Why I hate fun

Ever since I decided to specialize in game design I struggled with the word “fun”. It might sound silly to struggle with a term that is so central to the art of making games but it makes sense once you start to research ‘fun’. First of all very limited research has been done and secondly the term ‘fun’ is ambiguous. Fun means something different for everyone.

Many other industries envy the games industry for making fun products. They mistakenly think that games are this magical medium that are automatically fun and engaging. As a result, they applied typical game elements such as XP and competition to apps as an attempt to make ‘boring’ tasks more fun. But game designers also struggle to make their games engaging and fun. Not every player enjoys playing every game or genre. I typically don’t enjoy most first person shooters because I suck at them. On the other hand it is not just games that can be fun. Many people think knitting is fun, others think watching a football match is fun or playing a musical instrument. What is considered fun often depends on someone’s expectations and their current context. A player has to be in the right state of mind before considering to play a game, they need to ‘want’ to play the game or do any other activity.

This can be fun too

A researcher who attempts to understand fun more thoroughly is Lazzaro (2009). She formed the Four Fun Key model to distinguish between four different types of fun: Hard fun, easy fun, serious fun and people fun. Hard fun is very typical for many hardcore games and is fun that arises from overcoming challenges and obstacles. A key emotion in hard fun is frustration followed by victory. Easy fun can be achieved by engagement through novelty and can be found in many exploration and puzzle games. Emotions that are key to easy fun are curiosity, wonder and surprise. Serious fun is fun people have when they feel better about themselves or being better at something that matters. People fun is concerned with the enjoyment that arises from the interaction between people. You can think about competitive or cooperative games people play because they enjoy playing together rather than the game itself.

The Cambridge dictionary defines fun as pleasure, enjoyment, entertainment, or as an activity or behaviour that isn’t serious (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/fun). While we can measure pleasure and enjoyment objectively by measuring physiological changes in the body, we cannot always say we are having fun when we are enjoying ourselves. Besides that, within casual games mainly, pleasure and enjoyment are supposed to be “easy”. This means that you should be careful with challenging the player. If a player wins (often) they will have fun which is the complete opposite of many hardcore games.

Within game design we often use flow theory interchangeably with fun. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1996), flow is a mental state in which a person in fully immersed in an activity. The state of flow can be achieved by matching the most optimal skill with the most optimal difficulty for a person. In the case of games, a player becomes so immersed that they forget about their surroundings and lose track of time. A learning curve is used in most games, both casual and hardcore, to account for player’s changing  skill and difficulty level. However flow theory isn’t a definition for fun but can result in a player having fun. This mainly works for hard fun as easy fun doesn’t require the player to be fully immersed.



  • Lazzaro, N. (2009). Why we play: affect and the fun of games. Human-computer interaction: Designing for diverse users and domains155.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.

Game design and Gestalt laws

The Gestalt laws explain of why we perceive patterns in a certain way. Perceive patterns relies on how our brain organizes the raw data from our senses, it makes use of perceptual sets quite a lot. Our brains are inherently wired to create order in things we see, even if there isn’t any. They will always try to fill up the gaps. Remember the illusion to the right? I showed it to you in the first article on perception (link). There is nothing more to the picture than three white pizza’s all with a slice missing and three lines with the same angle. Somehow your brain fills up the gaps and you perceive a black and a white triangle laying on top three white circles. The gestalt laws offer us an explanation why that happens.  These laws are much like heuristics: mental shortcuts for problem solving. We use them to quickly make sense of what we see, they mainly apply to our visual sense.

In general the laws state that the whole is different than the sum of its parts. This means that the whole element is different than the elements it is made up from. Think about a dotted line, the whole represents a line but the parts are dots. The gestalt laws are often used in UI and graphic design to make the displayed information more readable or to play with our perception.

The Gestalt laws were first put to paper by Wertheimer (1923, 1938). Later contributions have been made by Köhler (1929) and Koffka (1935). The 6 laws in the picture are used often in UI and graphic design, however there are many more.

