Game Psych: Why Games Do What They Do

The Psychology Behind the Most Powerful Game Mechanics
By Beatriz Bernal


In 1930, Burrhus Frederic Skinner, who was a psychologist at Harvard University, invented the Operant Conditioning Chamber, better known as the Skinner Box. This box was a chamber that had a lever a lever that an animal, usually a rat or a pigeon, can press down with the hope to obtain food or water as a reward. This reward is referred to as the “reinforcer.” The Box was used for a number of experiments, most of which revolved around finding the factors which caused the animal to pull the lever more or less often (called the “rate of response”).

Their conclusions have had a huge impact in a number of fields revolving around the motivation industry. This included fields such as motivation improvement, study of additions, conduct modification, employee’s engagement, game design and many others.

The most basic level of results showed the pigeons were more likely to push the lever more often when there was a 50% chance that they would receive a reward. What was strange was that this happened even more often than when they received one 100% of the times. This is called an intermittent reward schedule and it is one of the most powerful game mechanics used to engage players. They also found that the most effective reward schedule was a variable ratio reward schedule (where the result was 50% of the time, but they could possible get 3 rewards in a row and then nothing for 5 lever pushes) as opposed to a fixed ratio reward schedule (for example, where they would get a reward every 2 lever pushes no matter what).

Basically, the combination of unlocking the reward just 50% of the time together with not knowing exactly when the reward is going to be unlocked, inserts a level of randomness into the equation such that there could be many pulls of the lever with no payoff, but the average payoff is set and somehow can be intuited. This combination is irresistible and produces both the highest rate of responding and the greatest resistance to extinction.

So what does this mean for us? Animals (and humans) can be persuaded to perform an activity more often simply by giving us a chance of a reward instead of promising us a guaranteed reward. We tend to know this intuitively, which is why many people enjoy gambling.

Thousands of games use these principles. Slot machines will intermittently reward you with money, Farmville will randomly give you gifts (usually items to be used on your farm), and World of Warcraft mobs only drop the loot you need for quests some of the time and not all of the time.


Loss aversion is a behavioral characteristic of the human nature demonstrated by the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1979 as a part of their prospect theory). It describes how people are intrinsically afraid of losses when they choose between probabilistic alternatives that involve risk. Basically, instead of looking at the “big picture” or the final outcome, we look at each loss as its own event, which makes those losses irritate us more. We dislike losing more than we enjoy winning.

Prospect theory says that there are two stages in the decision process: editing and evaluating. During the editing part of the decision making process, people will look at their choices and then set a goal or reference point. Then, they will look at that point during every event; in relation to that reference point, they call the negative outcomes “losses” and the positive outcomes “gains.”

In the evaluation phase of decision, people will chose what they perceive to be the best option; this is usually the option with the most utility, which is based on the potential outcomes and their respective probabilities when it comes to obtaining that outcome. For example, let’s look at this: if someone gave you 2 options; the first one, you are given the offer of $50 with no stipulations. The second one gives you the chance of winning $100, just by flipping the coin. Which of them would you choose? Both options are mathematically equivalent, but most people would choose to get the $50.

Loss aversion is the most powerful game mechanic present in many games. For example, in FarmVille, you don’t return, your investments die and you will feel like you wasted your time and money. Loss aversion is also present in poker, when a player decides to bet less money that he should (based on his odds) just because he doesn’t want to risk all his chips and get knocked out of a tournament. The idea of losing everything has more weight than the potential amount that he could win on this particular hand.


Achievements are, in short, a representation of a specific accomplishment. In some cases, they will give you something that helps you progress in the game. In other cases, they’re just a great way for you to brag to your fellow gamers about your accomplishments. But why do people love achievements? How do they drag us even further into our virtual experience?

That’s where Abraham Maslow comes in. His research revolved around something that he called the “hierarchy of needs”.

The needs on Maslow’s hierarchy work from the bottom and go upward. The concept is, in short, that we have all of these needs in our lives. As life goes forward, the needs that we have become much more complex in nature and they also become much more difficult to attain. We feel accomplished when we ensure that these needs are taken care of; we feel as if we have achieved something in our lives.

Achievements are the 4th step of any individual’s needs. We like to feel as if we accomplished something. If you defeat a raid boss in World of Warcraft, you feel as if you have accomplished something, and it gives you a feeling of satisfaction and pride. But, what if you are a player that doesn’t raid? How can Blizzard help you to feel accomplished? The achievements that they provide give you little “bread crumbs” that tempt you to come back and achieve those things. Some of them may seem trivial; others are incredibly difficult. Either way, you feel as if you have accomplished something, and the need for esteem has been fulfilled by the achievement system.

So where do we see achievements?

