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GDC 2012: Psychological advice for making players care

At a presentation during GDC 2012, Naughty Dog programmer Kaitlyn Burnell outlined some psychological rules for game design, and detailed when it's okay to break them.

Tom Curtis, Blogger

March 9, 2012

3 Min Read

When it comes to making games, there are several philological principles developers can leverage to increase player engagement. At a presentation during GDC 2012, Naughty Dog programmer Kaitlyn Burnell outlined a few of these "game design rules," and explained when it's okay to break them. Her talk focused on three psychological terms: Autonomy, competence, and relatedness. She said that studies show that leveraging these three principles will help developers make games that connect better with their audiences. Autonomy, she said, allows players to feel like they're in control of their actions, competence ensures that they feel able to perform what the game asks of them, and relatedness makes them feel a connection to the game's characters or world. "If all of these things boost engagement, wouldn’t you want to max out autonomy, competence, and relatedness?" she said. Games such as FarmVille do just that, and as a result that game has attracted a strong audience and has seen fairly consistent user engagement. Burnell explained that FarmVille allows players to plant things wherever they like (therefore offering autonomy), they can never fail (competence), and they're encouraged to develop a connection with other players online (relatedness). It's a prime example of leveraging all three principles, but Burnell pointed out that other games have tapped into even stronger human emotions by intentionally working against them. Take the original Portal, for example. In one of the game's most memorable scenes, the antagonist forces players to incinerate the iconic "companion cube," thus making players feel frustrated and angry at the game's villain. The game strips players of their autonomy to infuse the narrative with more emotional punch. Games like Final Fantasy VII use a similar technique by breaking the player's sense of relatedness. In the first half of the game, the character Aeris supports the player by offering help in combat, narrative-based goals, and more. When she dies, the player feels a real sense of loss. "[Aeris] dies in the middle of the game when she's still needed to provide more lore, more help, and more gameplay," Burnell said. She explained that breaking competence can prove a bit more difficult, "since it can make players feel helpless, or it makes them want to admit defeat." One example of a game that breaks competence, however, is Brenda Brathwaite's board game Middle Passage. The game recreates the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and forces players to choose between pushing forward and running out of food, or leaving slaves in the ocean to die. The game forces players to choose between two negative options, and serves as both a historical lesson and a powerful emotional event. Near the end of her talk, Burnell urged developers to use these numerous techniques sparingly. While they can elicit powerful emotions from the player, it's impossible to maintain that intensity forever. Since the brain relies on chemical reactions, players can only sustain certain emotions for a limited amount of time. "If the brain uses those chemicals too much, players won't be able to feel that emotion." "That's why you can't maintain those high emotions over the course of an entire game," she said.

About the Author(s)

Tom Curtis


Tom Curtis is Associate Content Manager for Gamasutra and the UBM TechWeb Game Network. Prior to joining Gamasutra full-time, he served as the site's editorial intern while earning a degree in Media Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

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