Psychology of Video Games

I have published a blog post after a very very long time.  The reason for this delay is because I was discovering new things. Recently I fell in love with psychology and game design. Both of which, when combined can explain some of the behaviors that we commonly observe in the digital age. This post will be one of the many to come, attempting to explain the relationship humans share with technology. We will first get a primer on the concepts of Play, Games, and bits of behavioral and cognitive psychology. We will then see how modern game design uses those theories to provide an almost addictive piece of art and technology i.e. video games.

One of the most beautiful things living beings indulge in is the activity called “Play”. It is a spontaneous and unstructured activity with no intended result. It has been noted that members of all species indulge themselves in ‘Play’ especially the younger ones. Dutch historian Johan Huizinga states

Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing. We can safely assert, even, that human civilization has added no essential feature to the general idea of play. Animals play just like men.

Two young gorillas playing; notice how they use their body and gestures to express their emotions [CREDIT]

There is something of real value in the playfulness of play. However, counterintuitive it may sound researchers have found that play is how kids develop their necessary motor skills and emotional expressions. We will try and see why human beings love to play and what could be our motivations.

Taking a step further from the realm of play, which often has no goals and rules to meet, we move to another rich world of games. These derive their experience from the playful activity wrapped in a set of rules and goals. Think about a game like hide-n-seek. It is a good example of how an activity can be turned into a game by adding two rules – the seeker will count to ten and others will hide.

Play can turn into a game by addition of just one rule [CREDIT]

While the complexity of a game is not a standard to judge it by, it is safe to say that there are far more complicated and evolved games than hide-n-seek. Today games have been turned into a massive industry which is generating more revenue than even Hollywood. From highly sophisticated gameplay to cutting-edge technology, video games are now a part of mainstream entertainment, delivering immersive experiences. An average AAA game has life-like graphics, multiplayer support, over 40 hours of gameplay, an engaging storyline, multiplayer support, in-game economy and so much more. Seemingly trivial games like Candy Crush and Sim City are catching the players fascination, unlike anything we could have imagined a few years ago. Age doesn’t seem to matter as they have players ranging from kids to older people.

Silver Snipers, the Counter-Strike e-sports team where everyone is over 60 [CREDIT: The Verge]

So it is natural to ask questions like “What makes a game so effective?”, “Why do people play video games?” and “What makes them fun?”. These are not easy questions to answer by any means. Psychologists and game researchers over past couple of decades have been trying to explain this but unfortunately, game research did not grow at the same pace the games grew. Here we will try to develop our understanding of how the psychology behind game works based on the research, however little but important, conducted so far in this area.

Games as Skinner Box experiments

Games modify human behavior for better or worse. Psychologists have tried to explain this phenomenon using Operant Theory that comes from the Behaviorist approach. First, let’s get ourselves familiar with Behavioral Psychology which was the dominant school of thought in the field of psychology until the 1960s.

Behavioral Psychology is based on the idea that psychology should only study observable and measurable behavior and rejected the idea that the mind or cognitive processes can be studied scientifically.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner proposed the Operant theory which says that behaviors are learned and motivated through rewards and punishments. That is, behaviors that are reinforced will be strengthened, whereas behaviors that are punished will get extinguished.

BF Skinner, the American psychologist known for teaching pigeons how to dance and rats to press levers

Skinner Box Experiment

  1. Skinner took a pigeon and kept it in a cage
  2. It wasn’t given any food to eat. There were a button and a green LED in one corner and a slot to give a food pellet.
  3.  As the pigeon started exploring the cage it tried pecking the button. This gave him a pellet to eat.
  4. Over time the pigeon learned that pecking the button a certain  number of times turned on the LED and gave him a food pellet
  5. The operant, in this case, is the green LED and the pigeon started pecking as the light was turned on. Thus the pigeon has been conditioned by the light to peck.
This might seem like a joke at first but it has an important insight when it comes to human society. The behaviors that are rewarded by institutions like corporates, society, families generally survive. For eg. making yourself productive to work, not being violent, saying yes to the boss, don’t mess with the cops etc. Skinner said that free will is an illusion because our behaviors are continuously being modified by external forces. Daniel Pink in his book Drive called this type of carrot and stick model, Motivation 2.0 [CREDIT]

There are essentially two types of reward pattern Skinner used


Fixed Ratio – The pigeon pecks 5 times and gets food once. The FR becomes 5.

