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GDC 2012: Applying psychology principles to game design
GDC 2012: Applying psychology principles to game design
March 9, 2012 | By Ben Abraham

March 9, 2012 | By Ben Abraham
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    14 comments
More: Console/PC, GDC, Design



As a designer, Ubisoft's Jason VandenBerghe wants something to assist him in making game design decisions, and he’s found that one of the most important or useful ones is player motivation. Accordingly he has spent a lot of time translating player motivation into game design decisions.

Psychology's Big 5 model, known via the acronym "O.C.E.A.N.," refers to five "motivations" for human behavior: Openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. "Groupings of human motivation" with each describing a "spectrum." The Big 5 are:

Openness to experience: High openness is exemplified by Alice from Alice in Wonderland, who is willing to try anything, go down any rabbit hole. On the other end of the spectrum, Samwise Gamgee only ever wanted "to go home".

Conscientiousness: Deals with control and impulse regulation. Hermione Granger has high conscientiousness, and at the other end is The Dude from the Big Lebowski.

Extroversion: VandenBerghe noted that this is the conflation of two ideas usually separate in the games industry: the desire to both seek out excitement and to be social and seek the company of others. A high end example is Austin Powers, at the low end is Edward Scissorhands.

Agreeableness: Reflects how we feel about cooperation and social harmony. High agreeableness is typified by the character of Wash from Firefly. The low end is Snake from Escape from New York.

Neuroticism: Reflects a tendency to experience (or not experience) negative emotions. It’s about feeling emotions like anxiety, depression, etc. At the high end we have Woody Allen’s character for whom every insult is personal. Low neuroticism is the figure of Obi Wan Kenobi, who accepts his fate fearlessly.

VandenBerghe is interested in figuring out how to translate these motivations into a useful model for making decisions about game design. So he did some qualitative research by testing people against the Big 5 and talking to them about the kinds of games they played. He was searching for an answer to whether or not players play for the same reasons they live – or whether or not they are motivated by the same things inside a game as out.

So far, he feels confident in saying that the answer seems to be that they do.

"Play turns out the be a great way to satisfy motivations that you can’t fulfill in your ordinary life," said VandenBerghe, giving an example of the low agreeableness person who went online to meet this motivation through griefing.

VandenBerghe mapped the Big 5 motivations to other terms that may be more useful or familiar to game designers: "Openness" becomes "Novelty," "Contientiousness" becomes "Challenge," "Extroversion" is the search for "Stimulation," "Agreeableness" is about "Harmony," and "Neuroticism" he translates into "Threat."

But VandenBerghe acknowledges this doesn’t immediately help designers make decisions day-to-day, as each of the Big 5 is broken down into six smaller "facets."

Looking at the facets of Openness to experience:

Facet 1: Imagination – someone high in imagination likes their inner world better than the real world.

Facet 2: Artistic Interest – high scorers like beauty and beautiful things. Low scorers like the practical value of a thing.

Facet 3: Emotionality – high scorers know how they feel and can tell you all about it. Low scorers don’t have the information about how they feel.

Facet 4: Adventurousness – High scorers value surprise, delight. Low: Routine, predictability, the same thing over and over.

Favet 5: Intellect - People with a high score like puzzles, mentally solving problems in their head. Low scorers need their problems to be related to people and things "or what’s the point?"

Facet 6: Liberalism – high scorers look forward, want to change culture and values. Low scores prefer the past, what has come before, etc.

Jason VandenBerghe then plotted his own scores for these facets, and demonstrated the kinds of insights it generates: He loves new things, but also loves regularity (Scoring low on Facet 4) saying that "if you give me a new thing you’d better give it to me on a schedule."

VandenBerghe then gave the audience a string of interview examples showing how even some of the things they said indicated their scores, and by inference, their motivations.

The first interviewee could not understand "why people argue about fantasy/reality," and his score for "imagination," which VandenBerghe associated with a fantasy/reality preference, was about even. When asked about drama in games, the interviewee responded saying that "It’s not okay if characters cry" in a game – which reflected the interviewee’s low melodrama score.

Second interviewee was high scoring in every facet of the "Challenge" motivation. This person, VandenBerghe said, plays one game at a time, and refuses to stop until that game is 100% complete, even if that game is Kingdom Hearts.

VandenBerghe went through a number of interviews he had carried out like this, with startling results. He concluded that the only way to turn the Big 5 into a strictly useful tool for design is to use the detailed 30 facets – a rather exhausting and labour intensive job.

VandenBerghe wrapped up with some conclusions: first was that "We tend to play for the same reasons we live." Second, we can look at patterns of play and see how well they are covering the motivation spectrum – for instance, a lot of open world or "large games" tend to cover a large range. His third conclusion was that "If you want to reach a large audience, appeal to both ends of each facet".

When VandenBerghe used to hear designers say "Players want this!" he never used to have an answer. Now when this is said, he has the answer, replying "That’s true! Half of them want that. And the other half want this!"

The Big 5 motivational framework has given him a way to change those discussions from arguments into discussions about appeal and audiences.