Law of Proximity
Regional or chronological closeness of elements are grouped by our mind, they seem to belong together. Proximity is what you would use when you design the UI of an inventory system or a HUD in general. Group items that have similar functions or fall under the same category by placing them closer to each other. Of course that also means that you should leave more space between items that fall under another category.

Law of Similarity
Our mind groups similar elements to an entity. The similarity depends on relationships constructed about form, color, size and brightness of the elements. Like proximity, similarity should also be used for the UI design of an inventory system. Use a symbol and/or color code different items from a certain category. Items with the same color or symbol will be seen as a group. You can also make items more similar when they all have something in common like since or a certain shape.

Law of Enclosure
Enclosure states that you can group items and information by enclosing everything that is supposed to go together. This law is used in UI design to group different kinds of information such as text and pictures that belong together. Applying the law can be as simple as adding a border around the items or information. Often UI designers use a card metaphor, it almost look as if pieces of information are put on cards. Facebook uses enclosure and displays individual stories on cards in your news feed. They used color and line to separate information that doesn’t belong together.

Law of Symmetry
This law states that we perceive objects as belonging together when they are symmetric regardless of their distance. Symmetry can be used to group elements together or to create the idea of wholeness. Adding symmetrical borders at the left and right side of the screen can create the suggestion that the players views the game through a border or lens.

Law of Closure
Our mind adds missing elements to complete a figure. The black triangle from picture 1 is not actually there, our brain filled up the gaps from the missing pieces. The board game Carcassonne is a good example how you can design elements that use this law. As the players build their castles and roads they can already imagine which pieces they need. Players need little cognitive resources to imagine the missing pieces because our brain already filled up the gaps. When you are designing for closure make sure that the player can fill up gaps of missing information.

Law of Continuity
Continuity states that the mind continues a pattern even after it stops. Our brains are remarkable pattern machines, we perceive patterns even if they are not there. The law of continuity prove this. In our picture example of the Gestalt laws you can see this one long squiggly line with missing parts. Actually it is not one line, there are three separate lines. The law of continuity doesn’t just work for lines with parts missing, any figure can be used in patterns to make up something else. In level design you can use this law to display a path or movement in a certain direction. It is a good way to point the player in the right direction or to give them an occasional hint. Portal 2 uses this method to guide the player using a dotted line. The player can fill up the gaps even when debris is covering parts of the line like in the picture below.

Law of Connection
We perceive elements as being together when they are connected with each other. Graphic designers use this law for infographics or flowcharts to show how elements are connected and that they belong together. The key here is to connect elements with the use of lines to show that they are related or that they belong together.

Law of Figure and Ground
Certain objects take a more prominent role while others recede more into the background. This law is used quite a lot in logo design to make the most important element standout and attract attention at first. Use the law of figure and ground to attract attention to important information or option to make the player pay attention to this first. The use of color is key here, highlight the option that is important or needs to attract attention quickly. Think about using a complementary color scheme or red since it immediately attracts attention.

Law of Common Fate
Elements with the same moving direction are seen as a unit. If certain elements all have the same direction they are seen as one. The direction can be an animation but it can also be a movement the player is making. The Mario platformer games a good example of how common fate can be applied. Enemies in the platformer almost always move towards Mario when he first encounters them while useful objects always move away at first. You can apply those ideas to your own game design as well, when a player first encounters an enemy have them walk to the left. You can do the opposite with friendly NPC’s, let them walk to the right.


