Psychology is Fun

In this thought-provoking piece, psychology researcher and author Clark takes a look at how psychology and can must be applied to game development, to produce works that engage audiences -- offering up concrete examples of the right techniques.

[In this thought-provoking piece, psychology researcher and author Clark takes a look at how psychology and can must be applied to game development, to produce works that engage audiences -- offering up concrete examples of the right techniques.]

Gaming's core is fun, and psychology is fun's touchstone. This article restricts itself to psychology's most foundational, most immediately-applicable methods for crafting sticky, captivating experiences. From behaviorism's methods for structuring overpowering rewards, to motivational theories on generating wants and needs, to hybrid theories like flow, it is no longer fiscally responsible for games companies to shun psychology. Let's jump right in.

The Heart Asks Pleasure First

Pleasure first, and then, excuse from pain, shape every move that we will ever make -- so say the behaviorists. It may sound callous, or reductionist, until we realize that the overwhelming majority of life's rewards and punishments are too tiny or timeworn to remember.

Whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, behavior is shaped by reward. Through behavioral tenets, psychologists have conditioned pigeons to play piano, play ping-pong, and to spot drowning men and women while mounted onto Coast Guard helicopters.

Operant conditioning, often associated with Edward Thorndike, then B.F. Skinner, is the study of how any behavior can be strengthened through reward.

There are two fundamental ways to strengthen behavior through reward: bring pleasure, or excuse pain. Positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement, respectively. There's also punishment, which introduces sharp consequences but does not necessarily remove what first reinforced a behavior.

Not all rewards are created equal. Primary reinforcers are so named because they are the most automatically powerful, and rely on the innate; some examples would be sleep, visual surprises, or sex.

Let's talk about sex. Whether or not a player realizes, a physically attractive character, when on screen, will serve as an innate positive reinforcer. On the flipside, allowing the player to remove visually aversive characters or imagery is an innately rewarding negative reinforcer. If we care about giving players pleasure, and fun, then we will first work to maximize primary reinforcers.


Before Condition


After Condition

Impact on Behavior

(+) Reinf.

No reinforcer



Behavior Increase

(Ex: Skinner Box and food)

(-) Reinf.



No Aversive

Behavior Increase

(Ex: Tylenol and relieving a headache)

(-) Punish.



No Reinforcer

Behavior Decrease

(ex: Remove a kids toy when they are bad)

(+) Punish.

No Aversive



Behavior Decrease

(ex: Hit a kid when they are bad)

Though it takes little work to reward ourselves with primary reinforcers, we often associate them with other stimuli. Classical conditioning, the precursor to Skinner's work, would call innate pleasures the unconditioned stimulus because they're automatic. No association necessary.

For me, a powerful association comes from that one scene from The Hangover (at the tail of this trailer), when, to the famous movement of Phil Collins' In the Air Tonight, Mike Tyson has his moment with Zach Galifianakis. If you're not expecting it (and for some of us doubly so once we do expect it), this is a novel visual stimulus which provokes an innate physical response.

In the Air Tonight is now for me a conditioned stimulus. I wait the whole song, building up to that movement, which due to the visual association acts as a conditioned response with a very particular reward. I grin. In classical conditioning the level of reward is typically dictated by the timing (the above scene is timed to match the song), intensity of the innate stimuli (Tyson is an intense guy – but some folks might not even notice this scene), and the frequency with which the two stimuli are paired (How many times have you seen The Hangover?)

After enough pairings, many rewards become secondary reinforcers. Money, barter objects, praise, achievements, though there are few limits to what can become attractive by association, we'll want to first take advantage of culturally popular reinforcers. Money is great for developing games in any Western market, because we can literally drown players with money.

Though not every monster is fun to kill, or working for the equipment upgrade delivery service, each may carry the universal symbol for reward. It's as Madonna once said: "the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mr. Right." Though some designs will be too abstract for some secondary reinforcers, working with the grain of cultural assumptions helps to make reinforcement obvious and powerful. It makes the game fun.

But a fun game won't just throw money, goods, or innate rewards at players; it will deliver those on a weighted and considered schedule. Foundationally, behaviorism offers us five foundational ingredients for a healthy and balanced reward schedule. Firstly, continuous reinforcement operates just as it sounds. We reinforce a player every single time they perform the behaviors that we'd like to see. We may even reinforce behaviors that get incrementally closer to what we'd like to see, what behaviorists call shaping.

