Enhancing User Experience in Game Design: Leveraging Psychology for User Engagement

Experience Design Academy
7 min readMay 8, 2023


On the occasion of the first day of the 3rd edition of the Master in User Experience Psychology, held in collaboration between Politecnico di Milano & Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, we had the honour of hosting two very special guests.

  • Stefano Gualeni, PhD — ‬Associate professor @ the Institute of Digital Games of the University of Malta
  • Elizabeth Buie, PhD‭ — Senior User Experience Consultant @ Nexer Digital

The Transversal theme of this edition of the Master is “The Future of Gaming”, indeed the two speakers open the scene of the research topic of this year with two original points of view that converge together on User Experience and Game Design from the perspective of psychology, each offering diverse nuances of this relationship.

Deceptive game design in User Experience Psychology — Stefano Gualeni

“In games, the relationship with the user is built upon expectations. “ — Gualeni, S.

User-centered game design revolves around offering players an experience that is meaningful and functionally apt to the skills, preferences, and expectations of the users. Within game worlds, objects, characters, and challenges are artefacts that are encountered with specific purposes and intentions in mind. This is different from real life, where objects might be meaningless in terms of our experience, might not have a clear purpose for us, might not be meant for our use and experience. In the game, differently from real live, situations imply implicit promises: finding a key in the game implies that a door or a chest will soon need to be opened. Similarly, the presence of many weapons and health items in a specific room of a game suggests the presence of a difficult enemy battle (maybe a bossfight) in the next room..

How do players build expectations and infer the functioning and meaning of games?

  • Ludically: by experiencing the game itself
fig. 1 A screenshot of Mossmouth’s action-platform videogame Spelunky (2012).

The interface in a video game communicates crucial information i.e. the avatar having a humanoid shape means that the character can be hurt by spikes, the number on the heart envisions the user has only two shots before retrying; the use of bombs is probably needed to finish the mission (fig.1). These assumptions come from visual cues and prior experience, suggesting to the user: to avoid death, use weapons. In-game representations and interface information set up the game’s objectives and direct the user’s actions within its fictional world.

  • “Meta-ludically” means from material outside the game world. For example in the game of in-game manuals, posters, or decorations and information printed on the sides of arcade cabinets
FIG. 2 The box’s graphics explain the context of the game, concurring to its user experience
  • Interludically refers to recurring elements in the same franchise/genre/author. In first-person shooting games, a common type of videogames, we can easily infer what we — as players — should pick up, avoid, or do on the basis of our having experienced other titles in the same videoludic genre.
Fig. 3 Some examples of first-person shooting games. They are all quite aesthetically similar in terms of point of view and interfaces, don’t you think?
  • Transludically (from general game literacy) transludic game knowledge refers to the ideas and conventions that are not typical of a specific genre, but are in general in games, for example, the number of hearts on top of the screen standing for the health of the playing character or the number of available lives.

The information is deepened in the paper “The implied designer and the Experience of gameworlds” (Van de Mosselaer & Gualeni, 2020).

User Experience Psychology effects in game design

These expectations can also be subverted by creating a twisted yet engaging connection with the user. Deceptive game design is a practice that involves using misleading game strategies to motivate and involve players more effectively. These strategies are based on an understanding of human psychology and persuasive techniques influencing the gaming user experience.

An exceptional case study of this category is Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Ninja Theory 2017). The protagonist, Senua, is informed that she will develop a sickness (a rotting disease) that will spread to her head every time that she dies. The game claims that when the rot reaches Senua’s head, the will lose all progress he or she made in the game. The game does not — however — feature a permadeath mechanic: it is a trick to keep players on their toes and more deeply involved in Senua’s progress. Also, this design decision experientially resonates with Senua’s mental sickness (she is schizophrenic and often allucinates).

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Ninja Theory 2017)

Watch the video of this keynote

From Engagement to Transcendence — Elizabeth Buie

What factors determine the gaming experience?

The starting point to analyse a game is its context. The context is given by the number of players expected, where they are located (in person or remote), and the kind of relationship between them — fundamental to establishing the mood of the game as competitive or cooperative. In competitive games, players compete against something or someone, playing to win or to defeat themselves or others. In cooperative games, players strategically work with someone else, and winning may or may not be relevant. Games are more commonly competitive, but a mix of both moods can also be present. Last but not least, the mode of interaction is also crucial — are people in the same place, playing remotely, or physically close but playing in a digital space? This can significantly change the user experience.

Therefore, the user experience is defined by various factors that are not under the direct control of the designer, such as the context of the game and the variables linked to the user. But the designer can influence the experience through technology to improve a product’s characteristics.

Once the user experience context of a game is studied, what do we want the players to experience?

Our main goal should be to design systems that allow our users — our players — to have meaningful and engaging experiences. To do this, we must start by involving our users and players from the very first moment they interact with our system.

The field of HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) focuses on understanding and designing interactive systems, including characteristics that allow users to experience “flow” during their interaction with technology. Flow is a mental state in which an individual feels completely immersed in an activity. The goals are considered key factors in achieving flow.

  • Users must have specific and challenging yet accessible objectives to motivate them to engage in the activity.
  • The sense of user control during the interaction is essential for flow. Users must feel able to influence the activity, make decisions, and control the virtual environment.
  • Loss of self-awareness is another characteristic of flow. When users are immersed in the activity, they become focused and highly involved, temporarily forgetting their identity and real-life problems.
  • Repetition of the activity: users can achieve a state of flow after performing an activity several times and becoming more skilled, as familiarity with the activity reduces the need to think about the actions being performed consciously.

“Flow happens when we are challenged and our skills are a match for the challenges. As we become more skilled, we require greater challenge to trigger a flow state.” — Buie E.

Flow can occur in various contexts, such as working, learning, shopping, social networking, health, and well-being. The technology works as a greater catalyst of human attention. In fact, Ghani (1991) has demonstrated that the same activity done within a group of people in person, with no technological mediator, is less captivating than the same activity mediated by technology. This means we need to direct our ability to capture attention towards technology.

Ghani, J. A., Supnick, R., & Rooney, P. (1991, January). The Experience of Flow in Computer-mediated and in Face-to-face Groups. In ICIS (Vol. 91, pp. 229–237).

Elizabeth ends her talk by introducing us to the Transcendence Experience, a kind of “grandeur moment” deeper than Flow, where the user feels a strong sense of connection to something greater than oneself, which often involves feeling completely immersed in the experience and, at the same time, detached from the real world. It is an extremely satisfying experience and can lead to significant personal transformations.

How can we design games to promote these transcendent experiences?

Watch the video of this keynote

These lectures were held during the opening day of the Master in User Experience Psychology by Politecnico di Milano & Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. Follow us on LinkedIn and Instagram to be updated about the upcoming UX Talks, which will be open to the public.

Curated by Alice Paracolli



Experience Design Academy

A polytechnic centre of excellence dedicated to User Experience - by POLI.design.