Game Theory

Gamers are changing this world behind curtain

Game Theory

Game theory is the mathematical analysis of interdependent systems composed of fitness- or utility-maximizing “actors” (e.g., humans, animals, genes, or viruses) whose success depends on the strategies of others.

Game theory is a useful tool for understanding interdependent systems. It is a mathematical description of how individuals should behave in contexts in which the outcomes of their actions depend on the behavior of other individuals. Game theory has been applied to topics as varied as climate change negotiations, the evolution of cooperation, and viral population dynamics. The game theory makes sense of different “strategies” and “payoffs” by using the mathematical logic of each individual’s perspective.

Operant Theory

Operant theory mainly suggests that rewards motivate desired behaviors, and the frequency of a behavior depends on the schedule of the rewards. Rewards might be provided after a fixed number of behaviors (i.e., fixed ratio) or after a variable number of behaviors with an average ratio (i.e., variable-ratio). Similarly, reward schedules might also be based on time intervals rather than the number of behaviors (interval schedules). Video games are designed with a reward structure that’s completely unpredictable. The tension of knowing you might score (or kill a warlock), but not knowing exactly when keeps you in the game. “It’s exactly the same reward structure as a slot machine.”. The player develops an unshakeable faith, after a while, that “this will be the time I hit it big.”


Gameplay is a psychological experience: it’s all in your head. The vagaries of human psychology define your game more than the laws of physics or algebra. Egomania, Paranoia, Delusion – these are tools to be wielded with precision and care. For the player, perception is reality and the center of the universe is right here. As we follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion we discover a number of amazing things, among them: everyone is above average, 2/1 is not equal to 20/10, and the player is his/her own worst enemy. Player psychology as a fundamental part of game design can lead us to some strangely counterintuitive places and save us millions of dollars in time and resources.

Video games are big business. They can be addicting. They are available almost anywhere you go and are appealing to people of all ages. They can eat up our time, cost us money, even kill our relationships. Research on psychological aspects of digital games has been rising within the last decade. Game companies also started to hire psychologists to conduct research and implement psychological principles in their game designs. Taking the time to learn what’s happening in our heads as we play and shop allows us to approach games and gaming communities on our own terms and get more out of them. With sales in the tens of billions of dollars each year, just about everybody is playing some kind of video game whether on a console, a computer, a web browser, or a phone. Much of the medium’s success is built on careful (though sometimes unwitting) adherence to basic principles of psychology. This is something that’s becoming even more important as games become more social, interactive, and sophisticated.

Scientists have collected and summarized studies looking at how video games can shape our brains and behavior. Video gaming is clearly a popular form of entertainment, with video gamers collectively spending 3 billion hours per week in front of their screens. At a glance, more than 150 million people in the United States play video games regularly, or for at least 3 hours per week. The average American gamer is a 35-year-old adult, with 72 percent of gamers aged 18 or older. Video game use by children, most parents – 71 percent – indicate that video games have a positive influence on their child’s life. Video game sales continue to increase year on year. In 2016, the video game industry sold more than 24.5 billion games – up from 23.2 billion in 2015, and 21.4 billion in 2014. Research to date suggests that playing video games can change the brain regions responsible for attention and visuospatial skills and make them more efficient. The researchers also looked at studies exploring brain regions associated with the reward system, and how these are related to video game addiction.

With sales in the tens of billions of dollars each year, just about everybody is playing some kind of video game, be it on a console, computer, Facebook, or phone. Much of the medium’s success is built on careful adherence to basic principles of psychology, which is becoming even more important as games become more social and sophisticated. Understanding the intersection of design and psychology can not only help you make better products games but get more out of games as a player on your own terms.

User Psychology

Game design always starts with an understanding of player motivation. Motivation ultimately breaks down into two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation drives someone to perform a task for the enjoyment of the task itself. A leading expert on intrinsic motivation breaks it down to autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Everyone agrees intrinsic motivation is the better kind of motivation and one needs to ensure that there is some intrinsic motivation in the first place for why someone is using your game or app.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, drives someone to perform a task simply for an external reward or to avoid punishment. Extrinsic motivation is what game designers take advantage of to design enjoyable games and we’ll see exactly how they do so through a variety of game mechanics.

Player Types

Beyond simple motivation, game designers recognize that players come to a game with their own personality types seeking different kinds of enjoyment. It’s important to recognize this for creates experiences that allow each of the player types to thrive in the game.

