The Psychology of Gaming

Posted by Conor Murphy on August 2, 2011 in Editorial -- Share:

Psychology of GamingHave you ever sat back and thought about why you love to play games?

Perhaps it’s the challenge, the excitement, and the adventure. Maybe it’s the friendships you make through social gaming. It could even be to give you a reason to play with your kids.

Whatever your reason, for me, gaming has always been defined by fun.

But it isn’t that simple.

There are as many definitions for “fun” as there are games available to play on our site. We all define “fun” differently and, subsequently, play games for very different reasons. Whether for relaxation, a challenge, or to escape, we all have our own personal criteria for something to be “fun”.

At the Casual Connect conference in Seattle last week, I was lucky enough to sit in for a panel discussion called “The Hidden Psychology of Gaming” that discussed this very topic. Many psychologists have done extensive studies on the emotional effects of gaming, and how these emotions make up the “fun” in a game.

Most psychologists agree there are three keys that contribute to the “fun factor” of a game. The panel at Causal Connect was able to break them down into simple but appropriate terms: Easy Fun, Hard Fun, and People Fun

Easy Fun

Easy Fun is the first thing a gamer experiences during gameplay. This is the part of the game that draws the player in, engages her, and keeps her playing.

What helps create this feeling of engagement is delivering “the joy of controlling.” Having control is motivating and it’s important for developers to design games that offer immediate feedback through well designed controls. This control/feedback look has a very powerful effect on the player, creating a feeling of accomplishment and gratification. This, in turn, makes the gamer want to continue playing.

Many players seeking “easy fun” also point to the sheer enjoyment of activities a game offers. For them, it isn’t about winning or losing. The fun factor is about exploration, adventure, and story.

Hard Fun

While games are meant to be fun, they’re also meant to be challenging. Without some level of challenge, a game will become boring very quickly. After all, gamers typically fail more than 80% of the time (and it isn’t because they aren’t trying!).

According to psychologists, it’s critical that game developers offer creative challenges in games that intentionally frustrate gamers. This is what is referred to as “Hard Fun”. The feeling of frustration a gamer feels while playing a particularly challenging level in a game dictates the amount of accomplishment felt once the goal or obstacle has been achieved.

It’s the subsequent feeling of accomplishment that adds to the feeling of “fun” gamers experience while playing a game. It also inspires creativity and motivates the player to focus harder.

It should be noted, however, that game developers need to be careful to balance game difficulty with player skill level and introducing more difficult challenges as gameplay progresses. If the game is too challenging and frustrating too soon, players will disengage and give up before they have mastered the necessary game mechanics. This process in developing a game can be a complex balancing act.

People Fun

A large part of playing modern games is encapsulated in the social interaction between players. Studies have shown games offering social interaction rate higher with gamers than those offering a solitary gaming experience.

Teamwork and camaraderie often flourish in multi-player gaming situations as do inside jokes, rivalries, and shared accomplishments. Remarkably, it has been shown that some people play games they don’t even like just to spend time with friends.

Even for those players who choose to play games alone, games are still social in many ways. For example, games or gaming sites frequently have public forums, blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts offering destinations to discuss the games, share tips and tricks, or foster relationships.

Psychologists have found the social interaction you experience outside of gameplay can still directly impact the way you feel about a game. Even if players are not discussing the game itself, it is what brought them together to engage in discussion in the first place. Whether they realize it or not, the brain often associates such positive interaction with the game itself.

It’s apparent games offer many different layers of fun. Each has its own affect on our psyches, and is placed into the game rather strategically to give gamers an emotional and engaging experience while they play. Who would have thought there were so many psychological elements that contribute to making a game fun?

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Conor is a Marketing Manager with Big Fish, working out of the Seattle office. In his spare time he enjoys watching science documentaries and playing old school adventure games. Get in touch with him on Twitter! or Google+