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FINAL PROJECT/ RESEARCH PAPER: Gaming Beyond Entertainment; Applying Psychology to Game Design

Amanda Jowsey

ENG 380

June 28, 2013

In order to know whether games serve a purpose beyond entertainment, one needs to understand the psychological components of them. Psychology determines an individual’s behavior; an individual’s behavior determines psychology. An individual spends a large majority of their time and resources on entertainment mediums, like video games; therefore, understanding the psychological factors driving video game appeal helps to explain the socio-cultural role something like a game may play—while being played. What is gaming’s effect on an individual’s psychology, or, psychology’s effect on game development and design? A game’s reliance on the principles of engagement, motivation, reinforcement, and attention makes it an ideal topic of exploration for psychologists, and game designers have begun to utilize their expertise to take game’s beyond entertainment into something more engaging than ever—especially in light of the new digital age.  Games can only achieve purpose beyond entertainment when application of psychological principles determines their design.

Tom Nichols, one of the growing numbers of psychologists in the video game industry explains that more and more video game designers ‘turn to psychologists to analyze product effectiveness.’ (qtd in Clay). With the ever expanding variety of gaming platforms, mobile gaming and social network gaming especially, more opportunities present themselves to psychologists to work in the gaming industry. Mike Ambinder, experimental psychologist states: ‘The application of psychological principles to game design is still in its infancy, so the opportunity is present to be at the forefront of a new discipline’ (qtd in Clay). Currently, the most common role for psychologists in the field is in user research—testing whether players “experience games the way companies intended [by understanding the game’s goals, and translating those goals into a testable question]” (Clay); measuring level of excitement or anxiety is a common focus. Game designers and experimental, cognitive, developmental, and educational psychologists want to harness the power of gaming more than ever now though, and rather than just measure an effect, they want to produce one.

If a game designer understands the psychologist’s perspective, they can then produce the player experience they want. Nicholas Yee, Social Scientist, applies psychological theories to online gaming environments specifically, by attempting to understand what users derive from the interactive and collaborative relationships they form within these virtual worlds.

MMORPGs (Massively Multi-player Online Role-Playing Games), for example, provide a solid basis for analysis, specifically through avatar interactions. Yee discusses the “relationship formation, role exploration, and skill transfer” elements integrated into MMORPGs, and explains how each component has its own psychological application. These components are necessary in promoting active player engagement and emotional investment in a virtual world. In MMORPGs, “users view the world in real time 3-D graphics,” using a “humanoid graphical representation of the user or player in the game to interact with the environment and each other…. Communication between users occurs through typed chat and animated gestures and expressions” (10). But why do we feel more comfortable interacting with strangers using these guises as vehicles for self-expression or social aid? The customization of avatars appeals to psychologists and sociologists everywhere. Avatars are fully customizable by skin tone, age, weight, height, musculature, cheek, jaw, and brow prominence, mouth and nose shape, eye color, hair color and style, lip fullness, facial hair, etc… – All things that we perceive psychologically to form stereotypes sociologically. Therefore, do avatars in MMORPGs reinforce psychologically and socially driven stereotypes– role related stereotypes specifically? Do they mirror or shape them?

What is it about role stereotypes specifically in these environments? MMORPGs offer “diverse professional alternatives” for avatars (21). Yee provides the example of Star-Wars Galaxies to explain: in the Star Wars game, a player can make their avatar a skilled musician, chef, hairstylist, pharmaceutical manufacturer, or politician. Social networking sites like Facebook now offer hundreds of this type of simulation game with role play as the format— Chefville, Farmville, Coasterville, Petville, Pet Society, Mall World, Cafe World—the names are self-explanatory, and the list goes on and on.

Role Exploration and Skill Transfer, as well as relationship formation and emotional investment in MMORPGs and social networking games allow users to explore new roles and identities. They can also shape an individual’s identity. MMORPGs are “highly social and structured environments [which] allow players to explore whether certain valuable skills learned in these virtual environments can transfer to the material world” (22). These games offer strategy skills like: motivating group members, dealing with negative attitudes and group conflicts, encouraging group loyalty and cooperation, which ultimately provides leadership experience (22). These games allow individuals to learn and interact with the world given to them by essentially developing, reinforcing, or enhancing, or altering real life skills. This is where the traditional use of video games extends beyond entertainment into sociocultural uses.