Game Examples
  • Killing a certain number of monsters to level up or collecting a fixed number of items to increase player’s health.
lucky eggs
You will unlock Lucky Eggs in pokemon go at Levels 10 – 15 – 20 – 25 – 30 – 35 – 40. So till level 2, the reward is a variable ratio and after level 2 it becomes a fixed ratio reward.
  • Continous reinforcement – The Fixed ratio of 1 where every time a user does something she is rewarded, Eg. Kill enemies get points.
In pokemon go every time you catch a pokemon and get rewarded with 100XP. For a “Great throw” you are rewarded extra 50 XP.

Variable Ratio  – In VR5 schedule pigeon might receive the first food pellet after 4 pecks, the second one after 10 pecks, and the third one after 1 peck, averaging to 5 responses.

Game Example

In digital games, “loots” are generally based on a variable ratio schedule. The players do not know how many creatures they have to kill before obtaining the special item that these creatures drop. Even though the players may find the task boring, but the probability of obtaining the special reward results in a steady high response rate.


Fixed Time – The pigeon pecks for 10 minute and gets food once.

Game Example

Browser games and Facebook games use this kind of schedule frequently. For instance, the game can provide various rewards for logging in once within a fixed time period. This could be a positive reinforcer such as a reward (e.g., daily in-game currency reward for logging in) or a negative reinforcer such as preventing an undesirable outcome (renewing the magical shield of your city, protecting your space fleet, protecting your crops from withering, etc.).

In Clash Royale you are supposed to wait for a certain period of time to unlock a reward like Chestbox. If you can’t wait for that much you can of course shell out some money and buy gems, 12 in this case, which will open the chest. This is a very clever use of Anchored Juxtaposition as explained by Yu-Kai Chau in his blog post

Variable Time – Response will be reinforced after an unpredictable period of time, within a previously set average period.

Games viewed from Self Determination Theory

Self Determination Theory (1970) developed by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci of University of Rochester, is a macro theory of Cognitivism school of thought in Psychology which accounts for the inclinations of a particular individual towards a task. It distinguishes motivations based on the factors that originate them while Skinner et al focus on the measurable external stimulus. This theory proposes that there are innate psychological needs of Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness, any person has and if a task is able to satisfy those needs then it will be able to motivate the person towards a behavior.

Richard Ryan (left) and Edward Deci (Right), the two pioneers of Self Determination Theory

The two major types of motivation SDT explains is Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation.

A person is said to be intrinsically motivated towards a particular task if the activity itself is enjoyable enough and the person doesn’t need additional incentive to sustain that behavior. For e.g., a kid playing cricket.

Whereas, extrinsic motivation is defined as doing an activity to obtain an outcome that is separable from the activity. For e.g., a kid who is studying for an exam because his parents have promised to buy him the latest game.

What we need to understand is that there are a different reward and punishment structure at work. In intrinsic motivation, the reward is often the activity itself and the satisfaction derived from it. We will talk about psychological need satisfaction later.

In Skinner box experiments the participants are forced to do something and kept in a constrained environment. Though games use the rewards structure of Skinner box experiments, none of the participants are ever forced to play the game until and unless we are talking about USS Callister episode of Black Mirror season 3.

In this episode, the players were forcibly cloned into the game world and left at the mercy of the evil creator of the Infinity mod. He stripped away their choices in the game and the entire experience was designed to demean them to exact revenge of the real life. They were trapped in a virtual world with no way to communicate with their loved ones or to form new voluntary, meaningful relationships. [CREDIT]

USS Callister was everything that a good game should not be. A good game is supposed to satisfy the basic psychological needs of Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness to the different degree depending on the type of game it is.

How video games satisfy competence?

  • Levels are carefully designed in games so that they gradually increase the difficulty quotient. At a particular point in a game, the challenges posed are not too easy or not too difficult which makes player itching to play more and more because she feels competent for the task ahead.
In Mario, the levels are carefully designed to support the player’s ability and acknowledge her for achieving something grand in the scheme of the game.
  • It is important to mention that it is the perceived competence of the player about herself that matters because that ultimately sustains her interests, not by any external metric.

How video games satisfy autonomy?

