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


Peer reviewed articles

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

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

Last modified: 2021-07-29