The Psychology of Games

I have talked a lot about Gamification and referred to many aspects of game thinking that are used to make a system work like a game. But what are the psychological explanations and theories behind the way games are designed? I want to explore that question and hopefully convince some game skeptics that games are actually serious stuff.

Play is Voluntary

To describe the origin of human motivation and personality in connection with the inner drive for growth and the satisfaction of psychological needs, Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan developed the Self-determination theory (SDT).

The SDT tries to discover the intrinsic motivation that leads us to our decisions and influences our behavior, excluding external stimulations. Basis for this theory is the philosophy of Self-determination first pronounced by Mortimer Adler as he drew ideas from Aristotle and Aquinas.

The SDT is important for game theory because at its core, it is afout whe Free Will.

In his presentation “Beyond Gamification: Architecting Engagement Through Game Design Thinking”, Dustin DiTommaso defines a game as “a voluntary, rules- bound experience of competitive strife towards discrete goals or outcomes”. Games are voluntary, we choose to play with our own Free Will and inside a game nobody really forces us to do something. Suggested objectives or actions in a game are either overlapping with our own motivations or we don’t perceive them as fun and quit the game. The player hasn’t to fear real life consequences or has to fulfill someone’s expectations, there no extrinsic motivations involved in a game.

Furthermore, the SDT describes three “motivation needs” a human has and whose satisfaction game designers have perfected in the last decades: Competence, Autonomy and Relatedness. If you want to know how they can be connected to games, read Samuel Kenyon’s article “Gamification and Self- Determination Theory”.

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To make a game experience fun and engaging, game designer have a palette of game mechanics to choose from. In their core game mechanics are steering elements that allow the designer to control the player behavior. By placing rewards that correspond with the player’s needs they convince them to perform actions in order to get to the reward.

Professor of Psychology, Steven Reiss, has performed a survey to find the important intrinsic motivators of people who are regularly engaging in voluntary behavior. Sharleen Sy has derived a chart to show how the game designers of World of Warcraft have implemented game mechanics to respond to those motivational needs. It can be found here.



In his presentation about the “Science of Gamifiaction”, principle scientist of analytics Micheal Wu refers to B.J. Fogg’s Behavior Model (FBM) characterizing three factors that explain human behavior. The question is: when does someone really perform a desired action?

Everything starts with the Motivation to do something. However, Fogg introduces two new terms: Ability and Trigger. An action can only be performed if the individual has the Ability to do so. Additionally, for the execution of many actions, a Trigger is needed because people may be unaware of their ability and would never consider doing a certain task, or they are hesitant and question their motivation or they are simply distracted.


Games are designed in a way that the ability (skill) of a player develops proportionally with the difficulty of the challenge. The timing of a Trigger is most important. If a Trigger is activated before a player has acquired the necessary ability that is connected with it, he might try and fail. If a Trigger is activated before a player has reached the motivation, a player might not even react to it. Triggers which get the player to tackle a challenge are usually some form of reward: story development, a new skill, a new weapon, acknowledgement by the community or non player characters (in accordance with Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness).


When speaking about intrinsic motivation, fun and player behavior, the most cited term that determines the quality of engagement in a game is Flow, a term created by Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi, close to a god for many game designer. Wu sees Flow in connection with the FBM.

Flow establishes two new terms: Challenge and Reward. A Challenge is the test of an acquired skill in a game and requires an action by the player. Usually, the player is promised some kind of Reward to overcome a Challenge.

Flow explains how the Ability of the player and the difficulty of the Challenge have to be balanced out in order to keep the player in a stream of self motivated, fun and productive experiences. This is the master discipline for every game designer and the defining factor for a successful game. If a challenge is too difficult, a player feels anxious. If a challenge is too easy, the player feels bored.


Personality Types

Depending on their motivations to play and the behavior in a game environment, Richard Bartle categorized players in four types. Game designer use his schemata to figure out what game mechanics they have to use in order to attract their target player and how to keep them engaged. For a long time Bartle’s Four Player Model (FPM) had been used for games only but with the change in our society and the Gamification of more areas of our culture, the model seems to have become more relevant in describing personalities outside of games and group dynamics. (Gabe Zichermann, Google Tech Talk, 2010)

Bartle’s FPM has become the basis for Gamifier to choose game mechanics with the goal to gamify education, marketing or businesses.


Game Mechanics

At the end of the logical chain are the Game Mechanics. If chosen wisely they link the player to the game world and create Flow and lead the player in an immersive experience. A list of Game Mechanics in connection with Gamification can be found here.

But Gamification has its limitations that are also tied to the deep psychological background of games. Seeing his model being abused for design marketing campaigns and social media technologies, Richard Bartle had to speak up and explained that his model shouldn’t be used to gamify anything. Please read my second post to see when Gamification means Game Over.