When embarking on the long, weird road of understanding human motivations (and, since you are a Game Developer, this is an obligation you have, AMIRITE? Yes. Yes, I am. We just discussed this, in the previous section. And if you missed that one, CLICK THE LINK. We will wait.), one of the VERY FIRST THINGS you will likely need to do is deprogrammify your psychobabble know-how brain thing.

I will likely need to break that down a little bit, for the less technically inclined among us. But don’t worry: by the time you finish this here course on Being A Better Designer/Human, you’ll be flying through sentences like that as if they were just full of made-up gobbledegook words without any actual real meaning.

First: Psychology is Motivation

There’s lots of ideas out there about what psychology “is” or “does” or “is for”. We don’t care about all that crap, generally. Well, I mean, we might, but it’s not necessarily all relevant to our game development efforts.

We are game makers. What we care about is why players who are engaging with a video game make inputs. At the end, that’s all we are here to do: provide a bunch of potential inputs for a player, and then sit back and watch as they push, pull, twist, wave, and otherwise use them.

So, there is one specific part of human psychology that is of great interest to us: motivation. Motivation is the word we give to the nebulous force that pressures creatures into eventual motion – and all play is made up of this effect. Rules generate contexts for players, those contexts generate motivation in the player, and those motivations generate player actions, changing the context, and the great Loop of Play cycles.

We do not need to understand all of human psychology to be game designers. Theraputic psychology is, erm, not necessarily relevant to what we do. However, as argued in the previous section, understanding the psychology of human motivation is one of the most important job skills of the game designer.

(From here on out, assume that when I say “psychology”, I mean “the psychology of human motivation”.)

We Are All Psychology Majors

We’re going to examine where game devs tend to get their ideas about motivation from. Again, it might seem like a lot of off-topic talk: where are the models, Mr. Lorde of Dark Things?!

You’re welcome to skip ahead, of course.


But the problem with that is that the models I have to share with you won’t actually solve any of your design problems if they are just added on top of a bunch of other models you are carrying around in your head. Models that you don’t remember where you learned. Models that you aren’t even aware are models. Models that are actually shaping every design decision you make, in ways that may well be sabotaging your designs.

Everyone has models of motivation in their head. Everyone. If I want to get a raise from my employer, I should work harder. If I want to get a second date with this person, I should just be myself. If I want my friend to be able to get over his big breakup, I should let him cry on my shoulder. If I want lots of people to read my design [word collection], I should try to make it entertaining and light-weight.

These are all psychological models. We are, all of us, Psychology Theorists. We constantly develop ideas about what kind of action will produce the world we want to live in, and strive to behave in that way. The difference is that most of us are largely unaware of what our actual models are.

Sorry, game designers. You are obligated to find out what your models look like, and to verify whether or not they are accurate. Suck it.

The Origins of Your Motivational Theories

Ask yourself: how are humans motivated? As a group? As individuals? What do you know about that topic? (Maybe, even, take a moment and jot down a couple of things about how human motivation works, in your model.)

Now: where did you learn what you just wrote down?

In my incredibly thorough and scientific examination of this question (I’ve asked like at least like fifty people, what do you want from me), a huge percentage of the beliefs that people carry with them generally come from two big sources:

  • Personal moments of insight brought about through emotionally charged experiences in their life.
  • Repeated exposure to particular models or theories (or just implied ways of looking at the problem) through popular media (TV shows, blogs, movies, books, etc).

Many people actually stop right there. And, really, for most people in the world, that should suffice. Personal experience plus oral traditions is sort of how 98% of our history has functioned, so it would be hard to call that a “flawed method”. It has problems, sure, but only in specific contexts.

For example, game design. Game designers are kinda supposed to know about human motivation.

Turns out, there are several more sources of behavioral models that fall under the ‘game designer usual suspects’:

  • Models presented by other developers (regardless of origin) that show applicability in their actual in-the-moment job.
  • Pop science.

And, my favorite, the one that dominated my first few years of making a run at this topic (and in fact sort of still does, embarrassingly):

  • Personal analysis, blending all of the above into a new, personal model.

Now. Before I go any further, I should make it clear that I am not not not attempting to demonize these methods of developing an understanding of our players. I use them all. These methods have largely been responsible for getting us as far as we have gotten as an art form, and all are essential to game development. We need to tell ourselves and each other all kinds of entertaining stories about why we are building what we are building, how it will work, why people will like it, and this in-the-moment theory-building is a huge part of the art and craft of game development.

However. Too often, missing from the list of methods of understanding our players is this: going to the actual scientific record. Extracting the existing, experimentally-backed-up models that show true viability in games, and that have been ‘validated’ (as much as anything in psychology can be’) in the academic world.

I can count the number of game developers I have worked with who have taken this step on two hands.

It’s Actually Not Very Surprising

Now, listen, man. I’m not here to accuse you of being a terrible designer person just because you haven’t taken the extra step of consulting with Magic Experts Of All Knowing. Settle down. Sit. Don’t take it so personal.

