Making Players Care

Why do we care about some games and not others?

What Does Caring Mean?

Simple answer: Investment

The death of a loved one makes us sad because we have invested grey matter in that person. Our brains develop neurons dedicated to those people and animals we love. When a loved one dies it can feel like part of us has been lost because in a real sense part of our brain has gone. Those neurons dedicated to the loved one are now redundant, doomed to gradually fade away.

This same mechanism applies to inanimate objects. We get angry and upset when our X-Box or Playstation breaks because we cannot play our favourite game. Games in which we have invested time and therefore neurons. It also the same mechanism which makes us care about tabletop role-playing games. When we play a character we are investing neurons in that character. This helps make the game more exciting but also why people get angry or upset when their character is killed.

Caring Is Not Liking

Our investment in something does not mean we like that thing. The neurons dedicated to a loved one means we want good things to happen to them but neurons dedicated to an awful manager at work means we want them sacked. The amount we care relates to the size of our neurological investment and it makes no difference if that is a positive or negative factor in our lives.

Time & Emotional Context

The two things which control how many neurons we dedicate to something are time and intensity. The more time we spend doing something or being with someone, the more neurons will be dedicated to it. This process is unavoidable because that’s life – our brains are shaped by what we experience. However, the emotional context of that time acts as a multiplier. When our emotions are stimulated, more neurons are invested for the same given amount of time. Ten minutes spent in a waiting room with a nondescript stranger will quickly be forgotten but the same experience with an attractive or intimidating stranger may stay with you for days.

Making NPCs (and Other Things) Important

GMs often complain about the indifference by their players to their hard work prepping for the game. Countless hours of GM time are spent producing material on NPCs but players are not interested enough to even learn their names. Those GMs are confusing their own neurological investment in the NPC with the player’s complete lack of investment. It is not the player’s fault. Why should they care?

To make player’s care athe GM must make the players invest in the NPC. There are a number of ways to do this but the simplest way is “screen time”. The more time the NPC is mentioned or makes an impact in the game, the more the players are forced to invest in them. The return on this investment is better if the GM can stimulate emotions like joy, laughter or excitement around the table to build a stronger emotional context but time is the key.


Photo Credit: Marco Giumelli