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The Secrets of Engaging Game Design

Have you ever wondered why humans love to play? Why we might enjoy learning more in a playful environment than in an educational setting? What is fun? This post was first published as part of a series that discusses social game design.

In my previous post, I talked about the secrets of game design(mechanisms of rewards, understanding patterns and behaviour), and how for a game designer, mastering this art is an advantage.

What we love to do– and it’s probably fair to assume that this could be true for other social game developers– is build games that motivate people to action. We want you to be an active participant in the gaming experience.

So what’s the significance of play and how can you use engaging game mechanics to build better social games (or to make your application more engaging, motivating, and social)?

What’s the significance of play?

Brian Sutton-Smith, PhD., Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania defines play as “an autonomous intrinsically motivated activity”. In other words, something we do (like art and music) for its own sake. We may even say that play is something we do for fun. But really, what is fun, anyway?

Designers of online applications and games incorporate playful, game-like qualities, because they know it’s valuable to have people use your application because they like how it makes them feel. They know that people want to play and have found that play is something that can be understood anddeliberately designed into a system.

It’s believed play is part innate and part learned behaviour. Evolutionary psychology poses that the mind is shaped by pressure to survive and reproduce and it’s believed that play affords the practice of skills that’ll ensure that outcome. So how is play relevant later in life, once we’ve had enough practice?

As Garry Chick, Ph.D., an anthropologist at Penn State University explains, nature could’ve evolved play because it protects us.  Chick explains that males can be dangerous. So it’s possible that nature evolved play through sexual selection: females seek out male partners who are playful for their protection and for protecting their offspring (males can also view playfullness in females as an indication of youthfullness).

Whatever the evolutionary reason, we can see the practical result in our behavior: play is fundamental to being human.

Type of Engaging Game Mechanics

A game designer draws from a rich palette of primal human instincts in order to engage us, to push our buttons. Everybody’s preferences and tastes are unique, but our enjoyment of games, at least at the neurological level, is just the same.

One of most obvious ways games invoke our biology is in the simple linkage of in-game behavior with either rewards or punishment, much like a “Skinner Box” (named after B. F. Skinner who is a leading figure in behaviourism). Simply put, the idea is that if a behavior is rewarded, it is more likely to be repeated. If it is punished, it becomes suppressed.

By using rewards to entice the players to click, game designers essentially “train” their players to keep clicking buttons and continue to play their games. By providing the possibility of a reward the next time you click, the game is feeding you a steady drip of digital dopamine that fires off signals for you to keep playing.

As anthropologist Helen Fisher explains, dopamine neurons are associated with brain systems that are activated by paying attention and rewards. They play the role of trying to predict the rush from nice things, and they keep you anticipating the result of your next action in the game.

Game Mechanics Are Important

These principles of game mechanics are generally useful to designers who need to engage people and motivate behavior in any application. So even if you’re not a game designer you may find some valuable information in the next few posts, as we’ll go over a few sites and games that we think got their game design right. Thanks for reading!

PS. It’s worth noting that not all the games we’ll look at will be successful in business terms, because being mechanically sound doesn’t mean you’ve made an emotional connection with your audience. Storytelling is a big part of it too, and if you don’t have that right, your finely tuned dopamine dispenser may not find an audience willing to sit still long enough to get hooked. And a great story can cover lots of other shortcomings… But that’s another topic.

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