Theory of Gaming Motivation

Purpose: To model the psychological reasons people play video games.

Relevance: To help understand how video games can help us and hurt us. Think of such fields as video game addiction and video games in education.

The Model

There are 11 basic psychological needs that people can fulfill by playing video games. Someone wants to fulfill at least one of these whenever he is motivated to play video games. It is common that people want to fulfill multiple needs at the same time, and that their needs change over time.

The 11 basic needs are gaining knowledge, gaining and improving skills, feeling competent, persevering through hard times, creating tools, managing danger, regulating emotions, competing for rewards, cooperating for rewards, caring for loved ones, and satisfying the senses with pleasant inputs (sights, smells, sounds, etc.). In the model they will each be referred to by their relevant nouns. Only “satisfying the senses with pleasant inputs” is called “Optimal Choice” because that is the purpose of satisfying our senses. They help us make the best choice by making us feel attracted to “good” things and repelled by “bad” things.

We do not always feel the 11 basic needs for what they are. Most often we simply crave the rewards that they offer and intuitively do the right things to fulfill neglected needs. The three types of reward we feel are achievement, recognition and satisfaction. This diagram shows which need offers what reward:

Theory of Gaming Motivation

The Reasoning

The basic assumption in the model is that all healthy people have a number of basic needs that they are motivated to fulfill for their own sakes. These basic needs have evolved as a part of our human nature. As such our most basic, in-born motivations are to fulfill our needs for survival. The three rules of survival of the species are:

  1. You need to survive as an individual as best you can.
  2. You need to procreate with the healthiest mate under the best conditions.
  3. You need to care for children so they have a decent chance of repeating the cycle.

If we now look at video games we can see three major psychological rewards at work.


This 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.


This 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.


This 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. You see this in video games when players are “just killing time”, trying to forget about bad feelings, or are simply enjoying the scenery of the game.

Fun & Relaxation Are Not Needs or Rewards

Achievement, Recognition and Satisfaction are the rewards we get from gaming. Sometimes we feel that 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.

The 11 Basic Needs

Reward: Achievement

Learning is fun. We are not talking about school now. We are talking about the experience of finding out something interesting, exploring an interesting topic or environment. Any puzzle game thrives off the kick we get from learning to deal with the challenges the designers throw at us. At the same time, exploring a new game world is an enjoyable form of learning too. We want to know what is around the next corner. Not convinced? Read more about the fun of learning at “Video Games to Be the New Text Books?”.

Reward: Achievement

Gaining skills is fundamentally different from gaining knowledge. You might know how to do something but still not be able to do it. Think of all the sports games and beat-‘em-ups. You can know the combo or the optimal strategy, but you have to develop the reflexes, hand-eye coordination and razor sharp attention (“Playing for Attention”) to pull it off. We all know what a headshot is, but it still feels so good to actually manage to nail one.

Reward: Achievement

It feels good to be good at something. Games offer the player an opportunity to be a hero or a god in the game world. Also, a well-designed game will show the player how much he has improved over the course of the game. Enemies from the earlier levels fall down at the sight of your mighty avatar. It is part of the reward of grinding levels and items. Once you have those items and levels, you are all-powerful in the game. There might be no challenge, but we love feeling competent. The difference with the “Skills” need above is that a sense of competence does not involve any learning, practice or challenge. It is simply about feeling good about how good you are.

Reward: Achievement

Perseverance refers to not giving up even though things might be tough. Something you earn through sacrifice and willpower will always feel more valuable than something given for free. This is part of the appeal of Hardcore difficulty settings and insanely challenging games. It might be frustrating to grind through levels, but it feels so good to finally get there! You can be proud of yourself.

Reward: Achievement

Many people refer to their creations as their “children”. We feel a sense of pride and ownership over our creations. In gaming this translates into anything from modding levels (strong creation) to customizing characters (weak creation).

Danger Management
Rewards: Achievement & Fulfillment

Recognizing and dealing with danger is crucial to survival. We might not be threatened by wild animals on a daily basis anymore, but speeding cars can be just as deadly. Managing danger successfully can fill us with a sense of achievement. Yet, even when it does not, it is a basic instinct. You will always feel you have done the right thing, combined with some sense of relief. Video games simulate dangerous situations. That is why it feels satisfying to turn the tables on the enemy by circling around their ambush and sniping them off one-by-one.

Rewards: Achievement & Recognition

Winning has to feel good. If it did not, we would have been outcompeted from mates and resources. It is the core principle of “survival of the fittest”. Video games tap into this urge to win by offering two types of competition: Indirect and Direct competition. Indirectly, leader boards proclaim who is the best at a given game challenge. At the same time you can compare gaming achievements with your friends in real life to decide who the best gamer truly is. Directly, you can play matches against online opponents or battle it out with your friends in a split-screen game.

Rewards: Achievement, Recognition & Fulfillment

Cooperation is a complex and basic human need. Humanity has always banded together is tribes, villages, states, etc. The idea of “social capital” is that you have built up such a strong social network, that you can always fall back on friends and family when times get tough. Similarly, we can see romantic relationships as a cooperation as well. A very pleasant cooperation with strong feelings involved, but nevertheless a form of cooperation. Yet not only is cooperation a natural part of our lives, it can also be a source of achievement and recognition. Social status is completely defined by the recognition you get from your peers. Gaining more social status is an achievement in itself.

Yet how does this relate to gaming? Cooperation plays a very prominent role in online gaming. Players bond and get a sense of belonging from joining guilds or finding good online gaming buddies. Also, gamers can bond in real life over the fact that they share a hobby, or they can help each other by teaching each other new techniques.

Rewards: Recognition & Satisfaction

Caring is a basic need, as any parent can tell you. We feel the need to care for someone when we love them or when they trigger our caring response. This caring response comes into action when we look at little children, and feel that they are “cute”. Some video games tap into this by creating character art that makes us want to “care” for our avatar. In real life, you would often gain recognition for caring for someone. A child might hug you, a puppy might lick your face. Some video game characters mimic this by showing “gratitude” in the form of happy faces and frolicking behavior.

Emotional Regulation
Reward: Satisfaction

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 save villages from destruction. 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.

Optimal Choice
Reward: Satisfaction­­

The least obvious human need discussed here might be that for “optimal choice”. It is a catch-all term for appreciation of beauty in all its forms, but without the cultural connotation of “art”. I pose that humans appreciate beauty because it originally indicated health and the “optimal choice” in our natural environments. People that look, smell and sound attractive were healthy mates and partners. Food that smelled and looked good was probably healthy. Environments that looked beautiful and attractive were probably rich in resources. This is how our senses led us to intuitively move toward “good things”. We did not need to “sleep on it”, because we instantly knew what was good or not. Our senses are a sort of quality control mechanism. Nowadays our senses cannot always tell us the truth anymore because we are all adept at fooling them with perfumes, cosmetics and artificial decorations.

Yet we are still drawn to beauty and this need is also satisfied in video games. Quality graphics and audio add a lot to our gaming experience, and can make us come back to a game time and again.

About the Author