stay away from time limits, they can make it harder for players to come up with a solution.

Some good reads and references

  • http://www.spring.org.uk/2009/10/how-rewards-can-backfire-and-reduce-motivation.php
  • Schmitt, F. F & Lahroodi, R. (2008). The epistemic value of curiosity. Educational Theory, 58(2), 125-149.
  • Berridge, K. & Kringelbach, M. (2008). Affective neuroscience of pleasure: Rewards in humans and animals. Psychopharmacology, 199(3), 457-480.
  • Robinson, T.E. & Berridge, K. C. (2001). Incentive-sensitization and addiction. Addiction (England), 96(1), 103-114.
  • Berridge, K. C. (2007). The debate over dopamine’s role in reward: The case for incentive salience. Psychopharmacology, 191(3), 391-431.
  • Glucksberg, S. (1962). The Influence of Strength of Drive on Functional Fixedness and Perceptual Recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 36-44
  • Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology (25), 54-67


Hello again, I’m sorry for not releasing an article last week. I was on a last minute trip to Sweden to check out Uppsala, the city I will study next year. So with any further ado, let’s start this article about making decisions. Making decisions is essential to any game, no matter the genre or target audience. To play a game is to make decisions. While there are many different theories that approach decision making from different angles, today I will focus on the dual-process thinking proposed by Kahneman (2014).

We have to make decisions every day about what to wear, what to have for breakfast and many more. Some of these decisions are made conscious and deliberate while others are unconscious and automatic. Let’s imagine you want to buy a new phone, this usually is a conscious decision. First you narrow down the options based on your wants and needs but also on intuition and gut feeling. Did you have a good experience with your previous phone? Maybe you will consider phones from the same brand. Once you narrowed down your options you are ready to make your final decision. This time you carefully weigh the pros and cons of the remaining phones. This method of making choices is based on two systems of thinking, otherwise known as the dual-process theory: system 1 thinking and system 2 thinking (Kahneman, 2014). Dual-process theory is not just about making decisions, it’s about thinking and problem solving in general. You use system 1 thinking to narrow down your options to just a few and then you use system 2 thinking to make the final decision. System 1 thinking is automatic and unconscious, it helps you make rapid decisions and develop first impressions. This system is what you would call your gut-feeling or intuition and you cannot turn it off. System 1 thinking can help you make some satisfactory decisions very quickly. However there is no guarantee for correct decisions, most of the times system 1 thinking leads to poor decisions (Stanovich, 2008; Tversky & Kahneman, 1993, 1974). System 2 thinking is more deliberate and controlled. It is otherwise known as reason-based decision-making. The system 2 type of thinking and decision making requires attention, it is effortful and slow. You use logics and reason to come to a conclusion. While this system leads to better choices overall, it can only help when there are just a few options to choose from (Payne & Bettman, 2004). In the case of our phone, you’ll evaluate the characteristics of each phone and use those to compare the phones. It doesn’t matter if you are designing casual games or a hardcore game, all games require the player to make decisions on a regular basis. Being aware of the dual-process theory can help you spot the difference between mindless play (system 1 thinking) and active problem solving or decision making (system 2 thinking). You can make good use of the system 1 thinking mode since its always on in your players. Probably you already aim to design for system 1 thinking in parts of your game with ‘intuitive gameplay’. This is when you use conventions from similar games so the player can make rapid associations and find out how to control the game. But metaphors from the real world can also be used. Think about the gold coins players can collect or buy in many mobile games. A designer’s choice to use gold coins is a conscious one since players associate the metaphor of gold coins with the real coins in their wallet. System 2 thinking is what you should rely on when designing a puzzle game. This more effortful thinking can be a lot fun to people who enjoy these types of games. Being aware that system 2 thinking is a slow process can help you make decisions such as add time pressure to your game for example.

For the design of some games it might be worth-while to learn a little more about dual-process theory. Especially games with many options or choices. Think about Strategy games, city builders and other micromanagement games. But also think about games where creativity is important such as a dress-up game. The player wants to be able to create new and unique things every session. Having many options to choose from can aid this creativity.

