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That rush of victory when you complete a mission. The fear that grips as you explore a zombie-infested cityscape at twilight. The sadness at the loss of a favorite character at the hands of a relentless villain.

These emotions can feel so real even though we know we’re playing a work of fiction in the safety of our home. Why do video games make us feel happy, sad, or frustrated–and why do we keep playing them?

Video game emotions
Image: Łukasz Strachanowski via Flickr

Accomplished game designer Chris Bennett contributed to this post with answers to my questions. He’s an engagement design expert at Stanford University Games and Interactive Media who is passionate about improving people’s lives through play and understanding how to make games that draw players in. (Chris has contributed his smarts to one of our most popular posts:How to Change Any Bad Habit Using Game Mechanics. Check it out!)

The Chemical Effect: How video games change our emotions

Without emotions, we would not be motivated to play games. Emotions spur us into action and keep us moving through a game or an experience. We play games not to finish them but to be taken on a journey of the mind and the spirit.

Game designers get a little help on creating catchy games thanks to the chemicals in your brain. Here are just a few.


Dopamine creates the quickest hits of pleasure. Think of how you feel when you receive a reward at the end of a game’s quest, or when you’re selected to go on a raid because of your excellent skills. Rewards and attention drive that feel-good dopamine drug.

Video game dopamine
Image: Łukasz Strachanowski via Flickr


Oxytocin is essential for bonding. Babies and hugs might give you the strongest hits away from a game, but what about in a game? Studies show that playing cooperative games can decrease aggressive behavior and even increase generosity through the release of oxytocin. It’s essential to building trust in cooperative multiplayer situations.

Video game oxytocin
Image: Łukasz Strachanowski via Flickr


Endorphins make us feel good about ourselves. Positive game play experiences can give us a natural “high”, especially after difficult challenges that we overcome in a game. For example, that megaboss at the end of a game can cause stress and tension as we deplete “continues” down to the wire. But why do we keep fighting the boss? We can expect an endorphin rush at the conclusion of an epic battle as we watch the final storytelling scene and the credits roll.

Image: Charis Tsevis via Flickr


Serotonin is a little more complex than any of the other “feel good” chemicals, particularly because it doesn’t always make us feel good. It’s a neurotransmitter that regulates our psychological and body functions through messages sent across our brains. A few of these functions include sleep, memory, learning, social behavior, sexual desire, appetite, and, of course, mood. Serotonin help us actually feel those hits of dopamine and oxytocin by plugging them into our brain’s “pleasure receptors”.

Video game serotonin
Image: Łukasz Strachanowski via Flickr

Serotonin can work against us when it can’t reach receptor sites or is missing other chemicals to support it such as tryptophan (yes, the chemical that makes you sleepy after eating Thanksgiving turkey). At its worst, serotonin can make us irritable, depressed, or impulsive.

However, these pitfalls can be avoided while playing video games: studies show that children who played video games more than three hours per day exhibited the stress that is common with serotonin imbalance. Quite the opposite, the children who played around one hour of video games every day showed a boost to creativity, focus, and positive social behavior–a sign of well-balanced serotonin.

Those are the primary chemicals that keep us playing games on a deeper level. So how do designers create games that know just how to trigger those feel-good emotions?

All the Game’s a Stage: How are games designed to hit us deeply?

Creating games to elicit emotions is challenging, primarily because experiencing emotions is two steps removed from the design process. Game designers create rules for player interaction that can lead to emotion only by player participation. And since each player has their own unique experiences and brain chemical composition, designing for emotion can be a moving target.

Designing for emotion
Image: xdxd_vs_xdxd via Flickr

Chris Bennett believes Game Design Thinking is what makes exceptional games stand out from the crowd.

Game Design Thinking hits deeper at the player’s core through emotions instead of relying on the lure of rewards. It combines the science of Game Design with two other disciplines: Behavior Design and Design Thinking.”

(Confused? Don’t worry–we’ll explain more in a minute.)

Game Design Thinking connects with the player on an emotional level beyond the seductive and temporary lure of rewards. The result is a more satisfying and meaningful play-through of a game or an experience.

3 disciplines to building a meaningful game

Emotions in the gaming world can feel so real–even if we’re not experiencing them in the “real world”. Losing a loved one in a game can make us feel like we lost someone meaningful to us, like when Aeris dies in Final Fantasy VII. Winning an epic multiplayer scrum can give us a rush like we just won a football game on the field.

