Psychology & Game Design

Players’ Skills Data Driven Game Design

Authors: Sergio Alloza & Dr. Flavio Escribano

Spanish Version: Download here (bajar aquí)


A few months ago we published an article about the Soft Skills Games Workshop at 3DWire. Thanks to the market interests and the need to expand and divulge the knowledge about our project we decided to follow this research stream and building some links to Game Design.

In detail we will take a look at how SoftSkills.Games project can influence the video games industry, both in targeting the audience and also interpreting in a more specific way the player behaviours inside and outside the game. We will also take a look at the psychological concepts behind game design and how them are related with soft skills assessment.

If you are a newbie in our site we recommend you to visit some of our previous articles in which we speak about the relevance of soft skills at an international level or a practical example of applied soft skills games methodology as an introduction to this post.

¿Why do we play?

We should start talking about the game concept and its anthropological value. We usually think that people play just for fun. A more scientific profile would say that we play looking for the endorphin production and the well being feeling that comes from the game experience. But still the answer would be incomplete.

The game is prior even to the human specie, to the human culture of playing. Playing is something other species also do, from reptiles to birds. The game is beyond fun or entertainment, the game always has been associated with the development of our more complex processes and thus it has always been linked to Learning. The game, whether in baby lions “playing” on hunting, birds “playing” on skiing on a snowy roof or children “playing” on being doctors, it always generates a cognitive stimulation. That is why when we are children we play a lot more than when we are adults, because that stimulation is an important and key factor in the growth and development of our brains as complex mammals. But why do we look for this stimulation?

Image 1. from proyectopuente

There are many references about the role of games in cognitive development both in animals and humans. Dr. Jaak Panksepp (2019) mentions that “The most primitive parts of the brain generate various primary-process emotions, including physical play. Playing games is likely to be a secondary process, dependent on learning and memories (…) emotions emerge first from very ancient regions of the brain, which connect up to more recent, higher brain regions that control learning and thought.”. So playing would fulfill such important functions as connecting the primary parts of our brain with the secondary -and more complex- ones.

On the other way we should add that we live in a changing, variant and volatile society and any professional of the job market will say that a person has to be constantly learning  and reinventing himself to adapt, being creative and succeed, and this could today be one of the main purposes of the game (Harari, 2018).

So, the game provides to individuals a simulation space which implies a stimulation of certain parts of the brain, certain soft skills that will have to be applied in that emulated context to “win” or have a good performance. This is the base of any learning process, from children’s games about fitting pieces with different shapes to job interviews where we are required to play some role playing game in order to “sell a pen”. It is this simulation that allows us to emulate behaviours in a safe environment, to improve them and covering implicit learning needs.

The game has always been present in our lives but, Why do we talk about it now and why do give it so much importance in our research?

That is because during the last years the growth of the technological sector has impulse the game to a digital environment where the stimulation has been multiplied, becoming much more complex now. This transformation from analog game into a (digital) video game implies a big qualitative and quantitative step forward in a natural learning process properly adapted to our current times, circumstances and needs as human society.

To give an example to illustrate the mentioned step: not long far ago people who wanted to learn to drive had no choice but to get into a real car and “take” some risks. Nowadays many driving schools are already incorporating the video game technology to teach driving and consolidate certain aspects of driving in those experiences in a safe environment capable to be translated into the real analog world. It is likely that those who where players of driving games if they later became driving school owners now understand very well the odds of transferring this learning from video games and thus updating their business models.

Driving Simulation GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Image 2. gif from

Psychology and soft skills in Game Design

At this point and knowing the value of the game beyond entertainment and fun, we wonder Why do this variability among players types exist. Why what seems interesting or motivating to one person but it can be boring or demotivating to another? Or why as individuals do we prefer to play a specific type of game?

To answer those questions we have to use a psychological game design point of view. Obviously not all the people are equal and creating a video game that seeks to attract all profiles as a whole is practically impossible. That is why using psychology, through certain designs, we would be able to attract specific profiles, setting certain experiences and emotions that game evokes into the specific targets.

Moreover, actually there is something that most people have in common when playing games: it is the feeling of being challenged at the same level we can reach or learn during the act of playing the games we “like”. It is something that sounds quite obvious when you think about it but in artifacts such as video games where the interaction with the player is so rich and increasingly complex, it gets important. Make the players feel bored or frustrated by higher than expected demanding skills or, for the contrary, demanding lower ones would be  a loss of interest (something that usually happens in formal education when we have bored students in class because they have high capacities or we have frustrated students due to their limitations).

