Gamer’s Instinct – The Language of Video Games

March 29th, 2008

zelda wind waker gamers instinct

Have you ever noticed that when you start playing some games that aren’t necessarily ‘pick up and play’ games that you instantly can come to grips with the gaming environment without previous instruction? That you already understand how to play before the game has taught you. Have you then tested this example with a less experienced player (maybe a friend or parent) only to find that they take a considerably longer time to adapt?

It is said that a positive quality which game players posses is the ability to adapt to the ever changing variables within their environment. That is we can move form one experience to another (be it virtual or real life) and adapt quicker than our non game playing counterparts. This strange phenomena to adapt to different games, naturally is something I wish to explore. For the sake of this article I will dub this phenomena; ‘Gamer’s Instinct’.

How Do We Form a Gamer’s Instinct?

Simple, through playing games. As we play games our brain begins to notice patterns, we notice that we can use a particular technique to dodge some enemies and not others, we notice that if we jump down a hole we lose a life. Game developers use learning by trial and error (or learning by curiosity) to teach players how to play the way they want their game to be played.

For gamers, years of play has resulted in an insurmountable catalog of stored expectations. We know that breaking pots will reveal secret goodies and that killing all of the enemies in a room will make that invisible wall disappear. A ridiculous number of these variables are stored in our subconsciousness as we play.


Gamer’s Instinct doesn’t have to be a skill forged out by years of constant adaption. Gamer’s Instinct varies significantly based on experience. As human beings everyone has some sort of Gamer’s Instinct, even if they’ve never played a game before. We all have our own expectations of how to play.

Gamer’s Instinct varies dependent on the games which we choose to play. Someone whom plays a lot of first person shooter games obviously has built up a large amount of Gamer’s Instinct within the FPS genre and as such they can move from different FPS games/maps/scenarios with little time required to adapt.

On the other hand gamers who play a great variety of games are much better at adapting to any game and not just on a set genre.

Why This is Important for Game Developers

Have you noticed that some of the best games are made by developers who play games themselves? There is a relationship here, developers that play games and hence have build up their own ‘Gamer’s Instinct’ know how the average player thinks and thus they can design their games around this mechanic. Understanding how someone plays a game is crucial in the design aspects of game development because it provides the opportunity for developers to both use and exploit these expectations.

Examples of Developers using Gamer’s Instinct in Game Design

Abe’s Oddssey

Throughout Abe’s Oddyssey the protagonist Abe has the ability to save 99 Mudokons whom are all members of his obscure race. In many instances there are examples where the game will cruelly exploit your Gamer’s Instinct. For example, you enter an area and there is a Mudokon standing on a platform and a switch in front of you, your Gamer’s Instinct tells you to pull the switch. So you do and then a boulder comes falling from the sky and kills the Mudokon. Cruel isn’t it?

Donkey Kong Country series

I feel that the Donkey Kong Country game designers understand perfectly how gamers play platforming games. The level design and in particular bonus barrels especially reflect this. They know what their players are going to do and hence challenge this expectation by creating discourse in level design. Rare designers often placed bonus barrels in locations which genuinely caught you off guard creating an even greater challenge.

Survival Horror Games

This is not only a trick in video games but also in cinema as well. Survival horror games test your expectations and much like Abe’s Oddyssey lead you down the garden path only to then scare you.

Wario Ware; The Gamer’s Instinct Skill tester

Wario Ware in my mind is simple genius. It is as the title states a skill tester which tests your Gamer’s Instinct. It does so by providing you with a simple, quite often one word instruction and then gives you 3 seconds to complete the task. Wining at this game is entirely dependent on how quickly you can respond to an always changing environment, it tests how familiar you are with gaming as a medium.

The Problems with this Style of Game Design

You’ll find that very few games consistently take advantage of this style of design. Take for example some of the play testing done with Fable 2. Peter Molyneux included a system where gamers were penalized for par-taking in evil deeds. Because such a style of play was not a part of their traditional Gamer’s Instinct the play testers would always reset the game when this occurred. Because older games have instinctively taught gamers how all games should play out the play testers could not stand anything that challenged their Gamer’s Instinct. As a result this mechanic was removed.

Games that utilize and exploit this style of game design can often be seen as confronting. People don’t like their beliefs to be challenged, people, even gamers want conformity, they want games to be made the way in which they believe they should be made. Look at the response of Killer 7, a game which pushes for inconsistency. The fixed camera, forceful gameplay, the blend of vector and bitmap graphics and mind f**k-esque story polarized the gaming community. People simply could not deal with this different way of playing. I myself would like to see more of these types of games that challenge the player mentally in a unique way. And why wouldn’t I? Not only are these games unique and interesting titles but they’d also help me broaden my Gamer’s Instinct ^_^