The Psychology Of Gaming

Exactly What does gaming offer and why does it have so much appeal among the masses ? dr. nicola davies introduces some of the psychological tricks employed by game makers to keep you playing from using delayed rewards to increase anticipation to introducing ‘cognitive flow’ in the form of heightened engagement through goals, feedback and manageable rules.

in the early days of gaming, we would sit in front of our consoles repeating the same actions over and again. think Donkey Kong, Space Invaders and Pac-Man. While these titles remain popular among some gamers, they lack something that modern games possess the ability to tap into the human mind.

today, videogame developers are using psychology to create titles that enable players to fulfil needs not being met in the real world by using psychological techniques to heighten levels of engagement, also known as cognitive flow. games now offer luring challenges, rewards, escape from reality, autonomy and anticipation. think Sims or SimCity games that grant you control over others’ lives or even over entire cities.

according to psychologist dr mihaly csikszentmihalyi, there are four characteristics found in gaming tasks that are successful in keeping us engaged: they comprise objective goals with unambiguous rules, they solicit actions to accomplish challenges and goals that match with the player’s competency, punctual feedback on performance is provided; and non essential diversions that create distraction have been eliminated to increase player concentration.

dr Jamie madigan, a lifelong gamer and expert in the psychology of games, highlights the importance of providing players with a sense of competence. he says, “one of the widely used models of player motivation is self determination theory, which holds that people like to play games because they satisfy needs for competence (the feeling that you’re good at something), autonomy (the feeling that you have meaningful choices), and relatedness (the feeling that you are important and connected with other players).”

for games to be engaging and successful to produce cognitive flow developers need to maintain a balance between a player’s skill and the difficulty of the task being performed. If tasks or goals become progressively challenging to the point where achievement is impractical, enjoyment diminishes. Therefore, when creating challenges for gamers, it’s imperative that the developers recognise that players have different skill levels in terms of their competency and gaming artistry.

Madigan says, “We are engaged more (and for longer) if a game is neither too easy nor too hard. It has to tax our abilities just enough. This is one reason why I think games that have adjusting difficulties and various ‘assists’ to the player can be very engaging, as can games that offer a huge variety of choices about what to do or how to keep score.”

Gamers will become dissatisfied if their skills are inadequate during challenges YouTube is full of clips of frustrated gamers. When a player doesn't possess the essential skills or can’t accomplish something in a game, they can become annoyed and less likely to continue playing. With that being said, it’s important for games to remain challenging yet achievable.

“The accomplishment of achieving goals and conquering challenges is not only gratifying, it also bolsters gaming behaviour”
“There is satisfaction in finishing a game. The harder the task, the greater the satisfaction; but there is a fine line between a challenging task that keeps you interested in solving it, and a near impossible  task that just gets you frustrated,” says Luka Travica, an avid gamer who prefers RPGs.

The accomplishment of achieving goals and conquering challenges is not only gratifying, it also bolsters gaming behaviour that enables players to continue achieving goals. Whether it’s earning enough points to accelerate to the next level or receiving rewards for ‘triumphing over evil,’ achievement increases a gamer’s ambition to accomplish further goals. The reward system is a highly effective psychological tool that countless developers use. Take the dog tags in Battlefield they provide you with a permanent record of the enemies you’ve taken down.

Rewards also come via feedback either immediately or midway through the fulfilment of a task. This creates an association for the player between action and positive outcomes. Game developers tend to use this mechanism by exhibiting both short and long term goal achievements at the beginning of a game and continuing them for the duration.

While giving feedback is essential, it is very important that it doesn't become a distraction. As a result of being limited in just how much information we can attain, assorted graphics and too much information can disrupt concentration and information processing. By removing unnecessary material, the gamer’s ability to evaluate their performance becomes greater. Ideally, therefore, game developers need to preserve a balance between feedback and information overload.

An additional element in the psychology of successful gaming is appealing storylines, which keep players in an anticipated state. Gaming scriptwriter, Ante Jelusic, says, “We keep our targeted audience in mind while writing scripts because not only do we want to keep gamers entertained, but we believe a good storyline is an important factor in game design.” God of War, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Heavy Rain and The Legend of Zelda are considered to have some of the best storylines,
with unravelling plots that keep us guessing and tap into our emotions.

“There is a fine line between a challenging task that keeps you interested and a near impossible task that just gets you frustrated”

Intriguing or exciting storylines also provide escapism. In fact, research has shown that the main factors influencing gaming behaviour are the ability to escape daily life and engage in social interactions. “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, as the joke goes,” explains Madigan. “People can assume different avatars to create idealised versions of themselves.” Gamers tend to find this most appealing when the difference between their perceived self and their ideal self is greater.

At the core of this, gaming offers control of an alternative reality. It gives players the opportunity to explore their fantasies and construct their own parallel universes. This is why games like Afterlife, Fallout and Dungeon Siege are so popular they enable you to have an alter ego.

Psychology shows us that when the rules are manageable, rewards are plenty, challenges are achievable, storylines are intriguing, and feedback is frequent, the element that all game designers aspire for is achieved cognitive flow.

There’s a reason why WOW and similar MMORPGs are so popular the tension between controlling your impulse to accumulate small rewards in order to have a larger reward later. This psychological phenomenon is also known as delayed gratification. The WOW developers are playing with the human desire to resist temptation. This could backfire if rewards are delayed for too long, however, leading to delay discounting which is the tendency to prefer smaller immediate rewards over later ones.

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