The world's love of video games has much to do with our intrinsic desires and motives.

Dan Gould
  • 16 may 2011

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This article titled “The seduction secrets of video game designers” was written by Keith Stuart, for The Observer on Saturday 14th May 2011 23.05 UTC

Video games, we have been led to believe, are about wasting time. It is a misunderstanding that players and game makers have railed against for 40 years. While movies and television are endlessly analysed and debated in the mainstream media, games are characterised as troubling, irresponsible or banal, the fatuous byproducts of the digital revolution.

But a growing number of theorists and designers disagree. This is, after all, an entertainment medium that worldwide makes bn a year, a medium in which an estimated one third of UK adults indulge. An emerging school of thought, drawing on cognitive science, psychology and sociology, suggests that our growing love of video games may actually have important things to tell us about our intrinsic desires and motivations.

Central to it all is a simple theory – that games are fun because they teach us interesting things and they do it in a way that our brains prefer – through systems and puzzles. Five years ago, Raph Koster, the designer of seminal multiplayer fantasy games such as Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies wrote a fascinating book called A Theory of Fun for Game Design, in which he put forward the irresistibly catchy tenet that “with games, learning is the drug”.

“An effective learning environment, and for that matter an effective creative environment, is one in which failure is OK – it’s even welcomed,” Koster says via phone from his hometown of San Diego. “In game theory, this is often spoken of as the ‘magic circle’: you enter into a realm where the rules of the real world don’t apply – and typically being judged on success and failure is part of the real world. People need to feel free to try things and to learn without being judged or penalised.”

Consistently, he says, the most successful games are the ones that provide us with interesting tools such as weapons or magic (or even angry birds) and allow us time to experiment with them. He provides as a defining example the 1985 platforming game Super Mario Bros, created by Nintendo’s renowned game designer Shigeru Miyamoto. On the first screen, players are given the ability to jump and can play with this for as long as they like, but to get to the next stage, they need to have mastered the skill so they can leap over an enemy and on to a platform. Afterwards, they learn about hidden bonuses and items, but only when each new addition has been perfected.

This “acquire, test, master” model is still intrinsic to game design. The recently released Portal 2, a brilliant, physics-based puzzler set in an abandoned science research facility, works in exactly the same way. Here, players wield a portal gun, a device that creates dimensional wormholes in walls, floors and ceilings – but they’re only introduced to one facet of the gun at a time, and when it has been mastered, new items such as super-bouncy gels are introduced. There is constant progress and a continually evolving challenge, but there is always room to experiment and to figure things out through intuition.

“Games allow us to create these little systems where learning is controlled and taken advantage of really brilliantly,” says Margaret Robertson, development director at innovative London-based games studio Hide&Seek. “We do love learning and we’re good at it, but it is often frustrating in the real world because you don’t always get to go at the pace you want to go and often don’t immediately see the application of what you’re doing. Also, learning is rarely done in an atmosphere that’s a little bit illicit. Something we don’t talk about is that, actually, one of the strengths of games is the stigma that still surrounds them – they feel like bunking off!”

But the brain’s love of systems and puzzles is only part of the deeper appeal. Another important element is autonomy. Games tap into our need to have control; this is very obvious in “god games” such as The Sims, where we shape the lives of virtual humans, but it’s becoming a vital element of action adventures and shooters, too.

“Games are increasingly complex systems that offer a variety of different experiences,” says Dan Pinchbeck, an experimental game designer and lecturer in creative technologies. “Titles such as Red Dead Redemption and Assassin’s Creed have a central design ethos that players should be able to define their own play to an extent. There’s an emphasis on the pleasure of choosing and planning. We’ve moved quite dramatically away from the action games of the 80s and 90s, where the primary mode of engagement was reaction to events. Shooters still have this core of fast, reactive action, but a game such as Crysis 2 is also about approaching a situation, making a solid plan and then defining the template for this reactive mode, depending on your preferred play style.”

This has proved to be a hugely successful recipe. The Grand Theft Auto series of urban shoot-’em-ups has sold more than 100 million copies, not just because of the rampant crime and violence, which is admittedly fun, but because they offer the player agency and authority in a realistic, complicated world. “There’s a crescendo of ecstasy that comes through the acknowledged application of autonomy,” says Robertson. “Games give you a space where you have power and most of us, most of the time, don’t feel like that. And then, whatever you do, games notice. Again, in life, that doesn’t always happen. If you do the things you’re supposed to do efficiently and quietly, no one notices and that’s rubbish.”

Now, the industry has really started to consider the appeal of player autonomy. “There’s a trend at the moment to look at what psychologists, behavioural economists and sociologists can give us pointers to,” says Robertson. She has been reading essays by George Loewenstein, a behavioural economist who’s written at length about curiosity: “Curiosity is the act of wanting a thing without knowing what it is. Lowenstein calls it ‘closing the curiosity gap’ – we find something narcotic in the sense of tension and the resolution. Well, there’s a lot of that in video games and we need to understand it.”

At this year’s Game Developers Conference, for example, Kent Hudson, a game designer at LucasArts, gave a fascinating talk on self-determination theory, which concerns the study of human motivation. He talked about how gamers need to own their worlds in order to be happy. This sort of analysis used to be almost taboo within games, but now studios are taking it on board.

“The industry attitude towards education has changed radically for the better,” says prominent game researcher Jesper Juul. “I recall hearing industry professionals claim that game design was something like an unteachable dark art, but now, with bigger budgets and with game design graduates placed in most studios, this attitude has mostly faded.”

