What every game UX designer should know about human psychology

Written by
Mike Moran
December 14, 2020
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When our brains process something as complex as a video game, there’s a lot going on. Understanding the role that psychology plays within the science of game development is crucial to creating memorable and engaging games.

From door handles to coffee mugs to fighter jet cockpits, User Experience shows up in everything you interact with.

Every human-made object has been designed, based on either what will be easier for the user or what was easiest for the manufacturer. (Whenever using something feels frustrating or confusing, you can be sure it was the latter!)

But what about the concept of User Experience in the world of video games?

When our brains process something as complex as a video game, there’s a lot going on. Understanding the role that psychology plays within the science of game development is crucial to creating memorable and engaging games.

In this article, we’ll summarize the importance of understanding psychology while crafting the user experience of a video game.

We’ll touch on subjects such as the importance of play-testing, employing affordance in your games, how to use psychology to create usability and engageability, and the role of the “Gestalt” theory in game design.

Why Design Should Always Focus On The User

When the design is focused on the perspective of the user, a product becomes much more practical, desirable, and useful.

A great example of this dates back to fighter pilots during WWII. Exhausted and under pressure, these pilots had a high rate of human error and were at risk of accidentally pushing the wrong button on the dashboard of their aircraft.

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 WWII Spitfire Cockpit

Unfortunately for them, dashboards were not consistent between aircraft. This meant the pilots had to learn a new set-up every time they switched planes.

This made it even more likely that they would press the wrong button. Therefore, standardized cockpits needed to be developed which would improve the user experience for these pilots.

This type of thinking can also be applied to video games, ensuring that the design of the game is centered around the user experience. Therefore, by understanding the psychology of the user, you’ll be better able to make design decisions tailored to their needs.

It’s also important to remember that there is no such thing as a neutral design. Everything we design will influence people to use it in one way or another. This is an important ethical issue to consider, especially when certain retention mechanics can create addictive behaviors and punish disengagement.

The Importance of Play-Testing

Every user is different and our perspective depends on our experience, our history and what is important to us. When designing video games for different types of users, it’s not possible to know in advance what every user will bring to the experience. That’s why it’s essential to have a diverse team of designers with different backgrounds.

That’s also why video game designers “play test” their games. This tests how the game is perceived by the people who will actually be playing it. With this method designing a game becomes a cycle of action and iteration.

Designers create a game, then test it to see if it is accomplishing what they wanted to achieve. If insight from audience testing finds the game lacking, it’s back to the drawing board to refine with more information. Then the game is tested again, and the cycle continues.

The design team may have certain goals that they are trying to achieve within the game. However, they will need to iterate on all aspects of the gameplay, from dialogue to visuals to mechanics and more, in order to achieve those goals.

When it comes to play testing, heres an important tip: The developer shouldn’t be in the room with the play testers. Not only will it make the players feel somewhat awkward and intimidated, it will also make the test less accurate.

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Players tend to make more effort to understand a game when the developer is watching than they would if they were playing it at home (perhaps out of politeness to the person who has put their heart and soul into crafting the game). To get an accurate measure of how many players would simply give up on a game, play testers should be free to play the game by themselves.

Employing “Affordance” In Games

Affordance refers to when a particular object defines its possible uses. In other words, when an object clearly “tells you” how it can or should be used.

Take a coffee mug for example. It’s pretty clear that the hot beverage goes in the cup, and the handle is used to lift it towards your mouth. The handle is an affordance that allows you to use the mug without burning your fingers.

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 Affordances are clues about how an object should be used.

In video games, users aren’t manipulating physical objects. Therefore, the affordances are what’s know as “cognitive affordances” — signifiers that give the user an idea of how to use something in the game.

When game designers add elements into their game, they want users to be able to understand what that element is for and how it can be used, simply by looking at it.

A great example of this? The enemies in the Mario video game series. Bowser has sharp spikes, which make it clear to the player that they will hurt themselves if they try to jump on his back. In fact, many of the initial levels of Super Mario Bros teach players about how the rest of the game works.

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 Bowser has sharp spikes, which make it clear to the player that they will hurt themselves if they try to jump on his back

Every detail of a game, from music to visuals to dialogue, helps the player understand how to interact with it.

Another example of affordance? The HUD, or “heads-up display” is an on-screen status bar that conveys important information to the audience. This can be helpful especially when players are coming back after not playing the game for a while — as the HUD can give them important reminders.

Deciding How to Challenge Your Users

The key to designing a game is thinking about what experiences you want to offer your users.

How do you want to challenge your players?

Do you want to challenge their combat skills? Or their ability to coordinate with others? Or their ability to perceive things and solve puzzles? Each of these challenges will involve a different style of gameplay.

Once you define what experience you want to offer, you can then think about the people who you want to play your game. After all, different players will see things in their own way, so you’ll need to think about how to connect with them.

This is another reason why play-testing is so important. You can’t anticipate how people will interact with your game and you’re likely to have blind spots when trying to predict this. So, that’s why it’s so important to play-test with a diverse mix of players.