Player types are classically divided into four categories

Achievers enjoy gaining points, levels, equipment, and other concrete measurements of succeeding in a game. They will go to great lengths to achieve rewards that confer minimal gameplay benefit simply for the prestige of having it.

Explorers enjoy discovering areas, creating maps, and learning about hidden places. They love to take their time to explore new areas and look around at their own pace.

Socializers enjoy interacting with other players, and on some occasions, computer-controlled characters with personalities. The game is merely a tool they use to meet others in-game or outside of it.

Killers enjoy competition with other players and are there to win against their peers.

Game Mechanics

By understanding the different player types within your game, a game designer can build experiences that create extrinsic motivation for each of these player types. Game designers have established a set of best practices for doing so, which manifest in individual game mechanics they choose to leverage to drive enjoyment and desired behavior out of their users.

Let’s take a look at game mechanics.


The achievement mechanic enables players to earn achievements, which are virtual or physical representations of having accomplished something. These are often viewed by players as rewards in and of themselves.

Games with badges, levels, rewards, and points are all examples of the achievement mechanic. We equally see such badges and levels used in apps like Foursquare, fitness apps, and more.


The envy mechanic creates an experience where a player desires to have something that another player already has. To be effective, a player needs to be able to see what other players have (voyeurism).

Allowing players to showcase their badges, levels to other players, allowing players to visit each other’s farms at Farmville, in general, are all examples of experiences that create envy. The reality is all social products with profile and status updates inevitably create envy with others through voyeurism.


The ownership mechanic allows players to control something or have it as their property, which they take pride in having.

Controlling parts of a game board or owning a vast army are game examples of this mechanic. Simply “owning” popularity by having a large digital representation of many friends is the equivalent of this on social products.


The progression mechanic displays success granularly and is measured through the process of completing itemized tasks.

Leveling up your player from 1 to 60 is the classic example of the progression mechanic. Any kind of progress bar you create in a product or service is how this often manifests outside of games.


The status mechanic enables you to have a rank or level in a game that confers status in the eyes of the player and others.

Being able to brag to your friends about your white paladin level 20 in WOW is the status mechanic at play. GitHub conveys the status of developers on their developer profiles by visualizing and summarizing their contributions across various open-source projects.


The collection mechanic enables players to create a collection of items, whether they are achievements, resources, or anything else in the game.

Collecting resources and badges are the classic game examples of this. The central action on Pinterest of pinning various visuals into your pin-board is also a great example of the collection mechanic at work.

Blissful Productivity

The blissful productivity mechanic takes advantage of the idea that playing a game can make you happier working hard than you would be relaxing. Essentially, we’re optimized as human beings by working hard and doing meaningful and rewarding work.

Grinding in WoW is the classic example of blissful productivity. Oftentimes when we are building app experiences, we try to make things as easy as possible to avoid our users having to do work. But what’s equally important is enabling experiences that get them in a state of blissful productivity.


The appointment mechanic requires that to succeed, one must return at a predefined time to take some action. Appointment mechanics are often deeply related to interval based reward schedules.

Farmville requires you to come back to the game at a set time to water your plants or they will wither away. Happy Hours are a real-world example of the appointment mechanic at work.

Cascading Information

The cascading information mechanic releases information in the minimum possible snippets in order to allow players to gain the appropriate level of understanding at each point during a game narrative.

Games typically show basic actions first, unlocking more as you progress through levels. Well-designed app onboarding experiences follow this same mechanic as opposed to putting all product education up-front.

Epic Meaning

The epic meaning mechanic takes advantage of the idea that players will be highly motivated if they believe they are working to achieve something great, something awe-inspiring, something bigger than themselves.

Morality and Video games

The moral choices we make in the real world depend, at least in part, on our personal moral code or sense. The pertinent question in a study such as this, however, is how real-world moral judgment and choice translate to the fictional game world. There is evidence that gamers have real emotional responses to videogame characters, treating them as social beings. Because players of violent video games are required to kill other social beings, it is understandable that playing violent video games may cause very real emotional and moral problems for those gamers. However, gamers report greater enjoyment when playing violent games, and do not feel that committing game violence is wrong. It stands to reason that gamers’ reactions to moral situations in video games would be tied to their own personal sense of morality, as well as other individual attitudes. An individual’s sense of morality can vary greatly, but there are both normative and descriptive approaches to an individual’s moral standards. Descriptive morality refers to a specific group or society’s code of conduct, while normative morality refers to a code of conduct that would be intuitively understood by all rational individuals. Those who hold to the normative morality perspective, that is, that a universal code of conduct exists that governs the actions of all rational individuals, agree that an average adult in any society has a basic sense of what this universal morality allows and prohibits.

