Sports & Gaming, Design & Style

Exploring Player Psychology

Will Wright

Lesson time 16:51 min

Will believes game development is as much about programming a player’s brain as it is about programming the game itself. Learn Will’s strategies for creating compelling games that take player psychology into account.

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Topics include: Get Inside the Player's Mind • Build a Mental Model in Your Player’s Head • Human Behavior Is Derived From Mental Models • Allow Your Model to Diverge From Reality • Enable Player Communities • Motivate Your Player, Then Get out of Their Way


More than anything else, I've found the psychology to be the really tricky, challenging part of game design. The technology is advancing every year. What we can do on modern computers makes me as a designer feel almost unlimited. You can do amazing things on these electronics. Player psychology though, human brains are not advancing. They're the same as they have been a hundred years ago. We have to learn how it works. What are the inner workings of that computer and how can we exploit it and use it to our advantage? There's actually a great book, I think it's out of print now, it's called "Maps of the Mind". Each page was kind of a visual representation of one psychological theory. It might be Maslow's Pyramid or Freud and the Id. Each one of them was a different way, a bit different perspective, on the human mind and human psychology and the way it worked. Each one is kind of a tool and has its particular purpose and works well in certain situations and not well in others. None of them are really the right approach that I'm going to religiously adhere to. But each one contains something valuable that might be of use to me in the future. Maslow's Pyramid turned out to be very useful for The Sims for instance. [VIDEO GAME AUDIO] The vary base core of The Sims had to do with feeding the motives of The Sims-- hunger, entertainment, sleep, all those things. We started building very, very simple little prototypes that was just a set of sliders and buttons. I could press a button for food, sleep, entertainment, and basically trying to balance these little sliders. At some point, we decided one of the major goals in The Sims would be to have them actually go to work and earn money so you can go out and buy more junk for your house. Now, we basically had a reason to get all these sliders up to some state that they go to work in a good state. The better their state is, the more money they earn. So we're connecting these base motives to the larger aspirations, which is exactly what Maslow's Pyramid was all about. The game designer is really kind of playing with the player's psychology. By giving them certain freedoms, certain limitations, certain goals states, you're trying to get them into a certain motivation within this little world that you've crafted and make them want to do things or want to avoid things happening. You basically want to set up this structure in their head that they're motivated to do this and avoid that. But you want to have an environment where they start feeling strong motivations for their actions. And then, now it's up to them to start testing their model against your model. They start building that mental model against your game. I think it was PT Barnum that said something like, no entrepreneur ever went broke overestimating the intelligence of the American public. Kind of my version of that is, no game designer ever went wrong by overestimating the narcissism of their players. And so the more it is...

About the Instructor

Learn the art and science of game design with Will Wright, the mind behind SimCity and The Sims. In this game design class, Will teaches you how to create games that empower players and unleash their imagination. You’ll develop a tool set for understanding player psychology, as well as learn Will’s approach to generating and pitching ideas, prototyping, playtesting, and building a community.

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