This allows you to think about alleviating any potential barriers and making your game as accessible as possible, so everyone can enjoy it.

Usability & Engageability: Both Essential For Good UX

Two essential components that need to be present within a game in order to have good UX — Usability and Engageability.

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Usability ensures that the game can be used.

It means that players understand the objectives and the systems involved.

For example, if there is crafting within the game, players grasp how to interact with it.

Engageability is about how much the game captivates the emotions and interest of the players.

A game with good engageability will put the player in a “flow-like” state: completely focused and immersed in the game.

Games can be usable, without necessarily being engageable. Players may understand how to use all the features in your game, yet might still find it boring. A game needs more than just usability, it needs to be engaging.

Games can also be engaging, but not useable. The player may be intrigued by the storyline or premise of the game, but find the controls impossible to master or the in-game mechanics difficult to use. They may want to play, but they are likely to give up in frustration.

This is true even for so-called “hardcore” gamers. They may have a lot of experience playing games, but they might not understand how to interact with a particular part of your game. Even if the game has a lot of hype, many will give up on it if it is confusing and frustrating.

So, how do you create both usability and engageability within your game? Usability centers around the ways humans process information; namely their perception, memory and attention. Engageability focuses on what makes people care about the game and comes down to competence, autonomy and relatedness.

Creating Usability: Perception, Memory and Attention

When it comes to determining usability, we need to think about the human brain and how it processes information to figure something out in a video game.

This comes down to three main aspects of brain function: Perception, Memory and Attention.

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Every one of your players will have their own unique experience of the world — and therefore a unique perception of your game.

It’s crucial to remember that everyone playing your game will see it differently.

Playing a video game is a learning experience, so it’s important to think about how your players will learn and remember important parts of the game.

(And whether they will still remember how to play when coming back to a game after a while!)

If your players don’t pay attention to something in the game — their brain won’t encode it and they will not remember it.

That’s why important information should stand out in the game and capture their attention.

If you keep these three aspects in mind when designing games, you can make sure your players will understand and remember the important aspects of gameplay.

Fortnite is a great example. To encourage players to learn how to build, they place them in a cave with no exit. The only way to get out of the situation is to build stairs.

“If you place players in a situation where they have context,” explains Celia Hodent, “it means they can DO the things you teach them. They are learning by doing. And on top of that, it’s meaningful. They care about it right now, because they need to get out.”

When people are paying attention to what they are doing and they care about it, they will be more likely to learn it and remember it.

Creating Engageability: Competence, Autonomy and Relatedness

When it comes to engageability, we need to look at the principles of intrinsic motivation. In other words, what makes people hooked on your game and keeps them coming back?

This comes down to three main aspects:

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Competence is the feeling of progressing in the game and being in control.

This doesn’t mean the game has to be easy. It should still be challenging.

However, if the player dies, they should understand WHY they died so that they can improve their performance next time.

Autonomy is the need for the player to feel ownership over their own behavior.

This means that players feel like they are making their own decisions in the game.

This makes them more invested in the outcome of their actions.

Relatedness is the need to feel connected to others.

Note: this doesn’t just apply to multi-player online games!

Even relationships with fictional characters in single-players games can satisfy the need for relatedness. (The characters just have to be well-written and interesting!)

These aspects all need to be present for players to be engaged with a game.

If players don’t feel competent and don’t feel like they can progress, they are more likely to give up.

If they don’t feel like they are able to make their own decisions and meaningfully shape the narrative, they are more likely to give up.

If they don’t feel connected to others within the game, they are more likely to give up.

So, to keep your players engaged, the key is to make them feel competent, free and connected.

How Gestalt Principle Influences Design

The term “gestalt” refers to an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts. In the Gestalt psychology movement, psychologists argued that humans perceived patterns and configurations, rather than individual components.

How does the theory of gestalt relate to game design? It’s important because it affects the way we perceive things and make connections between what we see.

The human brain tends to group together items that are shown in proximity to each other. Also, objects with similar attributes are perceived as belonging together. This is important to remember when designing skill trees, inventory icons, objects and other in-game elements.

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 Gestalt Principles image credited to  UX Hints

For example, the design of a menu in the game Far Cry. By placing icons closer to each other and giving them a shape that infers movement to the right, the progression of skills becomes much easier to follow.

Players Should Always Come First

If you have a better understanding of how the brain works and the main flaws of perception, attention and memory, as well as motivation and game flow, this basic knowledge will help you design better games.

Approaching game design from a psychological perspective will change your mindset and will help you anticipate potential problems. It will help you comprehend why players make the decisions they do, and how you can help them get the most out of your game.

The most important thing to keep in mind when designing a game is the experience of the player. We advocate so strongly for lots and lots of play testing.

Paying for play-testing is an expense, but it is absolutely a worthwhile investment. It’s the only way to get the information you need, so you can understand how real people will perceive and interact with your game.


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