Its finally the weekend, and you know what that means – Day 3 of the Power-Up Digital Games Conference. Today’s slate of talks covered a sprawling number of topics, with VR & the business of developing games being featured in a few, though the overarching theme for the day seemed to be players and communities, an area often overlooked by developers.

For all that it is tempting to focus on games as existences unto themselves, brought to life by hard work and the technology that powers it, it is critical to remember that games are meant to be played, and that having the best-designed and executed game in the world if it can’t appeal to – and retain – users.

Perhaps its only fitting, then, that the first talk of the day – and one of the day’s highlights, “What Happens in Brains when We Play Games?” by Piotr Sobolewski, CEO of The Knights of Unity (slides here), covered what was essentially the Science of Fun 101, with a look at both player psychology and some of the brain chemistry behind engagement, enjoyment, and why beating a really tough boss in a game is so damn satisfying. 

Piotr started his talk with some background on the Myer-Briggs personality types (INFP, ENTP, ESFJ, etc) & the classic Bartle Taxonomy of Player Types (Achiever, Explorer, Socializer, Killer/Griefer), classifications most people have probably heard of, discussing how these can influence and predict what players prefer – and enjoy – in games, as well what audience will enjoy what kind of game.

Just as an overview, Achievers, the first and largest group in any online game, are most satisfied by tangible rewards in a game: the usual points (currency or EXP), levels, item drops, equipment and other tangible rewards. Complaints about how powerful a character is, effort/reward ratios, metas – these all are catered at satisfying Achievers.

Explorers, a decidedly smaller group, prefer the thrill of discovery, finding joy in discovering hidden secrets in a game – areas not on the map, combinations of skills or techniques that can turn a difficult encounter into a cakewalk, or being the first to make an invincible boss beatable. This is the group that most enjoys puzzle mechanics, Easter eggs, and such most – and is sometimes responsible for things in MMOs being nerfed or “rebalanced” because the developers may never have considered the synergy between certain skills/equipment/etc.

Socializers, gain the most enjoyment from the relationships they build with others in a game, whether it is with NPCs and worlds through the story of the game, or with fellow players. They are ones who lie at the heart of player communities, because they see interaction as an end in itself, not just as a means to an end.

And Killers, as you’d expect, thrive on competition with other players. They tend to be the ones who prefer PvP to PvE, since they consider it a richer experience when one isn’t playing against a scripted character.

Piotr linked these to the neurotransmitters like Serotonin, Oxytocin, Endorphins, and Dopamine that underlie one’s gaming experience, before moving onto the psychology of rewards, theories of emotion, flow and other such – all very interesting things that any aspiring game designer should have some background in!

The next highlight came around noon, with Stephen Machuga, President of Stack Up, speaking about The Importance Of Charities Within The Gaming Space” (slides are here).

Stephen founded Stack Up, a charity dedicated to using the power of games to help both veterans and soldiers deployed in active warzones, after coming to the realization that while most people wanted to help veterans, they had no idea what would a veteran would want.

The example he uses in almost every talk is that when he was deployed in Iraq, his infantry company received a care package – a crate from a library filled to the brim with third-hand romance novels. This was not exactly what his unit needed to get their minds off the stress of living in a combat zone, and while, they did find a use for them eventually (using them for target practice on the confiscated arms range), Stephen thought there had to be a better way.

After coming back to the US, he found that games helped him cope with the anxiety and stress he’d accumulated, allowing him to re-acclimate to a civilian lifestyle, and from that, Stack Up was born, with a goal of using the language of gaming, shared by many veterans, to fight the effects of combat stress, depression, PTSD, and combat injuries.

Originally, Stack Up just delivered care packages full of games and gaming hardware to soldiers in combat zones, on humanitarian missions, recovering in military hospitals, and at bases stateside, but they’ve expanded their operations to hand-picking deserving veterans and paying for them to attend life-changing video game and geek culture events (i.e. Comic-Con, an Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), a Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) or even a game developer studio tour!) and to creating local chapters, or “Stacks” to provide communities for help veterans transition post deployment.

To him, gaming charities are important because they show off the power of the medium we all love – and the kindness and generosity of the passionate people who call themselves gamers. With games having surpassed movies to become the largest sector of the entertainment industry, it is vital that gamers work together to show the positive face of games and gaming today – the communities they build, the lives they change, the smiles they bring to people’s faces.

The change they make in the world.

That might seem an exaggeration, but groups like Child’s Play, Extra Life,  TakeThis  and Checkpoint are changing the world, whether it is by raising millions of dollars for children’s hospitals, or by addressing issues in mental health that so many shy away from.

Stackup, too, is doing its part. Though it doesn’t directly address things like alcoholism and PTSD treatment, it gets to the source of so many ills – emotional and mental health – and as such is as real and vital as any other charity today.

The last highlight for the day was the somewhat deceptively titled  “Troubles of Development With Emerging VRPeripherals” by Chris Pusczak of SymbioVR, a company working on developing a platform to serve as an interface for all VR peripherals (slides available here).

While Chris did in fact, cover a great many peripherals on the market today, the most intriguing parts of his talk came after he shifted to discussing how to shape the overall experience of players, starting with shaping expectations appropriately, always being in communication with customers, and being careful not to promise anything one can’t deliver on, since “vaporware” destroys trust.

That’s about it in terms of highlights from Day 3 of PDGC, though if you missed the last couple of days, we’ve picked out some highlights from Day 1 and Day 2 for you to read at your pleasure.

“But wait!” you’re probably saying. “What about the Legends of RPG panel? Isn’t that is one of the conference’s headline events?”

Indeed it is, but have no fear. We’ll be dedicating a separate post just to that, to make sure we have room for gaming’s living legends and their discussion of RPGs past, present, and future!