So how does a game designer create a moving experience for each player? How can they make it feel so real?

Aeris with a Super Nintendo Entertainment System
Image: mouseshadows via Flickr

Bennett says the core disciplines required for building on emotion are Game Design, Behavior Design, and Design Thinking.

Game Design

Game Design is the stage before we even jump into the literal building of the game itself. This discipline is often mistaken for Game Production, which includes coding and concept art. Game Design uses mechanics and rules to create interesting dynamics with player input which lead to emotional responses evoked in the player.

Essentially, Game Design is the structure that frees the player to explore their emotions.

Behavior Design

Behavior Design is the practice of designing triggers and interactions based on an anticipated emotional direction to drive action. Behavior Design puts hot triggers in the path of motivated users to achieve targeted behaviors.

A simple example of Behavior Design is an audible signal that beats faster as a player approaches an important object in the game.

Video game behavior design
Image: Glenn Loos-Austin via Flickr

Design Thinking

Design Thinking involves researching the player to better understand how they will respond to interactions in the game. This step is essential to planning a game that has impact for the intended audience.

One method used in Design Thinking is rapid prototyping. This research method helps game designers test ideas for effectiveness and make improvements that respond better to players’ behaviors.

Wait–isn’t Game Design Thinking just Gamification?

Why is it so difficult to pull away from missions? Why can’t we stop playing through puzzles? Why are we willing to sacrifice precious snooze time to hunt down that elusive treasure?

There has been lots of buzz about why we get drawn into games since the advent of titles such as World of Warcraft and Candy Crush. In 2010 the term Gamification became part of the public conversation. It dissects what makes a game addictive by analyzing human psychology and reflexive behavior when the audience is presented with one of several triggers.

Treasure chest
Image: Tom Garnett via Flickr

For example, principles of Gamification state that players are motivated by a sense of accomplishment. Those players can be encouraged to complete a mission by giving them rewards such as bonus loot or badges. Those badges can then be displayed to other players as bragging rights that spur competition–yet another principle of Gamification that drives commitment to a task or game.

These concepts have become so popularized over the last several years that entire companies have been built (and even acquired) on the promise of Gamification. The lure of increasing engagement by providing incentives and encouraging competition has been seductive in multiple industries beyond gaming, from elementary schools to sales teams, that it’s now treated as a silver bullet in accomplishing tasks and driving completion.

Gamification attempts to spur game addiction through extrinsic rewards. Value is assigned to these rewards through an outside party such as the company distributing them, and propagated among community members through agreement on their value. For example, mission achievement badges are distributed to HALO players that appear on their Xbox profile. Those badges do not necessarily carry monetary value outside the gaming arena but can convey social standing among skilled players – an extrinsic value.

In other words, Gamification’s rewards can be entirely independent of the player’s personal value system. They rely on the basics of human psychology to spur engagement. They rely on a universal set of rules to work in any situation.

Going Beyond the Gold

Game Design Thinking is different from Gamification in that it does not adhere to core rules to reward players: it is an intrinsic reward system. This is different than an extrinsic reward system in that it is built on points and prizes, not emotion.

Gold reward Star Wars Legos
Image: pasukaru76 via Flickr

How we’re rewarded is important when defining a deeply meaningful game. Receiving badges to show off certainly gives us the high of pride and accomplishment, but because this is a reward that is defined by an outside party, its novelty can wear off over time.

Think about a game you might have played years ago that gave you badges. That game might have given you an intense high the first several badges you earned, but over time, didn’t you lose interest in those badges?

Extrinsic rewards lose their effectiveness over time.

Now think of a gaming experience where you didn’t collect random rewards. Perhaps you were deeply moved by a storyline, like the struggle to save humanity. Those emotions came at you strong. We remember the most deeply moving games long after the instant hits of random rewards fade

Image: flip.and.serena via Compfight cc

Intrinsic rewards stay with us for a long time because they touch on a deeper value system. And this is why Game Design Thinking is both more challenging and more effective at ensuring a game’s long-term success.

The Most Important Factor to an Unforgettable Video Game

We can analyze what makes a video game great: its playability, its mechanics, its plot. But ultimately, what makes a game great is how it makes us feel. Does it connect with us on a deeper level? Game designers must focus on our internal journeys as the player if they hope to succeed.

What’s the last game you played that you’ll never forget?

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