Game Creation Magic Is More Science Than Smoke and Mirrors

How perception shapes video game design

Developers admit games like 'Doom' adjust a player's health bar; 'System Shock' cranking up the damage of a final bullet; and 'BioShock' make failing players momentarily invincible. Credit: @japhers

People who play and enjoy games were shocked to learn this month that the fabricated realities of their play spaces aren't always completely honest with them.

Sometimes games need to sidestep the truth of a gamer's abilities to deliver the thrilling experiences they hope to achieve.

This game development truism came to light for the uninitiated after I sent out a Tweet from Australia asking for examples of hidden mechanics and tricks designers use to ratchet up the tension and play with your perceptions.

I hoped to gather some resources for a talk I was to give at the New Zealand Game Developers Conference. And I did: Developers told me of games like Doom adjusting a player's health bar, System Shock cranking up the damage of a final bullet and BioShock making failing players momentarily invincible.

What I hadn't expected, though, was that not all players were delighted to hear about this digital smoke and mirrors. Some were confused, even disappointed. Some felt lied to or patronized.

But this couldn't be further from the truth. At the core of designing games lies something that is inherent in every single one of us: the deeply flawed, irrational and yet beautiful perception of the human mind.

Game Design Is Like a Good Magic Trick
"The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won’t find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled.” – The Prestige

When we speak about video games we tend to highlight their interactivity as the one defining feature that sets it apart from other media. As opposed to other designed media, the interactions of the player are what progresses the game, decisions and actions shape the way a game plays and it substantially contributes to the quality of a game. In short: without the player, games and therefore game design would not exist.

In consequence, it is no wonder that the player is the heart of every game designer's work – but maybe not in the way that players may think. Our work is about having their best interests in mind while also knowing that a good game functions more like a good magic trick: it is best when the audience does not necessarily know how the trick is performed in its every detail. The human mind,while playing games, is geared towards being tricked. When we play, our imagination and perception function differently and allow what you know as immersion.

Play is a unique mindset that differs from other types of actions, because it refers to intrinsic motivation as opposed to external motivation that we find in labor, where the goal is something like earning money. When you play, your goals and aspirations lie within you, either because you have set your own goals within a play environment or because you have unconsciously agreed with the games’ set goals.

The game designer’s job is to craft these kinds of experiences – and it is far more complex and has many more goals than just making a game less frustrating.

The Chemistry of Play
In essentially every other area of design, the parameters of the end product are fairly clear to us. We intrinsically understand the use and purpose of a chair, because they have been designed for common physical attributes. When designing for the human mind however, those parameters are more complex to pin down.

Most game designers have at least a basic understanding of behavioural psychology and neuroscience. Many of the details of neurotransmitters are still unclear, but we have a general idea of what the orchestra of human perception is made of and it is essential to gain an understanding of them to know why game designers work the way they do.

DOPAMINE: Whenever you’ve seen people refer to ‘fun’ in games, the chemical in charge is probably dopamine. Against common perception however, fun is not a very accurate term. Game designers prefer to say engagement, because dopamine is a reward neurotransmitter that is at the core of what drives and motivates us. When you enjoy yourself while playing, your brain has similar reactions to it as it does when eating food, having sex or taking drugs.

OXYTOCIN: Oxytocin is essentially the chemical responsible for any form of social bonding and empathy. It is an underlying factor of trust and combats depressed feelings. It is essential for our feelings of connection with characters and even the game itself – without empathy for the characters we encounter, we can not feel engaged with a game.

ENDORPHINS: Known as the natural pain-killer, endorphins are feel-good hormones and have positive effects on memory and learning. Accomplishment in combination with autonomy is what is at the core of it and it is essential for the fly-high feelings you have encountered while playing.

SEROTONIN: Serotonin is responsible for transmitting signals within your brain such as need for sleep, memory, social behaviour, appetite and mood. It is a feel-good chemical but essentially it is responsible to make us actually experience spikes in dopamine or oxytocin. In simplified terms, it plugs other chemicals into our brain’s pleasure receptors.

As complex as this may seem, it’s still a simplified version of a far more complex series of processes. Playing a game is a multi-faceted experience and requires the human brain to process many different signals all at once. Motivation and reward, accomplishment, connection and trust – all of these emotions make up the orchestra necessary to enjoy video games.

Missing out on the hidden information that games employ to trick you into a certain kind of experience is very human: In psychology, we call this the fundamental attribution error. The term describes the behaviour that makes us explain behaviour based on internal factors instead of external ones. It is the same process that makes us think a homeless person has gotten themselves into their position instead of external factors. We are even more likely to make the fundamental attribution error if it makes ourselves appear in a better light: You are more likely to believe that a specifically spectacular win over a boss is due to your own skill rather than external factors.

Designing games around a player’s perceptions is a fundamental part of designing for the human mind and it has been for decades. Against common belief, classic games have done this too within the boundaries of technical possibilities.

The Matrix is Shattered
The good news is that catching a glimpse of who is behind the curtain won’t dampen your enthusiasm for or enjoyment of games, if anything it will increase them. This knowledge is your number one proof that game designers have poured thought and work into building an interactive experience that is tailored towards you and the feelings you may be unknowingly chasing. It means that someone has thought really hard about how you will experience a game and has geared everything involved towards it.

The sooner you can manage to see the experience we create for you as a mutually beneficial process, the more you will love this medium.