What is player behavior?

Dave Eng
12 min readJun 18, 2020
What is player behavior?

What is player behavior?

Trying to understand what players do and why players do it will perhaps be one of the biggest mysteries of gaming. Sure, it can be easy to find out why players play games. But what does it mean for the players themselves? What parts of that player experience make it engaging and fun for them?

Understanding player behavior is a way for us to better understand our players. Whether they be video gamers, PC gamers, table top players, or students. We all have a stake in understanding what our users gain from game play. We all benefit from what they learn.

This article will address why understanding player behavior is important. Player behavior will be defined as well as what characteristics make up player behaviors. Influences that affect player behavior are reviewed in depth as well as different players’ responses to different influences in the game environment. Finally, outcomes of player behaviors are discussed as well as how to design to capitalize on them.

Why understanding player behavior is important

Understanding player behavior is important because it fundamentally affects how we think, interpret, and design for the player experience. That means that understanding player behavior has become a growing concern in both the gaming industry and public debate.

Overall this means that understanding and defining players’ behaviors provides designers and instructors ways in which to influence and direct activities inside the game. Sometimes what we think players will do or what we think they will accomplish is different than what we’ve anticipated and designed for.

This is particularly important when addressing “bad” player behavior or player activities that undermine or otherwise negatively affect the gaming environment. This toxicity can also take place in the online communities surrounding play of particular and specific games as well as throughout the culture and industry overall.

That means that developers need to constantly review, evaluate, and sometimes even regulate player behavior in order to maintain a financially viable business model. Likewise, educators and instructors need to understand player behavior in order to accurately plan and address player actions within games-based learning environments.

Understanding player behavior is important; but what are the characteristics that make up and constitute “player behavior?”

What is player behavior?

Player behavior can be complicated. That’s because it’s a combination of what our students, players, and users are experiencing and how they react to that experience. Player behavior is influenced by human behavior which is a complex, reflective, and impulsive process.

However, for the purposes of games-based learning; serious games; and simulations we consider player behavior the way that the players acts and conducts themselves within the game. This means that player-to-player interactions; actions within the game; and even responses to the environment are taken into content within player behavior. Because of this, player behavior often begins at the cusp of the “magic circle” and the ludological agreement of gaming. That’s where the rules of the game begin and the rules of the real world end. Crossing this border signals that the player is now within a different world that has different expectations within the game.

Crossing this boundary is what we do whenever we plays games. But crossing that boundary could be dynamic for players. In addition, it’s also susceptible to when and for how long players engage; the location (physically) where they play; the situation and social connections of who they play with; as well as other characteristics that make up the context of their experience.

What makes up player behavior?

When addressing player behavior from a more mechanical standpoint we can interpret their actions from three characteristics: input, output, and function.

Input represents what the players have done in the game environment; their relationship within the game; or the game state. An example of input within a game is whenever a player makes a choice or meaningful decision such as to open a dungeon door or draw a card.

Output represents how the game; other players; or the game master reacts to such an input. This could be represented by a feedback loop of positive reinforcement; negative reinforcement or both. An example of an output is a player gaining a resource; eliminating another player; or moving up a victory point track.

Lastly, function represents the reason why the player or student takes an action. The function is defined within the game that gives the player’s action context. Function can be defined by the designer by providing mechanics that players use to achieve a goal or achieve an effect. For example in Pac-Man the player chooses to use the joy stick to move Pac-Man to eat some pellets and move along the maze.

In a games-based learning environment, the function represents different activities that students embark upon. Those activities provide a feedback loop of reinforcement that is tied to the learning outcomes of the course.

Influences on player behavior

There are several factors that influence behavior in games. Those include — but are not limited to — gender; influence; and games-based roles. All of these characteristics are based on the relationship that players form with the game and with other players within the game. Those relationships include aspects of self-efficacy; expected outcomes; and overall trust between one another. These characteristics are largely built on social influence and behavioral interventions in environments where there is player-to-player engagement.

This player-to-player engagement is specifically focused on the socialized nature of gaming in larger multiplayer environmental based games (MMO’s). Such environments rely on both the formal structures within the game as well as players interactions between one another to influence player behavior.


Gender has played a moderating role in the relationships formed and the behaviors that players enact and follow within the game. Though this relationship is dependent on the modality. Table top game players have a real time and more visceral interactions with players around a table than those that engage strictly in an online environment.

However, based on this, female players perceive the self-efficacy needed to play online games as an indicator of whether or not and how they will interact online. This is based on the factor that female players want to know that they can be competitive and enact a degree of agency when playing with others. This is compared to male players who don’t rely on self-efficacy as much.

What this means is that female players are more likely than male players to want to demonstrate a basic level of competency of play before playing with and against other players online. This level of perceived efficacy can serve as a barrier for player gender balance in certain games.

Social Influence

Social influence plays a large factor when playing and interacting with a large group of players online. That social influence can often come from the perceived player community of a particular game. Specifically: if individuals see other players like themselves online then they are more likely willing to play and engage.

However identity alone isn’t enough for individuals to want to play the game outright. Instead, they must also feel that they can trust the game, players, and environment in the ludolgical agreement in play. That the rules and structures set up for players within the game will be following in order to maintain integrity.