Behind this hypothesis there are 2 key concepts:

  1. Flow. Studied for approximately 40 years by Professor Csíkszentmihályi (1975/2000), he exposes this state as the complete absorption of the present moment. Where all our attention is focused on what we are doing, totally motivated and even losing track of time. This effect is closely related to the concept of optimal experience (Csíkszentmihályi & LeFevre, 1989) where present emotions are ideal for learning and maximum performance. Sweeter & Peta (2005) applied this concept to the use of video games, creating the term Gameflow, referring to how a user is immersed in the virtual world while being totally focused on the tasks he/she performs.
  1. The second concept, closely related with the previous one, is the term “Adjusted difficulty” or “Competence principle” (Gee, 2004). This process refers to the presentation of a challenge (either inside or outside the video game) which difficulty is adjusted to our skills levels. Even that challenge may be perceived as difficult but attainable at first.

The following image (Image 3) shows the optimal zone in relation to the proposed Challenge with the Skill/Preparation of the player (Flow zone). However, there may be other scenarios in which the Challenge is too difficult for the player’s skill at that time (Anxiety) or the Challenge is too easy for the player and does not involve any challenge (Borderom). In either of these two situations, the final consequence is player abandons playing the video game (because it is excessively difficult or easy for him/her).

Image 3: Flow state. Link between challenge and abilities.

As we mentioned and summarizing, both concepts are closely linked, as Shernoff et al. (2014) say in their research: ‘presenting a challenge with a adjusted difficulty to the level of the user can motivate and generate a state of Flow that allows meaningful learning’. And it is precisely the fusion between the two elements where the need of Level Designing appears: to generate a serie of scenarios with a growing difficulty adjusted to the player’s skills in order to allow Flow.

Normally, at the beginning of playing a game, easily accessible challenges are presented since is not the objective to challenge the user but rather an habituation to the context of the game (controls, story, action options, etc.). However, this difficulty will have to increase according to the level of soft skills of the player such as Complex Problem Solving or Judgment and Decision Making (among others), so that the remains in that optimal zone of enjoyment (fun), performance and Flow. This presupposes what we have been trying to prove scientifically for some time now: that video games train those soft skills and they are also needed to play. Video games require and train soft skills, otherwise there would be no need to increase the difficulty and keep the player constantly challenged according to their level. In this regard we have to take into account something very important: this Flow theory in video games is talking about difficulty as a whole and we want to highlight that “difficulty” is formed for a varying combination of different skills so, there is a huge range of different “difficulties”, hence, there is also a huge range of different players.

Is Setting Audience Setting Skills?

Suppose that each game will always position the player in an optimal area of ​​performance and stimulation. A second filter would be the type of game and what type of player it will be attracted. Each of us has a different skills set, soft skills are developed differently according to our idiosyncratic experiences. On the one hand there are more social, communicative and leading profiles and on the other hand there are more solitary, faster in problem solving or time management profiles, just to give a couple of examples.

The taxonomy of the players is a compulsory subject in the world of gaming and video games. As example we have read a lot about the classic classifications of Bartle et al. (1996) and Marczewski (2015) which, in general, have been applied more to gamification but are also to the video games sector. Such is the complexity of the design and technological level of video games that thanks to the analysis of the skills they train and demand we are able to talk about a wider and richer variety of player profiles. The soft skills of the players already make the difference between an elite player and an amateur player (Gong, 2015), and it is precisely this factor that also determines what type of players we will be able to attract thanks to our game design difficulties/skills balance.

Image 4: Colours ranging from green to yellow or red to yellow indicate increasing spatial consistency, a 40% value in the amateur action video games players group indicates that the relevant brain region was activated in 12 subjects (Gong, 2015).

We expose here some examples in order to explain this section and following the premise that the player will be more attracted thanks to optimal performance challenges.

1. Candy Crush. In order to see which player profiles are linked to soft skills this game demands, we have to break down these game mechanics. In a synthesized way:

  • Short games. Where we won’t be playing for more than 4-5 minutes per game. Generating micro game experiences.
  • Short interaction with the players. Since they only have to move one piece in the game board every 2-3 seconds.
  • Randomness of pieces. Improvised and unexpected element so after doing a combo that seductive voice appears saying “delicious”.

