How Psychological Factors Are Used In The Design Of Computer Games

9 minute read

In this essay I will explore the benefits and detriments of designing computer games in a way that will target people psychologically. I will provide examples of positive and negative psychological repercussions that can be related to gaming habits, the type of games people play and the effects these games may or may not be having on them and why games developers use psychological factors when designing computer games.

Computer gaming has been around for over thirty years and in that time the technology and methods used to produce computer games has advanced exponentially. Initially games were produced using very basic computer hardware and software that was usually very expensive and so not readily available. Computer gaming was a very new concept and the games were very basic. The graphics, controls and achievements were very rudimentary, although this didn?t make them bad games it just meant players used to engage in them differently than gamers do with today?s games.

“Pong” is a good example of a very popular game in the early years. It allowed two people to play the tennis style game against one another. Although it was very popular and engaging in a competitive way because the two people playing would want to beat each other, and the game gradually got harder as the ball moved increasingly faster from one side of the screen to the other, it wasn?t necessarily engaging the participants in a psychological way. Or was it?

There was usually very little, or no storyline to guide the player and most of the games only allowed the player to play against the computer. The graphics were too basic and unrealistic ? usually 2 dimensional, pixelated and with the use of a small colour pallet and basic sounds.

A lot of the older generation of games were designed in a way that meant they could never be completed. The game would only end by increasing the difficulty so much that the player could simply not continue playing without dying. Couple this with the inclusion of a High Score list and the games replay ability became massive through the desire of its players to compete to have their name on the top of the High Score list.

Games like ?Donkey Kong?, ?Space Invaders? and ?Quake? provided such competitive replay ability that leagues sprung up around the world. Suddenly players weren?t just playing against their friends for the fun of having their name at the top of the leader board but they were now playing against strangers for official titles and in some cases real money prizes. This kind of motivation would understandably put a lot of pressure on any player as their will to win grows hugely. Like in any real life sports, people care deeply whether they win or lose. They want to know that the time they have invested into the game was worthwhile, that they aren?t just wasting their time. They become so emotionally attached to what they are trying to achieve by playing a game well that it could affect them negatively if they do lose. But this type of game does have positive benefits. The player can learn from their mistakes, improve, learn how to be a better sportsman, how to take losing well.

But why do games affect us at all? Well, like any form of media the game needs to affect us emotionally. To make us care about the game and make us want to buy it and continue playing it until the end. In the same way that films and music will affect us in different ways. A horror film will usually have been produced to scare the viewer much like the ?Resident Evil? games were developed with the same goal. Different people like to engage with their choice of media in different ways. Some people like to play a game for the scare factor, the humour, the epic adventure story, the sci-fi/futuristic appeal or the sports-like competitiveness. Games are usually divided into commonly known genres so that consumers can get a good idea of what the game is going to be like when they see it on the shelf in a store.

Much like the film industry, the game industry has continued to increase the production budgets for games. As games have become more and more popular the developers have spent large amounts of time and resources to incorporate the best sound effects, world graphics, characters etc. all to make the game more believable to the player. The more realistic the game looks and sounds the easier it is for the player to lose themselves in the game, to imagine that they are in the universe the game is portraying.

In recent years the ?Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying? genre has become more and more popular. “World of Warcraft” is a good example of a game that allows hundreds and thousands of people to play together online. It incorporates many factors that affect the players psychologically, increasing their desire to play the game and keep playing it potentially for years. The player can create a character and customise its looks, abilities, class style and even give them a name. The player can then level up the character by completing certain actions and quests within the game. Every time the character levels up more abilities and rewards are unlocked and pre-requisites are met that allow the player to access game content that wasn?t previously available to them.

The player feels the need psychologically to keep playing because they want to do all the things that levelling up the character can bring. There is also the social aspect of levelling up. Having the highest character and best gear and most gold will give the player bragging rights amongst their friends. Achieving something in game like this can give a person a reason to feel like they are good at something and better than other people, it allows them to feel good about themselves where previously the person perhaps wasn?t very good academically or at sport and was used to accepting defeat and feeling inferior, they now can feel proud of their achievement?s which can be a very positive factor. But in most cases the game developers have planned ahead and want to insure the longevity of these kinds of games, especially where they want their players to continue to pay a monthly fee to play the game. They design the game in a certain way that it takes time and organisation of many players together to achieve certain goals. Players will spend increasingly longer and longer periods of time in their bedrooms or living rooms playing these games, putting in the hours required to achieve the goals. This will take a toll on them psychologically and socially, both very negative impacts. They will find that they are withdrawing themselves (perhaps unknowingly). They will not see their friends as often and not spend time with their family. They will be frustrated when their family asks them to do things or to come away from the game. They may feel angry and in turn it may cause conflict. Chasing goals set in a game that you enjoy playing can be very addictive and like any addiction it can be hard to pull yourself away from something that you really enjoy doing.

Computer games often help the player, sometimes without them being consciously aware, to improve certain skills. Sometimes the things that make a game challenging and fun can also be similar to some real life challenges people face. For example in a ?Real-time Strategy? game the player might be required to organise and built up an army, work out strategies for positioning the army, when and how to attack an opponent, how to react when they are being attacked. The game makes the player think ahead, organise and problem solve. The player is able to transfer some of these skills to the real world and use them in different scenarios.

Some simulator games exist purely for the sole purpose of training people for real life situations. For example pilots must do many hours of practice in a flight simulator before they are allowed to start flying a real plane. Essentially they must spend hours playing a game. The aim of the game consists of the player having to learn the controls, weather conditions and procedures and to be able to get the plane into the sky, fly it and then land it safely again. The game has simply been developed to mimic, as closely as possible, the inside of a plane?s cockpit, how the plane moves on the ground and in the air, how the plane reacts to different weather conditions in real life. They do this so that when the person does start to practice in the real plane they will have some degree of familiarity with their surroundings and the procedures they must follow. The simulator game provides a safe set of realistic and inexpensive tools for the person to at least get the basics of flying learned before continuing to learn in a real plane which would be considerably more expensive and risky.

The main difference between listening to music, watching a film and playing a computer game is that playing a computer game is an activity involving the player whereas watching a film or listening to music are both passive activities. Studies have shown that people learn better when they are actively involved in what they are learning. It?s for this reason that pilots spend many more hours in a flight simulator than they do reading text books. (Learning, 2012)

To summarise, the reason psychological factors are used whilst developing games comes down to the need for a player to connect emotionally with the game. To be stimulated, feel good, scared, be challenged. It is in the game developer?s interest to design the game in a way that will keep the player engaged for as long as possible. If they do this successfully the player is more likely to continue to play the game over a long period of time which could result in consistent income for the developer and publisher. The player will deem future games developed by the company worth purchasing based on their experience with the previous game that they enjoyed playing. The more psychological factors are used to engage the player the more the player will like the game, but we are all different. The developers have to cater for a large variation of the preferred psychology factors of players. If they have the ability and resources they could develop different games to attract the different preferences of players or understand what a majority of a player base likes to expect in the games they play and develop their game incorporating this majority preference.





Dingding, X. (2012, 05 02). Flight simulators gives pilots real training. Retrieved 02 07, 2012, from China Daily:

Learning, C. (2012, 01 27). Get Psyched! Retrieved 02 07, 2012, from psychologytoday:

Winter, D. (2012). Pong Story. Retrieved 02 07, 2012, from pong-story: