One of the most useful tools game designers have at their disposal is behavioral psychology. Behavioral psychologists believe that the inner workings of a subject’s consciousness are not important, and that outward behavior is the only relevant factor in predicting or influencing human action. Whether or not one agrees with this school of thought, it’s a highly useful model in game design because the only information that one can reliably observe in the context of a video game is the player’s in-game behavior. How is it possible to use the data from a player’s actions in a game to understand ways to teach them things they need to be taught in order to succeed? How can their behavior be influenced to push them towards or away from victory? Because players have limited avenues of expression in games, it becomes extremely important as a designer to be knowledgeable in the field of behavioral psychology in order to create an effective gaming experience.
In most video games, designers present players with a problem that must be solved. Sometimes this problem is a test of skill or dexterity, sometimes it’s a test of problem solving skills, but for the most part, games can be defined as problems for players to solve. It can also generally be assumed that the designer wants the player to succeed. It’s possible that they don’t want it to be easy, but now that games aren’t built for arcades anymore, there’s nothing for the designer to gain from defeating a player. As such, a designer’s goal should be to influence a player toward success without the player realizing it. How is this possible? The first and often most difficult step is to teach the player the rules the game will operate under.
Shigeru Miyamoto’s classic Super Mario Brothers does this by using ideas from behavioral psychology to design the environment of the first section of the game in such a way that it will limit the actions the player can take, forcing them to succeed. When the game begins, there’s nothing on the screen except for the player controlled avatar and the ground he’s standing on. Nothing will happen at all until the player learns how to move. Of course, given that the controller had only two buttons and a directional pad, this is a process that will probably only take a couple of seconds. But the lack of pressure during these seconds when the player learns the most basic action that can be taken in the game is crucial.
As the player moves forward, the first object in the world they will come across is an enemy. At this point, players might not understand that it’s an enemy, but if they touch it, they’ll die, sending them back a few moments to the start of the level. The player must understand that they can jump over this enemy in order to proceed any further. If they are able to move past this enemy, the designer can be sure of three things: first, that the player knows how to move, second, that the player knows what enemies look like, and third, that the player knows how to jump and avoid enemies. After that, players are presented with floating blocks above their head. At this point, the only way they can interact with anything is by jumping at it, so it’s likely that they will try this to discover what secrets the mysterious question mark block holds. If they jump at one of the plain looking brick blocks, they will see the bricks react to the impact, but nothing will happen. This will make them want to try hitting the shinier blocks to see if those have a more exciting effect, and what they will find is that a strange looking object rises up and begins moving.
This object is a powerup that makes the avatar stronger, but it looks much like the enemies that the player has learned about, and the player might attempt to avoid it. It’s crucial at that moment for the designer to make sure that the player understands that this object is not like the enemies. So in the game, the item will do the following: roll off the block it popped out of, drop off the ledge, hit a pipe, reverse direction, and begin moving towards the player. The subject’s instinct might be to jump over it, like they learned they could do with enemies, but because of the level design, they will hit their head on the blocks above them, bounce down, and collide with the powerup. The avatar grows in size, and the player understands that this object is good, while the other objects are enemies. They have barely traveled across a single screen of the game, but their actions have been manipulated through level design based on behavioral psychology so that they had no choice but to learn everything they need to know about the game.
Let’s take a look at a more modern example, Portal 2. This game’s level design takes the concepts mentioned above in the Super Mario Brothers example to a more extreme level, attempting to introduce and teach players about progressively more complicated mechanics of the game. It usually does this by controlling the environment so that success is inevitable the first time the player is introduced to a new concept. The first chamber of the game is completely empty except for three things: a box, a button, and a door. There is only one possible course of action that can be taken in this room, and that’s to put the box on the button to open the door, and then walk through. This room teaches players that buttons cause things to happen, boxes can be used to act on the environment, and the goal of a level is to walk through the door. Most players don’t realize it, but they learned all these things in that chamber, even though it was a tremendously simple puzzle and virtually impossible to fail.
Because it can be guaranteed that players know these concepts after reaching that point, level designers can then start taking those concepts for granted when teaching players more complicated things. The levels were constructed in this way, in this order, for that very reason. If there are any unknowns involved with the solution of the puzzle, there will be no satisfaction for the player when the puzzle is solved. All the tools and all the information have to be known, and the only way to know what a player is aware of is through observation and interpretation of their behavior. If a player is chasing a red herring solution that the designer does not want them to be pursuing, this can be observed in their behavior and the environment can be adjusted so that the player does not exhibit that behavior in the future.
For example, imagine a puzzle in which the player has to activate a switch to create a platform that bridges a bottomless pit obstructing the goal. Perhaps the player’s first intuition would be to simply jump across it, only to find out that it’s too far, and they would die. Maybe, though, the jump was close enough that they want to try it again. It might look like a very difficult jump, but the player might think that the challenge here is making a difficult jump, not trying to create a platform that would allow them to proceed. The designer wouldn’t want the player to repeatedly die trying to jump over something that they are not supposed to jump over, so how is it possible to manipulate the player’s environment to stop them from exhibiting that behavior? There are a couple of options, even in this simple example. The switch could be placed more in plain sight so that the player experiments with that before repeatedly throwing their life away. An even better solution might be to increase the size of the gap so that players do not consider it possible to jump across. It is clear from this simple example that it is possible to know what the player knows through observation of their behavior, and adjusting the game environment can effectively control that behavior. This is a perfect illustration of one of the major tenants of behavioral psychology.
Players cannot do whatever they want in video games, and probably never will be able to. Their avenues for expressing their thought process are limited to the behavior they’re able to exhibit in the context of the game, and any verbal commentary they might express during or post play-testing. And while player feedback can be a valuable tool at times, it is often very unreliable as players don’t always know exactly what they want or exactly why they felt the way they did while playing the game. Knowing the answers to those questions is the job of a designer, and the only reliable data that can be used to answer those questions is in-game behavior. It’s because of the limitation of actions players can take in game that behavioral psychology is such a crucial tool for any game designer.