Tropico is one of my favorite city builder games because of the humor and setting (go check out the trailer for topico 6 to see what I’m talking about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0J448fXXVFI). Tropico is a micromanagement game for the PC that allows for countless hours of play. This game makes good use of the dual-processing theory in several ways. As a player you have to make lots of choices and the game allows you play a different scenario every time. For many choices the game relies on system 2 thinking but there are little ‘system 1 thinking tricks’ that help the player choose. Think about the layered  menu system they use for selecting buildings. First the player chooses a category, then he/she makes the final choice. This menu system not only allows the player to first use system 1 thinking, but also makes sure the player doesn’t feel overwhelmed by all the options. Another ‘system 1 thinking trick’ is the suggested building that sometimes pops up when a player wants to build something. Without this feature a player has to carefully check all the stats and weight all the options to find that he/she needs to build simple housing a part of the underpaid inhabitants are homeless. The suggested building doesn’t always show up, sometimes the player does need to use system 2 thinking. The two systems of thinking are well balanced in this game.


I was working on a dress-up game for Tingly games (and later CoolGames) called Emma’s dressup party (http://www.coolgames.com/nl/emmas-dress-up-party.html). For a dress-up game it is important to let the player express their creativity. Many choices and options for clothes, accessories and colors ensure that players can create unique outfits every time. I wanted players to be able to express their creativity but at the same time not be overwhelmed by too many options. A layered menu system for all the items was a conscious design choice. It helps the player make one decision at a time from a small range of options. There are 5 categories which each have no more than 4 subcategories. Those subcategories have many items but only 4 are shown per page. And while the player can choose a color for every item it remains an optional decision. Each item comes with a preset color that was set by the artist or me. Also, I limited the choices the player can make during the first session. Many items and colors are locked and can be unlocked with coins. The random button is another little ‘system 1 trick’ I added for the player. A player can let the random button generate a complete outfit when don’t know what to choose just need some inspiration.


As a designer or game developer it is useful to be familiar with the dual-process theory. It can help you improve the way players make decisions or find the correct solution in your game. System 1 thinking is fast and intuitive, your players will rely on this system when there is time pressure in your game. Make sure players can use their intuition or can easily use association to come up with a solution. Are you making a puzzle game? Your players often like these kinds of games because they enjoy effortful thinking. Be careful with time pressure, allow your players time to access their system 2 thinking. Are you thinking to add time pressure to your puzzle game anyways? Make sure the solution is intuitive in some way. Because, players might not get enough time to access their system 2 thinking. Are you designing a strategy game or micromanagement games such as city builder? You might want your players to enjoy your game for countless hours. The game needs to be re-playable over and over again with many different outcomes and decisions to make. Players would like to have many options and choices to make. Adding a layered decision system can help your players to use both system 1 and 2 thinking. In a layered decision system players use their system 1 thinking to first chose a category and then use their system 2 thinking to make an actual decision. Having advisor or suggestions can help your player’s access their system 1 thinking. But deciding on a strategy should largely be up to the player’s system 2 thinking. When you are relying on system 1 thinking for a part of your game, make sure the decision are either almost always correct or that it can be reversed. Many decisions made using system 1 thinking are often wrong, keep this in the back of your mind when designing. Of course, always aim for a healthy balance between system 1 and system 2 thinking depending on the type of game you are making.

Further reading and references:

  • Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision making under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263-291
  • Stanovich, K. E. (2008). How to Think Straight about Psychology (8thedn). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Payne, J. W. & Bettman, J. R. (2004). Walking with the scarecrow: The information-processing approach to decision research. In D. J. Koehler & N. Harvey (eds), Blackwell Handbook of Judgment and Descision Making. Malden, MA: Bkackwell Publishing.
  • Kahneman, D. (2014). Thinking, Fast and Slow.JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT RESEARCH IN EMERGING ECONOMIES, 499.


Developmental psychology is the study of how our cognitive processes change throughout our lives. The field used to focus on children and how their cognitive abilities develop, but nowadays it is understood that we keep developing throughout our lives. This field of psychology might be one of the most interesting for game design. It can help you as a game designer understand players, how they think and what is challenging for them.

