The Role of Psychology in Game Design

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To many people, gaming is a hobby or a past time that has garnered a lot of interest in the last decade or so. Growing in popularity, online games like World of Warcraft a Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG) has developed into one of the largest MMORPG today. According to Activision Blizzard, World of Warcraft has now over 100 million individual user accounts spending “5.93 million years’ worth of game time by 2011” and also grossed $9.23 billion in revenue, making it one of the highest-grossing video games of all time.

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World of Warcraft features players interacting and cooperating with each other inside a fantasy world where they are encouraged to fight in dungeons and aim for the highest level achievable. In order to be the most powerful player, they are expected to level up where their progression is achieved by amassing loots and experience (EXP). Trading and selling is also commonplace in the game where wealth is also an important factor in becoming strong.

To play in this game, the player must select from amongst 4 servers: PVE (player versus environment) where much of the gameplay revolves around defeating monsters and completing quests. PVP (player versus player) where gameplay is focused on defeating other players and less on quests. RP(Roleplay) where players roleplay in characters and RPPVP (Roleplay player versus player) where it combines elements from RP and PVP.

Theory of Personality

There has not been much research into the positive and negative qualities of this game and how MMORPGs like World of Warcraft can affect social relationships of its players, despite its notoriety of being addictive. But are these addictions associated with personality traits? Or are they purely game-playing motivations? Through the application of the Theory of Personality on to this particular game, we might be able to shed some light on the this.

We understand for a fact that an individual’s unique and relatively stable pattern of behaviour, thoughts and feelings define his or her personality. Therefore, by examining their personality traits we can identify the correlation between the game and the players’ personalities. We can look at the Big Five Factors, which is a trait theory that suggest that there are 5 key dimensions of personality: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability and Openness to Experience. We can take an in depth look into two of these traits; mainly Extraversion and Agreeableness.

By definition, a person who scored low on Agreeableness tend to be more suspicious, critical and ruthless. Whereas on the other hand high scorers on Agreeableness tend to be more trusting, lenient and good-natured. We can see very clear from here where players of different personality traits fit in to the game. Low scorers in Agreeableness would surely prefer the more aggressive and hostile gameplay servers like the PVP servers, they would take pleasure in defeating other players and engaging in a higher paced action-packed environment. On the other hand, high scorers on Agreeableness would prefer the much slower paced and peaceful setting.

There is I believe a correlation between Agreeableness and Extraversion when we look into the definition of the latter. People who scored high are often more active, talkative and sociable whereas people who scored low are often quiet, reserved and passive. Players who played for the purpose of socializing are more than often more likely to interact with other players and enjoy making their presence known be it in terms of wealth, power or notoriety. This meant that the players would be more likely to also engage in more hostile gameplay such as PVP, alike to those who scored lower in Agreeableness. Similarly, players who scored lower on Extraversion tend to be people who are quiet and prefer to keep to themselves, which too means that they would prefer a much slower paced and peaceful gameplay environment, as were those who scored high on Agreeableness.

Theory of Motivation

Other than looking at the personalities and traits of the players, there could also be other reasons as to why this game is so addictive. Friends of mine who talked about how their obsession with this game ended up affecting their interpersonal relationships has often led me to think about their motivations for playing this game. The reason why MMORPGs like World of Warcraft are so flawlessly addictive are why gameplay developers exist. Using the Theory of Motivation, we might find out what drives the players to do things and how they make them keep on doing it.

We can understand that motivation is an internal state that initiates and sustains our thoughts and behaviours in a focused direction. It revolves around two basic concepts: Goals and Incentives, both of which we will see addressed in the following paragraphs. First of all, we need to realize the differences between goals and incentives. A goal is a desired end result, whereas an incentive is the value of a goal above and beyond its ability to fill a need. Both play an important role in giving the players the proper motivation to keep on playing the game.