A great example for both continuous reinforcement and shaping is level one in World of Warcraft, regardless of race or class selected. Learn to walk properly, kill efficiently, use skills, loot, sell, etc., and there's no dearth of praise, experience, and cash value. Yet, continuous reinforcement is the first to wear off, because players immediately notice once you've staunched the flow of reward.

So we also distribute rewards in ratios and intervals. Sometimes these are fixed ratios, or fixed intervals, rewarding only after a set number of correct responses, or rewarding after a set amount of time, respectively. We can also use variable ratios, or variable intervals, rewards that come after roundabouts a number of correct responses, or roundabouts a certain amount of time, respectively. Along with continuous reinforcement, these first five are the most common of the simple schedules.

Variable ratio is widely noted for its effectiveness and consistency. Note that such charts vary where FR and FI are concerned. Some paint FR as inciting more responses than portrayed, some paint FI as inciting fewer than portrayed. (CC: Public Domain)

Most of us have probably played through compound reward schedules (though perhaps not noticed). Say you need 100x ghoul extremities (it's for a quest, okay?) At first you'd find extremities on one of every three ghoul corpses. Before long, however, you'd only find extremities once every two minutes, and then only on one of about every five ghouls, and then (zounds!) on every damn ghoul you'd marauded, but that didn't last long.

Finally, once you had about ninety-five helpings of ghoul extremities, you could only seem to find one every, say, three minutes or so. Noticing this is not purely paranoia. Using simple schedules in tandem, as with the example above, is common.

If a quest-giver actually provides us some indication of the reward conditions, for instance, "just kill six ghouls," then, "gooooood, now kill one every minute for fifteen minutes, that shall work quite nicely," and so on, until there's an extremity-themed reward at the tail end, behaviorism also calls this a chain. If you're looking to go further with compound schedules, Wikipedia (as usual) is a great place to start, though (as usual) is not always scholarly.

As with game design, behaviorism encourages seeding concurrent reward schedules. They let our brain pick and choose the best way to reward itself. The key to generating fun in the brain of the player is to cater to them. They should always have options for how they want to stimulate themselves. Don't bother them with aversive situations. We already know about the world we're escaping from.

It's as the great Dr. Frank-N-Furter once said, "Give yourself over to absolute pleasure."

Though do so with savvy. It may, for instance, help pleasurability to take short breaks now and again, as pointed out by this short Gamasutra piece on hedonic adaptation. Well-structured rewards may make it hard for us to do this ourselves, as our chief neurochemical for motivation, dopamine, has been shown to have less to do with pleasure than with appetite, or "seeking."

Our brain changes itself structurally, over time, in a process called plasticity. Though we may feel the delightful spritz of dopamine the first few times we encounter a new stimulus, before long we rewire to feel the need of these once-novel stimuli. Rewards then begin to trigger the same motivational neurocircuitry as food, sex, stress, and so forth. Games, therefore, must further their understanding of this neurocircuitry, as well as behaviorism, should they desire to keep up the pace.

The Definition of Love

Now let's look at the player's deep-seated needs, desires, and loves. Rather than exploring behavioral reward, motivational theories ask about our optimal levels of stimulation, as well as what drives us to seek out certain experiences. Freud made the first list of instinctual motivations, unsurprisingly comprised of aggressive and sexual impulses.

William James' list was longer, including such instincts as emulation (or rivalry), pugnacity, (anger and resentment), sympathy, hunting, (novelty of) strange men or animals, (fear of) black things or dark places, kleptomania, shyness, jealousy, cleanliness, and so on. The problem with these instincts is that after many years and many theorists, the list is unmanageably bloated.

Much like Behaviorists, motivational theorists begin to parse these instincts by distinguishing between primary (innate) and secondary (learned) drives. Drive theory suggests that all motivation is a matter of seeking homeostasis.

Biologically we maintain blood sugar and body temperature, but once everything there is in order we also seem to have intrinsic needs to test novel stimuli and to seek out a certain level of arousal. We may extol simple motivations, for instance "the open steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair."

But perhaps Freud was closer to the truth. Sex and action hold an inherent, biologic "push," that may have some feeling more intrinsically good when able to, "Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women."

Sensation seekers will go after overly high levels of thrill and danger, though even these individuals will vary in the exact level that they want.

