[ From the March 2013 issue of Game Developer Magazine. ]

I’ve been looking into psychology and its applications in game design over the past few years. It has been fun, and it has improved my design skills significantly, but when I bring it up, people ask me this question so often that I decided a few months ago that I needed to answer it once and for all.

The question: “But, what’s it good for?”

Sometimes, the people asking this question are actually curious. More often, the question is asked in a tone of voice that I’ve come to call “interventionary”; a mix of “I hope this doesn’t insult you, but…” and “you really need to get over this fairy tale stuff.”

For a long time, the inanity of that question really bugged me. Why wouldn’t we want to understand a player’s motivation? Isn’t it obvious? Then, about six months ago, I decided to actually answer it for myself, and suddenly, the question didn’t seem so stupid.

Think about it for a second: Why is understanding human psychology so deeply essential to the art of game design? For my part, asking myself that question was a pretty intimidating. We can talk in vague terms about better player metrics and better playtesting and better target player demographics… but are these things really essential? As it turns out, the answer is “No, they’re not.” After all, people designed great games long before anyone ever worried about player metrics.

So what is essential about connecting psychology to game design? After a month or two of brain-wracking, I managed to find my answer. It is this: psychological models are the best tools we have for showing game developers their empathy blind spots. Those who learn to overcome these blind spots will, slowly-but-surely, become better game developers.

I have a technique for doing this, something I call “player-acting” (thanks to Mike Capps for more-bettering the name). It’s straightforward in concept: find your blind spots, and then learn to enjoy the games that are loved by people with motivations in your blind spots.

Let’s break this down.

What is an Empathy Blind Spot?

Pick a personality test. A lot of people like the Meyers-Briggs. I’ve recently become a fan of the Big 5. Really, it’s almost irrelevant which theory you choose; what matters is that it’s substantial. Pick something that’s backed by long years of application, or by lots of scientists. Don’t use that personality test you saw in the sidebar ad on that one website you surf. Don’t use your colleague’s pet theory. That way lies madness.

Whatever test you pick, take it. Then, take your results and reverse them.

Generally, personality tests rate you on a series of spectrums. The Big 5, for example, will give you scores in facets like “Adventurousness” and “Cautiousness,” where the Meyers-Briggs will score you on things like “Introvert/Extrovert.” So, if you scored a high score in Adventurousness, you would reverse that score (giving you something they call “Desire for Routine”). If you scored Extrovert, you would reverse that to Introvert.

The behaviors described by those reversed scores are your empathy blind spots: human behavior that you will have to work the hardest to understand.

Okay, cool! We know where our blind spots are. Great! But how do we convert that knowledge into better design skills?

Why You Like What You Like

In order to make sense of my argument here, I need to first establish this fact: Over the past few years, research findings have emerged that show that personality tests like these can predict your game preferences with pretty reasonable accuracy.

What this means is that if you want to understand why people like a particular gameplay genre or mechanic, their motivation profile is an excellent source for that understanding. This idea is built into this entire article, but it isn’t something that every designer takes as granted at this point. (Yet.) If this is is challenging for you, I encourage you to take a look at Nick Yee’s Daedalus Project, my own work on the 5 Domains of Play, and the research coming out of academia on this topic.

Maybe… Ask?

One approach to curing your empathy blind spots is to find people who have the  personality traits you lack, and interview them. This method may sound basic, but it works. It does require a lot of listening, but you probably need practice in that anyway, and this approach is especially fruitful when attempting to overcome the initial “Why in the hell would anyone ever behave like that?” question that designers so often ask themselves.

For example, if you are an introvert, go find an extrovert, and find out what it is about being around other people that gets them charged.

If you can’t wrap your brain around the idea of spending actual money on a free-to-play game, go find someone like for whom that is not the case and ask them (with sincerity) what positive value they are getting from that behavior.

If you can’t conceive that anyone would want to skip every piece of back-story your game presents, then find someone who does that, and talk to them until you uncover the positive value that they receive from their behavior.

Now, while this “just ask them” approach can get you a certain distance, does it actually make you a better designer? My experience leads me towards “not really.” That moment where you go “Huh! Well, I guess that makes sense,” is easily forgotten, and, more importantly, it’s not attached to a personal gameplay experience. It’s a place to start, but we need something better.