Developmental psychology started when psychologist began studying children and saw how their cognitive abilities were different from adults. Piaget was one of those psychologists, he proposed a stage theory based on his findings. His stage theory basically means that our cognitive abilities develop according to distinct stages. Children don’t understand object permanence until 1 or 2. Object permanence is the idea that objects still exist when they are hidden from view. That is why it’s so much fun to play peek-a-boo with little babies. They are genuinely surprised when they see you again. Conservation is understood around the age of 6. Children will start to understand that something doesn’t just magically become more because you manipulated it. For example: give a 4-year-old 1 cookie and give yourself 2 cookies. When you ask the child whether you fairly devided the cookies, he’ll say no. Then you take his cookie, break it in half. Now when you ask the child if you fairly devided the cookies he’ll say: “Yes, because we both have 2 cookies now”. Children before the age of 6 can’t make a distinction between appearance and reality yet (De Vries, 1969). Piaget’s experiment for testing if a child understand conservation are a little bit mean but also quite funny (and super cute): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnArvcWaH6I. Children aren’t able to take someone else’s point of view until they are around the age of 6 or 7. Piaget tested this ability in children with the picture story of Sally and Anne you see below. A child who says Sally should look in the box isn’t yet able to take someone else’s perspective. These children have trouble forming empathy as well, they don’t realize yet that other people have feelings too. Now you understand that creating a cooperative game for kids below the age of 6 might not be a good idea. Logical and hypothetical thinking develops around the age of 11 to 12. That is why children below 11 often have a hard time understanding games like chess or checkers. 11 or 12 is also the age children start to understand the idea of reversibility. Before this age, children don’t understand that numbers or object can be changed or returned to their original condition. Children don’t get that when their favorite ball isn’t broken when it is deflated and that it can be filled up again. The ability to think abstractly and hypothetically doesn’t develop until the age of 12 or later. However, it’s good to realize that cognitive development is personal. Some children’s cognitive abilities develop quicker than others. But these ages can be good guidelines when you design a game for kids.


As we age we change physically, we get a wrinkle and some grey hair but that’s just the outside. Our brain also changes as well, whether we like it or not. As we age, our reaction time declines and the same happens to our problem solving abilities (Ornstein & Light, 2010; Freedman et all., 2001). Around your 40s or 50s it starts becoming more difficult to learn something new like a new skill. That’s why your granny still doesn’t understand how to use her smart phone even though you’ve explained it a thousand times. You can understand why many older people don’t like to play hardcore games. Beyond your 40s or 50s you have to invest a lot more time to learn how to play the game. This doesn’t even take into account that many elderly people were already older than 40 or 50 when PC’s and game consoles became popular. Your memory declines with age as well. The decline actually already starts in your 20s (Park & Reuter-Lorenz, 2009). But it’s not all downhill from your 20s onwards. As you age, knowledge based on facts increases. You get exposed to facts every day, you will pick information up along the way. That’s probably why your granny likes the daily crossword puzzle from the newspaper and why Wordfeud is still popular with older people.

The ‘Tovertafel’
I’d like to talk about a console instead of a game this time: the ‘tovertafel’ (translates to magic table). ‘The tovertafel’ is an interactive projector that was first developed for elderly people with dementia (https://tovertafel.nl/). People can play games together on the ‘tovertafel’. Several games are included that can be played by anyone who suffers from dementia. Players interact with the ‘tovertafel’ by touching the projections on the table. Because of direct manipulation, there is no need for players to learn something new. Players can just touch a projection and see what happens. All the games that come with the ‘tovertafel’ are based on metaphors and knowledge older people remember from when they were younger such as a jigsaw puzzle, a game with flowers and a proverbs game. While some games require a bit of knowledge based on facts others games are more like play, so there is no need for a perfect memory. None of the games require a good reaction time from the player, they can interact with the game whenever they feel like.