But what motivates our emotional investment in these MMORPG and social networking games? According to Yee, there are 5 factors that motivate a player’s emotional investment in these virtual environments: Relationship, Immersion, Escapism, and Achievement factors, as well as hyper-personal interactions (12). Relationship components drive social gaming—hence the term “social;” Human interaction is as strong a need as hunger or thirst. Sometimes we feel socially deprived because of our busy schedules and work-loads. Social gaming may satisfy that shortage in between our real life interactions. “Immersion” means that players “enjoy being in a fantasy world as much as they enjoy being somewhere else in the real world… they enjoy the story telling aspect, and enjoy creating avatars with histories that correspond with stories and lore of the world” (10-13). Escapism describes how players use virtual worlds to “temporarily avoid, forget about, and escape from real life stress and problems” (12). The achievement factor measures the player’s desire “to become powerful in the context of virtual environments” through playing to complete goals and accumulate power, status, skills, and virtual other resources.

The reason gaming socially online satisfies our social shortages, is because of what Yee describes as “Hyper-personal interactions: more intimate, more intense, more salient relationships;” Yee believes online virtual environments foster these relationships because of what the communication channel creates. “[Online communication] allows senders to optimize their self-presentation because interactants don’t have to respond in real time… [The receiver] forms an impression of the information the sender has optimized”(16). Participants can also “reallocate cognitive resources typically used to maintain socially acceptable non-verbal gestures used in face to face communications and focus on the structure and content of the message itself— which comes across as more personal and articulate…. Interactants respond to personal messages with equally personal and intimate messages; the idealized impressions and more personal interaction intensifies through reciprocity” (16)—the result: “hyper-personal relationships.”

Yee ultimately demonstrates that “our virtual identities and experiences are not separate from our identities and experiences in the material world. They co-evolve as they shape each other” (25); that the phenomenon of role-playing or simulation game popularity can only be understood through analysis of an individual’s psychological components, not necessarily the game’s theme or story line. When this happens, games move beyond entertainment to become new communication mediums, rich with social identities, interactions.

According to Science Daily, the desire to play video games or interact in MMORPG worlds “lies somewhere beyond mere role playing; it’s an actual desire to find our ideal selves” (Gayomali). Gayomali states that “observing thousands of gamers playing everything from The Sims to World of Warcraft,” researchers from the University of Essex determined that this “role-playing attraction” extends “back to childhood, when we used our imaginations to project ourselves as all sorts of things: an athlete, a rock star, a superhero– the list goes on.” Video games allow players to “adopt pieces of their protagonist’s identity, giving [them] a glimpse of a life [they] would secretly like to lead” (Gayomali). Gaming research essentially shows, according to Dr. Przybylski, leading researcher at University of Essex, that “people were not running away from themselves” while engaging in role-playing games, “but running toward their ideals.”

Writer John M. Grohol investigates the following question related to gaming and psychology—like Yee, focusing specifically on avatar interaction. He asks: “Do people represent themselves for who they are; do they take on different personality characteristics with their online persona?” A person’s choice of avatar—the “pictorial representation of themselves in an online environment— can be examined to find answers. Grohol references and summarizes a study done by Yee and Bailenson, in which “the effect of an altered self-representation on behavior” was observed (Grohol). “Participants who had more attractive avatars exhibited increased self-disclosure and were more willing to approach opposite gendered strangers after less than one minute of exposure to their altered avatar” (Grohol). Ultimately, the attractiveness of an avatar determined how intimate participants were willing to be with strangers (much like in real life). Height, for example, was a defining physical trait that impacted confidence level of players who used their avatar’s to interact with others. “Both the height and the attractiveness of an avatar in an online game were significant predictors of the player’s performance” (Grohol). These laboratory online settings were also extended to face-to-face interactions, and the same concepts apply. The major point here: “our virtual bodies can change how we interact with others”—in an avatar based online communication, as well as a face to face interaction (Grohol).