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Comments


[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Jason VandenBerghe
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Yeah - this article is very much a boiled-down version of the talk. The amount of information in the model is simply too large to be conveyed in a 50-minute talk, so this version was admittedly broad-brush.

That said, the *system* is not. That's the amazing part of the Big 5 - when you break it down into the 30 Facets, it suddenly ceases to be broad-brush, and becomes infinitely practical (or, well, as practical as this kind of topic can be, which is always limited by the need for personal interpretation as part of the process).

Hopefully, I will have a chance to expound on this in future talks. We'll see. :)

Nat Loh
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this was hands down the best talk I attended at GDC (And I went to Micro-talks and Lemarchand's other talk which were also both excellent) Watch it on GDC vault as a simple write up cannot do it justice. VandenBerghe invited attendees to look deeper into this as even his talk could not do the topic justice. He could really be scratching the surface of something great here.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Nat Loh
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double post

Omar Gonzalez
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Great article, thanks.

Ben Lewis-Evans
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Interesting, I have never seen the Big 5 referred to as "motivations" before. More traditionally the Big 5 are personalities (same as listed above). Also called the Five Factor Model of personalty (FFM). As with all trait based personalty scales they are *descriptive* and not *predictive*, so it might be a bit odd to refer to them as motivations (which implies they move the person, rather than just being labels for particular types of people).

Also a risk with personalty types is they tend to be very state dependant and are more of a general tendency over time in certain situations rather than specific stable predictions of what people will do and like across many settings. Still much like other persona type methods they may be helpful in design within a more narrow area like designing a game (although it is possible they would also change across game genre).

Jason VandenBerghe
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This is a pretty common perception - but there really is no difference besides emphasis between the two words. By using "motivation" I put the emphasis on the player's current desire, where "personality" has a static, "typography" emphasis that ignores the fact that it can actually be predictive (as you say, considering state-dependant variability).

Generally, when people make the comment you are making, it's a long way of saying "I don't buy it". Is that the case for your comment? Part of my intention in giving the talk was confronting people who believe that personality/motivation science cannot a) be accurate or b) be useful in design. These are destructive and inaccurate perceptions - but persistent ones.

Do you have a critique that isn't based on semantics? :) I'd love to engage with it if you do! :)

Ben Lewis-Evans
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Hi Jason,

Sorry about the delay in replying. I can only 'Like' your response so I guess I will reply to myself. Motivation vs Personality is more than a semantic difference since as you say you use motivation to imply that these labels exist as some kind of predictive force. A personality on the other hand as you say is just a description of a groupings of behaviour and in itself is not predictive thing, it is an external label.

The personalities as descriptors are only 'predictive' in a circular fashion. Bob is extroverted so he goes to lots of parties, how do we know he is extroverted? Because he goes to lots of parties. Why does he go to lots of parties? Because he is extroverted, etc. So you might as well say that people who go to lots of parties are the type of people who are likely to go to lots of parties in the future.

This does make personality types (rather than motivations) useful short hand descriptors to talk about how people who do x kind of behaviour are more likely to do the kind of behaviour in the future but they don't really help understand why the people did X in the first place.

This might seem like semantics and quibbling to you, but as a scientist it is important because if personalities are seen as real predictive things then people will aim to just work (change) with them and could ignore or discount the underlying behaviours (and their causes) which they describe.

All that said, my comment was not "I don't buy it" in terms of personality types being useful in game design. I think that saying that 'people who like doing "x" in games/their life are can be described in short hand as "b" type of people who are likely to enjoy doing "x" in future games." is valuable. The big 5 in particular are quite stable and therefore useful. Again, with the proviso of that they are state-dependent but that is likely to be less troublesome if the state is 'playing games'.

Jason VandenBerghe
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Cool, thanks for replying. :)

Yes, I understand that it's a true difference when we're talking about the full model. But, from a game developer's perspective, the difference truly is semantic, since what we really are interested in here is this: if you have a score of 90 in a particular part of the test, does that consistently and accurately predict your *play decisions*? Will you buy and/or play games that satisfy that motivation/personality trait? If yes (and it seems to be yes), then whether or not this personality "factor" is truly an *engine* of behavior or just measuring some *other* engine inside you is academic.

If it predicts play behavior in individuals, the origin of that consistency isn't really relevant to game design.

Does that make sense?

Ben Lewis-Evans
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A faster reply this time :)

Yes that does make sense and I agree that it is useful.

My only worry is that it could lead to an over focus on personalty rather than looking at the underlying behaviours. This is where I could see it being relevant to game play decisions in that it might be more useful in some situations to avoid a personalty label and to be specific and say "people who do x behaviour are likely to do x/y behaviour in the future" or "people who like x mechanic are likely to like x/y mechanic in the future" as it lets have concrete design examples on both ends.

Perhaps this wouldn't happen and it is just me as an academic rambling :)

jacob black
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I think the word was conscientiousness (may still be spelled wrong) not contentious. I guess with that comment i would score high on that scale.

Brian Tsukerman
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I look forward to seeing this on the GDC Vault. Will it be in the free section, or members only?

Nat Loh
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members only


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