In World of Warcraft, achievements give you something to strive for while questing and raiding, by asking you to do something differently than you would have; you accumulate points which you can show off to your fellow gamers. In the Pok�mon series of games, you earn badges when you defeat gym trainers. Consoles like the Xbox have even put achievements into everything you do on your account, from playing particular games to performing certain actions while on the console. Achievements are everywhere, and they can bring a challenge to games that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

If you are looking for more information on the gamification topics we talked about here, make sure to check out our game mechanics glossary:

We explain all of the terms here in more detail, and you can learn more about the thought patterns that go into the psychology of game mechanics and gamification.

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Spend Less Money on Video Games

Video games are expensive. A new video game near to release date normally costs around �40 in the UK or $50 in the USA. I am going to suggest five tips to reduce your expenditure on video games without reducing your enjoyment.

When I talk about the “value” of a used game I am referring to the price that you could get by selling it on eBay or similar..

1. Rent games rather than buying them

Some games are better for their offline play, for example Metal Gear Solid. If you have a week off you can easily complete the game and then return it. Services such as LOVEfilm in the UK and Gamefly in the US. You will pay reasonable rates and still be able to play the game.

2. Sell games after using them

This, in effect, is like renting. However there are some differences between the two. One good thing about reselling is that you can have more than a certain number of games at one time, giving you greater flexibility in, for example, vacations when you may want a variety of games to play with friends and family. The disadvantage is that you can never be sure how much games are going to resell for. If you buy a game on release and it becomes very popular you may only lose �10/$15 off the value of the game over the next three months. If it is unpopular a game can lose over �20/$30 off its value. This means that renting allows you to budget more easily than buying and then selling does.

3. Buy older games

If you enjoyed a game a year ago there is no reason you wouldn’t if you picked it up for the first time today. Well, unless you had already played new season games and therefore had higher expectations in terms of graphics and production. What I do is buy my games three or four months after release. This means that I profit from the fact that games are cheaper. Moreover, following this initial fall in price they rarely fall under �20/$30 for another six months, meaning that I normally only lose about �10 when I sell them on eBay. Another advantage of this system is I can wait and see if games are popular before I buy them. Therefore I only buy the games that get good reviews and I know that I will enjoy. This also saves me money.

4. Share with friends

If you have a game try and convince your friend to buy a different one. This is especially valid if the game is mostly offline based such as Skyrim. Then when you are both finished you can swap games. This is more efficient than buying and selling as you save eBay selling fees. You can, also, sell your games to friends. However when games are online it is hard to do this as one of the best things about them is that you can play with your friends. Therefore this tip is mostly for the offline gamers out there.

5. Get the best price

There are a number of good websites that track the price of video games across different stores. I normally find Amazon the cheapest. However using a price comparison site will ensure that you find the best deal. Sometimes the best deal is by buying used games. Even a couple of days after release date you can find games online that are slightly reduced in price as they are used, however for the best deals on the best games you normally have to wait for a few months.

Happy money saving!

If you want to more effectively manage your gadgets and save money go to Unioncy is a new and free gadget management tool.

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What’s Your Definition of a Gamer?

What Defines a Gamer?
By D King

There are many definitions to define what a gamer is. I’ve heard many, and have agreed with most of them. Just like with most things in life gamers come in different levels and stages, habits and tendencies. This is a philosophical question in my opinion, no right or wrong answer, usually every answer I hear has some logic to it. Some believe that even in their spare time play, that they are gamers, I concur.

You’ve owned some type of video game console since the beginning of the Atari days. Your a lock for being a gamer. The people who are the first ones when the stores opens to get the latest game to come out, or even better, camp out overnight to get what they want. Gamer! Beating a game more than once, finding things you missed the previous time around, makes you a gamer. Some people play sports games, some just play Madden, they too are gamers.

I’ve heard those who play the Xbox 360 and PS3 refer to the Wii as a toy and whoever plays it as their main console, is not a gamer. I would have to disagree that. I personally believe that the PS3 is better than the Wii overall. I also believe that Nintendo found a winner with the Wii, ran with it, and still have yet to slow down. I just believe Nintendo has been smarter as a company for the last few years. I’ve also heard PC gamers refer to all gaming consoles as toys, everyone has opinion right?

Last but not least we have the “No Lifers”. They live to play video games, every day of every year. They are the gladiators of video games, the hardcore, they pretty much consist of every definition of a gamer combined into one, crazy.

In my opinion what defines a gamer depends on who you ask. Some are more hardcore, others are casual, some play for perfection, some play a particular niche of game, others bleed video games. There are countless other definitions and I pretty much agree with them all. If you play enough video games to consider yourself a gamer no matter what your skill level, or time invested, or anything else, who am I to say any different, you’re a gamer. What’s your definition of a gamer?


Denard King is a video game enthusiast who enjoys the pleasure and the business side of the video game industry. His website, provides the latest video game news related articles.

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