Video Game Psychology: The Science that Goes Into Making Games Exciting

Research Psychologist; Science in Action Representative, American Psychological Association

Jan   2016



When most people think of psychology, they conjure up images of a patient talking to a psychotherapist who will help guide him or her through difficult issues. However, this is only one branch of psychology.

There are myriad disciplines and fields where psychologists use the science of psychology, employing their training and experience in high-stakes and interesting scenarios that most people are unaware of—and I happen to be one of those psychologists. 

For the past 10 years, I’ve worked as a psychologist in the Xbox division at Microsoft, which develops many popular video game franchises, including Halo, Minecraft, and Forza. When I tell people I work in the video game industry and I have a doctorate in research psychology, they usually wait for the punch line. The psychological and scientific implications of gaming are something that many of us who grew up with PlayStations, Xboxes, and Wiis probably don’t think about initially. But what exactly is it about playing video games that makes the experience so enjoyable? Conversely, what makes a game not fun? Why is a game too hard for one person but not for another? What exactly does a video game psychologist do? 

At its core, my job is not a lot different from that of other experimental psychologists: I try to understand behavior. Why do we look around a room at a party and completely miss our friend waving us over to come join him or her? Perhaps for the same reason we miss the loaded loot chest in front of the unexplored dungeon. And could it be that World of Warcraft became so enormously popular for the same fundamental reasons that people collect shoes or buy the newest iPhone or hang out at the mall with friends or train for a half-marathon?

My fellow psychologists and I love the pursuit of those answers, the hunt for truth, as much as actually capturing that truth (partly because, as scientists, we suspect we only ever figure out what the answer isn’t). We geek out obsessively over why people behave the way they do. In video game development, game designers, who are our partners in delivering great experiences, are obsessed with finding the perfect solution, the perfect feature, the perfect answer. Video game psychologists are obsessed with finding the right question. For example, how do we balance the difficulty of a task in order to maintain a gamer’s interest after failing several times without it becoming overly frustrating?

The science and the application of psychology can be seen in every aspect of daily life— from video games to health and wellness, from environmental conservation to even NASCAR. Psychological science is critical to solving many of society’s most pressing challenges.

Does the thought of studying psychology get your synapses firing? Be sure to check out the American Psychological Association’s “Psychology: Science in Action” campaign to learn more about the variety of settings in which psychologists work. 

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About Tim Nichols

Tim Nichols is a Science in Action representative with the American Psychological Association. The Science in Action campaign is aimed at showing how psychology is an applied science that opens up a number of really interesting careers for high school students and college students who are undecided about their major.