One of the first complete levels that I did while working in Hammer.

This is a paper that I wrote in order to show effective ways that can be used in building level designs that can lead players without them knowing it is happening leading to non-linear feelings of gameplay for linear experiences. Right below is a PDF on Scribd that you can read or download at your leisure. I’ve also included the paper in pure text format below it:

Level Design and Its Applications in Affecting Emotions and Actions

Level Design and Its Applications In Affecting Emotions and Actions

Sid Meier claims, “A [good] game is a series of interesting choices.” (Rollings & Morris 2000, p. 38) In that line of thinking it would be advantageous for a level designer to guide a player without actually leading him by the hand. If a player feels a game is telling them where to go and explicitly what to do they will feel as if the choices they make are insignificant. A level designer can supplement the pacing, ecology, and environment of a level by applying aspects from behavioral and architectural psychology. Successful implementation of these concepts results in an immersive experience for the player, unknowing of the efforts taken by the designer to guide them along the way.

The way a game is paced determines whether a player will continue a game to its conclusion or if they suspend play in the first 10 minutes. When done correctly a player will encounter  “the art of level design [which will] make players think they have infinite choices when really they only have a few.” (Feil & Scattergood 2005, p. 29) When the player begins to feel they are in a living, breathing world they are more receptive to subtle cues the designer places. This is fully experienced when the player enters a state of “Flow”. “Flow” is a certain mindset coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi that a person experiences when a person is fully immersed within what they are doing. “Flow” is identical to what a player feels when he is totally immersed in a game, giving them a suspension of disbelief. During this experience, the player loses all track of time and is devoted to completing his objectives. This is a monumental idea to designers because when it is applied correctly it fulfills the objective that a designer is hired to do, give a positive experience.

Valve’s Half-Life 2 does this is a very effective way. In the beginning of the game the player is stuck in a train station and has to follow a linear trail that is reasonably safe. This is advantageous because at this point the player may have no understanding of how to play and as such the players is not placed in a high difficulty situation while they are getting accustomed with the controls and interactions the game has. This risks an experienced player getting bored so the game is paced for this part of the game to end shortly once controls are learned while weaving it into the fiction of the world. Once the player has basic instructions on how to play the game they are taken a larger size of level in the early chapters of the game to make the player believe that everywhere he goes there are things to investigate. As the game continued, the levels got progressively more and more linear. I feel the reasons for this are two-fold. First off, the further the player ventures into the game it becomes more cinematic to lead to the ending’s climax. Secondly, it meant that less content would have to be created which saves both time and money in terms of creating it. At the end of the game we have gotten to a point where the player is invested and in the “Flow” state because at this point the player should have learned all of the skills necessary to succeed and should have a challenge that is just challenging enough to give the player satisfaction to complete it without it being too boring or prone to anxiety.

Half-Life 2 does this differently from other games in the final hours of the game because they confiscate everything the player had accomplished so far and gives them a new (okay, “upgraded”) weapon that they have to learn how to use and solve puzzles with. Valve gets away with this because the Uber-Gravity Gun is fun to play with and they wanted to show that their new engine handles physics really well. The game also suffers from bad level design many times throughout the middle of the game. Many players get lost and do not have an idea of where to go to continue the game due to the environmental design. This can be horrible if a player travels along a route just to realize that they were backtracking for the past 10 minutes.

The ecology of a game dictates of lot in terms of the actions and feelings that people take in a game. The choice to use a med-kit immediately or wait to see if a friend needs it can mean the difference between someone winning a game or dying. Being able to guide the player into seeing the advantages of using features of a game can give them gratification that they would not have known otherwise. “By understanding how people react to different kinds of choices, we can design games that help them make the kind of choices that they’ll enjoy, and understand how some game designs can unintentionally elicit bad choices”  (Hopson 2002).

Ecology refers to both the “power-ups” that a game has (in all its forms) and the encounters that you have within an area. Each of these has an inherent value to the player and the placement of positive and negative stimuli involved with both the amount and lack of these items can trigger certain emotions within players within a game.

In behavioral psychology there is a convention for operant conditioning in which by using consequences for actions there is a form of behavior. Every person who has played video games for a substantial amount of time has had behaviors engraved into them as humans learn by observation. This is the primary reason why people have difficulty playing games if they have not done so before. The Sonic The Hedgehog series of games has used the reward of rings and other power-ups to give incentive for players to travel the way the designer wants them to. This also gives players reasons to explore different paths on subsequent play-throughs of levels. This is a lesson Left 4 Dead may have used for great benefit as players tend to find one way to get to the end of a level and would not do any exploring as they were constantly given negative stimuli in staying in one place by the director spawning hordes of zombies or special infected on them.

Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect can be used to a certain degree to increase/reduce stress and add/subtract difficulty in a level. It is through reward that players are more willing to follow suggestions given by the designer without noticing it. By giving players incentives to travel in certain ways they feel it is their choice to go that way and if they conveniently wind up where they need to actually go to continue the game then that was clearly their superior sense of direction. If the designer also does a poor job in leading the player or the player is an explorer-type and always takes every path to its end a designer should place rewards at the end of dead ends in order to give positive reinforcement towards exploring the game environment as that is what the player taking the non-linear path will do.

A player can also be conditioned to not travel in certain direction from negative stimuli such as difficult enemies and dangerous effects. A player is far less likely to go through an environment that he will die in. Going straight up to an enemy tank without a rocket launcher in Success’ Operation Darkness as would almost guarantee the player death. If you wanted to move a player into a certain direction at the cost of heightening their stress this is a valid tactic to use.

The vast amount of things that can be done in level design to affect the player may be done in terms of the environment that they are in. In fact, in real life there is an entire branch of psychology related to the interactions of humans and their environment. Players are more interested in their gameplay environment when they have incentive to continue exploring the game’s world. Bioshock does this in the various posters that they place throughout the different levels of the game. These advertisements for the citizens of Rapture actually foreshadows other levels that players will access throughout their game experience while building anticipation to keep players playing.

An environment’s lighting can be used in many different ways. Primarily, light draws focus to things and as humans are creatures that like the light they tend to travel towards it. Darkness and the unknown are uncomfortable areas for players to be in and by not lighting areas as much as others add to the foreboding nature that an area could be. Monolith’s F.E.A.R does this quite nicely by turning an office into an intense and dangerous place to be in, even though you are fully armed and equipped to handle anything that may come by your way.

In conclusion, video games are interactive simulations that become increasingly lifelike as we continue to create them. By designers applying aspects from behavioral and architectural psychologies into the pacing, ecology, and environment of a level they can influence players to have an experience they won’t forget. By empowering players through this process, levels will flow more effortlessly and give the maximum amount of fun possible within the confines of their play-space.


Rollings, Andrew and Dave Morris. Game Architecture and Design. Scottsdale, Arizona: Coriolis, 2000.

Feil, John and Mark Scattergood. Beginning Game Level Design.  Boston, Mass.: Premier Press. 2005.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row

Publishers Inc., New York, NY, USA, 1990.

Hopson, John (2002). The Psychology of Choice, Retrieved April 6, 2010, from

Seifert, Coray, Jim Brown, Joel Bugess, Forrest Dowling, Ed Byrne, Neil Alphonso, Matthias Worch. Level Design in a Day: Best Practices from the Best in the Business. 2010 GDC. Moscone Center. San Francisco, CA. 10 March 2010.

Rogers, Scott. Everything About Level Design I Learned From Disneyland. 2009 GDC. Moscone Center. San Francisco, CA. 28 March 2009.


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