The different ways we perceive games

By now you know that our brain is remarkable and weird. How it perceives things and how it can fool us. But you are not yet aware of the two different methods our brain uses to perceive the world: top-down processing and bottom-up processing. Bottom-up processing is automatic, we instantly know and understand what we have perceived. Top-down processing is a more deliberate process where we sometimes have to dig deep to understand what we have perceived. These two methods we use for perception are related to the dual-process theory, top-down processing is a form of system 2 thinking and bottom-up processing is a form of system 1 thinking. Bottom-up processing is always on and can help us quickly make sense of the world around us. Bottom-up processing happens when salient (outstanding) features of a stimuli draw attention. This stimuli can be a loud sound from the timer you set when you are cooking an egg or an alarm. It can also be something visual, a smell, taste or a tactile sensation.  Continue reading The different ways we perceive games

Perceiving is believing – the game design edition

Perceiving is believing, or is it really? We have five basic senses which we use to perceive the world with: smell, taste, touch, seeing and hearing. But there is a difference between sensing and perceiving. Our senses provide us with raw data from the environment around us. This raw data can be visuals from our eyes, airborne chemicals our noses pick up, tastes on our tongue, soundwaves via our ears or tactile (touch) information from our skin. Perception, on the other hand, is the way our brain organizes and interprets this raw data. We use our perception to make sense of what we sensed. Perception can be influenced by the context in which the stimuli (what we have sensed) presented, our expectations and our current mood. What you see isn’t always what you get and that is true for all senses. Perceiving isn’t always believing.

The difference between perception and sensation

Our brain works in weird ways which affects our perception too. Sometimes you don’t perceive something you’ve sensed or you perceived something that wasn’t there in the first place (Gosselin & Schyns, 2003). Our brain can also play tricks on our perception. It can interpret the stimuli in weird ways. Optical illusions are a fun example of how our perception works, below are a couple examples. How can two colors be the same while you perceive them as different? Illusion 1 is an example of how context and expectations shape your perception. Square A and B are the same shade of grey but your brain interprets them as completely different. You see a checkerboard and expect a certain pattern, A is supposed to be black and B is supposed to be white. Combine this with the contexts of the shadow: your brain expects the squares in the shadow to be darker. Sometimes your brain makes you see things that aren’t there. You probably sees a black triangle laying on top of three circles and a white triangle in illusion 2. That is your brain filling up the gabs. There is no black triangle, the triangle is a lie! There are just three white pizza’s all with a missing slice and three lines with the same angles.  Illusion 3 is a picture of two faces or a vase. It all depends on the angle you are looking from, but you can never see both at the same time.

illusion 1                                                         illusion 2                                          illusion 3

How we perceive these illusions depends on our perceptual sets. A perceptual set is the tendency to interpret a stimulus in a certain way only. It is what makes you see the faces before the vase in illusion 3 (or the vase before the faces). Our perceptual sets are heavily influenced by our emotions, expectations, beliefs, context and past experiences.

Perception is sometimes weird and that our brain words in strange ways. You might wonder why we have such a thing as perception in the first place. Why can we not just perceive the world as we sensed it? And what is the function of perception? Perception is quite useful for filtering out the necessary information only. We would go crazy by all the stimuli around us if we would perceive the world as we sense it. We use our perception for attention, to figure out what information is coming in. The incoming information can be filtered through our selective attention, that way our brain ignores anything else but the stimuli of interest. Selective attention is what we use when we become immersed in a game. We only focus our attention to the stimuli from the game and ignore the outside world. Perception is also used for localizing where the information of interest is coming from. When you walk through your town and smell something amazing you might want to wonder where it’s coming from. Or your perception already did the work and you know it was from the bakery across the street. Perception can also help you recognize a stimuli. You smell the bakery and immediately recognize that they just finished baking their bread.

We can also filter out unnecessary information with our senses directly. Our sensory cells respond less and less when a stimulus stays the same for a while. After a while we no longer register the stimulus. This is called sensory adaptation. Think about the pressure of your clothes, you notice it when you put them on and when you move. Most of the day you just won’t notice them due to sensory adaptation. The same happens to the noise your fridge makes or the ticking of your clock. The smell cells in your nose will even stop responding for a while. They need to be given a chance to recover before you can smell again (Dalton, 2000).

Not all senses are equally important to games. Smell isn’t used in games since the smell-o-console hasn’t been invented yet. You’re also not very likely to lick your screen to see what the game tastes like. The only senses we can use in games are vision, hearing and tactile (touch, vibration and pressure). As designers we only have to account for hearing and vision. We have very little control over the feel of the keyboard or controller. Do think about adding vibration occasionally when your game is played with a controller.

