Using psychology in game design

Using psychology in game design
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

June 14th 2013 at 10:30AM

Berni Good tells Develop what studios can learn from cyberpsychology

[This feature was published in the June 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

Every time a developer contemplates what a customer might like about a game, they’re arguably tackling player psychology.

It’s very different from the potential execution of true scientific psychology on the games making process, but, almost certainly, creating games is about understanding the human mind, and how to best please and reward it.

So it should come as little surprise that a new wave of academic psychological study around video games is underway, offering developers a fresh tool in their arsenal. As more experts explore how humans interact with technology, games developers with open minds can now employ new methods of understanding how to offer their customers the most well received – and most profitable – experiences.

One of those experts is ‘cyberpsychologist’ Berni Good, a former employee of the games industry with experience across marketing, branding and publishing, and part of the team that at the turn of the millennium made Game Domain a global succes story.

Good recently devoted much of her time to studies in cyberpsychology at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Ireland, working alongside academics investigating everything from AI to virtual reality. It was there that she started to consider the value of her work to the process of making games.

“I realised there was an opportunity to look at all this academic research that is really gaining ground, and look at how that can be used in an applied perspective for today’s developers,” explains Good, who is currently putting the finishing touches on a talk to be delivered at July’s Develop in Brighton conference.

“This is about more than just upping the ante for the players’ experiences; there’s issues to be explored around ethics and responsibility, and what clinical aspects of games can be used in an applied perspective.”

DO YOUR RESEARCH

According to Good, considering well-researched psychological theory in the games making process can offer much to studios, from bettering the mechanics and characters in their games to precisely satisfying the foundations of a player’s innate desire for happiness.

“We can ask questions about what we can understand about the gamer’s mind, in terms of increasing things like, for example, engagement and immersion, and better understanding of concepts like flow and character attachment,” reveals Good.

“We can learn about things like that by doing scientific research that is robust enough for developers to apply within their development model.”

There, Good has hit on a distinguishing feature of the new wave of games psychology. The early work of those like the still-active Sherry Turkle, who investigated the relationship between human and machine in early MUDs in the early 1980s, was certainly of use to developers.

But now more than ever, there is an emphasis on applied perspective. In other words, theoretical models of psychology are today built with practical implementation in the games design process in mind.

Take, for example, the way the broader psychological theory of self-determination has been re-appropriated with games developers in mind.

Self-determination theory looks at humans’ internal motivations, needs and decision-making. Academics Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan can take much credit for establishing the theory, which is over 30 years old and famously reliable as a model.

It’s an example of a eudemonic approach – meaning the science of happiness and personal wellbeing in layman’s terms. People, the theory states, have innate psychological needs that are the basis for both self-motivation and personality integration. The theory states that those needs are  ‘autonomy’, ‘relatedness’ and ‘competence’, and all are relevant in the way a player interacts with and enjoys a video game.

Autonomy, to a psychologist, is our ability and desire to have freedom over our own actions. It’s important in order to feel fulfilled, and it’s something games designers can harness to make their games more enjoyable through giving the player choice.

Similary relatedness – the intrinsic need for interaction with others – and competence – the necessity of achieving in life – can be specifically applied to games design.

“Games can really address intrinsic needs we have as human beings. Being able to make your own choices in life can help self-esteem, make you feel happier and motivate you,” states Good. “Incorporating that thinking into the design of a game, through things like player choice, will really improve the experience for the game player. And it’s satisfying needs rather than wants; those intrinsic needs.”

Academics Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan went on to develop this approach into the ‘player experience need satisfaction’ or PENS model – a commercial standard that games developers can use to determine if a game is meeting a player’s needs in this regard.

“A lot of developers already incorporate many of these things into games, but do they know why, and do they know how they can refine that incorporation considering different genres and different platforms?” ponders Good, who concludes that developers can be served very well indeed if they look at the growing body of psychological research around video games, utilise that study by applying it to their projects, and always make sure they critically evaluate the research and its validity.

DEV THE RIGHT THING

It is clear, then, that considering psychology and how it can impact the way a player absorbs and enjoys your game could have stark critical and commercial benefits for your game. But, says Berni, psychology can offer a developer more than that.

“I can’t stress enough here how much psychology can help with the ethics of games,” she insists.

“I personally have very, very positive things to say about games and they ways they can impact people, but there are other consideration that could have ethical implications around issues like addiction and monetisation. And I believe games developers want to be ethical in these situations.”

It’s vitally important to consider, but not the subject of Good’s Develop in Brighton talk, which will be tackling another element of games psychology, and one that is focused on a near iconic theoretical chasm.

“I’m actually going to be talking about psychopathy within the uncanny valley. There’s been some really interesting research from a group of academics led by Angela Tinwell. She’s very kindly agreed for me to incorporate some of her research into my talk, and that is going to be about how gamers may be potentially turned off by perceiving psychopathic traits in a game’s character that may exist in the uncanny valley.”

The Develop in Brighton conference takes place from July 9th to 11th at the Hilton Brighton Metropole in Brighton, UK.

www.developconference.com