Play Stuff Blog

GDC 2010: Game Psychology 101  

Ever since 1986, when Chris Crawford invited leading game designers to his home to discuss their work, the Game Developers Conference has been an annual forum for the world’s foremost innovators to share ideas and consider the future of the industry.

Each year at GDC, I am drawn to sessions that explore what makes for good play. This held true for GDC 2010, which I attended with my fellow CHEGheads, Marc and Eric.

Three presentations stood out in this regard. In his keynote address, “The Psychology of Game Design: Everything You Know is Wrong,” Sid Meier drew lessons from his own games like Civilization and Pirates! to illustrate how good game design sometimes means giving the psychology of the player priority over the reality of the simulation. For example, players expect to win battles at rates far greater than the odds they face and therefore are disappointed if they don’t ultimately win every game. Game designers are well served when they remember that the rules of play aren’t always the same as the rules of life.

Chris Hecker cited psychology and motivation theory in his talk “Achievements Considered Harmful.” He contemplated whether using extrinsic means of motivation (such as awarding achievements  for accomplishing certain tasks) in video games might be less effective than using intrinsic means (such as the fun of the game itself) to engage players. Hecker's talk responded in part to Jesse Schell’s recent D.I.C.E. presentation, “Design Outside the Box,” which painted a vision of a future in which huge swathes of life outside games are governed by external awards like points.

Train Photo from Brenda Brathwaite


Brenda Brathwaite spoke about a series of non-electronic games she created to tackle tough topics such as African slaves’ experience of the Middle Passage, the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, and the Holocaust. Recalling the impact of these games on the players, Brathwaite noted how they inspired conversation, debate, and even tears. Her presentation reintroduced a much debated question first proposed more than two decades ago in an EA ad: “Can a computer make you cry?”

Can a Computer Make You Cry Photo from Chris Hecker


Can an electronic game make you cry? It’s a question worth considering, and it illustrates the importance of all three of these sessions. They show how examining players’ psychological responses to games can help designers stay inspired, challenged, and creative. I look forward to next year’s GDC, but meanwhile, I’m curious. Has a game ever made you cry? If so, which one(s)?