Add to that push the considerable "pull" to incentives, social needs, and self-actualization. We don't come out of the womb with some insatiable need to tweet every five minutes through our 3G Droid app, though past rewards and good associations can teach us that doing so makes our brains happy.

Our brains will help us to change our beliefs and values when they’re at odds with that happiness. This state of tension is called cognitive dissonance, and statements like, "Smoking isn't so bad," or, "Cancer doesn't run in my family," are examples of our natural human reactions to it. As are, "Gaming through my anniversary wasn't a big deal," or, "There were already problems in my marriage." Thankfully these reactions to cognitive dissonance eliminate aversive discomfort naturally, helping us stay on track, and allowing the human body to keep seeking fun.

Abraham Maslow forwarded the famous Theory of Human Motivation, whose pyramid suggests that once lower-order needs have been satisfied, people seek out their most deep-seated wants and desires: the inner goals which truly make life worth living.

Once Tarzan have food and gratification, Tarzan seek safety. Having that, Tarzan may just look for love and belonging. Then, dear chap, Tarzan might chance to find out the respect of his peers and the prestige of higher society. Whereupon Sir Tarzan, bushman and scallywag no longer, augustly inaugurates his more empyrean avocations. There are always higher motivations, but we often can't see them until we've taken care of basics.

The design problem? Everyone's deep-seated needs and potentials are different.

Maslow's pyramid. (CC:attribution)

Thankfully, when designing our own planispheres, just acknowledging the desire for transcendence or self actualization is enough. We control the horizontal and the vertical. We control what it means to self-actualize in our slice of the media experience, so can draw a straight line between players and their new loves. They can greet deep inner desires for wisdom, beauty, and creativity without ever having to leave their couch.

In reality, many people are stymied by the belief that attempting greatness only sets you closer to failure. Though it's not our place to challenge those kinds of beliefs, our games can be the one place that deep desire comes to fruition.

We can send their minds to the giddy heavens, conjoin them with the stars. Best of all, once most folks get a taste for self-actualization, they'll sacrifice physiological, safety, love, and esteem needs in order to keep tasting the sweet magnanimity of our media experience.

Provide, Provide

Flow is that perfect balance between challenge and skill. It's Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's hybrid theory, which mixes our knowledge of perceptual bottlenecks with humanistic theories of self-actualization. Csikszentmihalyi originally found flow among executives, athletes, intellectuals and creatives, when they sought to describe the "getting into the zone," that happened as they truly surpassed the mundanities of their craft.

Composing melodies, writing a screenplay, or even perfecting a set job on a factory line, there's a point at which creative generation begins to pour, or flow, naturally from our minds.

The outside world is tuned out due to our physiology; we can only process so much information. Vision alone collects vastly more information than what is sent to the brain. The brain is constantly using what little information it receives to construct mental maps of physical space, moment-to-moment.

There's a physical limit to how many theorems, mathematical or artistic, and stratagem, physical or mental, can be held in working memory at any given time, meaning that reality's flow seems to follow the 10,000 hours rule. That is, it takes more practice than any typical person can manage. This is why games are so important.

Flow is the perfect balance between challenge and skill. (CC:Public Domain)

Designers can tap flow's engagement, while demanding only a fraction of the dedication. In reality, we favor the challenges that make us feel we're accomplishing something profound. In this way flow states are immensely powerful. They can provide gamers all the joy of a life worth living, without any of the struggle.

The People Will Live On

As with every good thing, there are critics. Ian Bogost is particularly unimpressed with one champion of psychology's deployment: social games. Bogost worries that they forward four trends: enframing, compulsion, optionalism, and destroyed time. By enframing he means that social games encourage objectification, where "friends aren't really friends; they are mere resources."

More and more often, players, developers, and people generally seem to see other people not as who they are, but as what they can do for us. But if it is happening everywhere, across cultures and mediums, then why is our industry the only one responsible? More importantly, if it's already entrenched in society, then people are going to have an easier time understanding how to reward themselves. Many social gamers don't have the time to learn more complex rules – so this is the least aversive, and the most fun.

Bogost also calls much of social gaming compulsive 'brain hacks,' which only serve to keep us clicking. Yet the buildup to the click, and the click, are rewards. These clicks are the fun that design distills, and the only real purpose of a game.