However, people vary greatly in their moral reasoning, and even the same individual varies in his or her reasoning from time A to time B. As points out, individuals vary greatly in their perspectives on basal morality. Children are taught a system of morality by their parents and other socializing agents. It is likely that the moral code communicated by parents and other authorities is descriptive in nature, growing from the philosophy of the specific group to which those authority figures belong.

Since individuals have an intrinsic (normative) sense of morality in addition to learning a moral code from a group (descriptive), it is clear that human beings use a mixture of types of reasoning and emotional gut reactions in the effort to determine what is morally righteous in a given situation. An additional strategy that is used by people faced with moral choices is moral disengagement.

Theory and empirical research demonstrate that moral disengagement is utilized in real, hypothetical, and virtual moral choices.

Why do people need concrete goals and manageable rules?

We have limits on our information processing and attentional capabilities. Not all of the information coming from the screen or out of the speakers gets processed. While we are capable of handling a lot of visual and auditory information at one time, we do have limitations.

Critical processing restrictions occur when our attention is divided. This can happen when task-relevant information is presented too quickly or when multiple sources of stimulation are competing for our attention. In either case, task performance can drop dramatically. When this happens, people become anxious about accomplishing their goals, thus inhibiting Flow.

Another aspect of information processing that can be overlooked is the congruency between directions and tasks. People are best able to understand and apply relevant information to a task when there is congruency between the task and the information/instructions.

Our ability to problems solves and make decisions is directly affected by information processing and attentional issues. When there are breakdowns in information processing, comprehension of task goals and rules also suffers. If people do not understand the nature of a problem, they can become frustrated attempting to solve it. These peaks in frustration decrease Flow and also affect problem-solving techniques.

When overwhelmed with too much stimulation, people will often revert to methods of problem-solving that has worked in the past. These reversions may or may not be what the developers had in mind.

Concrete goals with manageable rules are achievable. The act of achieving goals is rewarding and reinforces actions that allow individuals to continue completing goals. Whether it’s leveling your character or earning points for headshots, the very act of accomplishing something reinforces your desire to keep accomplishing it. This goal-achievement-reward cycle can keep gamers glued to a game and facilitates Flow states.

How can game designers fix problems with goals and rules?

If designers are able to take into account the psychological factors mentioned above, they can easily address issues with rules and goals.

Everything from the user interface to the play screen should clearly direct or cue the gamer to their task. Situational cues, HUD information, NPCs, etc. should make goals plainly comprehensible.

Because divided attention hurts comprehension, goals, and directions should not be given to a player during high-stimulation times.

Care must be taken to provide important information to the congruency between the information and the task/goal is achieved. The directional cues used in Dead Space are a wonderful example of this. By overlaying an illuminating path to the next objective on the player’s immediate surroundings, the developers left no ambiguity regarding where to navigate.

The gamer may be expected to try new variations of gameplay techniques developed throughout the game.

However, introducing new mechanics mid-level or mid-game may inhibit Flow. Sometimes this is necessary and leads to increasingly fun and dynamic game-play.

When this happens care should be taken to train the player on new skills (e.g., when Gordon used the Zero-point energy field manipulator to play catch with Dog).

The completion of small goals (e.g., clearing a field of boars) links to larger goals (e.g., getting enough XP to level up), which in turn link to even larger goals (e.g., getting access to level-specific gear). This linkage creates a series of rewarding experiences that can hook gamers to a game and create the goal-achievement-reward cycle.

If players are readily able to accomplish goals, they are more likely to continue playing. Though, as previously mentioned, there must be a balance between the player’s skill and the difficulty of the task.

Games should only demand actions that fit within a player’s capabilities.

Understanding the limits of player ability and cultivating player skill is of critical importance. If players are unable to accomplish goals — even if goals and rules are clear — then they will find their gaming experience dissatisfying.

Why should games only demand actions that fit within a player’s capabilities?

Even beyond the obvious answer — “Because players will stop playing!” — there exist many psychologically based considerations worth enumerating. Here is a couple of them:

Stress and performance affect Flow. If a player isn’t skilled or capable enough to accomplish game-based goals, they may experience stress-provoking drops in performance. This kills Flow states and drives down the overall enjoyment of the gaming experience.