Tips and suggestions when designing games for older people (40+)
Use metaphors, something the players are already familiar with. This can be anything from things they know from their youth to things they are familiar with on a daily basis. Direct manipulation interfaces such as touch screen are always a good idea. Touch screens allow you to design interactions players are used to from every day interaction such as touching or dragging. Don’t forget to keep the player’s reaction time in mind as well. Allow the player to interact with the game at their own speed. 

Dr. Panda’s bath time
Dr. Panda makes games kids can play on a Ipad, Iphone or Android. One of their games is called dr. panda bath time (https://drpanda.com/games/dr-panda-bath-time). It is a semi-educational game that teaches children about hygiene habits while also being fun. Children use direct manipulation to drag the characters and things around. The controls are very similar to what kids are used to on a daily basis. Players cannot make mistakes in the game, they are not punished. The game is ideal for children who don’t yet understand conservation. Children do not need to be familiar with abstract or hypothetical thinking. The game doesn’t have a score system and kids can just try things to see what happens. 


Tips and suggestions when designing for children
Metaphors are not just useful for older people, kids can understand them as well. Just make sure that you use metaphors kids use on a daily basis. For small children, touch interfaces would be the way to go. Direct manipulation doesn’t require the abstract thinking a mouse or keyboard would. It might seem simple to link a character’s movement to something like a mouse, but it already requires more abstract and hypothetical thinking. Since conservation isn’t developed until 6, it’s good practice to keep the mistakes a player can make to a minimum. It would be even better when every interaction a player makes is either right or neutral. Keep your age-range small when designing kids games. Children’s cognitive and mental abilities develop very quickly.

References and stuff

  • Paiget’s tasks for kids: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnArvcWaH6I
  • Ornstein, P. A., & Light, L. L. (2010). Memory development across the life span.The handbook of life-span development.
  • Freedman, V. A., Aykan, H., & Martin, L. G. (2001). Aggregate changes in severe cognitive impairment among older Americans: 1993 and 1998.The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences56(2), S100-S111.Park, D. C., & Reuter-Lorenz, P. (2009). The adaptive brain: aging and neurocognitive scaffolding. Annual review of psychology60, 173-196.
  • Müller, U., & Racine, T. P. (2010). The development of representation and concepts.The handbook of life-span development.
  • De Vries, R. (1969). Constancy of generic identity in the years three to six.Monographs of the society for research in child development34(3), iii-67.
  • Bialystok, E., & Craik, F. I. (2010). Structure and Process in Life‐Span Cognitive Development.The handbook of life-span development.Kesselring, T., & Müller, U. (2011). The concept of egocentrism in the context of Piaget’s theory. New Ideas in Psychology29(3), 327-345.
  • Phillips, J. L. (1975).The origins of intellect: Piaget’s theory (Vol. 1).


Groups are very interesting to psychologists. You might not think about it, but groups are very powerful. They can change your behavior and the way you think. Groups can even make you do things you wouldn’t normally do. According to Brown (1988) a group consists out of two or more people. Some groups are more group-like than groups, if that makes sense. For example: when you are a game designer, you form a group with all other game designers in the world. You’d call other game designers your colleagues even if they work in a different company. But you also form group with the people you work with every day: your team. You and your team are more group-like than you and all the other game designers in the world. A group is more group-like when it has a group structure, its individuals share a common identity and are interdependent. Groups usually are made up of well-defined roles. Each member of the group has his or her own tasks and these complement the tasks of other group members. A successful group like your game-dev team has unique roles for each member. When these roles are vague or blend together, the group becomes less successful.

We are social beings, groups are necessary for our survival and happiness. But there are other benefits to groups as well. Your performance goes up when you perform a simple task when others are present. This effect is called social facilitation (Zajonc, 1965). Social facilitation can help many athletes perform better when they are competing. Even the presence of virtual others can aid social facilitation (Park & Catrambone, 2007). Unfortunately the effects of social facilitation work the other way around when it comes to complex tasks or tasks that require concentration. The presence of others will hinder performance in those cases.pexels-photo-92129.thumb.jpg.663936ac9cdbd4158b8b02ad9c744468.jpg

There are more disadvantages to groups beside performance on complex tasks. The presence of others can also cause social loafing (Latané, 1979). People will put less effort into a task when they are part of a group compared to when they are working alone. You might remember this group school projects: there were always free riders. Social loafing is contagious as well. When one person slacks off, others will follow. Would you like to avoid social loafing for future (school) project? Make tasks meaningful, important and make personal effort identifiable. Having a more cohesive and tight group can help as well. Go out for dinner with your game-dev team sometimes, it’s fun as well.

