The Psychology of Games Reading List

If I were to compile a list of frequently asked questions people send me, the first would be, “Hey, I have this awesome idea. WRITE AN ARTICLE ABOUT IT!” The answer to this question is, “Uh, okay. I’ll put it on the list. Stop yelling.”

Another common question is “I love this topic. What kinds of books would you recommend?” This one takes a little more time to answer, but since I keep getting it I thought I’d recommend some of my favorite popular books in psychology. None of these deals with video games, but if you’re interested in the psychology behind this stuff, you can’t go wrong with any of these recommendations.

Best Social Psychology Book: Influence: The Art and Science of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

The central thrust of Cialdini’s book is on psychological mechanisms that elicit what he calls the “Click, Whirrr” phenomenon. That is, things that cause us to react automatically and without thinking about it. As you might guess from the title, most of these Click, Whirrr mechanisms have to do with how people influence us –to like them, to give them things, to do what they ask us to, and most often to buy things from them. Each chapter focuses on a particular psychological lever, like reciprocity, liking, scarcity, consistency bias, and so forth. Cialdini wraps up each segment of the book with advice about how to recognize these manipulations and how to defend against them.

What I love about this book is how every topic is made imminently practical and relevant to my every day life. There’s lots of discussion about science and studies, but everything is in the context of things that matter to us from buying groceries to volunteering to making friends. It’s very easy to read and quite likely to contain a lesson or two that will stick with you for the rest of your life.

Some of my articles drawn from what I learned in Influence:

Best Neuroscience Book: How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

Strictly speaking, I’m not sure Jonah Lehrer is actually a neuroscientist, but he is an astute student of the field and he does a good job writing about it. Like other books near it on the bookstore shelf, How We Decide tackles a lot of the same “how does psychology affects what we decide?” questions, but it looks less at things like cognitive biases, decision-making heuristics, and social identities and more at the world of neurons, brain chemistry, and bits of gray matter with names ending in “-alamus.” I liked his chapters on reward seeking behavior particularly well.

Most of the conclusions that Lehrer comes to are similar to those arrived at by psychologists, but it’s really interesting to see how he does it with a largely different set of tools. And like all of the books in this list, it’s very readable.

Some of my articles drawn from what I learned in How We Decide and Lehrer’s blog:

Best Behavioral Economics Book: Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

If you want to get a feel for where the field of behavioral economics (basically, judgment and decision making in the real world) you could do a lot worse than Predictably Irrational and probably not any better. In it, Ariely examines what economics and human decision making in general look like when you stop pretending that people are completely rational. What’s great about this book is how the author draws from his own, deep well of experimental research to deal with practical issues related to every-day decision making. He covers things like the difference between economic and social rules in exchanges, the power of “free,” what makes people steal, what makes us think irrationally, and what makes us honest. There are also chapters that make the bulwark concepts of behavioral economics easy to understand –things like anchoring, the endowment effect, conformation bias, and more.

The best part of Ariely’s writing is how he seamlessly weaves descriptions of experimental procedures and results into those practical issues. You’ll see very clearly why the studies he and his colleagues conduct matter to you and everyone around you. There’s hardly any inferential leaps to be made; it’s all very practical stuff that will change the way you think about a lot of things that you do. Really, if you were to only read one book on this list, I’d say Predictably Irrational would be your best bet.

Some of my articles drawn from what I learned in Predictably Irrational:

Second Best Behavioral Economics Book: Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

I almost left this book off the list because I think Ariely did the behavioral economics a little better, but ultimately I think I have to recommend it because Nudge is good enough and covers enough different ground to stand on its own. This is in large part because of how the authors widen their scope to encompass not just personal decision-making, but also law, public policy, and politics that are born from those individual decisions. So topics range from how we can improve people’s decisions about what to eat to how to support socially progressive issues.

The book gets a little meandering in the back quarter, but generally it’s very tight and the authors have a slightly cheeky tone that makes it easy to read and easy to relate to. And again, many of the topics, like the status quo bias, compensatory decision-making, and anchoring are made relevant to bigger issues like saving the environment, social progress, organ donation, charitable giving, saving for retirement, and choosing a prescription drug plan. It’s some of the same stuff as in Predictably Irrational, but writ large.

Some of my articles drawn from what I learned in Nudge:

So, that should get you started. But what about you all? Have you read any other books that you think are worth recommending?

14 thoughts on “The Psychology of Games Reading List

  1. I’d have to say The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman, originally called The Psychology of Everyday Things. It talks about how things can be designed to fit into people’s perception of how they are used, making them very intuitive. Whereas poorly designed things can be counter-intuitive and frustrating, although a person may not be able to pinpoint exactly why that is. A classic to study when starting game design.

  2. Hey,

    I am interested in your article “How Reciprocity Yields Bumper Crops in Farmville”. Unfortunately the link doesn’t work. It would be great if there is a possibility to receive it.


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  4. Thank you for the list Jamie; a question I guess I always wanted to ask but couldn’t bother you for. I’m also ecstatic that one of the few books I have read made your runners up list (if I understand you correctly, about Design of Everyday Things).

    Now to get my hands on these other books! From your descriptions, I am especially interested in… Well, all of them. This is terrible Jamie, I can’t get my hands on all of these! I accept your apologies in advance though.

  5. Love the list.

    Cialdini has some super interesting research. His work on littering and social norms comes to mind as one /paper/ which is entertaining.

    A quick note on predictably irrational: Dan Ariely writes and speaks in a very clear, charismatic manner. You can find quite a lot of the content from the book online at either TED, his blog/website or youtube channel. His podcast is moderately entertaining.

    What’s disappointing about Predictably Irrational and other behav. econ books, is that their subject matter seems to be rather basic and not very informative if you’ve taken a social psychology class. The unique and interesting bits of research that he does can be found online. Kind of a silly complaint, but it’s my 2 cents anyway.

    Ted Link:

    He has I believe three talks up there. They’re awesome. [Only saw two on his profile, wierd.]

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