The Influence of Game Design on Children's Psychology

January 06, 2020

January 06, 2020, Course: STS Essentials, Semester: Fall 2019, Assessor: Sebastian Rosengrün

1 Introduction

From 2003 to 2018, the number of Kids reading for personal interest in the US fell from 0.17 hours to 0.121 per day. We see a related development in the distribution of free time in that of kids playing video games. A new study out of Germany shows that every twelfth teenager is addicted to video games2.

With those developments continuing, we encounter the danger of a more and more illiterate and manipulated society.

This essay will look into this problem and a potential solution. However, more precisely, it asks: “Should the state provide education about psychology to reduce game addiction rates?” This piece argues that the right way to protect citizens and children is to educate them about human psychology.

2 The Dilemma

2.2 Algorithms in Game design

This part will point out the three forces that could combine and harm our society and youth.

2.2.1 Psychology and Biology

Psychology is a relatively young discipline, with psychologists like Daniel Kahneman discovering some of our most life, forming biases and behaviors just a few decades ago. In comparison, the first rules for geometric constructions appeared as early as the 3rd century BC3.

Psychology, at its roots, consists of biochemical mechanisms. And,

“The better we understand the biochemical mechanisms that underpin human emotions, desires and choices, the better computers can become in analyzing human behavior, predicting human decisions, …” 4, describes how those new scientific findings will change how we as consumers are manipulated.

2.2.2 Game design

Secondly, the relatively young field of Game design is taking advantage of all those new findings and furthering a more psychologically optimized and growing gaming industry. One only needs to look at the references of the Wikipedia article on Game Design and Video Game Design, with about 90% of the about 100 combined references out of this century.

An example of a technique used comes from one of the leading thinkers of Gamification (an adjacent field). Yu-Kai Chou describes the technique of torture breaks in his book. This technique is part of his framework called the Eight Core Drives 5 and part of the Core Drive of Scarcity and Impatience_where the players’ impatience and susceptibility to scarcity in utilized to make him come back to the game. For example, when one has to wait several hours to play another round of candy crush, a popular mobile game. The name alone, of those techniques that manipulate around nine million people per day for three hours with one of these games6, suggests harm or torture to the user.

2.2.3 Technology

Technology is improving and starting to understand and be able to manipulate our evolutionary ingrained biochemical behaviors. One can also view these behaviors as algorithms, patterns, or rules that govern the result, i.e., the biological response from a particular perception or experience. An example is the arousal level aimed at participants playing a gambling machine7. In his newest book Noah Harari describes this development:

As biotechnology and machine learning improve, it will become easier to manipulate people’s deepest emotions and desires, and it will become more dangerous than ever to just follow your heart. When Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu or the government knows how to pull the strings of your heart and press the buttons of your brain, could you still tell the difference between yourself and their marketing experts?

He concludes with a hint what he says could help to protect us from those dangers:

To succeed in such a daunting task; you will need to work very hard on getting to know your operating system better. To know what you are and what you want from life. This is, of course, the oldest advice in the book: know thyself. For thousands of years, philosophers and prophets have urged people to know themselves.8

Those are the three factors that are combined and the lack of understanding of human psychology that show the importance of knowing ourselves and our ingrained human tendencies.

2.2 The vulnerability of children

For ages, our society gives much attention to the security and development of its children.

This securing arises out of the physical and cognitive inferiority and leads to potential vulnerability to superior adults. A simple example of this knowledge’s ubiquitousness is telling children not to get into a strangers’ car. This psychological vulnerability and susceptibility have led to laws and regulations to protect children, such as from violent content carried out in Germany by the organization Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle abbreviated USK9.

Therefore, there should also be a mechanism institution or system to protect children of the above-described algorithms and game mechanics.

3 Regulation

As one might think, the solution for the dangers of the persuasive technologies described above would be to regulate those parts of the system (i.e., the gaming industry) to hinder its destructive consequences. Nevertheless, regulating our free market system can also have harmful consequences.

An example of those consequences of drug prohibitions is the not taxed black markets that flourish through them. For a current example, one only needs to look at the newest developments in Austria, which prohibited Uber’s operation and deprived its citizens of a harmless service they like to use to secure jobs in the taxi industry. Other dire consequences are the unintended costs that are, in most cases, carried by the consumer in the form of higher prices, fewer available products, services, and opportunities, and stifled wages or job opportunities10. An example of our case could be a shift to even more harmful manipulation, unregulated techniques.

Finally, regulations take a long time to develop and are not suited for the complex information technology sector. A game is a highly complex system that interacts with its users in a highly complex way. For example, a game development company could psychologically manipulate millions of people worldwide for years before the government has effectively formulated what exactly needs to be regulated.

Regulation, therefore, might not be the right way to protect the consumer in this regard.

4 Conclusion

When I was around 15 years old, I played around two hours a day of Clash of Clans and other games, a game where one develops a fortress by producing, attacking, and gaining resources from other players. However, I was not wholly enjoying and emerging myself in the game. I opened the application each day to harvest the scarce resources of my farms and factories. The Game designers used the technique of torture breaks, explained above, to make me come back to the game and develop a habit of playing it.

After learning about my psychology’s exploitation by the game designers, I felt betrayed and shifted my interests to more entertaining or educating games and activities.

The danger of psychological manipulation which arises from the accelerating technological developments, the scientific developments in Psychology and the adoption of those from the gaming industry could, therefore, effectively be prevented in teaching children in the ground-, and secondary schools or through online resources, about the human psychology, its biases and how companies like the ones that create game take advantage of it.


  1. Data Retrieval: American Time Use Survey (ATUS), Retrieved January 9, 2020, from:
  2. Neue Studie von DAK-Gesundheit und Deutschem Zentrum für Suchtfragen zeigt Abhängigkeit bei 12- bis 25-Jährigen, Retrieved January 9, 2020, from:
  3. Staal, Frits (1999), “Greek and Vedic Geometry”, Journal of Indian Philosophy, 27 (1-2): 105-127
  4. Harari (2018), “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, 19, ISBN: 9789400404960
  5. Chou, Yu-kai (2015). Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges and Leaderboards. ISBN: 9789400404960
  6. “More than 9m play Candy Crush for three hours or more” Retrieved January 9, 2020, from:
  7. W. Chu (2016), “An exploratory study of the stopper device in modern slot machines” (Master’s thesis, The University of Waterloo) (
  8. Harari (2018), “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, 271-2, ISBN: 9789400404960
  9. USK Retrieved January 9, 2020, from:
  10. H. Beales, et al., “Government Regulation: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly”, released by the Regulatory Transparency Project of the Federalist Society, June 12, 2017, Retrieved January 9, 2020, from:

Profile picture

I'm building (funded by General Catalyst). I grew up in Germany, previously studied Software Engineering at CODE, went through ZFellows and MIT Sandbox. I strive to accelerate scientific and technological progress by building a new evolution of tools and systems for knowledge creation. Find me on GitHub, Twitter, LinkedIn, Product Hunt, or Goodreads.