Psychology and Game Design: One Possible Future Path

Psychology and Game Design: One Possible Future Path

07/18/17 Ian Schreiber

“Is flow the only concept from positive psychology that…help[s] us design better games regardless of our motives for doing so? Or is it just the only one that the game design community has discovered so far?” – Ian Schreiber

Editor’s note: Ian Schreiber joined iThrive Games for our October 2016 design hive, where he learned about our mission and felt inspired to post about it on Facebook (check that out here). This blog is an extension of the thoughts he shared there. Learn more about our design hive events and other ongoing projects here.  

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It’s rare to find a game designer who hasn’t studied any psychology. Our job is to craft compelling experiences; understanding how humans experience things is vital to our work.

And yet, much of the field of psychology is devoted to what happens when things go wrong. As with medicine, there is more of a focus on pathology than maintenance or wellness. Most of the training doctors and psychologists go through focuses on how to fix problems, with little attention paid to taking happy, healthy humans and maintaining or improving their health. Much of a game designer’s study of psychology, then, focuses on human weakness. When I teach game design in a classroom, for example, I cover topics like these:

  • Why most people misunderstand basic probability, and how to design our games’ random systems so that they aren’t misperceived as unfair (or conversely, how gambling games and some free-to-play games exploit these misconceptions for money);
  • Reasons why players are jerks to one another in online games, and how to design our games’ social systems to minimize the effects of trolls and griefers;
  • Behavioral conditioning, addictive behavior, and other mind hacks that trick players into continuing to play our games long after they would otherwise choose not to;
  • Cognitive biases, fallacies, and other traps that our designer brains and player brains lay for us so that they can destroy the fun in our games, and how to design with these very human fallibilities in mind.

This is not to say that these things aren’t important. They certainly are. But most players of games are physically and emotionally healthy and well-adjusted humans. Especially if we are designing for the mass market, it would seem prudent to understand not just abnormal psychology, but also the healthy, whole, and thriving mind.

Positive Psychology

The field of positive psychology is concerned primarily with improving an individual’s happiness, well-being, and self-fulfillment. Rather than focusing on curing mental illness or eliminating maladaptive behavior, positive psychology seeks ways for individuals to improve their happiness, whether or not they suffer from any disorder in the DSM-V. Here are some examples of concepts studied by positive psychology researchers:

  • Empathy: Understanding what others are feeling, and why
  • Curiosity: Cultivating a desire to explore the world around us
  • Gratitude: Being thankful for the kindnesses of others
  • Growth Mindset: Believing that we can improve rather than being limited by our DNA
  • Mindfulness: Being present in the moment in a non-judgmental way
  • Purpose: Pursuing a life of meaning
  • Flow: Challenging ourselves at the peak of our ability

…Wait, what was that last one? It probably sounds familiar, because Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow, a key concept in positive psychology that was popularized in games by Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun, is standard content in most Game Design 101 classes.

Better People, Better Games

Game designers, particularly those of us working on games for entertainment (as opposed to “serious games”), are primarily tasked with making our games fun, to the extent that this will help the games sell enough copies that our studios can keep making games.

I’ve met a lot of game designers in the last couple of years who seek a greater purpose—far more than I’ve seen in the 15 years before that. Some of us want to make games that don’t just entertain, but that make the world a better place. Not all of us are driven by this ideal, of course, but it seems there are more of us talking about this than ever before.

Even if you’re the type of game designer who just wants to make games that are fun and views that as enough of a lifelong challenge without also having to save the world, thank-you-very-much, you’ve still probably heard of this concept of flow, and maybe used it to improve your games. Not because you want to improve players’ lives, but because this concept from positive psychology helps you make games that are more fun. Any lifestyle improvement that happens as a result is a nice bonus, sure, but you wouldn’t even bother except that it also makes your games more compelling.

This begs the question: Is flow the only concept from positive psychology that has this property, helping us design better games regardless of our motives for doing so? Or is it just the only one that the game design community has discovered so far?

Given that positive psychology deals with things that improve people’s enjoyment of life, it’s likely that these concepts would also improve our players’ enjoyment of our games. We just need to figure out how. And once we do, perhaps we will enter an age where our best entertainment games do, in fact, make people’s lives better. Not because they were designed to do so, but merely because they were designed well as pure entertainment.

If you agree there is potential here, then, consider this your call to action. Join in seeking ways to apply these concepts to game design. I look forward to seeing the better worlds that you create as a result. (If you couldn’t guess from the location of this post, iThrive Games is a non-profit organization specifically working in this space, so if you are reading this and thinking that this is describing your current or future projects, or that you’d like to know more, I’d suggest getting in touch with them.)

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About the Author: Ian Schreiber (@IanSchreiber) has been in the game industry as a designer, programmer, and educator since 2000. In addition to his role as an assistant professor of game design at Rochester Institute of Technology, he has worked on several shipped titles including online trading card games, console games, online social games, and some “serious games” for corporate training. He is also an author and a co-founder of the Global Game Jam.


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