Another disadvantage to groups is that it can lead to groupthink in certain cases. Groupthink is the tendency of group members to think alike. This can lead to some pretty bad decisions (Janis, 1971). Groupthink usually occurs in very cohesive groups where members are similar to each other. There often is pressure towards conformity as well. To combat groupthink, groups have to diversify their members. A group can think about recruiting people who think differently or people who belong to minorities. That is why many people  want to increase diversity in the games industry. Many studios and companies have mostly white male employees in their dev teams and they are at risk of groupthink. Strong and directive leaders can also increase groupthink, especially when they are not open to someone else’s point of view. Group members can become afraid to express their ideas or concerns. It’s best to become the devil’s advocate if you see this happen. Question your leader’s point of view even when you agree. Others will follow your example.

In certain cases groups can lead to deindividuation. Deindividuation is the loss of individuality that can happen when members of the group lose individual accountability and self-awareness. The interest of the group becomes more important than a member’s self-interest. Anonymous is a good example of deindividuation but so are most fascist groups and football (soccer) hooligans. Within groups like anonymous there are no individual roles and members are not individually accountable. Deindividuation can make groups incredibly powerful but dangerous as well.

I’d like to end with a little disclaimer: the effects of groups are studied in the field of social psychology. Most of the research on groups and its effects are done in western countries. There is no question that culture is also a huge factor in how we behave in groups. There is no doubt that there are differences per culture. The theories discussed in this article may not apply to eastern, middle eastern or african cultures. You should take that into account when planning to release your game to a certain country. Also, the knowledge we have on group behavior now is based on averages and not individuals. There will always be people who don’t follow the effects.

Dungeons & Dragons
Cooperation of a group is very important in the pen and paper roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons. Each player creates a character before the party can begin their journey together. Those of you who are familiar with the game know that the most successful parties have characters from diverse backgrounds. One member can be a half-orc fighter who takes and deals the damage during a fight, another member could be a human cleric who heals the party members after a fight and yet another member could be a elven ranger who guides the party through the forest. Each character has his or her own well-defined role that complement the other characters. During a session there is very little social loafing when the group is just right. Each member’s personal efforts are identifiable and the tasks are meaningful even when there is no combat. Unfortunately there is no social facilitation. Your dice roll won’t improve because of the group.


A very diverse group

Mobile games
Social mobile or casual games can also benefit from knowing a little about the psychology of groups. Unfortunately, many social casual games out there today do a poor job. They don’t make any use of any of the benefits from groups. In many games each player has the same role as the next player and there is no clear group. While everyone who plays Candy Crush form a group, they are not as group-like as a Dungeons & Dragons party.

A mobile and social game that did, to some extent, apply the psychology of groups is Pokémon Go. Last summer the game was very popular in the Netherlands (and many other countries). Player’s interacted with each other even though they had never met before. Everyone who played Pokémon Go automatically formed a group with all the other players. Players could also join another group when they reached a certain level: their team. A player can choose to join one of three teams: team Mystic (blue), team Valor (red) and team Instinct (yellow). When players were catching Pokémon or fighting a team, they met other players. One of the first questions they asked you was which team you joined. If you are not a member of their team, you are trash. That’s pretty powerful considering that the groups are based on very little but a personal preference of color or leader. There is a risk of deindividuation since there are no individual roles in Pokémon Go or personal accountability. The fact that players have self-interest is the only thing that saves people from deindividuation.


Which team did you join?