  • Video games as an experience are a volitional activity, mostly a player is playing a game by their own choice. They willingly agree to the challenges and the rules of the game to overcome those constructed challenges.
  • A lot of games (except linear ones) gives in-game choices which lead to different consequences even completely different endings in the game.
  • Spoiler Alert – My friend Hari who played the game Witcher 3 experienced outcomes of his choices by getting different endings.  In the 4th act, the character of Geralt is given a choice to help another character called Ciri. Choosing to help her will result in the completely different ending.
Witcher 3 – A very famous game also known for its varied endings. The game has three possible endings while the character of Geralt also has three endings explained in this post by IGN. [CREDIT]

How video games satisfy relatedness?

  • Relatedness in games is generally considered in the context of multiplayer games, however, single player games with digital worlds and non-player characters (NPCs) can also facilitate satisfaction of relatedness needs.
  • People have developed a meaningful relationship through online multiplayer games. A sense of camaraderie is extraordinary in gamer squad and altruistic acts and not that uncommon.
  • Games that make the player feel acknowledged and supported by NPCs in the virtual world satisfy relatedness needs. As the Witcher 3 example given above, the designer has tried to reinforce the importance of NPC and ultimately exploit the human need to feel related.
Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 10.15.03 PM
Greetings to the hero who saved us all! Games like Oblivion have NPCs that support relatedness through “contextual feedback” based on player actions. [CREDIT – Glued to games]
Ciri an important NPC in Witcher 3. During the game, the player experiences a detailed narrative about Ciri and makes important choices that affect the future of the character in the game. Since meaningful relationships can’t be forced onto the player. The player is given full autonomy but she has to bear the consequences her actions caused to other NPCs.

With the help of SDT, Richard Ryan and Scott Rigby have developed a model, that measures the need satisfaction of players in games, which is named Player Empowerment and Need Satisfaction (PENS). The model has noticed that playing games can result in a short-term increase in psychological wellness in some cases.

Some of you might say that why all of this is important. The answer is that the permeability of technology is increasing day by day in our lives and we are moving from purely functionality oriented products, tell me last time when you got attached to maps in your phone. Call it the monotony of the modern lifestyle, people are seeking their refuge in technology to satisfy their psychological needs, of course, once their basic physiological needs are met (winking at famous Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).

maslow's hierarchy of needs
Maslow’s theory says that people move from bottom to up in the hierarchy of needs. Lower level needs must be satisfied before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs. [CREDIT]

The rise of social media is a good example. Games are exceptional at utilizing (some might even say exploiting) those inner needs as it was explained. My attempt is to use video games as a lens to view the larger picture of the effect of technology on human psychology.


  • ‘Play’ is unstructured while ‘Games’ have rules and objective.
  • Reward system in games works on the behavior psychology principle of operant conditioning which says that desirable behavior can be promoted through rewards and undesirable ones can be diminished by punishment.
  • We play games because of intrinsic motivation but often we do other things for extrinsic motivation.
  • We find games enjoyable because games satisfy our basic psychological needs of Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness.
  • Games can help us in understanding the emerging dynamics of human and technology relationships.

If you like this post then make sure to like, comment or share. Your responses work as a motivation for me, I won’t name which one – Intrinsic or Extrinsic, go figure!


  1. The Motivational Pull of Video Games: A Self-Determination Theory Approach Richard M. Ryan · C. Scott Rigby · Andrew Przybylski
  2. Self-Determination Theory in Digital Games: Irem Gokce Yildirim, Michigan State University and Ahmet Uysal, Middle East Technical University
  3. Facilitating Optimal Motivation and Psychological Well- Being Across Life’s Domains: Edward Deci and Richard Ryan
  4. GLUED TO GAMES – How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound: Scott Rigby and Richard M. Ryan
  5. Enterprise Gamification – Engaging people by letting them have fun: Herger, Mario.
  6. Gamification by University of Pennsylvania (An online course by Coursera that was taken by Prof. Kevin Werbach)


**None of the images belong to me and nor do I claim any ownership.

**Views are strictly my own and any author mentioned here is not accountable for what is written in this post.

1 Comment

  1. Great blog here! Also your site loads up very fast! What host are you using? Can I get your affiliate link to your host? I wish my site loaded up as quickly as yours lol|


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s