In Why We Play – Part 1 we concluded that science has no clear cut answer to the question why we play video games. I want to suggest a model here that might fill that gap. I have dubbed it the Theory of Gaming Motivation (TGM). Its aim is to lay out a framework to help offer an explanation for all kinds of gamer behavior. For one, why do we spend so much time, effort and money on having intricate control over the pattern of lights on our tv screens? But also, why does gaming interfere with some peoples’ lives and not with others’? Why do some people “get” gaming and others do not? What makes us all have such a different experience while playing the same game? Why does your friend love survival-horror games while you are playing turn-based RPG’s? Basically, TGM will suggest an answer for any question about why we do what we do in and around video games. Before looking at the model, let us first do a short recap of the background information.
The core of TGM is pointing out our most deep-seated motivations to play video games. Motivations are drives to fulfill the needs that we feel. The difficulty is that we often have conflicting motivations, like wanting to be fit and not wanting to work out. Also, it is not always clear how we can fulfill our needs, or what they even are. You might feel the need to check you email. However, email checking is not a need you feel since leaving the womb. Instead you have learned over time that checking your email is an indirect way of satisfying needs that are in-born. In the case of checking email this could be a need for social contact or a distraction from unpleasant emotions such as boredom. Many of the needs we feel in daily life are like that: we feel we want A, but what we truly need is B. We have just come to feel that getting A means getting B, and we think no further. Sometimes we are wrong and develop unproductive, or even destructive, habits. This effect deserves an article in itself, but the gist of it is that we often do not know what motivates us. We simply feel that doing one thing will make us “feel better”. And that is enough for daily life.
Yet other times it is not. Sometimes it would be immensely helpful to know why we do the things we do. For gaming, TGM might provide an answer. TGM is an on-going project that I will keep up-to-date on this separate page. I will add supporting research as I come across it and I will not hesitate to adjust the theory if I find I am off on the wrong path. The dedicated page contains the bare-bones, up-to-date theory. Read on for a light-weight introduction on the Theory of Gaming Motivation where I will lead you through the thoughts behind the theory.
Introduction to the Theory of Gaming Motivation
Our motivations to play games should be a subset of our basic human motivations. As we saw in Why We Play – Part 1, science does not know exactly what those basic motivations are.
So I started from scratch:
Our most basic, in-born motivations are to fulfill our needs for survival. The 3 rules of survival of the species are:
- You need to survive as an individual as best you can.
- You need to procreate with the healthiest mate under the best conditions.
- You need to care for children so they have a decent chance of repeating the cycle.
What behaviors and traits helped us satisfy the 3 rules of survival?
Knowledge – Knowledge is Power
Skills – Anything from cooking, to climbing, to you-name-it
Competence – Be good at what you do
Perseverance – No pain, no gain
Creation – Building shelters and carving spears paid off
Danger Management – Recognizing and overcoming dangerous situations
Emotional Regulation – Emotions should help you prioritize needs
Competition – Fighting for territory, reward or recognition
Cooperation – Pooling resources for everyone’s benefit
Caring – Unconditionally taking care of family
Optimal Choice – If your senses say something is good, it generally is
There are more (food, sex, temperature regulation), but these are the ones that are relevant to gaming.
What is the payoff for fulfilling these needs?
Most people do not experience all the needs mentioned in step 2. Everything depends on circumstances and individual inclinations. However, everybody feels some sense of reward for successfully fulfilling the 11 basic needs. Video games can fulfill them on request. That is why we keep playing. See the diagram below for an overview of what rewards we experience from fulfilling these different needs with the help of video games.
Achievement is the most obvious pay-off of playing games. Beating a boss, leveling up, or creating a new weapon are all obviously “fun” for the sense of achievement they offer. Recognition is the good feeling you get from earning the regard of others. You always have to do something for that though. Either you help others by caring for them or cooperating, or you earn their admiration and respect by achieving something difficult. Lastly, satisfaction is what you feel when you successfully fulfill a basic psychological drive. That may sound abstract, but the idea is that there are some things you need to do no matter what. You feel bad if you do not do them, but you do not necessarily feel good for doing them. Think of dealing with negative emotions and caring for friends. It might not be “fun” to do, but doing it right is definitely satisfying. It is the same with “Optimal Choice”. Your senses give you a heads-up about what the optimal choice is in a given situation. For instance, we are repulsed by the sight and smell of rotten food. Avoiding rotten food does not make us feel good, but not avoiding rotten food would definitely make us feel bad. Basically, satisfaction needs are needs that you fulfill to stop feeling bad. Of course, caring for a friend can make you feel good, but that is not the reason you do it.
Achievement, Recognition and Satisfaction are the rewards we get from gaming. Sometimes we feel it is “fun” to fulfill these needs. Sometimes it is “relaxing” to do so. Yet, within this model I propose that all sense of reward we get from gaming can be led back to a sense of achievement, recognition, and/or satisfaction.
How do we fulfill the 11 basic needs by playing video games?
The justifications and explanations of the different needs are rather much for this introduction article. If you are interested in those, check the dedicated TGM page.
However, to give you a taste of the writing and reasoning on that page, here are the details of the Emotional Regulation need. I would say it is one of the most potent and interesting needs that video games fulfill. Here I also introduce the three types of Emotional Regulation: Escapism, Catharsis, and Experience Simulator.
Emotional Regulation is a large part of the appeal of gaming. The basic idea of emotional regulation is that we all try our best to feel okay. Sometimes feeling okay in the short term will obstruct feeling okay in the long term. On top of that, sometimes we are not sure what to do to feel okay because we have conflicting or unclear desires.
Now, we might feel that emotional regulation is about feeling okay. However, it is reasonable to assume that “feeling okay” is just the reward we get for listening to our emotions. My assumption is that emotions are there to motivate you to do the right thing. For instance, fear makes you run away from threats, love encourages you to invest in a (hopefully) beneficial relationship, and anger fuels your desire to protect your rights. From this perspective, emotions are the instant priority list of survival. Of course they can be far from flawless, but they most often encourage us to move in the right direction before we even realize that there is any such thing as a right direction. I propose that gaming satisfies 3 forms of emotional regulation: Escapism, Catharsis, and Experience Simulator.
Escapism is the act of distracting yourself from your daily problems through entertainment. Gaming can be a powerful experience, demanding all your mental attention. This in turn can make it a powerful tool to help you forget about your problems.
Catharsis is Greek for “the emotional cleansing of the audience and/or characters in a play” (wikipedia). Instead of acting out specific, unaccepted urges you might have, you try to act them out in an abstract way. For instance, you might want to smash something because you are angry or upset. Instead of smashing something in the real world, you turn on your console and wreck havoc in the game world.
Experience Simulator is a term I coined myself to indicate a very unique quality of video games that sets it apart from all other media: Video games can simulate many experiences. Most of us do not get to drive racing cars or to play the hero. Video games are as close as we are going to get. In video games we get to pick an experience we want to step into. This way we can sate our appetite for excitement, exploration, or anything that we feel we lack in daily life.
With time I hope to expand and perfect this model in the hope that it can serve as a tool in understanding everything from how gaming relates to addiction, education, self-image, personality and much more. Hopefully it will form the basis of many new insights into how gaming shapes our lives.