Top 5 books for game designers

It is clear to me — after writing this list — that psychology is a significant theme. It makes total sense: a game only exists in the mind of the player. It is an experience*.

If you wanted to submerge yourself in the subject of game design, there are countless books to consider. I have found most of them redundant, filled with platitudes and common sense. Only one truly stood out, and I included it below. Instead, I am going to recommend books about enhancing our understanding of games and players.

This list could easily pass as “top 5 books for game UX designers” as well! So… There you go.

A list of books for indie developers/game startups that deals more with the surrounding areas is on the way…


This book isn’t about addiction — oh, wait, it’s actually all about addiction. Regardless of what type of game you’re developing, it is going to consist of player habits. Moreover, it is in your interest to create a habit for your player — you want them to come back. That is especially true for any free to play and mobile game.

Eyal explains how habits form, and how we can use this to improve our products. He also lays out useful heuristics based loosely on evolutionary psychology, that can help in understanding user/player motivation. This book is a concise guide to user psychology.

I’m going to put my head in the ground in terms of all the ethical implications of this book…

Further reading: The Power of Habits — Charles Duhigg

Art of Game Design

I mentioned that there was only one game design book I would recommend — this is that book. The reason for this is not only the appalling quality of some, even most, of the books on the market. But also, the immense scope and comprehensiveness of Jesse Schell’s achievement. His book is a holistic view of game design where the central themes are the designer, the process, the game, the player, and the experience. He weaves these areas together seamlessly in a quirky yet factual bible of game design. The book’s tagline is “a book of lenses” which pertains to the different perspectives Schell suggests you adopt when thinking about your game. There’s even a card deck, that can be bought separately, containing these “lenses.” I never used it, but I can see it as a powerful brainstorming tool.

The Art of Game Design is the golden snitch of game design.

Gamer’s Brain

Fortunately, this book isn’t about trolling your opponents in Call of Duty, or being offended by micro-transactions. In The Gamer’s Brain, Celia Hodent gives us valuable insights into human psychology as it relates to games. To any avid student of psychology, this book might feel a bit redundant. But the complexity of games, in contrasts to other mediums, is best explained by understanding the human mind — no book does this better than The Gamer’s Brain. The book’s central theme is UX design in the context of games and the psychology of gamers. She lays forth principles of human capabilities and limitations. She gives us a thorough examination of human motivation, attention, memory, and emotion.

Further reading: Predictably Irrational — Dan Ariely | Thinking, fast and slow — Daniel Kahneman

The User Experience Team of One


Hodent’s book already goes deeply into the concept of UX, but it’s lacking in practicality. That’s why I recommend The User Experience Team of One by Leah Buley. A chunk of the book covers the basics of what UX is. I ended up skipping this part since I was already familiar with the concepts. The rest of the book is, however, a perfect 80/20 of UX design tools.

My opinion is that UX and game design are almost the same thing. On larger projects, like triple-A games, they have a different focus. But the activities and ways of thinking are strikingly similar. UX deals more with usability — game design deals more with fun and mechanics. But they aren’t mutually exclusive. That’s why I recommend this book.

Further reading: Don’t Make Me Think — Steven Krug | The Design of Everyday Things — Don Norman.

Rules of Play

Ok, fair enough, there is ONE more book. I’m not going to sue you if you read Rules of Play by Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen. This was the book for my university course on game analysis. To speak, we need a language. Schell’s book is a holistic, even practical, piece on game design. Rules of Play, however, is a language for game design. Reading it changed my views of the subject, and gave me means to understand it.

Further reading: Don’t push it….

Axl Andersson