Emotional Investment and Social presence were also measured in Yee and Bailenson’s study. “Social Presence” measures how connected a player feels to their online environment. When visual and behavioral realism matched, (attractiveness matched expectations of attractiveness” [Grohol]) a participant’s sense of social presence increased. The study also found that attractiveness in avatars is naturally accompanied by height—not unlike the real world. The bottom line: Avatars can impact how a player behaves and interacts online, just like their physical body can determine the same in real life. Clearly psychology is at work here.

The label “Mirror Games” is used to describe the way “individuals shape their own minds through looking into the mirror of others”—also known as Social Mirroring. Social Mirroring occurs through various modes of communication, and two basic requirements must be filled for it to take place: the functional and the social (165).

The functional element refers to the “operation of representational devices with mirror like properties,” or, the mirrors inside of an individual. The social element refers to “discourses and practices for using and exploiting inside mirrors within social interaction.” Social Mirroring is “how individuals come to understand and appraise their own conduct” (166). By mirroring themselves in others, an individual comes to “perceive and understand him or herself by understanding how their conduct is perceived, received, and understood by others” (166). A social mirror and an actual mirror’s common ground is this: “both help the individual to perceive themselves in the same way others perceive them.” This “notion of social mirroring is widespread in the social sciences,” especially in the fields of Cognitive, Developmental, and Social psychology (168). Considering “the possible role of mirror like devices for self-recognition and social interaction;” in this context, a “mirror” metaphorically represents “close functional relationships between action perception and production” (168). Social mirroring contributes to self-formation and reformation; for this to occur, social mirrors within an individual’s environment must match “mirror-like representational devices operating inside their minds” (169).

These affirmations confirm the idea that video games mirror and shape our psychologies. Video games maintain all the qualities of “mirror games.” If social mirroring occurs through various modes of communication, and we consider an MMORPG, for example, as the mode of communication, then the two basic requirements for socially mirroring to take place are fulfilled by one thing: video games. Simulation games and virtual environments demonstrate the functional element, or the “operations of representational devices with mirror-like properties” (170). These games reflect certain socially realities, even though they distort it through computer generated graphics that are designed to enhance and extend beyond reality’s limits. They are “representational devices.” Any interactive component to gameplay: PvP zones, Avatars, simulation games, etc… fulfill the social requirement. These all provide he “possible role of mirror-like devices for self-recognition and social interaction” (171). The mirror, in this context, refers to the “close functional relation between action-perception and production” (175)” which works on the principles of Operant Conditioning. These “mirror games” contribute to self-formation like Operant Conditioning does in a social context.

Zynga—Facebook’s highest grossing gaming application developer— combines the fun of MMORPGs and social networking with simulation while utilizing the psychological principles of Operant Conditioning. Operant Conditioning is the learning process in which an action’s consequences or rewards determine the likelihood that the action will be repeated in the future. It is based on reinforcement and punishment as well as repetition. Positive stimuli equals reinforcement, and reinforcement increases the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated; negative stimuli equal punishment, and increases the likelihood that the behavior will not be repeated. Both learning outcomes are based on repetition of the negative or positive stimuli in response to an action (Gazzaniga, et al). When users are playing a game, like Coasterville, for example, virtual stars, coins, fireworks, and confetti overload the screen when the player accomplishes a goal or clicks an interactive item. This is positive reinforcement. These starts, coins, fireworks, and confetti are the positive stimuli. It triggers the player’s pleasure centers, provides reinforcement, and encourages them to keep clicking for more. Games work on punishment as well. In traditional console games, like Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong Country for example, when a player’s character ran off the edge of a cliff, they fell off into nothingness and died. The turn was over. The player had to restart the entire board. They were so disappointed. Yet it also encouraged the fact, because they wanted to keep playing, that they wouldn’t ever run off a cliff again—that next time they played that part of a level, they remembered not to go that way. Falling off the cliff—the negative stimuli— and ending a turn—the punishment— ultimately with repetition, encourages the player to play better, stronger, faster, smarter.