Expanding on the concept of incentives by taking a look at the Expectancy Theory, we know that an individual will be motivated based on the expectation that a completed goal will be followed by a given incentive and on the attractiveness of that incentive to the individual. In short Motivation = Valence * Expectancy * Instrumentality. We can explore the concept of Quests in World of Warcraft to see the correlation between Valence, Expectancy and Instrumentality. In WOW, players are rewarded in terms of EXP, items, gold and a variety of necessities whenever they complete a quest. It can range from a small reward to something much more substantial. The greater the attractiveness of the incentive, the greater the valence and thus, the greater the motivation. Other than the rewarding system of quests, quests are also divided into different levels of difficulties. Sometimes, the quest may be harder which might take up more time and has a lesser probability of success. Sometimes the quest may be easy with a high probability of success, greater expectancy and thus, also providing a high level of motivation for the players to keep it going. Usually the number of easy quests is much higher compared to the harder ones. By understanding the correlation between the Expectancy Theory and the game, we are one step into understanding the motivations that kept the players going.

Setting specific and challenging but attainable goals would too boost motivation and performance of the players. If we talked about the ultimate goal the players want to achieve in this game, we would most likely come up with the same answer; that they all want to be the most powerful character in the server. However, it is not easily attainable, instead players go on a journey one step at a time, quest by quest, loot by loot until they finish crafting their ideal characters. By crafting sufficiently challenging and attainable goals (quests, levels), players are more inclined to continue playing the game. If a game has an absurd scale of progression, players give up more easily and lose motivation to keep on playing.

Theories of Learning

Social features in online games especially MMORPGs like World of Warcraft enable players to attain social successes that would be otherwise difficult, such as learning interpersonal relations or even inspiring them to improve themselves in the real world. Predominantly still a social game, WOW promotes teamwork and cooperation. Players giving feedback to one another and reward systems provide them with encouragement and gratifications, motivating them to better themselves and learn constantly. Mentioned earlier, success in the game might also help translate the players’ desires for achievement in the real world as well. Applying the Theories of Learning, we can further explore what inspires the players to want to play.

By definition, learning is a relatively permanent change in behaviour due to experience. There are two theories of learning: Classical Conditioning and Operant Condition. Classical conditioning theory involves learning a new behaviour via the process of association. In simple terms two stimuli are linked together to produce a new learned response in a person. On the other hand, we have Operant conditioning, a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behaviour. Through operant conditioning, the player makes an association between a particular behaviour and a consequence (Skinner, 1938).

In World of Warcraft, players are immersed in an environment where they must quickly learn the ropes in order to level up or get stronger faster. Using a pairing of stimuli to give an example, wealth acquired in the game paired with completing quests gives the player a sense of achievement. Another example would be, you paired with another player in a PVP gives you a sense of excitement and tension. By classical conditioning, players are “taught” in a way how to react towards certain stimuli.

On the other hand, we have operant conditioning. Players are also “taught” but in a different manner from classical conditioning. In positive reinforcement players are given some positive stimuli that increases the probability of that response happening again. In WOW’s gameplay, players are given additional stats and power upon upgrading their equipment and levelling up; prompting them to want to continue levelling up so they could become stronger. Another positive reinforcement is the granting of bonus points when a group wins a raid for a certain number of times in a row. The negative reinforcement is that the bonus is removed if leadership is transferred of if a player leaves the group. The idea behind that is that if players had incentive to stick with a group, they would be more careful about how they act and treat others. The winning bonuses help players get to equal level of players faster and help keep the bracket balanced so there is better progression.


The role of psychology in game design has always been a major factor in determining the viability of a game. Creating games is about understanding the human mind, and how to best please and reward it. And as more experts explore how humans interact with technology, we are forced to acknowledge the importance of the application of psychological concepts and theories in the games industry. By asking questions on what goes on inside the mind of a gamer, we can understand the motivation behind what drives him or her to continue playing that one game. By understanding the intrinsic need for interaction with one another we can also apply this concept to the realm of game design.

Looking past simple motivation, players with different personalities go to a game seeking different kinds of enjoyment. Understanding and applying the different concepts of human behavioural traits helps to create experiences that enable each player to succeed in the game. With the application of these concepts, players will have a much more fruitful and rewarding time in the games.

Learning is a lifelong process and this concept should be well integrated into games to make it more appealing to the masses. Explained earlier, the theories of learning are a set of “rules” that game designers have crafted in order to make their games more engaging and enjoyable. These techniques are ingrained in a deep understanding of player psychology and through the decades have been refined to finally arrive at its current stage.

Nonetheless, the study of game design through psychological aspects is still a rising trend and to me it is clear that there are lessons which developers can learn from looking at it in a scientific manner.

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