Just with this dissection we can already figure out the skills set of the ideal player:

  • Spatial Scanning. The position of pieces in a 2D plane will make the player to look carefully the screen, identifying patterns, colours and pieces.
  • Logical Reasoning. For “hardcore” players, the game allows the concatenation of logical events to be able to do a combo in the same turn thanks to trigger several complex combination of pieces.
  • Perceptual Speed. Especially at the most advanced levels, there are some of them with countdown timers. These scenarios are ideal to stimulate the speed of perception of the players that will have to be quick to find and match the pieces necessary to complete the level on time. We could also link the Time Management soft skill here.
  • Organizational Skills. In a very similar way to the stimulation of logical reasoning, the addition of power ups or the increasing on difficulty thanks to the presence of chocolate or licorice new pieces, allow to organize between turns within the same game.
Image 5: from

Maybe marketing staff at launching this game was not aiming this game to any specific target, surely they did not even consider these skills in such a scientific and methodical way. However, it can be said with certainty that those users who feel more comfortable in the game (those who are possibly already at the +600 level), are those who possess these skills or who get some pleasure in training them, positioning themselves in the optimal area which generates this game. This classification of soft skills inside the player profile also allow us to exclude some type of players too.

2. The second example is Dark Souls III (From Software, 2016). Let’s check the mechanics:

  • Long games. Normally, unless we are speedrunners (player profile with top soft skills) we will be investing a lot of time dying and trying to finish every level (exploration + final boss).
  • Complex interaction with players: exploring the map, solving puzzles, opening shortcuts, fighting enemies, upgrading weapons, leveling up, etc. In fact if we went to analyse in depth the soft skills related to this game, we would have to investigate each one of those elements deeply.
  • Constant tension, frenetic rhythm. Especially on fights where the decision making is done in a short and limited lapse of time.

And the summarized skill set, in comparison to Candy Crush example:

  • Frustration Tolerance. Death is present in this game since minute 0, forcing the player to retry the phases many times, generating frustration and making the good management of that emotion necessary to continue in that optimal area.
  • Spatial Scanning.  Soft skill needed in many context of the game, from the exploration of the game in order find some objects or avoid traps, to constant observation of the enemy movements in a fight,
  • Stress Management. The Souls saga is famous because its difficulty (although now we can understand better what that difficulty means and why the most of the users find this game difficult) and that is why a good stress management is a key soft skill to enjoy this game.
  • Judgement and Decision Making. Although the game is not a graphic adventure where the progress of the story depends fully on players decisions, there are some elements that actually depend on decisions: equipment, combat style, roads to travel, all of this behind a serie of micro decisions that make the difference, again, between a player that will enjoy the game and one that will leave in the first stages of the game.
Dark Souls Iii GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Image 6: gif from

In contrast with Candy Crush, which target may seem very broad, the souls saga has always been very clear to what type of players it wants to attract. Again, many types of players may access and test the game but who will finally end up showing their full potential will be those users with key soft skills to well manage tension, stress and frustration, while making good decisions to continue moving forward where they have failed before… so many times.

After both mentioned examples, it is also relevance to highlight the degree of demand or requirement that the game presents relating to soft skills. We have seen that for example, both in Candy Crush and in the Dark Souls saga, the player is required to analyze the screen (Space Scan). But nevertheless this ability is much more demanded in the Souls saga where there are more items on the screen and less time to view them.

These variables are also reflected in the advancement of soft skills, since each aspect of the game will stimulate different parts of players’ brains. This complexity greatly influences the Flow state, mentioned above, and that is why this state cannot be measured with a single line that represents the difficulty as a whole but several lines that represent the difficulty divided in the different skills that define our player. There are many variables that are present while a player performs even the smallest action while playing our video game, and these variables are her/him soft skills. Therefore, the flow chart must be divided into a multitude of soft skills involved in the creation of this emotional and cognitive state, always trying to ensure that the challenges posed by the games are consistent with the many levels and abilities/capabilities of our players (Baron, 2012).

Image 7. Comparison of Flow scheme in Video games and the development of a player’s skills through the portal.

Getting back to the comparison between game genres, we can see that each genre and even each video game itself, thanks to its own design, generates a soft skills profile ideal for the optimal player and it is certainly this type of player who will feel more attracted to our game if the game design contemplates a difficulty according to her/his skill set. We could say that each Skills Set is setting its Audience.

SoftSkills.Games & Game Design

Now that we better understand the involvement of soft skills in both the Game Design processes and the behavior of the players and their interaction while playing our video games, we are glad to conclude talking about the positive aspects and benefits of this relationship.

