With games, learning is the drug.
There is a ton of psychology behind the design of games – that's part of what makes them so addictive.
This article in the Guardian explains why our love of video games has a lot to do with our intrinsic desires and motives.
…games are fun because they teach us interesting things and they do it in a way that our brains prefer – through systems and puzzles.
An effective learning environment, and for that matter an effective creative environment, is one in which failure is OK – it's even welcomed…In game theory, this is often spoken of as the ‘magic circle': you enter into a realm where the rules of the real world don't apply – and typically being judged on success and failure is part of the real world. People need to feel free to try things and to learn without being judged or penalised.”
Consistently, he says, the most successful games are the ones that provide us with interesting tools such as weapons or magic (or even angry birds) and allow us time to experiment with them.
The best studios are also designing their titles around established reward systems. “A good game will have the expected progression at the end of each level, but it will also provide surprise rewards halfway through,” says Ben Weedon, a consultant at PlayableGames, a company that carries out usability testing on new titles before they're released. “It's a principle that's based on workplace psychology. One of the best ways to reward employees is to enhance predictable annual bonuses with little treats added in every now and again – buying all your staff an iPod, for example. It keeps people much more motivated. In a game, you're essentially pressing the same buttons and doing the same things over and over again, so you need those elements of the unexpected to stay compelled.”
…Again, this comes back to the central appeal of games – authority. Game stories are often pretty hokey, but they're compelling because we're in control.
…Another important game design facet is “disproportionate feedback“, in which players are hugely rewarded for achieving very simple tasks. In highly successful shooters such as Call of Duty and Bulletstorm, when an enemy is shot, they don't just collapse to the floor, they explode into chunks.
…So games aren't just about wasting time. They fulfil intrinsic human needs, whether we are conscious of it or not. “That loop of agency, learning and disproportionate feedback is at the heart of something very important,” says Margaret Robertson. She thinks for a second before pointedly adding: “And very, very seductive.”
Interested in learning more about the psychology behind game design? Read A Theory of Fun for Game Design