The Psychology of a Gamer

As a former psychology student, I’d like to share my knowledge which is applicable to game design/development. It would be a shame to waste it after all.

What a game developer/publisher wants to achieve usually is a game that excites a lot of people for a longer period of time. What you want is bonding, you want them to return and spend a lot of time and possible money on your game – that’s not just economy it’s actually also psychology.

Luckily human behavior has been researched for quite some time now and this high level of engagement, we as developers/publishers are seeking, is called the Cognitive Flow. This flow has been experimentally evaluated in the 70s, resulting in the following theory:  a persons skill and the difficulty of a task are connected to result in varying emotional and cognitive states.  What does this mean and how does this apply to games? Well, let’s say we are developing a game that right away starts with the hardest level, obviously this is barely manageable for a player to solve – this resolves in an anxious feeling, promoting to give up. Alternatively a game that is too easy would bore the player and result in leaving it aswell. Only if you find the middle ground between too hard and too easy you’ll have a chance of achieving a so-called flow state which would engage the player.

Why would you want to achieve a flow state?

Well, as a developer/publisher your goal is most likely to promote and sell your game or maybe even in-game-items. It’s been researched that people in flow states are high in focus on the game, they feel in control, action and awareness merge together, they lose their self-awareness, feel time disorted and they feel like the task is the only thing they need to focus on in that moment. What does that mean to you? If players are that determined to suceed in your game, they first of all spend a lot of time in it and second of all they are way more likely to pay for content.

How do I achieve flow states?

There are four main characteristics that can increase the probability of flow states.

I.) Concrete tasks and manageable rules

We need clear rules in order to keep the flow up – feeling helpless and disoriented is going to lead to disengagement. Game Designers and Developers should take in consideration that we only have a limited attention span and we can only process a certain amount of information in a short period of time. Relevant information shouldn’t be given too quickly or too short as this can result in missing something crucial. It’s been proven that when we don’t understand a task completely – we are more likely to become frustrated and give up completely.

II.) Realistic capabilities

Even if the rules and goals of a game are completely clear, if the player is unable to achieve it because it is just to hard – he will have a bad experience and disengage. Basically the same goes for to easy tasks. A Developer or Designer has to make sure to balance out the difficulty of a game, optimally by having a learning curve, allowing the player to improve his skills over time.

III.) Clear and timely performance feedback

A player is less likely to enjoy a game without any feedback on performance. Think about when you were a kid and you played football without counting points, as a child – that probably satisfied you because you hadn’t developed the urge to compare yourself to others/higher standarts yet – but now as an adult, this seems like the most boring thing to do. We need competition to feel accomplished – even if its just trying to beat our own high scores.

IV.) Don’t overwhelm players by distracting them

Surly fancy animated buttons look cool, but a lot of them can quickly overwhelm and distract. It has been shown that distraction and draining attention by overwhelming a player can increase the likelyness of them to stop playing. If a game has stunning graphics, that’s neat – but you have to find a healthy balance espacially between shiny, bouncy things because they can be overwhelming if there are to many of them. In that regard what seems to be cool at a moment can quickly get too much for a person to take in which leads to a lack of focus.


Well there are many games that use one or more of those techniques and thats a big part of what makes them so successful. Look at Counter-Strike – it’s been one of the most known Shooters of all time – why? You have a chance to grow in Counter-Strike, you’ll eventually get better the longer you play as your aim get better naturally – this allows you to improve. Its also highly competitive with immediate feedback of peromance. After each round you see your score! They even improved that by giving out the stars in Counter-Strike Source at the end of each round and the domination feedback in Counter-Strike:GO.

Another great example that actually used these techniques to earn a lot of money through In-App-Purchases would be Candy Crush:

The game itself and its rules are rather simple. The difficulty is increasing intensity in each level you proceed. They basically lure you in by giving you free boosters every now and then, so you get used to using the boosters to win. Then as the levels get harder, you are more likely to purchase boosters as you are very commited at that point.

In Conclusion:

I am aware that this may sound like black magic or taking advantage of someones mind, but it really isn’t like that – people play games for a bunch of reasons and are basically seeking these flow states – this is what keeps the mind healthy at the end of the day. Generally speaking – almost everything around us is a manipulation – take advertisement as an example.  Even for game development there are a lot more ways to take psychology into account to create a great game – say fields like Self-Determination, Aggression and Rage Quitting, Habit Forming, Simulation Sickness for Virtual Reality, Userexperience… and many more.