There is, in fact, at least one very good reason that you probably haven’t taken the step of Asking a Psychologist. It is this: a large percentage of people participating in the culture to whom I am addressing this [word collection] believes that most of them thar psychomalologists are actually total bozos, and/or that the entire science of human psychology is not, in fact, science. Instead, there is a widely-felt belief [citation needed] that psychology itself is actually a kind of weird carnival of the mind populated entirely with sideshow Carnies and charlatans.

And, so, why would you listen to people who spout psychobabble nonsense that seems to have no effect other than making them appear smart and superior? Bah.

Even so…

The idea I am attempting to aim your brain at is that if all of your models of human motivation come from either ‘life experience’ or the accumulated ‘game development oral traditions’, and if you propose to take on as your career the labor of attempting to trigger reactions from the human beings that play your games, you are playing with fire.

And, the higher the budget gets on the game you are making, the wider the damage that fire can cause. I know, because for years my primary role was fixing projects where that fire had caught and spread. No surprise, then, that I would become interested in the topic.

Is Psychology Valid?

The title of this section might sound like a joke. In my experience, it’s not: it’s either a legit question that a lot of people ask themselves privately, or it’s a question that ‘believers’ have never actually examined in the bright light of analysis. Let’s answer it! #ambitious

Let’s imagine for a moment that an actual true and complete model of human motivation exists. (Spoilers: it doesn’t. This is just a though experiment.)

That sounds simple to do, but if you are like 90% of the students I have interacted with on this, it actually will be a larger stretch than you might first imagine.

What I mean is: let’s imagine that we have a model of human motivation that actually can explain why you behave the way you do, in all situations where you have enough information about your own behavior to be able to fill in your model with the right data.

Can you imagine that?

This Part Can Get Personal

Many folks who try this with me discover, much to their surprise, that they are actually lacking enough faith to even imagine that such a thing could exist. Many people find that they are carrying within them a deep mistrust of psychological models, in fact. After all, so many of them are utter bullshit. And so many of the proponents of these bullshit models seem to be either crazy, self-serving, or just plain ignorant.

When I pose this exercise to my various apprentices, we often just get stuck here for a while. We often dig through a long list of negative experiences they have had with psychological models being pushed on them, or with various models failing them, or with being told that they should behave or feel a certain way (but don’t) by people with specific models (or just expectations), or feeling horrible for not living up to the ideals presented to them in certain models, and on and on.

That’s probably not you, Dear Reader. But it is certainly a lot of people. It’s strange to say it, but one of the largest barriers I have encountered in training my teams on human motivation has been the negative personal experiences of individual team members with psychology in general. Some are pissed and defensive, some are deeply skeptical, some are ready to believe but have never seen anything that actually made sense to them… and getting past these barriers has often proven either profoundly challenging, or well-night impossible.

Weird, right? This is the nature of understanding human motivation: it includes, by its nature, understanding yourself. Having your self-model challenged at work in the course of your normal daily effort can be unexpected, jarring, and unwelcome. (Be aware of this with your teams. When you are discussing motivation, most people who are listening to your models are comparing their personal model of themselves to what you are saying. Tread lightly.)


So, let’s imagine for a minute that we have an actual psychological model of human motivation. A way of working with human priorities and behavior that actually lets us make accurate predictions about the way that people (us and others) will behave (and feel!) in all situations.

(FYI, I’m not building up to the Great Reveal where I tell you that yes, I have such a miracle model, and that you should join my commune and sign away your life savings so that you can have it. There isn’t one. Not yet, anyway. We have some strong leads, but anyone who tells you that they have it All Figured Out is full of shit.)

So we have the Perfect Model of Player Motivation (the PMPM).

Let’s ask ourselves a few questions about this model.

Infinite Value

First, how much value would that model have for you, as a game designer?

Probably not much reflection needed on this one: it’s a metric fuck-ton. It would be the Holy Grail, yes? The PMPM’s ability to accurately predict every person’s behavior and emotional response when they are playing your game would give game developers a kind of control over their futures that we can only vaguely dream about.

Let’s try reversing it. Inaccuracies in game developer’s ability to predict their player’s responses put the game at risk of being rejected by its players. Not knowing your player can doom your product.

But it’s fine! We would have the Perfect Model of Player Motivation. And having that would at the very least dramatically improve your ability to prevent catastrophic product failure at the player level, and at best would allow you to TAKE OVER THE WORLD.

(Let’s take a moment and remind ourselves that we are talking exclusively to career, industry developers looking to hit a mass-market audience here. Developers who are willing to risk not finding a large audience have freedoms the professional does not have. Enjoy that shit! I’m not jealous! AT ALL! WHAT!)

It Would Be Like Talking To Morgan Freeman

Another question our PMPM thought experiment allows us to ask is this: what would the experience of learning this model be like? What would the hallmarks of such a model be?

Seriously! What would you go through, do you think, as you were learning and mastering the PMPM?