Thomas was alone is a favorite of mine because of the excellent use of emotional narration but the game also works well perception-wise. When you play the game for the first time you immediately understand who Thomas is. Considering Thomas is a red rectangle, that is kind of amazing. Thomas was alone shapes the player’s perception with its title, expectations and context. From the title you immediately expect to play or interact with a character named Thomas. You expect Thomas to be one of the characters or perhaps the playable character. The narration adds to this as well once the player starts the game. There is no need to show a big arrow with the word ‘playable character’ written on it, your perception worked it out already. Without its art, the game would be nowhere. The choice for abstract art was a conscious one. It’s not just to play with our perception, it helps our perception. The color scheme of the game is mostly monochrome except for the characters, they really pop-out. From the first interaction it is clear that these colorful rectangles are the objects of interest. Your gaming knowledge matters to your perception as well. It helps you understand where the characters need to go, where you can and can’t go and how to interact with the game in general.

Tips and suggestions
These tips and suggestions can be applied to all types of games. For some genres it might be easier than others but it is good practice to make use of player expectations. Do a little research into other games your target audience plays or research similar games. Find out what these games have in common with each other or what popular gaming conventions are in the genre. If you plan to make a mobile game where players have to slice things in half, look at other games where players slice things in half (hint: Fruit Ninja). How do players interact with the game? Is it a common way to interact with these types of games? Are all good questions to ask yourself. Don’t just blindly copy mechanics and features from a similar game, find out what is common knowledge among your players and what they expect.

Help the player’s selective attention by making use of the pop-out effect for objects of interest. Think about the little shake animation in candy crush. The shake grabs the player’s attention immediately, it’s even visible from the corners of your eyes. Or make use of colors that are brighter than others for objects of interest. This might be the domain of the artists but it is very important for game designers to take this into account as well. It’s the game designer’s task to guide the art team into making decisions that benefit and complement the game design. Audio can also be used in interesting ways to help the player’s perception in the game. You can use it as a mechanic to lure the players or as a way to foreshadow an upcoming monster. Perception is an interesting thing our brain does. We can aid it through our game design or play with it. The possibilities are endless.

References and stuff

  • Crash course psychology: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unWnZvXJH2o&t=9s
  • Gosselin, F. & Schyns, P. G. (2003). Superstition perception reveal properties of internal representations. Psychological Science, 14(5), 505-509.
  • Dalton, P. (2000). Psychophysical and behavioral characteristics of olfactory adaptation. Chemical senses, 25, 487-492

Groups divided – competition among groups

Last week I talked about the power of groups. I discussed the advantages and disadvantages of groups and how we behave in group. This week I’d like to continue on about groups, how we behave in them and how we behave towards other groups. Knowing how we behaving in groups and towards other groups is very useful in social games and multiplayer games, especially games where groups compete against other groups. Continue reading Groups divided – competition among groups

The power of a group

Groups are very interesting to psychologists. You might not think about it, but groups are very powerful. They can change your behavior and the way you think. Groups can even make you do things you wouldn’t normally do. According to Brown (1988) a group consists out of two or more people. Some groups are more group-like than groups, if that makes sense. For example: when you are a game designer, you form a group with all other game designers in the world. You’d call other game designers your colleagues even if they work in a different company. But you also form group with the people you work with every day: your team. You and your team are more group-like than you and all the other game designers in the world. A group is more group-like when it has a group structure, its individuals share a common identity and are interdependent. Groups usually are made up of well-defined roles. Each member of the group has his or her own tasks and these complement the tasks of other group members. A successful group like your game-dev team has unique roles for each member. When these roles are vague or blend together, the group becomes less successful.