Games-based roles

Lastly, specific player roles in games affect individual players’ behaviors. Playing a specific part or taking charge of certain responsibilities have affected player behaviors in role-playing games (RPG’s).

Often, these game roles can determine and formulate the kinds of actions and behaviors that players take in order to be consistent with that in-game role. That means that designers can adjust, influence, and refine players’ actions and behaviors based on the roles that players take within the game. By taking this action, players are more likely to adhere to the outline of the role and its expectations even if they are initially not given prefacing information on what they should do or how they should act.

Player responses within the game

Of course the game can provide players with avenues with to respond and interact. That means that players’ responses are largely based on these forms of stimuli and the actions that they take within the game environment.

This adaptive behavior of games is important for designers who are creating more narrative focused games. These games shape the environment as a result of players’ actions which affect their progress throughout their experience. This can be capitalized on though different player archetypes and designed as such. For example, explorers are more likely to explore and discover more of the game environment. Therefore, ample opportunities should exist for them to do so.

Exploration for this type of a player leads to different “hubs” of player activities that may occur throughout the game. This can often be discovered in some table top games where specific actions become more important at certain phases of the game than others. This often comes in the form of worker placement (action drafting) table top games were specific locations are more lucrative at certain player counts and positions. Stone Age is one of my favorites and regularly pushes me to go for “core spots” that help build my engine throughout the game.

Likewise, killers are players who seek to extract from the game enjoyment from combat and contention. That means that these players are more likely to take actions that allow for that type of interaction. In Massive Open Online (MMO’s) games this takes place in specific areas that emphasize and support PvP or player vs. player combat.

While designers may create specific scenarios and activities in games; they may not be often used if players aren’t incentivized or otherwise interested in exploring the area. However, with the development teams of some games reaching the hundreds or thousands; there are bound to be some areas and activities that aren’t explored as evenly throughout.

Table top games appeal to certain gamers because of their socialization, tactile feel, and malleable nature. They can be as simple or as complex as players’ desires and tastes. However, one of the main differences between table top gaming and other digital forms is that players must be oriented and “on boarded” in learning how to play the game. This process can be challenging for some — especially those who lead the “teach.” Impatient players may behave in such a way that opts for shorter rules explanation in order to “just play the game.”

While the preferences of table top players range from learning themselves to having a guided instructor; those expectations aren’t always clearly communicated by a group of gamers. Because of this, player behaviors can include a wide spectrum. Players’ behaviors in table top gaming are more closely affected by the socialization element with other players rather than based solely on the game itself.

Outcomes of player behavior

Of course understanding player behavior is important for a designer. But, the effects and outcomes of individual players’ actions are important as well. That’s because player behavior within games can be as interesting and varied as it is player behaviors in the real world.

Players’ behaviors in games can even provoke emotional swings in players according to different game scenarios. While those emotional swings can be impactful within the game, they can even have wide reaching effects for players beyond the game. This can take place in meta-gaming where players actions within a game are used as information to affect player choices in later games.

Meta-gaming takes place where there are also substantial social networks for players playing the same title. They can share and exchange information with one another. Such an exchange allows them to determine new strategies for ortho games that provide a competitive edge against other players.

However, those same social networks can affect player behavior negatively: particularly for less skilled players as they risk leaving the competitive game environment due to their lack of competency. Conversely, skilled and elite players are more inclined to stay due to their more positive interaction with the game and their demonstrated skills.

No matter what the background of players though; player behaviors have an adverse affect on both the community and social network of massive multiplayer online games. Individual player behaviors can affect and manifest themselves into outcomes that can both harm and help the community made up of the same players.

Designing for player behavior

Finally, both educators and researchers will want to know what steps to take in order to best design for their desired player behaviors both in and around the game. That means that when taking into account specific considerations for both game mechanics and dynamics, designers need to ask themselves “What kind of behavior do I want?” Often asking these kinds of questions before outlining your game’s core loop will help focus and determine a direction for your work to take.

However, it is also worth it to continue to tweak and make smaller changes to your design as it’s tested with both players and students. These small changes could ultimately result in significant differences in how your players act with the game and with other players.

Conversely, it’s also worth it to discover and emphasize the kinds of behaviors that you want both your players and your students to take. Then, you can continue to structure and refine your game and content to emphasize that behavior. Sometimes it could be simple as just getting players to remember to draw cards at the end of their turn. Or it could be more complex such as getting more players to cooperate with one another during a specific part of the game. Regardless, both educators and designers alike will want to carefully observe their users to determine how to best influence future player behaviors.


This article addressed why understanding player behavior is important. Player behavior was defined and included the characteristics that make up player behaviors. Influences that affect player behavior were reviewed in depth as well as how different players’ respond to different influences within the game environment. Finally, outcomes of player behaviors are discussed as well as how to design and capitalize on them.

This article was about player behavior. To learn more about gamification, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

Dave Eng, EdD

Managing Partner




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Cite this Article

Eng, D. (2020, June 18). What is player behavior? Retrieved MONTH DATE, YEAR, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2020/6/18/what-is-player-behavior

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