Being a huge gaming and psychology enthusiast, I have decided to talk about the motivational psychology behind video games.
Why do we play them ? Is it because they are fun ? No, it goes deeper than this.
In this post, I will try to explain to you why we do play video games, and a lot of people will actually realise, through this study, that they are more than concerned.
Intrinsic motivation is one of the major concepts in understanding the science behind using gamification and game-based learning as engagement tools.
The self-determination theory (SDT) suggests that competence, autonomy, and relatedness are the three needs that stimulate the psychological health and well-being of a person.
Let me now talk more about this:
Autonomy: It represents the decision-making ability and personal agency.
This human need is about giving the player the ability to make decisions that could affect the outcome of the game and even affect the storyline. Players should be able to shape the game’s narrative through decisions.
It is an important part of game design since it gives the player a certain freedom to act and the feeling that he is in direct control of the character. It enhances the immersion and the player’s experience in the game.
One great example is Firewatch. During the entire game, the player is in control of a walkie-talkie and speaks to his supervisor Delilah. It is (almost) always possible to choose what to say to Delilah. The player has the ability to choose from three different options. The decisions made by the player directly affect the relationship developed with her during the game. For instance, Delilah could become in love with your character if the player chose to be playful with her during the previous conversations. Giving this ability to choose makes the player immersed and intrinsically motivated.
Control: This is also called Competence. It represents the sense of efficacy.
It is about giving the player the feeling that he does something successfully and efficiently.
The intrinsic motivation comes from the satisfaction of mastering the game as well as the pursuit of mastery.
It goes without saying that the more time is spent playing, the more efficient the player becomes.
Indeed, with time, experience and mastery are built. In order to keep satisfying the need of Competence, the game difficulty has to proportionally increase as the player becomes better and better.
The “flow” is an important graph in game design showing how the difficulty must increase with the skill to keep the player intrinsically motivated. On one hand, If the challenges underwhelmed players, they would result to boredom because the game is simply too easy. On the other hand, if they overwhelmed the players, they would lead to anxiety since the game is too hard. What maintains the proportion is called flow.
2D platform games are an example here of satisfying the competence need.
For instance, if we consider Super Mario 2D Land, the game starts very easy, giving time to the player to master the settings, the commands, and the game itself.
The player then feels efficient, he is given the ability to accomplish a task successfully. The intrinsic motivation is then developed. With time, the player gets more and more experience with mastery, which is why the enemies are multiplied and jumping becomes harder with distance increased.
Relatedness: It is about being (socially) connected and associated.
It represents the desire to connect and interact with others. It could also be described as the social connections made through the game. The intrinsic motivation comes from creating social connections.
This is an important part for game design because human beings are naturally social beings. Developing connections and getting to know new people is something that (almost) always makes people happy. Giving the ability to the player to create these connections through a video game will foster his well-being and enhance his experience as well as his intrinsic motivation.
A lot of MMORPG games such as World of Warcraft illustrate Relatedness. One other original example is Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes. It is a puzzle game that requires two players: One player has a bomb in the screen with a timer. The other person has a manual saying how to defuse the bomb. The game is based on the communication: how will the person having the manual explain meticulously to the other one the way he will diffuse the bomb within the time limit. This game is all about cooperation and communication. It enhances the social connectedness and therefore relatedness.
Our game, called Castlenova, is a stealth/infiltration game. It is about getting to the destination without being noticed by the guards.
It focuses on two of the fundamental human needs: Autonomy and Control. Indeed, the game being based on stealth/infiltration, they are the main needs to satisfy in this type of games. Relatedness could be added, but it is not the priority.
Autonomy is given a lot of importance in our game. Indeed, the city is freely explorable, opened. It is possible to arrive to the final destination choosing between multiple paths. This does not really influence the narrative, but still gives the player a sense of choice. Moreover, it is possible to choose whether to kill the enemies silently, or go into infiltration that involves using objects smartly in order to avoid the guards. This creates a separation between achievers and killers types of players. Of course, depending on the path taken, the enemies will have different pathways. Castlenova really gives a sense of choice through the style of play and an open map.
Control is about mastering the game. We try to foster control by increasing the difficulty as the player progresses. Mastering the way you play helps you later in the game. We will need to get the right flow by routing the guards in such a way that you will encounter more and more of them closer to the end. Also the game environment is less forgiving and open, there can be a guard literally around every single corner searching for your character.
As said previously, one of the SDT dimensions excluded in Castlenova is relatedness. It is mainly a solo game that does not require social interactions and does not create any social connections.
The question whether adding it would make the game better is subjective. Stealth game are usually played solo (such as Metal Gear Solid). People prefer being alone making smart moves to a whole army, which enhances competence. On the other hand, having a mode where two players play together in one level could be a great idea. Infiltrating in a team requires communication and strategy, which would foster social connectedness and therefore relatedness itself.
The main benefit of applying SDT to game analysis can be thought of as having a theoretical framework for identifying how much of the motivation for that particular game is intrinsic, as opposed to extrinsic motivation. Not only is the type of motivation and need satisfaction can be quantified and studied with SDT but it is also possible to make further decisions about the inclusion or exclusion of certain elements of the game in study, with respect to how much they contribute to the overall goal of furthering the type of motivation that we are aiming to achieve. Put differently, applying SDT and having the knowledge of the literature behind it, we have the option of leaving out certain elements of a game, such as extreme violence if this is not needed for the story or some other element, rather than thinking that it must be present in order to make the game more motivating or more immersive.
On the other hand, the limitations of applying the SDT to analyse a game can be thought of as the limitation of just like any other framework or theoretical model. That is to say, SDT does not capture all of the essence of games, and we may be overly focused with trying to satisfy and amplify the elements of competence, autonomy and relatedness while at the same time losing sight of the bigger picture of the game in question. This by itself is not a unique disadvantage or limitation of SDT but rather a more fundamental issue of attempting to dissect, analyse and be able to reproduce human experiences and emotions in different types of media. As such, it may not be the case that simply amplifying the dimensions of SDT can lead to an artistically congruent game even if it may be statistically more motivating than another control game. It seems to be apparent that, as in all creative endeavors, the element of art and ingenuity plays a big role in game development.
Ahmed Ahres, 24.