Psychology of Play

What happens in our minds when we play games? What can games teach us about how we think, learn, and relate to each other? 

At the Games & Society Lab, we investigate how games affect the players’ psychology, and how the psychology of players affects play. Because the mind is always present in play experiences, we see psychology as a useful way to look at how players play, as well as how they interact with games and each other.

As our minds are always present when we play, studying games from different psychological perspectives can give great insights into how play works. These perspectives can include how we interpret meaning, how we engage with interfaces such as screens and buttons, as well as how we relate to other people when we play.

Exploring Psychology of Play

Research Approaches

At the Games & Society Lab, we consider various aspects of the psychology of players. These aspects include the ways in which games can:

  • Invite players to inhabit different mental states and shifts in consciousness;

  • Motivate players to take action in specific ways;

  • Provide opportunities for players to gain new knowledge and train skills;

  • Understand complex models, systems, and social dynamics through play;

  • Encourage players to participate actively within specific environments; 

  • Create spaces where players can experiment with their expressions of identity, patterns of interaction, and structures of social organization; and

  • Inspire players to experience a sense of belonging within a larger subcultural community.

Conceptual Frameworks

We invite research from a wide variety of conceptual frameworks related to the theory, design, and study of games with regard to psychology including, but not limited to:

  • Social psychology

  • Phenomenology

  • Cognitive science

  • Behaviorism

  • Developmental psychology

  • Educational psychology

  • Experimental psychology

  • Identity studies

  • Critical psychology

  • Consciousness Studies

  • Depth psychology

  • Existential psychology

  • Psychodynamics

Research Projects

A Deconstruction of Expertise through Arcade Games

Existential Transformative Design Framework

Games and Learning in Young Children

Skill Mill

Understanding Prosocial and Antisocial Behavior in Players


Book chapters

Bowman, Sarah Lynne, and Kjell Hedgard Hugaas. 2021. “Magic is Real: How Role-playing Can Transform Our Identities, Our Communities, and Our Lives.” In Book of Magic: Vibrant Fragments of Larp Practices, edited by Kari Kvittingen Djukastein, Marcus Irgens, Nadja Lipsyc, and Lars Kristian Løveng Sunde. Oslo, Norway: Knutepunkt, 2021. View article here

Journal articles

Baird, Josephine. 2021. “Role-playing the Self: Trans Self-Expression, Exploration, and Embodiment in (Live Action) Role-playing Games.” International Journal of Role-Playing 11. View publication here

Juvrud, Joshua, Gabriel Ansgariusson, Patrik Selleby & Magnus Johansson. 2021.
"Game or watch: The effect of interactivity on arousal and engagement in video game media." In IEEE Transactions on Games.
View publication

Rusch, Doris C., and Andrew M. Phelps. 2020. “Existential Transformational Game Design: Harnessing the ‘Psychomagic’ of Symbolic Enactment.” Frontiers in Psychology (November 4).
View publication

Conference proceedings

Phelps, Andy, and Doris C. Rusch. 2020. “Navigating Existential, Transformative Game Design.” In Proceedings from DiGRA ’20 – Proceedings of the 2020 DiGRA International Conference: Play Everywhere: 1-4.
View publication

Conference presentations

Baird, Josephine. 2022. “Role-playing as Your Self: Designing a Live Action Role-playing Game for Trans Self-Expression, Exploration and Embodiment.” Paper presented at Popular Culture Association, April 13. Video linked here

Baird, Josephine. 2021. “The Missing Trans(gender) Subject: Trans Exploration, Expression and Embodiment in Video game-based-learning.” Paper presented at NordMedia 2021 Conference, Reykjavik, Iceland, August 18–20th 2021.

Baird, Josephine. 2020. “The Mechanics and Misdirection of The Missing: Trans Exploration, Expression and Embodiment in Videogame-Based-Learning.” Paper presented at FROG: Future and Reality of Gaming 2020, Vienna, Austria.

Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2022. “Introduction to Identity and Role-Playing Games.” Paper presented at La Red de Investigadores de Juegos de Rol (RIJR) y la Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC), Feb. 26. Video linked here

Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2022. “Finding the Self in Role-playing Games: Weaving Myth, Narrative, and Identity.” Paper presented at Evolution of Story II: Unravelling the Hero's Journey, June 23, 2022. (Forthcoming).

Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2022. “‘Let's Play a Love Game: Role-playing Intimacy and Relationships in Games.” Paper presented at Popular Culture Association, April 13. Video linked here

Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2021. “Games of Personal Horror: Shadow Work and Role-playing Experiences.” Paper presented at Monstrosity Seminar at Tampere University, Finland, April 22, 2021.

Bowman, Sarah Lynne, Josefin Westborg, Kjell Hedgard Hugaas, Josephine Baird. 2021. “Agents of Empowerment: A Role-playing Game in Service of Cultivating a Soulful and Sustainable Academia.” Presented at the Gamification for Sustainable Development at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland, December 15, 2021. Video linked here

Bowman, Sarah Lynne, Josephine Baird, Kjell Hedgard Hugaas. 2021. “Liminal Intimacy: Role-playing Games as Catalysts for Interpersonal Growth and Relating.” Paper presented at Future and Reality of Gaming 2021, 15th Vienna Games Conference,  Vienna Austria, November, 26th & 27th 2021. Video linked here

Diakolambrianou, Elektra, Josephine Baird, Josephine Westborg, and Sarah Lynne Bowman. 2021. “The Therapeutic Potential of Larp: Cognitive Considerations.” Poster/video presented at MET Conference: Neuroscience and Theater Therapy, Bucharest, Romania, May 28, 2021. Video linked here

Hugaas, Kjell Hedgard. 2021. “The Final Chapter: Practicing Dying Through Play.” Presented at the Knutepunkt Conference in Oslo, Norway, October 7, 2021.

Hugaas, Kjell Hedgard. 2022. “Death and Dying in Games: Exploring Age Old Questions of Mortality through Role-playing Games.” Paper presented at Popular Culture Association, April 13. Video linked here

Johansson, Magnus. 2021. “A Better Tomorrow.” Invited panel at BUFF international Film Festival 2021, LadyBug Festival and Sveriges Unga Akademi.

Rusch, Doris, and Andy Phelps. 2020. “Games of the Soul.” Paper presented at FROG: Future and Reality of Gaming 2020, Vienna, Austria.

Westborg, Josefin. 2022. “Learning and Transfer through Role-playing and Edu-larp: A Cognitive Perspective.” Paper presented at Popular Culture Association, April 13. Video linked here


Bowman, Sarah Lynne, and Kjell Hedgard Hugaas. 2021. “The Batman Effect: Unlocking Your Inner Superhero.” Workshop at Knutepunkt 2021 Magic Book (online), March 13, 2021.

Last modified: 2022-05-07