Zynga’s games, based on Operant Conditioning, are designed to provide players with early and immediate rewards which encourage longevity of play. With every new action, something more is unlocked, and the player’s progression is displayed in the form of virtual currency of various kinds, prompting additional action. The immediacy of feedback plays a major role in the success of a Zynga game’s playability. Rather than the game stopping and waiting for the player to activate it, like on traditional PC and console games, Facebook applications continue working while the player is away. For example, on Coasterville, players can still receive items and requests from friends while away, and they can see that a certain ride will take “14 hours” to build; once they’ve started to build it, they know that in that actual time frame, they can go back on to see the completed virtual results of their gaming progress overnight without doing anything at all. Also, once player’s parks have been established, expansion of it depends on the player returning to play. Of course by this point, they’re hooked. If players want to expand their park’s boundaries to fit another coaster now, they need x amount of supplies, but to get those supplies, they need to “order them” from the park’s vendors, and the “order” takes “2 hours” to arrive. It takes more and more. The initial, immediate rewards are highly stimulating, but it takes playing and doing more and more to achieve that same level of stimulation as game-play progresses.

Writer Dennis Scimeca reinforces what McGonigal discusses in our first reading, “Reality is Broken,” regarding Dr. Martin Seligman and his principles of Positive Psychology. During an interview at the “Games Beyond Entertainment” conference in Boston, Dr. Seligman confirms that video games can indeed “play a part in promoting human ‘flourishing’”(Scimeca). He breaks this flourishing down into five components: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement (PERMA). Each component has one thing in common: an individual does them for their own benefit. Each element is also “measurable, teachable, and game-able” (Scimeca). Now Seligman’s theories of positive psychology apply not only to video game design, but to socio-cultural uses as well.

The U.S Army now uses these principles in their training and therapy for example. “Three years ago the Chief of Staff of the Army, George Casey, called Seligman to ask what positive psychology could do to alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, drug abuse, and divorce, all of which are common issues for soldiers” (Scimeca). These soldiers were trained in PERMA principles to teach “resilience and positive psychology” (Scimeca). This training allowed soldiers to focus on the strategy of developing and practicing coping skills for the extreme and emotionally overwhelming challenges assigned to them. McGonigal, although she did mention that games could go beyond entertainment to be utilized in this fashion, I would have liked to see a more in depth explanation of how exactly major U.S institutions and government branches, and this article more clearly confirmed her major claims. Although no current games actually teach PERMA principles, Seligman hopes to change that very soon.

“The Left digit Effect” demonstrates another one of the ways psychological manipulation may be used in video game design. Madigan explains the “left digit effect” in pricing, noting how $2.99 for example seems like less than $3.00: “The left digit disproportionately affects our perception of price.” In a 2005 study, subjects were asked to estimate how many items they could buy from a catalog with $73.00. They were first presented with prices ending in .00, then with prices ending with .99—“Across all conditions, subjects estimated they could afford to buy more when prices ended in .99” (Madigan). The left-to-right reading process makes the first number the most significant.”$59.99 is seemingly less than $60.00 because the leftmost 5 is coded as meaningfully less than the 6. The relatively slow moving, rational part of one’s brain catches up an instant later and recognizes that a penny’s difference means nothing; but the snap judgment has already been made and perceptions of price are now subtly biased”(Madigan). Madigan goes on to say that “as with most cognitive biases, we’re especially susceptible to the left digit effect when the rational part of our minds is busy or tired.” The left digit effect can be applied to more than just prices, however, and can happen regarding any number or measurement—including elements in video game worlds (“average scores, weapon stats, gigabytes of space,”—anything represented numerically.) For game designers trying to maximize player’s reward-satisfaction, without compromising the balance of ease and fun, the left digit effect can be a highly effective technique to adopt. It is also likely to be most effective “when player’s mental [or virtual] resources are depleted or directed elsewhere (combat, challenge, character creation process, or player and item stats).

If you’re designing an axe for your RPG that does 3.02 damage per second, it’s going to be seen as disproportionately better than a sword with a 2.99 DPs. Adding a skill point to reduce the cool-down timer on an ability from 5 seconds to 4.5 seconds is going to seem like a better use of the skill point than the previous time it was reduced from 5.5 to 5. And 3,000 experience points for a quest reward is going to be a lot better than 2,950 –more so than math alone would lead you to believe (Madigan).

