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Understanding player behavior - What to read

Five books to read to better understand player psychology and behavior.

Understanding player’s behavior and psychology has been a growing concern in the game industry and in the public debate. On the business side many big game companies, especially for service games, have invested in building User Experience Research departments, trying to answer questions such as: Who is our game for? Can players understand our game? Is our game fun? Will players be likely to monetize and so on… Trying to answer these questions is detrimental to the game’s player retention and long-term revenues. In the public debate, video games are usually brought to the table for questions related to public health, the two most common ones being: Do video games make people violent? Can people develop an addiction from playing video games ? 

Here I suggest a list of five books that can help answer these questions. They can be helpful for game designers who want to know how research can help them improve their games, but also what effects their games can actually have on people’s lives. So here we go:


The Proteus Paradox: How online games and virtual worlds change us, and how they don’t 

Nick Yee






Phd graduate from Stanford, Nick Yee was first known for the Daedalus project, a survey based study that gathered the data of over 50.000 MMO players from 2003 to 2009. He then founded with Nicolas Ducheneaut Quantic Foundry, a market research company that focuses on gamers motivations. With the help of a huge survey database, the company built a gamer motivation model that is now referential in the game industry. There is a GDC talk on how the model was built and some of the lessons learned from it. It has namely been helpful in defining the core differences between Chinese and American players or define hardcore players motivations.

The Proteus paradox shares lessons learned from years gathering and analyzing online gamer’s data. The book focuses on the interactions between our offline and online selves, showing how our “real life” ethos shapes our online game behavior, and how games shapes back our offline lives. The first chapters show the diversity of motivations behind playing online games. The book then highlights how we pour meaning from our “real life” into games, whether it's believing in superstitions to activate game mechanics, how racial and gender bias our judgement when we interact with other players, or the way we may treat our online lives like an additional job. The later part of the book introduces the novel ways in which virtual worlds can shape our behavior and identity. The author explores love relationships built online or how our sociability in games varies with the game mechanics and the appearance of other players. The Proteus Paradox was written for both people interested in games and in psychology, as it questions what it means to be human in virtual worlds. Game specialists will learn a lot on the many ways people actually interact in their games. 

The Gamer’s Brain: How neuroscience and UX can impact video game design

Celia Hodent 






Celia Hodent is probably the most known ambassador of UX research in the game industry. After a Phd in psychology in Paris she worked in the toy industry (VTech) before joining the research labs of Ubisoft, then LucasArt and Epic Games. She has worked on major hit games like Rainbow Six and Fortnite. Celia Hodent was also a guest at the GDC conference, and has written several articles here on Gamasutra. It's worth noting that throughout her work and interventions she has been devoted to make games more ethical. 

The first part of the book breaks down several functions of the human brain that are key to the gamer’s experience, such as memory, attention or perception. By doing so, she debunks common myths on neuroscience and outlines the limits our brain will face when we are playing a game. In the second part, she uses this knowledge to adopt a player-centric perspective on game design. Having a UX mindset means caring about two things: game usability, and engage-ability. Usability means making your game easy to understand by for example having clear signs and feedback, suitable cognitive workload or consistency in the UI. Engage-ability means giving meaningful motivations to the player or convey emotion through the game controls and the game’s world. Overall, The Gamer’s Brain is probably the best book on game UX. It is easy to read and useful for anybody working in game production, not just UX specialists. 


Getting Gamers: The psychology of video games and their impact on the people who play them 

Jamie Madigan 






Also PhD in psychology, Jamie Madigan is a prolific writer on the use of psychology to understand video games. He has published in many newspapers and gaming news outlets, and frequently publishes on his own blog,, a gold mine for game psychologists enthusiasts. He also has his own podcast, also called the psychology of video games, and has published a list of articles on this website. Jamie Madigan writings are insightful, accessible and full of humor, which makes reading through his work a real pleasure. 

Jamie Madigan believes that people who make games and manage game communities succeed thanks to some understanding of psychology. But by using a “common vocabulary” and having a deeper understanding of players mind, game makers can really improve on their work. And so the first part is dedicated to “those who play”, focusing on online toxic behavior online and cheating, and how developers can build better communities with knowledge of how they work. The author then dwells on game design that keep players coming back to the game, whether it's the game’s reward system, the pleasure of loot dropping or the satisfaction of reaching a new high score. The focus then shifts on “Those who sell”, looking at marketing techniques, micro-transactions and consumer psychology to make your game more lucrative. The last part of the book is about the games themselves, if they make us more violent or smarter, and how we identify with our ingame characters. Many personal experiences illustrate the book and there is space for comic relief in about every chapter.  


Lost in a Good Game: Why we play video games and what they can do for us

Pete Etchells






Pete Etschells is a phd graduate in psychology, his current research is partly focused on how consumption of video games affects the cognitive development during childhood. He has written on topics such as the recent “gaming disorder” pinned by the WHO, or games in relation to depression. He has also contributed to many news outlets, and was previously the Guardian’s science blog network coordinator. You can access his personal blog here

Many chapters explore the dangers we usually associate with video games, using the scientific knowledge we have on these issues. Game addiction, the excess of screen time and violence are mentioned. But rather than giving straight answers, Etschells shows the complexity of these debates and opens them up to new questions. The only real danger seems to be on the free to play model and microtransactions, for which the author calls for state regulation. VR, esports and games used as treatment are also brought into light through a psychological lens. Lost in a good game is also a very personal book. Etchells speaks at length about the positive emotions we feel when we play a good game; whether it's the sheltering feeling of refuge, or how they can help us cope with loss. These feelings that are unique to each player and can hardly be approached by scientific research. Lost in a good game was written for a wide audience. There is little to learn for game designers, yet it discusses meaningful topics relevant to the future of the industry. 


Game User Research

Edited by Anders Drachen, Pejman Mirza-Babaei, Lennart Nacke






I want to end this list with the most practical book for people working in the game industry. Game User Research is a manual written by university professors, game consultants and game user researchers, explaining the methods and application of user research for your game. The authors talk about their use of research from console to mobile, indie to 3A productions. This is the most exhaustive collection of articles on the topic, and it's a must read for anybody interested in working on user research in games. 

The first part of the book examines how to insert UX research in the production pipeline. This includes how to design your test, conduct benchmark studies, the appropriate involvement of user research according to the size of your studio and how to set up a lab. The second part then explores the different methods that can be used in game UX research. Common methods like survey and player observation are mentioned, but also more complex research procedures such as eye-tracking biometrics or the Rapid Iterative Test and Evaluation Method (RITE). The last part focuses on specific case studies. Authors show their use of User Research in different contexts, whether its small studios with limited budget, mobile games, VR games, or for an audience with special needs. Overall Game User Research gives a good overview of the use of experience research in the game industry. 



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