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Persuasion and game design

Leadership has many dimensions. While the naive view is that leaders give orders and subordinates follow them, the reality is much different in many situations.

Antonio Torres

October 18, 2018

6 Min Read

Leadership has many dimensions. While the naive view is that leaders give orders and subordinates follow them, the reality is much different in many situations. Particularly in the game industry, where you have many employees who could be making more money in another industry or field of work. Barking orders at game developers is likely to have the experienced ones running for other companies.

This has interesting consequences for game design. Sometimes it’s not the objectively best game design that wins (even if you could objectively measure design to compare them), but rather the game design from the person who is the most convincing. So, persuasion becomes an important element in how to deal with others as a game designer and as a leader. Let’s take a look at one view of persuasion and how it affects leadership.

Six key principles of influence


People will do favors to people who have done them favors before. “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” is a phrase usually associated with this. This principle was also exploited by a lot of early social network games, where you could give “gifts” to people and other people felt obligated to reciprocate. Even if they hadn’t played the game recently, some people would go load up a game to respond to a gift with a gift, and this would often get them back into the game.

As a designer, being willing to compromise and making note of that compromise can make other people more willing to compromise. However, some people can become annoyed if you keep bringing up the past. “Hey, remember a few months ago when I let you make the decision about number of gear slots? Well, about this discussion….”


Once people agree to something, they tend to want to be consistent in their commitments. People like to be seen as consistent, so reminding them of their commitments can help keep them on your side. Of course, this can work the other way: going against a prior commitment can cause people to resist a change in direction, so be prepared for that.

As a designer, documentation is important here. Getting people to buy into the fundamental assumptions helps when you have conflicts later. “Well, this new element is a consequence of this previous assumption we all agreed to.” This makes it easier to get people to agree with your later work.

Social Proof

People are more comfortable doing what others are doing. In other words, its hard to argue against something that has support and is proving to be popular. Most people don’t want to swim against the tide of social opinion. Once again, this was something that social network games exploited easily; when you saw a ton of people spamming your wall with game stuff, suddenly games didn’t seem like something that only loser nerds played. Once the “normies” saw that others were playing social network games, they became more comfortable with playing games themselves.

For game designers, it’s important to get someone to buy into your ideas. Then you can use that person’s support to convince other people. “Well, Brian thinks that this is a good direction. Don’t you agree?” After you’ve convinced a few people, then you can start working on people who are harder to convince by showing existing support for the idea.


This is self-explanatory. People tend to follow authority. A mediocre idea from the boss gets more support than a mediocre idea from a peer. But, as I mentioned before, this isn’t carte blanche for those in authority to push through whatever dumb idea you have; some people may agree in the short term, but will look for ways out in the longer term if things are disagreeable enough.

Even though game designers are perceived as iconoclasts and independent thinkers, we are human like others. We tend to listen to authority, if nothing else because we don’t want to upset the person who may decide if we stay employed or not. Usually people in senior or lead positions have extensive experience on other projects, so sometimes they can speak with authority from that previous experience even if they don’t have explicit authority.

This has a particularly interesting consequence for game design: it’s potentially dangerous when the boss is the lead designer. It’s more likely that people are going to agree with the boss’s designs even if the designs are terrible. It takes a very special leader to create an environment where his or her concepts can be openly challenged and who doesn’t feel his or her ego is threatened when someone points out problems.


People are more convinced by people they like. And, they tend to like people who are like themselves and share the same tribal identifications.

So, let’s deal with this can of worms: this is probably a big reason why the game industry has a diversity problem. If most designers are going to ascribe more worth to people who are like them, you’re going to get young white guys from a middle-class background who agree more readily with other young white guys from a middle-class background. Someone who isn’t a young white guy isn’t going to be as persuasive, and so their designs won’t be considered as highly unless people work to overcome this bias.

Even in a more diverse workplace, this could lead to factionalism. If you have a bunch of young single people and older people with families, being an older, single person is going to make you the outsider to all the groups. I don’t think there are many ways to really exploit this if you’re already an outsider, but knowing this bias exists is at least useful for understanding reactions to your work.


People will react more strongly to something they perceive as being limited. Going to games again, we can see this with the “limited time sales” that are shoved in front of new players on many new mobile and tablet games. What appears to be a really good deal is only good for the first 24 hours, and you don’t want to miss out… But, of course, the new players don’t always have enough context to understand if this is really a great deal for them or not.

As a game designer, there’s not much you can do here to convince other designers. Perhaps trying to convince people that you’re a unique snowflake and that you’ll leave if you don’t get attention? Seems a bit petty when put that way, though.

Putting it all together

So, when looked at from this perspective, we can see some potential problems with how game design works. The principles of consistency, social proof, and authority (derived from previous work) tend to reinforce existing design rather than encouraging new design concepts. Authority could be used to encourage new design concepts, but this has to work against the tendencies of the other principles. When the big successful game has a design philosophy, it can be hard to go against it even if you have logical arguments ready to defend the position.

And, as I said with the principle of liking, it can be hard for someone “different” to convince others. It’s going to be an extreme challenge for an outsider to change minds away from existing lines of thought. And I think this explains why you see a lot of the design problems games have had over the years.

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