Motivational Design

Lenses and Patterns for Motivational Game Design

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Arousal is the amount of attention and energy a person places into an activity.

Low Arousal is interpreted as boredom.

High Arousal is interpreted as stress.

Arousal Regulation is the methods people will employ to reach their optimal level of stimulation. (Thought to be a happy medium between high and low)

This is very much related to Mood Management

This is often done using a media of some sort. Games have an extra high potential for arousal regulation because of the high interactive nature and immersion.

(Bowman, Tambornini 2012, task demand and mood repair)

Alternative description: Dr. Laurence Sugarman describes the opposite of emotion of stress, not as calm, but as excitement. They are both high arousal states, but one has a positive association, and one has a negative. By this logic humans may not necessarily be looking for the medium state of arousal but a good average with positive associations with how aroused they are.

For example a period of low arousal may be “relaxing”, (and not be “boring”) if a person has just lived through a period of high-negative-arousal (“stress”). Instead of aiming to experience the medium amount of arousal at all times, perhaps the sum of recent experiences should just create a good average.

Lens of Arousal

Knowing that a player may pick up my game with the intention of regulating their arousal. Here are some questions for game designers to ask themselves while designing a game:

Who is my audience? What state of arousal do I expect them to be in when they play my game?

(ie: kids, bored after school(low arousal), Adults, bored during their commute ((low arousal)mobile games), People with their friends, excited to socialize or possibly nervous(high arousal)

Does my game ask the player to balance many complicated tasks at once? Or, is it more simplistic?

What is the hook into my game? (Game-play, story, etc.)

Lens of Optimum Arousal

Lens of Calming

Lens of Excitement

Lens of Dramatic Arc




Fast paced: High Arousal

Slow paced: Low Arousal

Recognizable Tune: If the Player is able to understand, and expect the beat, then it has the potential to either fade into the background or pump up the listener. It depends on the context. The stronger the beat comes through the rest of the music the more opportunity there is for excitement. (This is a very contradictory description)



Repetitive Action:

Reactive Action:

Easy Patterns:


You can create high or low visual arousal using some of these techniques. Contrast:

Low contrast=Low Arousal

High contrast= High Arousal

Color Choice:

High contrast of values and contrast in color

  • warm hues
  • red
  • yellow
  • orange
  • Obnoxiously bright colors
  • chemical green
  • highlighter yellow

Subtle differences in hue and values of colors.

  • Cool colors have the strongest calming effects
    • Green
    • Blue
    • Grey
  • White
  • Pastel colors
  • light, almost white, pink and yellow

Calmer more serene


Eye movement around a composition is incredibly important. Objects alignment and the direction they focus the players attention keep their eyes moving around the screen. A strong composition will have several resting points, or places where the player will focus their attention. This is an incredibly powerful, yet subtle tool that is used in paintings, movies, building layout, and most definitely games. If there is an important object or moment of action that is imperative for the player to see, composition can have guided their eye to that important spot before it even occurs so their eye is resting there a moment before it even needs to be.

This can be a useful tool in promoting different states of arousal because this can be used to add extra stress on the player (by not giving them a good place to rest their eye, and overloading them) or carefully laying out the scene so that the player will be comfortable looking at it.

*Note: With all of these concepts, if the player is unable to handle complexity, more complexity can possibly make them tune out more and lower arousal further. Overwhelming does not necessarily correlate to high arousal.

Example: I used to listen to heavy metal music when I was trying to fall asleep. The songs may not normally be considered calming, but I could not wrap my mind around what was going on in the fast paced music when I was already so tired, so hearing it lowered my arousal even further until I would fall asleep.

Many people do this with classical music. People find it calming, but in truth it is often very complex. So much so that it creates a state of low arousal.


Bowman, Tamborini, (2012). Task Demand and Mood Repair. ——————-

Zillman (1988). Mood Management. ——–


motivations/arousal.txt · Last modified: 2014/05/19 18:38 by bsnyder