The Psychology of Shooters

The new issue of GamePro magazine (October 2010, #265) is out and features my article on the psychology of shooters. 1 If you buy the magazine on the store shelf, the cover is the one on the left below. If, however, you’re a subscriber and got yours through the mail, you got the variant cover on the right that features some of the artwork by Andrew Yang that accompanies my article inside:

Oooh, alternate covers!

So, for at least one of the variants, I guess I have the cover story. Which is kind of cool.

The whole issue is themed around the idea of shooters, with previews of a gaggle of upcoming games from that genre plus some articles like mine addressing the theme. Here’s a quote:

Researchers Andrew Przybylski and Scott Rigby, who work with game designers, believe people are motivated to play a particular video game based on how well it satisfies three basic psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Competence deals with a sense of control, mastery, and feeling like you’re making things happen the way you want. A well designed difficulty curve makes us feel an ever-increasing sense of competence, as does appropriate matchmaking in multiplayer games. Games high in autonomy give you the opportunity to make many meaningful decisions about what goals to pursue and how to pursue them. Finally, relatedness is concerned with a feeling that you matter to other players and social interactions with them.

These needs certainly aren’t unique to shooters, but one could argue that many of the qualities inherent to virtual gunplay create well worn paths to satisfying these needs.

This article is actually one of my favorite things that I’ve written on the psychology of games since I started this project, but I didn’t expect it to end up that way at first. In fact, when the folks at GamePro asked me to write something that “explores gamers’ fascination with the genre and why the primary interaction point in the majority of games seems to be through a gun and bullets,” I just blanked out and stared at my computer monitor for a few minutes. I had no idea off the top of my head about how to address that question, and my initial impulse was to turn down the assignment for fear of not being able to deliver on it.

Fortunately I decided instead to push back from the keyboard and ruminate on it a bit first. That gave me time to realize that even if I didn’t know the answer off the top of my head, I did know how to do research and find someone who does –they don’t let you out of graduate school without stuffing that particular skill in your back pocket. So I hit my local university library one evening to browse PsychINFO and was delighted to almost immediately find out about the research program described in the quote above. Those guys are doing some really cool stuff around what motivates us to play video games, and they were even kind enough to talk to me via e-mail for the article.

All that was left to do was to pull together half a dozen or so articles and a couple of books into one narrative for the GamePro piece. Fortunately they also taught us how to do that in school as well. So I guess the lesson is: stay in school, kids. Like, uniil your early thirties. At least.

So if you’re not already a GamePro reader, thumb through a copy the next time you can find one on the store shelf to see if you think it’s worth buying or subscribing to. 2 I’ve got another article due out in next month’s issue dealing with the psychology of horror games, and I’m currently adapting my article on the psychology of immersion for another feature the month after that.

Speaking of which, if you’re a game developer who has something to say about immersion and what makes games immersive, I’d love to hear from you and maybe quote you in the GamePro article. Drop me a line.


1. Shooters, as in the genre of video games. Not, like, people.
2. Protip: subscribing is way cheaper.

6 thoughts on “The Psychology of Shooters

  1. First of all, congratulations! The site is fantastic (as is your writing), and it’s nice to see you being rewarded for it. Secondly, are there no big-name developers looking to hire a video game psychologist? Surely you could sign on as a “consultant” and make some sort of sweet salary in which your days consist of you saying “yeah you should probably do *whatever* instead. Because I said so that’s why, clown. Fucking programmers.” Thoughts?

  2. Very nice, congrats!

    Well I have a pretty good chance of still being in school until my early 30s (if I’m quick, maybe I’ll be out by 29, but I’m not counting on it). Looking forward to all the fun skills I have yet to learn in grad school 🙂

  3. Well, I guess I have to buy my first copy of Gamepro.

    It’s really great to see intelligent writing on the cover. I hope this is a whole new direction for the gaming press at large. Congratulations!

  4. Pingback: | Superlevel

  5. I just read the issue last week and I thought it was very well-done. I’m actually doing a write-up on the psychology of the anime/manga series, GANTZ, and this helps immensely.

    I think it’s safe to say that not just shooters, but all video games let out our anger in positive ways.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.