Players Entering a Game

Jessica Hammer,
Carnegie Mellon University

One of the research challenges I’ve been grappling with lately is the question of what we want to know about players before they begin to play. For example, Jia et. al. look at the relationship between personality traits, such as openness and extraversion, and players’ experience of specific game design patterns, such as points and avatars. Personality traits are relatively stable across the lifespan, and there are many validated measures for assessing personality. But there are important precursors of play that are harder to measure, and therefore provide interesting challenges for data collection around and with games.

As a researcher, one of my key philosophical commitments is that players come to games as whole people, with pre-existing needs and desires that games can help them meet. In this approach, I draw from uses and gratifications theory, which argues that consumers of media take an active role in selecting and experiencing media in order to meet their needs. I also draw on Reiss’s theory of basic desires, which postulates that people self-regulate to close the gap between what they need and what they have. Bigger or more salient gaps mean more attention paid to closing them.

Taken together, these theories suggest that players will interact differently with games that help them meet their needs, compared to games that are irrelevant to their needs. Additionally, different players have different needs. For example, one player might seek social validation and status, while another might be longing for order in a chaotic world. We therefore need to understand what players needed before they started playing. This is a challenging proposition because players may not be consciously aware of their needs. Players’ needs are also not static across the lifespan, or even from play session to play session. Developing good data collection measures in this space is therefore important.

A second issue is the extent to which players begin a game with the lusory attitude, or a willingness to buy into the game experience. Heeter et. al. found that making games mandatory reduced both gameplay performance and motivation to play, while Mollick & Rothbard found that voluntary consent was one of the three key factors for the success of workplace gamification. In naturalistic gameplay situations, players typically have the chance to refuse to play if they are not bought in. However, researchers often ask people to play games regardless of how they are feeling; educational games, games for health, and other types of transformational games can also violate the assumption that players want to be there. Measuring the degree to which players come to the table with a lusory attitude is therefore important.

One challenge in measuring the lusory attitude is that it is quite easy to affect. In as-yet-unpublished work, Kasunic identifies that observing other people participating in a playful activity signals that the space is appropriate for play. It is also possible to “normalize” players to playing by using a pre-intervention game activity. For example, in my own work I have found that the game Treehouse Dreams can simultaneously function as a lightweight user research tool and a ludic warmup. If we want to measure the lusory attitude without affecting it, a certain delicacy in approach is required.

Finally, I think it is worth understanding players’ mental models of play itself. Sutton-Smith talks about seven rhetorics of play, or different ways of seeing play in society. The rhetoric of play as progress frames play as a learning experience and emphasizes its role in human development; play as power evokes a frame of competition and victory; play as frivolous can be understood as resisting the norms, order, and hierarchies of everyday life. As Sniderman argues, no game includes all the rules necessary to play it. Players are always filling in the details based on their own personal expectations of play, the group’s social norms, prior experiences of games, and more.

It is likely that players’ framing of what play is for affects their game behavior. For example, Consalvo’s work on cheating shows how players can define what counts as cheating very differently. These differences affect both what practices players engage in themselves, and how they interpret the practices of others. Capturing data on these deeply-seated cultural frames, though, is difficult for the same reason that it is difficult for fish to understand that they swim in water. We are all deeply embedded in a set of understandings about play and games that is created through the conversations we have about games, the games available for us to play, the marketing around games, our imagined construct of who plays, and more. Making these salient, and validating the results, is likely to be challenging.While I believe these measures will be useful for research, I can also imagine uses for these measures beyond conducting successful studies. A better understanding of players’ human needs could help us better match players to games, or to iteratively tailor games to specific player bases, just as Quantic Foundry’s work on player motivation seeks to do from a gameplay perspective. Lusory measures might help us check that playtests are ecologically valid, by ensuring that players are bought in to the activity. Understanding players’ frames around games can help us better communicate our design decisions in ways that meet players’ expectations. In other words, I think it will be both fun and useful to figure some of these questions out!


Consalvo, M. (2007). Cheating: Gaining advantage in videogames. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Heeter, C., Lee, Y.-H., Magerko, B., & Medler, B. (2011). Impacts of Forced Serious Game Play on Vulnerable Subgroups. International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, 3(3), 34–53.

Jia, Y., Xu, B., Karanam, Y., & Voida, S. (2016). Personality-targeted gamification: A survey study on personality traits and motivational affordances. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI ’16 (pp. 2001–2013). Santa Clara, California, USA: ACM Press.

Mollick, E. R., & Rothbard, N. (2013). Mandatory fun: Gamification and the impact of games at work. SSRN Electronic Journal.

Reiss, S. (2004). Multifaceted nature of intrinsic motivation: The theory of 16 basic desires. Review of General Psychology, 8(3), 179–193.

Ruggiero, T. E. (2000). Uses and gratifications theory in the 21st century. Mass Communication and Society, 3(1), 3–37.

Sniderman, S. (1999). Unwritten rules. The Life of Games, 1, n.p.

Suits, B., Hurka, T., & Newfeld, F. (2014). The grasshopper: Games, life, and utopia (3. ed). Peterborought, Ont: Broadview Press

Sutton-Smith, B. (2001). The ambiguity of play. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

To, A., Fan, A., Kildunne, C., Zhang, E., Kaufman, G., & Hammer, J. (2016). Treehouse dreams: A game-based method for eliciting interview data from children. In Proceedings of the 2016 Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play Companion Extended Abstracts – CHI PLAY Companion ’16 (pp. 307–314). Austin, Texas, USA: ACM Press.

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