Goal difficulty and player perseverance. As goals become increasingly difficult to accomplish (in relation to player skill), commitment to accomplishing these goals diminishes. If this happens, a gamer is very likely to simply stop playing.

Each gamer has a unique performance-stress curve. This means that for some people +7 stress (an arbitrary value) causes them to operate at their highest level of performance, but for a different person +7 stress results in them failing spectacularly.

This also means that coarse gradations of game difficulty (e.g., Easy, Normal, Hard) may not lead to an optimal experience for many gamers.

Game developers could include AI that is able to dynamically adjust the in-game conditions affecting difficulty, thus positively affecting player performance.

One critical consideration for such an AI is the relationship between performance and enjoyment. Some players may perform extremely well when dynamic difficulty is increased; however, they may not enjoy being under such high levels of challenge. In this case, they may feel anxiety. Game developers could identify this by marking players who have high performance and high quit rates (i.e., the player quits in response to changes in difficulty, but their performance remains steady).

Another consideration is how these AI handle difficulties for multiplayer teams (e.g., four players in a Left4Dead 2 campaign). In these cases, it is important to recognize that dynamic changes to difficulty may affect players of varying ability in different ways. Thus, it is crucial to determine how to optimally change difficulty without ruining the game for very good or very bad players on the same team.

Certain game-specific skills must be slowly taught to players. If a game does not leverage skills commonly used in gaming (e.g., typical FPS controls and aiming), players must be gradually taught the new game-specific skills. Because of previously mentioned information processing restrictions, this sort of in-game training should occur in a relatively subdued environment.

Games should give clear and timely feedback on player performance.

Whether the feedback is in the form of sound coming off of a virtual golf club, the omnipresent experience bar in an RPG, or the flash of red simulated blood in the vision of an FPS avatar, players need to know how they’re doing.

Why do gamers need timely feedback?

Our innate learning and conditioning mechanisms. The feedback that occurs directly after (200 to 400 milliseconds) or midway through the completion of an action leads to the formation of the strongest associations between action and outcome.

Interestingly, simultaneous timing of feedback with the onset of action does a poor job of facilitating associations.

Back to goals… For medium and long-term goals (completing a level, or the game) feedback on progress can drive further engagement and eventual accomplishment.

This means that players who get feedback will want to play more.

Games should remove any extraneous information that inhibits concentration.

As sensory and informational clutter increases, the gamer’s ability to find and evaluate important stimuli diminishes greatly. This means that designers should strive to maintain a level of simplicity across all aspects of their games (from UI to HUDs).

Why do gamers need extraneous information to be removed?

Again, there are inherent limitations on how much information we can parse at any moment: As detailed in the discussion about the first characteristics of tasks that invoke Flow, we are limited in how much information we can process. Cluttered visual fields disrupt information processing. These disruptions can then negatively affect goal comprehension and rule learning, which ultimately affects Flow.

How can game designers address extraneous information? HUDs and in-game menus should be as simple as possible (e.g., Dead Space or Fallout).

Game skills or options should only be included if they are relevant to the story of the game or are purposefully being used by the developer to push artistic and technical boundaries.


An essential characteristic of an emotion is that it cannot be completely controlled. This is the case on the level of feeling – one cannot stop feeling sad and start feeling happy just by making that decision – but also on the level of behavior. Emotions lead to action-tendencies (e.g., fighting when angry, crying when sad, escaping when afraid, approaching when in love, etc.), and these action-tendencies can only be controlled by considerable effort, if at all. It’s also worth noting that, for the most part, good game designers and good game companies are already explicitly (or implicitly) taking these Flow characteristics into account.

“Feeling is for Doing” reflects their opinion that the emotional system is primarily a motivational system and that different emotions signal different problems of the individual with the environment and call for different actions (and thus serve different motivational functions). The valence-only approach has problems with emotions that are in some way bivalent (e.g., nostalgia, surprise, schadenfreude) and mixed emotions (e.g., in case of the death of a relative sadness but also relief that the suffering ended). Most important is the failure of valence-only theories to accurately predict behavior in rich environments. Individuals who are treated unjustly may feel anger, disappointment, or sadness, all emotions with a negative valence.

The emotional behavior will depend on the specific emotion: active and external when angry (revenge) and passive and internal when sad or disappointed, in more detail the behavioral differences between disappointment and regret. In the end, only hope to provide developers and designers with some food for thought on improving player engagement. It is up to those involved in creating games to decide how best to apply this information.


The divine scriptures are God’s beacons to the world. Surely God offered His trust to the heavens and the earth, and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man undertook it.
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