We are social beings, groups are necessary for our survival and happiness. But there are other benefits to groups as well. Your performance goes up when you perform a simple task when others are present. This effect is called social facilitation (Zajonc, 1965). Social facilitation can help many athletes perform better when they are competing. Even the presence of virtual others can aid social facilitation (Park & Catrambone, 2007). Unfortunately the effects of social facilitation work the other way around when it comes to complex tasks or tasks that require concentration. The presence of others will hinder performance in those cases.

There are more disadvantages to groups beside performance on complex tasks. The presence of others can also cause social loafing (Latané, 1979). People will put less effort into a task when they are part of a group compared to when they are working alone. You might remember this group school projects: there were always free riders. Social loafing is contagious as well. When one person slacks off, others will follow. Would you like to avoid social loafing for future (school) project? Make tasks meaningful, important and make personal effort identifiable. Having a more cohesive and tight group can help as well. Go out for dinner with your game-dev team sometimes, it’s fun as well.

Another disadvantage to groups is that it can lead to groupthink in certain cases. Groupthink is the tendency of group members to think alike. This can lead to some pretty bad decisions (Janis, 1971). Groupthink usually occurs in very cohesive groups where members are similar to each other. There often is pressure towards conformity as well. To combat groupthink, groups have to diversify their members. A group can think about recruiting people who think differently or people who belong to minorities. That is why many people  want to increase diversity in the games industry. Many studios and companies have mostly white male employees in their dev teams and they are at risk of groupthink. Strong and directive leaders can also increase groupthink, especially when they are not open to someone else’s point of view. Group members can become afraid to express their ideas or concerns. It’s best to become the devil’s advocate if you see this happen. Question your leader’s point of view even when you agree. Others will follow your example.

In certain cases groups can lead to deindividuation. Deindividuation is the loss of individuality that can happen when members of the group lose individual accountability and self-awareness. The interest of the group becomes more important than a member’s self-interest. Anonymous is a good example of deindividuation but so are most fascist groups and football (soccer) hooligans. Within groups like anonymous there are no individual roles and members are not individually accountable. Deindividuation can make groups incredibly powerful but dangerous as well.

I’d like to end with a little disclaimer: the effects of groups are studied in the field of social psychology. Most of the research on groups and its effects are done in western countries. There is no question that culture is also a huge factor in how we behave in groups. There is no doubt that there are differences per culture. The theories discussed in this article may not apply to eastern, middle eastern or african cultures. You should take that into account when planning to release your game to a certain country. Also, the knowledge we have on group behavior now is based on averages and not individuals. There will always be people who don’t follow the effects.

Dungeons & Dragons
Cooperation of a group is very important in the pen and paper roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons. Each player creates a character before the party can begin their journey together. Those of you who are familiar with the game know that the most successful parties have characters from diverse backgrounds. One member can be a half-orc fighter who takes and deals the damage during a fight, another member could be a human cleric who heals the party members after a fight and yet another member could be a elven ranger who guides the party through the forest. Each character has his or her own well-defined role that complement the other characters. During a session there is very little social loafing when the group is just right. Each member’s personal efforts are identifiable and the tasks are meaningful even when there is no combat. Unfortunately there is no social facilitation. Your dice roll won’t improve because of the group.

A very diverse group

Mobile games
Social mobile or casual games can also benefit from knowing a little about the psychology of groups. Unfortunately, many social casual games out there today do a poor job. They don’t make any use of any of the benefits from groups. In many games each player has the same role as the next player and there is no clear group. While everyone who plays Candy Crush form a group, they are not as group-like as a Dungeons & Dragons party.

A mobile and social game that did, to some extent, apply the psychology of groups is Pokémon Go. Last summer the game was very popular in the Netherlands (and many other countries). Player’s interacted with each other even though they had never met before. Everyone who played Pokémon Go automatically formed a group with all the other players. Players could also join another group when they reached a certain level: their team. A player can choose to join one of three teams: team Mystic (blue), team Valor (red) and team Instinct (yellow). When players were catching Pokémon or fighting a team, they met other players. One of the first questions they asked you was which team you joined. If you are not a member of their team, you are trash. That’s pretty powerful considering that the groups are based on very little but a personal preference of color or leader. There is a risk of deindividuation since there are no individual roles in Pokémon Go or personal accountability. The fact that players have self-interest is the only thing that saves people from deindividuation.

