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I've recently read The Art of Game Design and am currently reading Why Reality is Broken and am wanting to learn more about the psychology behind game design. I'm a computer science student but I'm intrigued by the subject and have thought about minoring in psychology.

For the veteran game design people out there, would academically studying psychology give a huge advantage to a game designer? There is one class in particular called Sensation and Perception that gets into what goes on in the nervous system when we are stimulated through our five senses and how these stimulations creates certain perceptions.

So, basically is this over doing it for someone who wants to create games/become a game designer?

What originally caught my interest in this subject was reading about how zynga hired a psychologist to help design the mechanics for farmville.

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up vote 15 down vote accepted

I have a psychology degree, and have been working as a programmer in the mainstream video game industry for the last thirteen years.

For me, having the psychology degree (rather than a computer science degree) was a major hurdle to getting hired as a programmer, and if I had it to do over again, I'd almost definitely get the computer science degree instead of the psychology one.

But you're not talking about getting hired as a programmer; you're talking about a job in design. And specifically which degree you get is less important for design jobs than it is for programming jobs, so I think you wouldn't have any trouble at all justifying why you wanted the psychology degree.

In fact, I think one could make a very strong argument for why psychology would be an ideal degree for a game designer. Alternate strong contenders might be history, literature, philosophy, filmmaking, and similar broad disciplines which cross across a lot of areas of knowledge. As a game designer, you really want a wide breadth of knowledge, rather than a lot of depth in a single area. Check Tom Sloper's site for more details about further useful areas of study.

I will mention, though, that I've personally found that working in the game industry can be doubly stressful when you have a background in psychology. I've trained rats in skinner boxes, and I've been through the process of vetting human studies for ethics violations. And sometimes, the things you get asked to do to your players start feeling more like the players are rats in skinner boxes, rather than humans in ethically designed tests. And that can be a bit distressing, sometimes.

Or at least, that's been my experience. None of my colleagues have ever seemed to notice or be bothered. And so I assume that it's just my psychology background which has made me hyper-sensitive to this sort of thing. So I thought I'd mention it.

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+1 because this answer is insightful, informative, and helpful. –  Randolf Richardson Aug 22 '11 at 4:26
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I'm not strong on psychology, although the subject interests me greatly. In my opinion, either path you choose, I can't see it giving a disadvantage. Knowing how a person thinks will definitely be important when it comes to creating emotional attachment to characters, scaring the player, etc.

Although, these skills can also be gained just by playing and analyzing games that currently do what you're after. If you're going after something disturbing and scary, play and analyze Silent Hill games, for example.

Knowing the reasoning behind people's decisions could aid you in implementing mechanics to create positive perceptions of your games (or whatever perception you're trying to put across), but I would be cautious of the course itself as a lot of material will most likely be fairly irrelevant to games. As you say, Sense and Perception sounds like a good step. If you can, find out more about it, talk to the professors, etc. Be up front about your intentions about what you want to do with the knowledge you're provided and they should be able to tell you directly whether it could help you out.

Personally, I would find out more about the course, make sure the subject matter is stuff that you're really interested in. On top of that, keep playing a wide variety of games, even if you don't like them. Analyze the best games you've ever played and ask yourself what makes them so great. I believe understanding that is the key to understanding how to make great games.

Good luck mate.

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+1 mostly for the good tip about actually asking the professors –  Lohoris Aug 23 '11 at 10:09
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