  1. Richer player profile. Thanks to the analysis of SoftSkills.Games platform methodology we can find out which are the soft skills set that any game demands, thus profiling the most complete ideal player.
  2. To expand the audience of our video game. The incorporation of soft skills as a defining parameter of our video game’s user opens doors to options that previously remained closed. We no longer only specify the market target with the soft skills necessary to play, but also, assuming, as we can do it (that video games enhance these skills) we can figure out applications to measurable HR training programs, education in colleges and schools or even in rehabilitation therapies, it is not such a crazy idea. In fact, in this same blog we have published a few months ago how we taught soft skills at Pompeu Fabra University using commercial video games.
  3. Value added. The possibilities mentioned in the previous points are possible thanks to the association of soft skills to video games, thus generating an added or differential value in the product. It is a point to consider both in terms of marketing and to achieve greater number of users or different uses of the game itself, being aware of the massive amount of video games and competition already exists but as additional very valuable information for parents, kids and adults about their skills development indeed.
  4. To increase retention and recurrence. As a direct consequence of a good orientation to a profile with a skill set suitable for the video game, we will make it feel more comfortable and enjoy the game experience more by keeping the difficulty levels adjusted to player’s capabilities as Baron mentioned (2012). In this regard, increasing the chances of players spending more time in our video game.
  5. To increase engagement and flow. Derived from just the previous point, it is precisely that motivation and player’s state of Flow will feed the KPIs of retention and recurrence, always from the point of view of the psychology of the game design.
  6. To understand better player’s behaviors. Last but not least we have to mention the interpretation of the data provided by the game on the massive behavior of users. Thanks to the most typical indicators that a game normally possesses, it is easy to know at what level there is more abandonment and what levels are at which users spend less time. Normally the interpretation of this data derives in patches or modifications to adapt the level design of the game. But thanks to the contribution of the information provided by player’s soft skills, we can interpret these behaviors better, reading much more realistic and accurate information and knowledge. For example, we can cross the data provided by the game (many players get stuck in a specific phase) with the data related to their soft skills and capabilities, then know that players get stuck in that phase for a lack on a particular skill, which will make the redesign of that phase much more specific too.
Image 8. from historiasgamer. Video games and different areas of influence

Exposed the different factors that arise from the link between soft skills and video game creation processes, it only remains to say that we firmly believe that the incorporation of soft skills analytical methodologies to the industry, in this sense, is the natural evolutionary step that will make the Game Design to improve and maintain the rise of the most popular entertainment tool today.

Bibliographic references

  • Baron, S. (2012). Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design. Gamasutra Magazine. Available at:
  • Bartle, R. A. (1996). Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit MUDs. Journal of MUD research 1 ; reprint in Salen, K., Zimmerman, E. (ed.) The Game Design Reader. MIT Press, Cambridge (2006).
  • Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1975/2000). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. & LeFevre, J. (1989). Optimal experience in work and leisure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 56 (5), pp. 815–822.
  • Harari, Y. (2018). Yuval Noah Harari on what the year 2050 has in store for humankind. Wired Online Magazine. Available at: (last access: 20/02/2020)
  • Gee, J. P. (2004). Lo que nos enseñan los videojuegos sobre el aprendizaje y el alfabetismo. (J. M. Pomares, Trad.). Málaga: Ediciones Aljibe.
  • Gong, D., He, H., Liu, D., Ma, W., Dong, L., Luo, C. and Yao, D. (2015). Enhanced functional connectivity and increased gray matter volume of insula related to action video game playing. Scientific Reports. Vol. 5 (9763). DOI: Available at:
  • Marczewski, A. (2015). ‘User Types’, Even Ninja Monkeys Like to Play: Gamification, Game Thinking and Motivational Design (1st ed.). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, pp. 65-80.
  • Panksepp, J. (2019). The importance of play: An interview with Dr. Jaak Panksepp. BrainWorld.
  • Shernoff, D. J., Csikszentmihalyi, M., Schneider, B. & Shernoff, E.S. (2014). Student Engagement in High School Classrooms from the Perspective of Flow Theory. In: Applications of Flow in Human Development and Education. Springer, Dordrecht.
  • Sweeter, P. & Peta, W. (2005). “GameFlow: a model for evaluating player enjoyment in games”. ACM Computers in Entertainment. Vol. 3 (3).