[This is the beginning of a range of articles on game design, inspired by the psychological insights that I gain from the academic literature reviews I have done up to now]
What is the difference between gamers and non-gamers? It is an interesting question if you think about the implications. There is a huge untapped market of non-gamers out there. Anything from facebook games to motion-based gaming has brought more people into the gaming community. The question is also interesting on a personal note: What divides you from the people that “don’t get gaming”?
Logically speaking, there are two factors that will make people put time/effort into something: ability and desire. If we relate that to gaming, then we want to find out what makes people able to play games, and what makes them want to play games.
An obvious hurdle for would-be gamers is money. Games cost money, and let us not get started on hardware costs. There will be people out there that decide that it is better to not invest at all in such an expensive hobby. This is true of console gaming, and partly for pc gaming. However, facebook games and low-budget indie titles like the illustrious Minecraft are doing a great job at enabling low-budget gamers access to a fun experience.
Money is not the only valuable resource we have. Time is another. Traditional console and pc games are again off the mark here. Facebook games do okay, while mobile phone gaming does best by far. A whole market of on-the-go-gamers has been born. Hand-held consoles sometimes hit the right spots too, but the results are variable.
Time and money are pretty obvious resource restrictions when it comes to gaming. A more interesting factor is “Suspension of Disbelief”. That is someone’s capacity to go along with the fantasy of the game, instead of (actively) realizing that everything is “fake”. You can have all the money and time in the world, and a deep desire to play games, but if all the games seem “silly” and “contrived” to you, then you are not going to get anywhere.
There is quite some variation in how much suspension of disbelief is asked for in a game. The more the game world is different from our own, the more suspension of disbelief is necessary. Realistic shooters, racers and sports games do well with the mild Disbelievers. If such a “fantasy” is still too much for someone, then titles like Brain Training or Wii Fit might help. They do not ask you to place yourself in the video game world. Instead they (more or less) directly present themselves as real-life-simulators. The gamer is simply training a skill for real life.
Lastly, the interface is a great and deeply discussed hurdle. You have to practice if you want to be any good at the button/joystick multi-manipulation of most mainstream games. The issue is high on the agenda of game developers with new peripherals coming out (Rock Band) and new interfaces being born on a regular basis nowadays (Wii, Move, Kinect, Apple touchscreen).
It seems a given that most people play games for fun. We all feel differently about how much fun that might be. For some people, gaming is not enough fun to warrant it any place in their lives. Some of these might be converted to gamerhood if they felt that gaming were useful to them. Think of would-be musicians lacking the discipline to practice every day. They might find themselves enticed by the new Rock Band 3 game where you can hook up real instruments and practice your skills in a game setting. Suddenly it is not about “fun”. It is about getting better at something. Is this not also the appeal of the aforementioned Wii Fit and Brain Training?
A second factor stifling gaming desire might be a matter of image. Not everyone wants to be identified as a gamer. And, even though you can be a closet-gamer, it would probably only expand the gamer market if the image became more accepted in the mainstream. It might be safe to say that this movement is already set in motion, but there is still a way to go. Futuristic interfaces like Kinect might make gaming “cool”. Also, Apple’s move into mainstream consumerism is opening a road into the hands of the closet-gamers through the iPhone and iPad.
For someone to be a gamer at all, they have to be able to play games, and they have to want to. People’s ability to play games is limited by money, time, suspension of disbelief, and interface complexity. People’s desire to play games is limited by how fun, and useful they think games are, as well as how appealing they find the image of a game (or gaming in general).
If you are interested in designing a game that taps into a whole new audience then focus on doing a combination of the following: Make something cheap, bite-sized, realistic/simulator-based, with a simple interface. Mix it up with some real-life skills and sex-appeal and you have got yourself a winner.
[NOTE: Ability and Desire to game can be viewed as preconditions to fulfill before looking at how someone's gaming experience fits into the Theory of Gaming Motivation]