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Feature: Designer Sylvester On How Games Engineer Compulsion

Game designer Tynan Sylvester <a href="http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3495/compulsion_engineers.php">takes a close look</a> at how games, alongside most forms of entertainment, "meticulously trigger human instincts" to create emotions and desires,

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

January 16, 2008

2 Min Read

Game designer Tynan Sylvester used to think that World of Warcraft became a cash cow because of Blizzard's predation on the compulsive nature of humanity. But then he realized something: all game-playing is compulsive on some level, he explains, and looking at these compulsions more closely is critical to helping designers understand motivation. Why, asks Sylvester, does anyone do anything? "Contrary to popular belief, humans do not act in pursuit of physical sensations. The taste of great food, or the physical sensation of orgasm, are not our primary motivations. These things do matter, but they do not drive major changes in our behavior. What is really important to us is satisfying compulsive urges and maintaining good emotional states." Sylvester identifies a variety of natural human compulsions that can be traced back to our primordial instincts: the compulsion to play-fight, to nurture and socialize, to hear and to tell stories, experimentation and attainment of social status, to name a few. By understanding these compulsions and translating them into design principles, says Sylvester, we can attain a more harmonious and intuitive relationship with every element of gaming. For example, he explains how natural human storytelling compulsion can richen the game experience: "Instead of embedding a story in the game fully formed, games can generate stories which players will then tell each other. Any FPS player will have a few stories about crazy plays he pulled off. I once walked into a room in Counter-Strike and killed three guys who were stacked on top of each other by filling the bottom guy with lead and letting the others fall into his place like Connect Four pieces. That was cool. Another time in Halo, I was firing from the minigun on Warthog and got hit by a rocket. I did an entire midair flip without ever stopping firing or losing my point of aim. That was cool. These stories don't have to be about combat. The Sims has an entire array of features about taking photos of your Sims and assembling albums chronicling their lives, which can then be posted on the web." The full feature contains further fascinating insight on natural human compulsive behavior with suggestions, examples and comparison from a game design perspective, and how we can leverage these crucial traits to build better game experiences (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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