The best studios are also designing their titles around established reward systems. “A good game will have the expected progression at the end of each level, but it will also provide surprise rewards halfway through,” says Ben Weedon, a consultant at PlayableGames, a company that carries out usability testing on new titles before they’re released. “It’s a principle that’s based on workplace psychology. One of the best ways to reward employees is to enhance predictable annual bonuses with little treats added in every now and again – buying all your staff an iPod, for example. It keeps people much more motivated. In a game, you’re essentially pressing the same buttons and doing the same things over and over again, so you need those elements of the unexpected to stay compelled.”

But developers also know that there’s more to games than systems and mechanics – story is becoming ever more important. Science-fiction adventure series Mass Effect has a sprawling story of intergalactic intrigue, while thrillers such as Heavy Rain and forthcoming Raymond Chandler-style detective adventure LA Noire, are loaded with the sort of compelling plot twists and shock revelations we’re used to from movies. Indeed, narrative games have their own version of Hollywood’s three-act structure, designed to keep us utterly hooked. “A shorter final act is often used to give a sense of acceleration towards climax,” says Pinchbeck. “It’s all about communicating the player’s position on the arc, so they have a strong motivation to keep playing.” Opening levels also tend to be brief, because this flatters us into thinking we’re making quick progress.

Again, this comes back to the central appeal of games – authority. Game stories are often pretty hokey, but they’re compelling because we’re in control. Veteran British game designer Charles Cecil is currently working on the BBC’s well-received Doctor Who Adventure games (downloadable from and has seen how giving fans control over the Doctor brings them closer to the plotlines. “The huge positive is that the player is experiencing the story advance as a reward for something that has been challenging,” he says. “One of the joys of gaming is that the story means so much more because you have achieved something to get it, rather than just watching it. That is the great strength of the medium.”

Another important game design facet is “disproportionate feedback”, in which players are hugely rewarded for achieving very simple tasks. In highly successful shooters such as Call of Duty and Bulletstorm, when an enemy is shot, they don’t just collapse to the floor, they explode into chunks. In casual puzzles, titles such as Zuma and Peggle, a completed level is accompanied by pixelated firework displays, sparkling rainbows and messages declaring: “Ultra Extreme Fever”. These contrasting forms of graphical over-elaboration aren’t just there for window-dressing, they’re a charm offensive on the brain’s pleasure centres: you’re good, you’re a success – you’re powerful. Disproportionate feedback is an endorphin come-on.

Conversely, designers have discovered that failure can be an important factor in keeping us entertained. Four years ago, researchers at the Helsinki School of Economics’ Mind lab studied the oscillatory brain responses of game players and found they often get pleasure from losing a life; if the resulting animation is entertaining, and if the failure is their own fault, it’s just another indicator of the player’s agency in the world. When urban driving game Burnout was released, the design team immediately realised that players loved crashing the cars because of the breathtakingly realistic destruction animations, so for the sequel, they added a mode that encouraged and rewarded dramatic collisions – it was a massive success.

Almost dying could be even more important. “I heard a talk at GDC that pointed out something interesting,” says Brian Fleming, the producer of apocalyptic superhero adventure game inFamous. “When people tell stories about their greatest moments, they often revolve around nearly dying. In games, what’s really special for people is not, ‘I killed the bad guy and I was perfect’, it’s, ‘I nearly died, but I just managed to kill the bad guy.’ How do we set out specifically to give them those experiences? That’s a great challenge for us as game makers.”

Games tap into our motivations, our neural pathways, even our friendships. The rise of online multiplayer gaming as well as Facebook titles such as Farmville show that interactive worlds are becoming acceptable venues for social interaction. And brand owners are taking notice. Facebook and browser games are now a key element of many film and TV marketing campaigns – they’re “sticky”, they’re compelling and they give potential viewers ownership over stories and characters. Then there’s the burgeoning concept of gamification, in which websites, smartphone apps and location-based services such as Four Square and Gowalla are being designed to resemble games, with high scores and achievement points, to keep customers entertained. Everybody from Playboy to Starbucks to London Transport is providing game-like services to users, the latter via downloadable game Chromaroma, which rewards Oyster card users for exploring new areas. M2 Research estimates that companies spent more than 0m worldwide on gamification projects last year, a figure predicted to rise to .6bn by 2015.

So games aren’t just about wasting time. They fulfil intrinsic human needs, whether we are conscious of it or not. “That loop of agency, learning and disproportionate feedback is at the heart of something very important,” says Margaret Robertson. She thinks for a second before pointedly adding: “And very, very seductive.”

Four big games – and why they’re successful

Angry Birds

Brightly coloured smartphone physics puzzler (100 million downloads and counting) where you launch birds at the evil pigs who have stolen your eggs.

ANALYSIS: The basic skill it rewards – being able to aim objects accurately – is one we’re designed to want to practise. “It’s evolutionarily useful that the brain fastens on challenging problems that have to do with trajectories,” says game designer Raph Koster. “Physics calculations like this were extremely valuable if you made your living with a spear.”

VERDICT: You love Angry Birds because your ancient ancestors needed to be really good at throwing stuff.


Facebook game with more than 62 million users that allows players to tend a virtual farm, raising livestock and harvesting crops.

ANALYSIS: “There’s a cognitive theory called signalling,” says game designer Raph Koster. “The premise is that a lot of what we do that we can’t quite explain is actually about sending signals to those around us. One of the things we tend to signal is conscientiousness – and so having, for example, a really lovely, well-tended garden is a public signal of how res


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