One example: we can imagine that it would answer long-held questions about your own personal motivations of play that you have never really thought to reflect on out-loud. “Why do I consistently choose the more difficult games over the easier ones?” “Why do I like to play fighting games with friends, but never with strangers?” “Why do exploration games excite me until I reach 60% of the world, and then I suddenly lose interest?”

The PMPM should answer these questions for you, in a way that seems satisfyingly true. By “true” here we mean that it should line up with all of the memories you have about your gaming life and your behavior, and in a way that does the same thing for everyone who knows you.

“You prefer Mastery above all other forms of satisfaction, and so if you are not increasing your own skill set, you are no longer experiencing your favorite form of payoff.”

“Man, you know, I’ve always known you were like that. Even as a kid, you were always challenging yourself…” etc.

It should feel like that, learning the PMPM.

Which is exactly the way that almost all existing psychological models do not feel.

Most Well-Known Models Suck

Freud is a favorite. Really? I’m motivated by the desire to return to my mother’s womb? Even if it were true, in what way is this useful for me in my day-to-day life? Even if it wasn’t crazy bullshit (which it may or may not be, science can’t really “invalidate” theories like that directly, sigh), how would I put that into practice?

But if I know that ‘mastery’ is a big deal for me, that might be more useful in understanding my own motivations. (Why I spent so much goddamn time playing Dark Souls, for example.)

Popular culture loves presenting us with personality tests, discussions about what the other gender “wants”, tips on parenting, and a thousand other opportunities to present us with ideas that look like ‘scientific’ motivational models. Trouble is, the vast (VAST) majority of these “psychology” moments are actually just pop culture (‘oral traditions’) with an icon of a science brain slapped on them for extra punch.

Here’s a good rule: any motivation model you encounter that isn’t in the form of a difficult-to-read-white-paper from a stuffy academic is probably (not certainly – but probably) bullshit. Seriously. Throw out everything that comes to you from popular websites, magazines, shows, etc. All of it. Gone. At best it’s out of context and/or incomplete, and at worst it’s a lie or a social agenda disguised as science.

But That Wouldn’t Happen Any More

Got a little grim there. Lets turn back to how it would be to learn the PMPM.

We can imagine that it would be a kind of fun. It would reveal the world to us, in the same way that learning physics or chemistry or (accurate) history reveals. It would be filled with big “a-ha” moments, ones that you could then turn around and share directly with other people without them looking at you like you were trying to convert them to your religion.

But, also, there is a key experience that would be common, one that is absolutely not present in most dev environments today.

Game designers who had enough time to master the PMPM would eventually be filled with a strong confidence and conviction about ‘what players want’, and why. This would result in a (no doubt striking) reduction of debates among devs about ‘what players want’. We would know. And, the job of the designer would be to master that systemic knowledge, and apply it during development. But we would no longer have impassioned debates about what our players were after. We’d have a common language to talk about that, and could each turn our attention to our particular part of the business of making those desires available in our game (in a way that fit with our creative goals – which would still and always will be the hard part).

[ASIDE: Personally, I want the world to be a little bit more like that world. See: me spending all this time writing this [word collection].]

It’s Really Not Like That Now

The whole point of this thought exercise on the Perfect Model of Player Motivation was to try to demonstrate how very much not like that is the modern experience of learning about player motivation.

With any luck, I have convinced you that, today, many game developers are drawing their models of player motivation from what is effectively an elaborate game developer game of telephone. Sometimes talks at shows like GDC confront and explode these traditions, and sometimes they add to it, but only very rarely to developers dig into the morass that is the scientific record on the topic. The result is a population with a complex, evolving model of behavior that is simply missing huge swaths of provable truth.

Worse, many developers have never encountered a motivational model that actually works in a consistent and broadly applicable way, and so they have not yet learned how to discriminate between psychological wisdom and psychological bullshit. Even if The Good Stuff was to come across their radar, they wouldn’t necessarily know that it was any different than the other crap that had failed them in the past.

In the era in which I am writing, the experience of learning this arcane art of triggering player action is akin to exploring a wide, dark landscape of divergent, competing viewpoints, punctuated with a few clear lights of clarity. In our work, we cling to these few existing beacons of reasoning and research, desperate to make sense of the darkness around us, but these few tools are (as yet) inadequate to the task before us. We have a long way to go before we have anything like a “complete” model of player motivation, or even before we have replaced the use of ancient, inaccurate, and inarticulate motivation models with ones that actually work.

But that is the task before us: to illuminate this dark plane of understanding with analysis, insight, and truth. I believe we will accomplish it, and I have hope that it can happen more rapidly than we believe.


I hope, also, I have managed to indicate that any game developer starting down the path of understanding the human motivational system very likely has some deprogrammification to do. There are most likely learnings in there that need to come out, models that need to be labeled as hearsay, and others that need a “science-approved!” label. There are likely skills of model discrimination that need to be learned and mastered, and maybe other kinds of behaviors towards the whole topic that need to be re-examined.

It’s a big fucking mess, is what I’m saying. But dammit, if we are ever going to master this crazy art form of ours, it’s a mess that we need to sort out.

Let’s do this thing.