Three Books on the Psychology of Video Games

I’m working on my own book about the psychology of video games, and in the process I’ve come across some others that touch on a lot of the same topics. Let me be honest: once my book is out, I’ll shamelessly promote it as the super best, most awesome thing to read about the topic. (Have you signed up for my book progress newsletter yet?) But in the meantime, I thought I’d highlight three other good reads in descending order of publication date.

proteus_paradoxThe Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us-And How They Don’t by Nick Yee (2014)

Ever wondered how the appearance of the avatar you use while playing games affects you or other players? Or how the biases, assumptions, and world views you bring with you affect what you have your avatar do? The eponymous paradox that Nick Yee explores is how this connection flows both ways. Yee, now a researcher at Ubisoft, spent years doing research on MMO players. This book draws deeply from his well of quotations, surveys, and interviews with gamers in that genre, as well as some of the very cool research he did in the virtual reality labs of Stanford University. The book represents the culmination of Yee’s understanding about how avatars in MMOs and virtual affect and are affected by us. There are chapters on superstitions in games, how real-world habits subtly affect our behavior online, romances born out of MMO guild raids, how our attitudes towards (supposedly) Chinese gold farmers drive race relations in games, and how our avatar’s appearance affects our state of mind. The book is almost exclusively about MMOs, but I found that many of the lessons can easily apply to other genres of games.

hookedHooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal and Ryan Hoover (2013)

Okay, this one is kind of a cheat since Hooked isn’t necessarily about video games. More generally it presents a model of habit formation and discusses how to use that model to create habit-forming products of all kinds. But the authors do repeatedly discuss how this applies to games, including mobile games and web games, as well as tools that we all use like Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and the like. And it’s not as nefarious as it sounds. Eyal and Hoover1 do a good job of explaining the basic psychology behind habit formation and how the features of these products and games hook into that cycle of trigger, action, reward, and investment. It’s easy to see how each of these steps applies to at least some video games –especially mobile games that are meant to be played in short, frequent bursts. It’s full of observations that make you say “oh, yeah, that makes sense…” It’s also a short read that can easily be gotten through while on a flight or sitting around the pool. If that matters.

glued_to_gamesGlued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound by Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan (2011)

Along with their colleague Andy Przybylski (currently a researcher at the University of Oxford), Rigy and Ryan have been quite prolific in the last few years. Specifically, they’ve conducted and reported on research about how self-determination theory can be used to understand why video games are so great. The theory posits that we are motivated to do something (e.g., play video games) to the extent that it satisfies our needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. That is, how expertly you stab orcs, how much freedom you are given to decide which orcs to stab (and with what weapons), and how much other players or NPCs appreciate your stabbing the orcs. Glued to Games summarizes their research to date, exploring how video games are uniquely suited to satisfy each of the three needs. Along the way they touch on related topics, such as violence in video games, addiction, and spatial presence. For a book that focuses on only one theory, it covers a lot of ground.

So there you are, three good reads. There are other books covering the psychology of games generally, but a lot of them are very academic and aren’t quite as approachable for a general audience. There are also other books that touch on very specific topics like gamification and the use of games in education, but those feel like whole separate topics. But if you’ve got a book that you wan to recommend alongside these, post it in the comments!


1. Sup, Ryan?

9 thoughts on “Three Books on the Psychology of Video Games

    • Cool, thanks. And yeah how crazy is it that “1999” feels like ancient history? This stuff moves so fast that it’s hard to stay topical and current.

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  2. You might want to check out “Mind At Play: The Psychology of Video Games” If you want something truly dated. It is an interesting read, though. Also, it was penned by none other than eyewitness testimony expert Elizabeth Loftus (and her husband).

  3. Could you by any chance give a few examples of the more academic type books on the topic that you mentioned in the article? I woul be most grateful! Keep up the great work!

  4. Hi! Thanks for the article. I am a language teacher looking for ways to gamify lessons. I got the idea while listening to you on the YANSS podcast. Could you maybe recommend books or psychological patterns that could be useful to know for gamifying learning in a classroom? Thanks in advance and greetings from France!

    • I don’t know of anything off the top of my head, but I’m sure there’s tons of stuff out there. Games in education is a very popular topic right now. I’m sure a search on Amazon would net lots of books, plus tons of stuff on Google Scholar. Good luck!

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