Ideas and suggestions for game design
Any game were multiple people play together can benefit from the psychology behind group processes. Think about social games and MMO(rpgs), but also cooperative games or team based games. When designing these games try to avoid groupthink, reduce the risk of deindividuation and create individual roles that complement other roles. You can avoid groupthink by having diverse characters and roles. Also consider attracting a diverse target audience(s) to the game. Think about using Bartle’s taxonomy (Bartle, 1996) to attract players who enjoy different aspects of the game (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yxpW2ltDNow). Having individual roles and tasks can combat groupthink as well. To reduce the risk of deindividuation you can design systems that keep players individually accountable for their actions. For example: add a mechanic that punishes players when they do something you don’t want them to do. Besides the interest of the group or party, players should also have a self-interest. Maybe players have their own XP to think about or they have to collect their own gold.


  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGxGDdQnC1Y
  • Bartle’s taxonomy http://mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm
  • Bartle, R. (1996). Hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades: Players who suit MUDs. Journal of MUD research1(1), 19.
  • Park, S., & Catrambone, R. (2007). Social facilitation effects of virtual humans. Human Factors49(6), 1054-1060.
  • Zajonc, R. B. (1965). Social facilitation. Ann Arbor: Research Center for Group Dynamics, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.
  • Janis, I. L. (1971). Groupthink. Psychology today5(6), 43-46.
  • Stogdill, R. M. (1974). Handbook of leadership: A survey of theory and research. Free Press.
  • Brown, R. (1988). Group processes: Dynamics within and between groups. Basil Blackwell.
  • Latané, B., Williams, K., & Harkins, S. (1979). Many hands make light the work: The causes and consequences of social loafing. Journal of personality and social psychology37(6), 822.


Curiosity is the pleasure of learning and not knowing. It sparks the desire to learn or the desire to figure out how stuff works. Curiosity is closely related to the difference between ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’. When you are curious you feel anticipation, you want to know or try out something. Curiosity involves trial-and-error which comes very natural to games. As a player you constantly try out stuff in games and when it doesn’t work, you try again. There is a little bit of curiosity in every game. Games are a safe environment in which players learn the rules of the game. It’s the reason we start playing any game in the first place and it’s often the reason we cannot stop. We need to know what happens next. 

Psychologists are divided when it comes to curiosity as a personal trait. Some research suggests that we are born curious, which it makes sense because children are naturally curious. On average a child will ask 26 questions per hour (Chouinard, 2007), that’s how curious they are. Think about a child you know and you will agree, they ask anything. Some questions are very silly: “Why are they called cupcakes?” and “Why do I have to wait to eat?”, Others are more scientific: “Why is the sky blue?” and “Why is the sea salty”. But sometimes they ask very tough-to-answer questions like “Why do people die?”. At the other side, researcher acknowledge that some adults are more curious that others. Not every child becomes a curious scientist when they grow up. From experience we can tell that children become less curious when they grow up. Research also confirms this, curiosity becomes less robust over time (Coie, 1974).


It’s no wonder that developmental psychologist Piaget became interested studying the phenomena as well. Piaget (1969) describes curiosity as the urge to explain the unexpected. But being curious is hugely beneficial, not just for kids. People who are curious about something learn more and better (Berlyne, 1954). Curiosity allows for deep understanding in the subject you’re curious about. Older children who are intrigued by unexpected or mysterious descriptions in their reading are more likely to remember it and understand the content more deeply (Garner, Brown, Sanders, & Menke, 1992). But what about games? How can curiosity be beneficial for improving your game design? Games are about learning, you’d like the player to learn how to play your game while playing. When players are curious about your game they’ll pick up the mechanics and features much better and quicker. It’s more likely your players will keep playing as well. Furthermore, when a player’s curiosity is satisfied they feel pleasure (Kang et al. 2009). Curiosity can make your game more fun for any player as long as you satisfy that hunger for getting to know your game and its mechanics. Curiosity is also a motivational prerequisite for exploratory behavior (Berlyne, 1960). It could be that you want your player to explore more of your game. Curiosity is a great intrinsic motivator as well that encourages players to learn and try new things.