Walking A Mile In Your Player’s Shoes

In order to really empathize with the people in your blind spots, you’ll need to  learn to enjoy games for the same reasons that those people enjoy games. I  call this skill player-acting: the skill of playing a game as though you were someone else. I don’t know the best way to develop this skill, but I do know how I did it, way  back when I was getting started in this crazy career.

Early in my career, I was entranced by the various player-type models (Bartle, Lazarro, and so on). I was blown away to find that there were gamers who were not like me. And yet, they liked games! I was struck by the idea that, maybe, just maybe, the games that I hated that other people liked maybe weren’t simply terrible games (and players who liked them “wrong”). Maybe, I thought, there was another set of rules and values out there that those players were living under!

However, I lacked any kind of practical understanding of what those rules might be, because like much of the rest of the planet, I had spent most of my life playing only the games that I preferred. I knew next to nothing about what made the games I didn’t prefer awesome. I had never played them.

This was way back in the Pliocene Epoch, before there was a viable indie scene or anything resembling a Kongregate. I was at EA Redwood Shores at the time, and they did have a thing called the IRC (Information Resource Center). It was a well-shelved room, filled to the rafters with games. There were books and movies and magazines there, too, but the majority of what EA had on offer was nothing short of every major game released during the previous decade, available for check-out.

One afternoon at lunch, I had an idea. What if I played all those games… but instead of playing them as myself, I tried to play them as if I were a different player type?

I launched into my “research” project with youthful abandon. Being the obsessive-compulsive completionist I am, I started at “A” and over the course of roughly two years made my way through to “Z”. I played good games, bad games, action games, puzzle games, adventure games, sports games, kids games, outdated games, new games, games for girls, games for boys, real-time and turn-based strategy, PC, console… everything.

Does that sound like fun? It shouldn’t; just go to your local game store and imagine what it would be like to play everything on the shelf, without regard to your personal taste. Sure, you’ll find some fun stuff in there, but an awful lot of it is going to be off-the-mark for you. Which, of course, is the whole point.

This project was so not-fun, in fact, that I had to create rules to force myself to play. I had to give everything I tried at least one solid hour of play, no matter how bad or how buggy or how frustrating it was. After an hour, if the game had shown me at least one thing that was new to me (good or bad) or if I had some insight about the kind of player who might enjoy this game, I had to play a second hour. After that, I was on my own recognizance.

Many games got a solid two hours of play. A lot didn’t. I found a lot of gems, one-hundred-percented a bunch of really good ones, and struggled through a huge number of unfinished disasters.

Most importantly, I played a lot of very popular, well-made, high-production value games that I didn’t naturally like very much. I’m not a sports guy, but I put a lot of time into Madden, NASCAR, NHL, and so on. I had not spent much time with the Barbie franchise up to that point, I must admit, but there were a stunning lot of them on the shelf to plow through. I also wasn’t much of a military shooter fan going in, but I sure was when I came out!

Lab Results Are In

While playing, I held all the models of player motivation that I knew in my mind. Was this game catering to the Achiever? The Socializer? What kind of person would like this game?

Slowly, game after game, I eventually started to perceive the gameplay elements that were there for people who weren’t like me. All the WWII games seemed to use the same few guns, which made sense, but they put a lot of effort in making them feel a particular way, which felt clunky and frustrating to me, but it was consistently clunky and frustrating, in a way that I later learned feels about right for those guns. Me, I didn’t care if it felt right—it was a fantasy, right? Who cares if the guns feel realistic? Well, as it turns out, a lot of people care.

Slowly, the skill of pretending to play for reasons other than my own grew. And, at work and among my friends, it became, slowly, easier and easier to understand what people were getting out of the crazy games they were playing. Final Fantasy fans started making sense to me. Microsoft Flight Simulator didn’t seem like such a stretch. I started to be able to enjoy wider genres than I had before, because I could see their value.

Player-Acting Homework

So, this is my point. Do you have empathy blind spots? Hit the Flash games, the demos, and the free-to-plays until you start to get your head wrapped around why people like them. Play the 5-stars in genres you despise. Read the comments of fans of those games, and try to get their headspace. Break up your belief that other people are like you, and become a better designer. And it’s also a great excuse to play a lot of games.

Jason VandenBerghe is a creative director at Ubisoft, which he has to admit doesn’t exactly suck. You can read his intermittent blog and various scribblings at www.darklorde.com. He can be reached by email at jason.vandenberghe@ubisoft.com.