The standard Big 5 includes a facet called “Self-Efficacy”.

When people take the Big 5 test, the ones who score high on Self-Efficacy (’S-E’) mark that they ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ with statements like:

  • Complete tasks successfully
  • Excel in what I do
  • Know how to get things done

Inversely, people who score low on S-E tend to ‘agree’ with statements like:

  • Misjudge situations
  • Don’t understand things
  • Have little to contribute

It is important to remember here that these are self-assessments. The Big 5 test does not magically determine whether or not people who take it actually ‘have little to contribute’ or actually ‘know how to get things done’. The test is a reflection of people’s concept of themselves, which usually grows out of their own experience.

Remember not to fall into the common designer myth that people don’t understand themselves, or that they will lie on personality tests to make themselves look good. Most people don’t do this. In general, we can trust their assessments.

Certainly, it is easy for anyone who has studied human behavior for any length of time to recognize this facet as viable. All humans have an opinion of themselves that falls somewhere between “Excel in what I do” and “Have little to contribute”. This facet passes our credibility smoke-test with flying colors.

The question we must ask ourselves is this: what kind of gaming experience do people on either end of this spectrum want?

Remember that to discover the answer to this question, I simply gave the test to a bunch of different people, and asked them questions about their gaming preferences. What I found won’t surprise you, but as this is one of the most important scales for game designers, it is worth giving our full attention.

People who believe themselves to be capable of accomplishing the goals they set before themselves (‘high’ Self-Efficacy) tend to seek out new and/or difficult challenges to overcome. This confidence is usually well-founded: they wouldn’t believe this about themselves if they often failed at what they attempted. Such confidence is also (like most of these facets) a self-reinforcing cycle: they believe they can overcome such challenges, and so they tend to seek out ones within their reach. When they do overcome them, the experience reinforces their confidence… rinse and repeat.

So: high Self-Efficacy players want challenge.

(Do not make the mistake of confusing Self-Efficacy with over-confidence. If one has never actually attempted difficult tasks, it is quite common to find people who are carrying with them a high degree of unfounded self-confidence. While this will appear similar to high-S-E, the difference is clear: the overconfident person is in for a shock when they attempt something difficult. Whereas the high-SE person will tend to prove themselves right.)

What about the inverse?

People who believe themselves to be incapable of contributing in the way they intend, or who feel they tend to misjudge situations, tend to seek out entertainment that lets them nevertheless feel successful.

No one likes feeling like a failure. That’s simply not a human trait (more on that in the section on long-term satisfaction). So, low-S-E players will seek out gaming experiences that have a lower bar for success, but that still offer the experience of success. This is crucial to understand: too often, designers with an incomplete idea of how human emotions work imagine that low-skill players must enjoy the fact that they are low skill. The most common concept is that they are ‘lazy’, and therefore just want a game that will hand them everything without any effort.

There are certainly players like this. Generally, they will be younger (although this is by no means universally true), and will balk at any task that involves a great deal of work. However, in the Big 5 model, this part of human motivation is measured via another facet: Self-Control.

The model I am trying to offer you here is one in which we separate ‘willingness to work’ from ‘can accomplish the tasks successfully’. Humans vary dramatically in their ability to achieve their goals, and that success (or lack thereof) is the exclusive topic of this facet.

Low-S-E players seek out lower levels of challenge – not because they are lazy, but because they are (for whatever reason) incapable of succeeding at higher levels.

The question you need to ask yourself as a designer is this: do you want to build your game in such a way as to make it difficult / impossible for low-SE players to play your game?

If yes, the result will be a sense of being ‘elite’ for those who are able to successfully play your game, but the cost will be felt as a reduction in your potential player base (and, sales, if you are selling your game).

If no, the result will be a sense of “accessibility” to the game, which can drive away certain segments of your player base. But the benefit will felt as an increase in your potential player base (and/or sales).


In the 5 Domains of Play (5DP) model, I name this facet of game experience “Challenge”.

A high-challenge (HC) game is marked by skill tests that are only accomplishable by a small segment of people, by play systems that offer a great deal of depth and/or complexity, and generally by the sense that players who are “good” at your game can use that fact to signal their elite social-status. I generally refer to this end of the facet as “Challenge”, and use that name for the whole of the facet as well.