To get your players curious you can use the idea of uncertainty and surprise. When parts of the game take a surprising or unexpected turn, players get curious about what happens next. Predictability is the enemy here. You should be cautious with fear however. Scaring the player will stop them from exploring or trying. But also fear of failure is detrimental for exploration and curiosity. When a player is afraid to fail they will become cautious and keep to what they already know. They won’t become curious and they won’t try something new. Fowler (1965) has done research into what makes people curious. He found that boredom is one prerequisite or motivator for curiosity. Boredom can push the player to explore your game, find its secrets and possibilities. According to Fowler’s research you should make parts of your game boring. It’s a weird and counter-intuitive idea but is great for sandbox and exploration games. The players of these games are used to trying stuff out on their own. Being a bit boring from time to time can make the player crave for more and start exploring on their own.


Exploration and survival games naturally evoke curiosity in players. Often players are told very little when they start the game. Sometimes there is a small tutorial that explains the player how to interact with the game but that’s it. Players are supposed to figure most of the game out by themselves. Subnautica is a good example, the player is told next to nothing when they start. One of the reason might be because the game is still in early access but it works wonders for this game. According to the story, your spaceship has crashed on an unknown alien world. As a player you are given as much information as the character you play. The crafting system feeds the player’s curiosity as well. The player is constantly trying out things and figure out how to get certain items. Before you can craft and item you need to explore the world to gather the resources. While you are gathering the necessary resources you get to know the alien world. You explore new animals and plants you have never seen before.

Suggestions for design
According to psychological theory there are a couple of things you should take into account when designing an exploration or survival game. Be careful with scary surprises. Players shouldn’t be afraid to explore and try new things. You should also limit punishment in your game when possible. Of course you want to let your players know what’s good and what’s bad but too much punishment can make players think they are playing the game ‘wrong’. They will try to play the game ‘right’ which means they won’t feel the need to explore in order not to mess up the game. To aid more curiosity in your game, you can design for pleasant surprises. Think about an unexpected combination of resources to make a certain item in a crafting game or system. You can think about leaving some hard-to-reproduce bugs and glitches in your game (as long as they don’t break the game). Glitches and bugs are good conversation material among players that stumble across them. The same is true for Easter eggs, although they require more development time.

jpQMMt1.thumb.jpg.73e5bbd5836f2631354ca1e4933bd234.jpg Go and explore the world!

Narrative elements can create curiosity as well when done right. The narrative should keep the player craving more of your game. Subnautica is a very good example of how to do good game narration. The narration is barely noticeable but it leaves every player with a ton of questions. Every time a part of the story is told and bits of information are given. While it might answer some questions it also creates many more. It leaves room for imagination and speculation.

As mentioned before curiosity is very natural to games. Games are a safe environment that encourages trial-and-error. Of course there are things any game type and genre can use to improve its curious nature. When it comes to tutorials it’s good to realize that there is no need to explain every detail of the game to the player. Keep to the core mechanics and the bare essentials the player needs to know to get started. You can leave it up to the player’s curiosity to figure out other mechanics, features and possibilities. Losing a level because the player doesn’t understand an element isn’t bad either as long as players understands why they lost and how it can be overcome. Fog of war is also a great tool for exploring and curiosity. Traditionally fog of war is used in strategy games but the idea can be applied to many games, even to the world map of a casual puzzle game like 10×10 ice cream adventure.

fog of war.png 10X10 ice cream adventure

References and stuff

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29Lw0k7HNdg
  • http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/evolution/curiosity1.htm
  • Berlyne, D. (1954). A theory of human curiosity. British Journal of Psychology, 45, 180–191.
  • Coie, J. (1974). An evaluation of the cross-situational stability of children’s curiosity. Journal of Personality, 42, 93–116.
  • Garner, R., Brown, R., Sanders, S., & Menke, D. J. (1992). “Seductive details” and learning from text. In K. A. Renninger, S. Hidi, & A. Krapp (Eds.), The role of interest in learning and development(pp. 239–254). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Piaget, J., & Buey, F. F. (1969). Psicología y pedagogía. Barcelona: Ariel.
  • Berlyne, D. E. (1960). Conflict, arousal, and curiosity.
  • Fowler, H. (1965). Curiosity and exploratory behavior.
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