By optionalism Bogost is primarily critiquing the skill-less GameVilles, where rote clicking can be avoided by spending money. This is just another height for game design. Here we've painted the appearance of challenge and skill where clearly there is none! Users who pay simply buy their own happiness, achieving more powerful neurochemical rewards, or fun. Everybody wins.

Of destroyed time, Bogost says, "Social games so covet our time that they abuse us while we are away from them, through obligation, worry, and dread over missed opportunities." Such that even he worries if there's some feature he oughtn't to add for users.

And yet, this worry only adds to the buildup of tangible, chemical rewards. Remember that dopamine is a chemical seeking, it whets our appetite. These little ticks of achievement are no curse, but rather the gift of fun. If people didn't want (or need) fun, then why does Zynga have so many users? Riddle me that, Bogost-man!

But what about those fickle folk who, considering themselves fireborn artistes, foist responsibilities we never asked for? Comics author Alan Moore (best known for Watchmen), in The Mindscape of Alan Moore, says of the media industry:

"They have accepted the prevailing belief that art and writing are merely forms of entertainment. They're not seen as transformative forces that can change a human being, that can change a society. They are seen as simple entertainment things with which we can fill twenty minutes, half an hour, while we're waiting to die. It is not the job of artists to give the audience what the audience wants. If the audience knew what they needed, then they wouldn't be the audience – they would be the artists. It is the job of the artists to give the audience what they need."

Wrong. Our industry doesn't need easychair critics or obscure literary references. The audience pays for a product. They aren't paying to spend a decade finding the flow of actually being the next Jimi Hendrix, or Peyton Manning, and it's not our job to inspire that level of dedication or drug use. It's our job to create Guitar Hero, or Madden, and to give players the most immediate and powerful kick possible.

And if the responsibility isn't to our players, it surely is to our stockholders. It is a truism that without money, no creative project would ever lift more than two inches from the muddy ground. If we take money from publishers, from investors, or from shareholders, then we then have a legal and moral obligation to do everything in our power to give them a return on that investment.

Even where there are no investors, using psychology helps us to stay in control of our own destinies. It helps us to get it all right.

An Artist

A good businessman would obviously weed out costs related to printing physical copies of a game; perhaps soon we could also synthesize the seed which produces experience. And how long the branches of such a tree! How tempting its fruit! Do not remind me the trifles of consoling the artist, tender and fickle! I have here his evolution!

As our society moves forward, and rewards and GPS chips and screens are further integrated into reality, the better off we'll be. I want more college professors and college dropout turned game designers making my life more fun. Please do not ask for my permission. I want to be rewarded for going to sleep on time, for being brand-loyal with my toothpaste, and for playing by another person's rules.

Like most reasonable human beings, I do not want to take responsibility for my own life. I want only fun. If you reward me for living how you think I ought to, it is no longer my problem; I am saved from aversive worry, and the world's rewards make sense.

The fun that I get from gaming is the only physically pleasurable outlet I have left. If you stop this ever-increasing cascade of fun, then I will have nothing. I cannot change that aspect of my life. Please do not ask me to. That is not your job. I pay you for a product, and that product is a distraction from a world of shit. Everybody in the world feels this way.

Since people are naturally inquisitive and thoughtful where extremely rewarding behaviors are concerned, they will of course become savvy to how psychology is being employed by the media industry generally, and the games industry specifically. Where this happens they will laud you for creating this physical need, and buy even more of your games.

So you see, fun must be the central element to games. You are not a new industry with power and promise, you are just a new cog in an old machine. You were always this way. Myths of small groups making games in garages are lies. It is also a lie that anyone has ever worked on a game for passion rather than profit, or taken a personal risk in order to create something new. No game has ever been profitable with less than 20 hours of gameplay, the latest graphics engine, or millions of dollars in marketing.

Creativity is always an exercise in liability control. Most of all, remember that fun is psychology. Psychology is fun.

Our brains will help us to change our beliefs and values when they’re at odds with that happiness. This state of tension is called cognitive dissonance, and statements like, "Smoking isn't so bad," or, "Cancer doesn't run in my family," are examples of our natural human reactions to it. As are, "Gaming through my anniversary wasn't a big deal," or, "There were already problems in my marriage." Thankfully these reactions to cognitive dissonance eliminate aversive discomfort naturally, helping us stay on track, and allowing the human body to keep seeking fun.


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