Which team did you join?

Ideas and suggestions for game design
Any game were multiple people play together can benefit from the psychology behind group processes. Think about social games and MMO(rpgs), but also cooperative games or team based games. When designing these games try to avoid groupthink, reduce the risk of deindividuation and create individual roles that complement other roles. You can avoid groupthink by having diverse characters and roles. Also consider attracting a diverse target audience(s) to the game. Think about using Bartle’s taxonomy (Bartle, 1996) to attract players who enjoy different aspects of the game (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yxpW2ltDNow). Having individual roles and tasks can combat groupthink as well. To reduce the risk of deindividuation you can design systems that keep players individually accountable for their actions. For example: add a mechanic that punishes players when they do something you don’t want them to do. Besides the interest of the group or party, players should also have a self-interest. Maybe players have their own XP to think about or they have to collect their own gold.


  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGxGDdQnC1Y
  • Bartle’s taxonomy http://mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm
  • Bartle, R. (1996). Hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades: Players who suit MUDs. Journal of MUD research1(1), 19.
  • Park, S., & Catrambone, R. (2007). Social facilitation effects of virtual humans. Human Factors49(6), 1054-1060.
  • Zajonc, R. B. (1965). Social facilitation. Ann Arbor: Research Center for Group Dynamics, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.
  • Janis, I. L. (1971). Groupthink. Psychology today5(6), 43-46.
  • Stogdill, R. M. (1974). Handbook of leadership: A survey of theory and research. Free Press.
  • Brown, R. (1988). Group processes: Dynamics within and between groups. Basil Blackwell.
  • Latané, B., Williams, K., & Harkins, S. (1979). Many hands make light the work: The causes and consequences of social loafing. Journal of personality and social psychology37(6), 822.

Curiosity killed the Warlock but improved the game

Curiosity is the pleasure of learning and not knowing. It sparks the desire to learn or the desire to figure out how stuff works. Curiosity is closely related to the difference between ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’. When you are curious you feel anticipation, you want to know or try out something. Curiosity involves trial-and-error which comes very natural to games. As a player you constantly try out stuff in games and when it doesn’t work, you try again. There is a little bit of curiosity in every game. Games are a safe environment in which players learn the rules of the game. It’s the reason we start playing any game in the first place and it’s often the reason we cannot stop. We need to know what happens next.  Continue reading Curiosity killed the Warlock but improved the game

How your player’s thinking develop throughout their lives

Developmental psychology is the study of how our cognitive processes change throughout our lives. The field used to focus on children and how their cognitive abilities develop, but nowadays it is understood that we keep developing throughout our lives. This field of psychology might be one of the most interesting for game design. It can help you as a game designer understand players, how they think and what is challenging for them.  Continue reading How your player’s thinking develop throughout their lives

Can there be too many choices?

Last week I wrote an article on the dual-process theory which covered how we make decisions. This week I’ll discuss if it is possible to have too many options to choice from. As you know from last week’s article people can use system 1 thinking to narrow down their options and then use system 2 thinking to make the actual decision. It is important to narrow the options down to just a couple since system 2 is effortful and slow. Unfortunately, narrowing down your options is getting more difficult in this day and age. This is exactly what choice overload is about: there is just too much to choose from.  Continue reading Can there be too many choices?

Making decisions – Dual-process theory

Hello again, sorry for not releasing an article last week. I was on a last minute trip to Sweden to check out Uppsala, the city I will study next year. So without  further ado, let’s start this article about making decisions. Making decisions is essential to any game, no matter the genre or target audience. To play a game is to make decisions. While there are many different theories that approach decision making from different angles, today I will focus on dual-process thinking proposed by Kahneman (2014). Continue reading Making decisions – Dual-process theory