The use of psychology in video game design is highly underestimated and underutilized. There are so many psychological facets, like the left brain effect, that can be applied to game play. It’s all about learning and reinforcement. It’s all about perception.

“Deep Learning and emotion in Serious Games” further validates Psychology’s role in game design and game play. The authors present the concept of “serious games,” or educational and therapy-related games. These oxymoronically worded games, they say, are “designed with the explicit goal of helping students learn about important subject matter, problem-solving strategies, and cognitive and social skills” (83). These games successfully integrate gameplay with curriculum, and “the learning of difficult content” via these game platforms becomes “enjoyable and engaging” for the student; strenuous mental activity becomes transformed into play (83). In order to understand how this is achieved, however, game designers must investigate the principles of psychology to fuse those principles with those inherent to game design.

The art or science of teaching, education, and instructional methods with games must undergo further analysis and far more utilization however; as of now, very few games exist with this integration in mind. Those that do exist, however, incorporate “behavioral, cognitive, and social task analysis between game features and the desired learning objectives” (84). To support their belief in the power of “serious games,” the authors introduce several psychological principles that are crucial for understanding how games play on the user’s mind, for example: Principles of instructional design are mapped onto particular features of games; the mapping of game features can be linked to the four levels of evaluating training (student reaction, leaning, behavioral transfer, and systematic results); these features are also linkable to a specific learning model that has five major branches of cognitive demand—these branches are: content understanding, problem solving, self-regulation, communication, and collaborative teamwork (83). Ideally, Graesser, and his co-authors believe that these games would increase enjoyment, interest in the topic at work, and the “Flow” experience McGonigal made familiar to us—“Such engagement in the game would be expected to facilitate learning by virtue of time spent on task, motivation, and self-regulated activities, so long as the focus is on instructional curriculum rather than exogenous game components” (83).

Several taxonomies of games exist: 1st person shooter, action-adventure, strategy, puzzle, trivia, simulation, role-playing, and MMORPGs. Each genre corresponds to “specific behavioral, cognitive, or social skills acquired as a function of increasing playing time, practice, tests, and challenges. These skills span perception-attention-motor skills, working memory management, memory for content, reasoning, planning, problem-solving, and social interaction” (84). Deeper levels of learning involve the following: analysis of causal mechanisms, logical explanations, creation and defense of arguments, management of limited resources, tradeoffs of processes in complex system, and a way to resolve conflicts (84). More shallow levels include: perceptual learning, motor skills, definitions of words, properties of objects, and memorization of facts.

What makes games successful psychologically? What is their psychological impact? How can game designers more effectively utilize psychological responses in their execution? What aspects of psychology specifically correspond to the components of games? Is all media and entertainment simply a crafted manipulation of our psyches? Do we care if it is? Does understanding our own psychologies serve as a handy defense against unfair or unwanted manipulation? These thoughts apply not only to gamers and game designers, but to students, parents, teenagers, doctors, lawyers, everyone. Name one person that hasn’t played a game. We’ve all been psychologically manipulated somehow, but most of the time, we love it!


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14. Web. 21, June 2013.

Gayomali, Chris. “Psychology: We Play Video Games to Chase our ‘Ideal Selves.” Time Tech. Time.com, 4

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Gazzaniga, Michael, Todd Heatherton, and Diane Halpern. “Psychological Science.” New York:

W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 3-46. Print.

Graesser, Arthur., et al. Serious Games: Mechanisms and Effects. New York: Routledge, 2009. 83-90.


Grohol, John M. “The Proteus Effect: How our Avatar Changes Online Behavior.” Psych

Central. Psychcentral.com. 27 June. 2013. Web. 22 June. 2013.

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Gamasutra. Gamasutra.com. 18 May 2011. Web. 25 June 2013. <http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/124918/Games_Beyond_Entertainment_Applying_Positive_Psychology_To_Games.php&gt;

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Environments.” The Psychology of Massively Multi-User Online Role-Playing Games: Motivations, Emotional Investment, Relationships, and Problematic Usage. the  Netherlands: Springer, 2006. 187-207. Web. 22 June. 2013.



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