A low-challenge (LC) game is marked by having few (if any) skill-test gates to overcome (although they may be present – all that is required is that they be skippable or avoidable), offering a breadth of ‘difficulty levels’ that allows players to adjust the difficulty to their own levels, and a sense among players that the game is ‘accessible’ (to children or non-gamers in particular).

I refer to this end of the facet as “Ease”, as an alternate to “Low Challenge”. Designers are quite often high-SE people, and as a result have a more difficult time understanding and/or empathizing with the other end of the spectrum. Imagining what a “low challenge” experience feels like is therefore sometimes a challenge. Often, they will described their ideas about what they should be designing as ‘for babies’, or ‘with training wheels’, or ‘the casual version’. This is a mistake: low-SE people want challenge. They just want challenge that matches their level of skill. The word I have found most helpful in bridging that gap is “Ease” (perhaps because the concept of “Easy” or “Easy-Mode” is already part of the gamer/game designer vernacular, and that gives people a good point-of-reference).

Challenge is Non-Exclusive

That is to say, a game may be both low-Challenge and high-Challenge at the same time. The game design choice to offer the player the ability to change their difficulty setting is one way to do this (as in pattern-matching games like Guitar Hero, or in certain combat-heavy games); there are many others.

Developing Empathy: High-SE for Low-SE

I have already stated that I believe that all game designers have a professional obligation to develop ‘accurate empathy’. That is, to learn how people who have a different set of skills and motives and desires experience games. We must pursue this, to be sure that we are not accidentally closing off our game experience to people who we actually want to play our games.

If you are a high-SE designer (most often the case), developing empathy for low-SE players is actually very straightforward. Either:

  • Play a game that you would otherwise enjoy, but that you suck at.
  • Play a game that you are normally good at, but on a difficulty level that is simply beyond your skill level (and always will be).

I highly recommend serving yourself this marvelous experience over multiple sessions of multiple hours. You will not want to keep playing. Do not wimp out. Stick with it. Remember: low-SE people have this experience (or experiences close to it) with games all the time. They have had to learn how to be okay with their own failure. But of course no one enjoys failure.

You might find, while going through this unpleasant gauntlet, that your ego wants to find ways to explain away your failures. I could learn to be that good if I really wanted to! The game is unfair. The other players are cheating. Etc. This is good! If you have this experience, it is an indication that your own self-image is at least partially constructed around taking pride in your own self-efficacy. No doubt, you deserve it.

Of course, there is always someone out there who is better than you. The difference between a low-SE person and a high-SE person is how many players out there are in that “better” category—but the experience is the same.

Focus on overcoming the need to define yourself as ‘better than’, and focus instead on the experience of ‘being at your level’. For, this is precisely what low-SE players do, all the time.

Developing Empathy: Low-SE for High-SE

If you are a low-SE player and you want to develop empathy for high-SE players, do the following:

  1. Find something in your life that you can excel at – the level of excellence doesn’t need to be ‘world class’. It just needs to be something you feel directly competent at. It can be anything.
  2. Do that thing.
  3. While doing that, focus on noticing the varied list of skills needed to overcome the complex interactions necessary to pull off whatever it is. There’s skill in everything – often, we have internalized the skills needed to succeed, making our success seem unimportant or less ‘skillful’. Convert those unconscious skills into conscious ones.
  4. If it is helpful for you, list those skills out. If it is not, at least develop a more complete awareness of the various cool things you are doing to succeed at this task.
  5. Take genuine pride in having those skills. It may sound strange to you, or even vaguely uncomfortable. But this is the key. This is the experience of Self-Efficacy: personal identification with your own successes.

It is actually completely okay to just fake it here, by the way. The act of attempting to imagine all of this, even if you don’t fully accomplish the act of identification, will produce better results in most cases than not doing it at all.

During this exercise, focus on understanding the experience of pride in success as not requiring other people’s failure. That is not a part of this facet (this part of motivation comes later, in Competitiveness). High-SE people simply enjoy the fact that they can do what they set out to do. Although some will like to rub this fact in other people’s face, that is not a necessary part of this facet.