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Games aren’t always fair, the magic lies in making you think they are

Behind the scenes with the neuroscience of game design

Monkey Man =))/Flickr

I asked fellow game designers to tell me the hidden tricks and mechanics they use to give players their desired experience. That situation got a bit out of control, in a good way.

I apologize to all the players who ended up reading it. We may have killed Santa and exposed the Matrix, but it wasn’t for nothing. If anything, the thread probably gave you a lot more insight into what we do.

“The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won’t find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled.”

- The Prestige

Game designers work with and for the human mind; we have to consider human experience, perception and our mindset when we are at play. Whenever you choose to play, you likely want the game to feel internally consistent enough that you can buy into the experience. You're able to go along for the ride if the game feels like it makes sense.

You are designed to be able to overlook things that don’t fit the illusion, because you are really here to experience joy, tension, relaxation and everything in between. We take advantage of that design to bring you the game you want to play, even if the rules that operate behind the scenes aren’t giving you the game you think you are playing.

And game design involves a fair bit of magic. If you don’t want to know how the illusion is created, you may want to stop reading now.

Some light neuroscience for game design beginners…

You are a deeply flawed, irrational being who is terrible at truly understanding chance, distance, time and numbers. Don’t feel bad, everyone else on the planet is in the same boat.

A majority of players will feel utterly betrayed if they miss a 50 percent chance twice in a row. That outcome is possible mathematically, but most people feel as though they were treated unfairly when they are in the mindset of play. They assume that a 50 percent chance means they will lose once, and succeed once. Games often fudge their numbers a bit to match what you think the results should be, not what the statistics show they would be.

Game designers have been taking this and other examples of bias and irrationality into account for decades. We know that the experience counts more than realism when it comes to play, in spite of what players may think or even ask for.

Creating tension, conflict and drama requires playing with your perceptions, and you are usually happy to just go with it as long as it feels good. It’s not a conscious decision, the reality of the game just matches what you think it should be. That’s what you paid your money to feel.

For example, you will believe it’s your skill that allowed you to make a difficult jump in a platforming game, despite the common game design practice of widening the window for jump input after falling off ledges.

This is called the fundamental attribution error, which describes our tendency to explain behavior based on internal factors while we underestimate the influence of external factors and circumstances. We are even more likely to do this if the option of considering external factors has a negative effect on us or our perception of ourselves. You want to feel skilled, and your brain will usually ignore evidence that the game helped in order to deliver that feeling.

To achieve what we are trying to achieve, we must know the basics of how brains work:


When product designers design everyday objects such as chairs, cutlery and other interactive, human-focused items, they keep the desired use case in mind as well as the physical abilities related to it. While games have to do so too to a degree, we focus more on the user’s mental ability and desired experience.

All kinds of different brain chemicals are involved in the process of creating an orchestra of emotions and moods. Game designers have an intrinsic understanding of their functions and how to harness them in a game that is meant to control the way you experience it.

Motivation and reward, empathy and trust, accomplishment and autonomy and feel-good moods in combination is what game experiences really are. Most games you love are a mixture of all of these tools.

Killing Santa

Now, let’s talk about the actual meat of this topic. Disclaimer: I didn’t work on the titles mentioned in this thread, so these details are based on what developers have said when replying to the Twitter thread. It has been great to see how many skilled game designers have chosen to add to it in order to shed light on our craft.

Each trick or misdirection is designed to help you feel a certain way, so let’s organize them in that manner. This is where the good stuff begins.


Accomplishment is a core feeling of reward. Endorphin rushes are something everybody has experienced at some point. Think of that high feeling of getting through a difficult situation and the sharp focus that ensues. It feels good.

On this spectrum are for example mechanics that are designed to build tension in combat, giving the player a feeling of just barely surviving difficult situations while keeping them safer than you assume. For instance:

Assassin’s Creed and the latest Doom allow you to take more hits when very low on health than very high. You can survive longer than your health suggests, giving you the rush of “just barely” surviving.

Chevy Ray stated they called the effect of jumps working even after you’ve fallen off the side of a structure “coyote time.”

The above example is very common in platforming games because it makes so much of a positive difference. A game without it would likely feel “bad” or “wrong” to players, despite being more realistic.

These are examples that relate to our feelings of accomplishment and agency. Adding damage to bullets or shifting the value of your health as it gets lower is a great way for you to feel that rush. With a skewed hit point value, your health could go down very rapidly at first, making you feel the danger of the situation. The hit points that are left may look minimal, but damage taken from enemies could go down, or the actual hit points left may offer you more life than is visually indicated.

All variations of these mechanics have this exact same goal: creating tension and flow variety instead of repetitiveness. Creating situations where you feel like you survived by the skin of your teeth is often a goal in action games, and the numbers are sometimes ... massaged, in order to make that happen more often than it would organically.


Mechanics referring to this experience have been around for much longer, but have recently made a comeback with Telltale’s work as well as walking simulators and games that engage in storytelling through dialogue. All of these interactions relate to our feelings of empathy, trust and connection. For example:

Telltale Games doesn’t actually tell you that not responding is a choice, but if you wait too long, you’ll learn the lesson quickly.

Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a game that tells you many choices matter, when many of them don’t directly impact the story. You’ll feel like many of your decisions matter, even if that weight is artificially constructed.

If you have ever tried writing complex, branching dialogue, you will know how incredibly difficult it is to make every possible path taken by a player engaging, logical and functional.

It is a behemoth task and very often out of scope, especially for indie developers. To still create interesting, emotionally engaging stories and character encounters, game designers implement something called the illusion of choice, which simply tells you or signals to you that those choices matter, when in reality only several core story intersections have real impact.

The player response is the same as if they were weighted, however, which is the whole point. You get the intended reaction without adding an enormous amount of work.


This is dopamine at work and at its finest. Learning about the ins and outs of a game, getting to the next stage through mastery, all of these things are driven by this chemical.

Mechanics that straight-up give you the illusion of their existence are some of my very favorites because they reveal, more than anything else, how much we want to be fooled, and how little it matters what is real and what simply feels real. It turns out that distinction doesn’t even matter when it’s handled with skill.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice breaks its strict diegetic UI just once to tell you about its permadeath mechanic. It has yet to be confirmed by players whether it actually exists or not, but that doesn’t matter because the chance that it does exist keeps you on your toes. It’s very possible this entire mechanic exists only as a warning, but it shapes how you feel about the entire game.

The beauty of these examples and many more is that their impact on your gameplay experience is vital. In Hi Octane, actual stats not existing makes literally no difference to the way you experience the game; it’s enough that the player believes that it does.

Brains are magical that way because filling in the blanks is often just as good as the real deal, and we already cheat ourselves into believing what we want to believe on a daily basis.


This is where it really gets complex, because humans are terrible at understanding fairness and chance. We will always skew our perception toward the illusion that we should have won, even when it’s irrational.

Games employ a number of different strategies to preserve feelings of fairness. Usually, knowing why you lost or died is at the core of what we perceive as fairness. We feel cheated when we’re kept in the dark. Failure needs to feel like your mistake, and the game should be telling you how to improve.

The Uncharted series uses a very clever trick to give you a better chance of success to maintain that feeling of fairness.

Ninja Theory’s DmC: Devil May Cry reportedly used a simple, but effective, way of letting you fight more enemies than you perhaps could otherwise.

There are plenty of games that will tweak difficulty and spawn rates of enemies if you die often. Games that will change values and percentages if you have lost rolls more than once, and that will avoid killing players out of the blue without a chance of reaction.

The alien in Alien Isolation actually had two brains. One would make sure the alien was always close to you, and the second brain that controlled how the alien reacted to its immediate surroundings. The brains never talked to each other, so the alien doesn’t have an unfair advantage as it’s hunting you. It’s never far from you due to that first brain, but the second brain never gets to cheat. It’s fair.

The only reason that extremely difficult and frustrating games such as the Dark Souls series work is because they are exceptionally good at showing you how to improve. You always know why and how you died, and how you can do better next time. This keeps you motivated and engaged.


This part is probably the most controversial, because we’re usually under the illusion that multiplayer games have to be fair and transparent to be fun. However, multiplayer games tweak and nudge as well:

Even League of Legends nudges some mechanics to make engaging in conflict more interesting.

Mario Kart first coined the technique called rubberbanding, which is now common in racing games and refers to tweaks that would keep the racing opponents close together to create conflict. The AI-controlled karts behind you would actually get faster to catch up. They also get more useful power ups, leading to closer races.

These mechanics may seem unfair to you, but that’s only the case if you see multiplayer games only as competitions. Game designers know that we need to design multiplayer experiences, such as community or building a skill-diverse user base, for them to function in the first place.

This is just the beginning

These are only a few examples of why game designers do things the way we do. Many of these game design techniques are necessary in the context of designing for the way human minds function.

If you designed a chair, you know that you need to be able to place a full human’s weight on it, that we sit on it with our feet on the ground and our back leaning against it. It takes the physical attributes into account.

In the same way, the above techniques take into account what we have learned from neuroscience and how our brain functions on a chemical level, taking into account feelings of accomplishment (endorphins), motivation and reward (dopamine), trust and empathy (oxytocin) and tying it all together into one orchestrated experience (serotonin) that takes your humanity into account.

These techniques are much more common than you know and you likely never notice 99 percent of them. Many are decades old and common practice in their own genres, and are now expected by players; you’d likely only notice them these days if they were gone.

Is this the end for my enjoyment of games?

Knowing about these tricks doesn’t ruin your enjoyment of games. Games will keep on engaging you with techniques like the above and many others, and your brain will still be along for the ride as long as games use them well.

Designers will come up with new ways to exploit the way our minds work to ramp up your hormones into an orchestra of emotions and actions. No amount of revealing how we do it will change that. I’ve been employing these kinds of tactics for over six years now and I still enjoy games.

If I can give you any advice, it’s to lean back and trust developers to be a team that specifically designs for you and your enjoyment. The more you’re try willing to come on a journey with us, the better your experience will be.

Jennifer Scheurle is an award-winning, world-traveling game designer and speaker with six years of industry experience. She is most known for her work on Earthlight, a game created in collaboration with NASA as well as Objects in Space, which is to be released in 2018.

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