Competence, Autonomy and Connection: Why We Play Video Games.

Firewatch by Campo Santo

If you were to spend more than 20 hours a week doing one particular thing, what would you call it? Most people would say a job. Now what if I say that this is the average amount of time a person spends playing video games? In fact, there are many anecdotes where video game players will often describe their hobby as job, as they also spend an additional 11 hours outside of the game, thinking, communicating and organizing strategies with fellow players.

When I first found this out, I wasn’t actually surprised. I’ve long had an implicit understanding surrounding the attraction to video games, with their offers of adventure and exploration. However, as a psychologist that has spent much time researching how people derive great meaning and life satisfaction from their careers, I begun to wonder: are there significant differences in the psychological motivations behind both work and play? Answering this question could not only reveal some significant insights into the consumers of this multi-billion pound (and growing) industry, but also answer some larger questions surrounding how we all can lead more satisfying and fulfilling lives.

A growing body of scientific research observing the behaviours of video game players has revealed three psychological motivations. These are: the need to feel that you are competent and mastering the game, the need to possess autonomy as you navigate through the virtual world, and the need to build engaging relationships with other players. The theory goes that the more video games satisfy these needs, the more likely they are to play the game and continue grinding — tirelessly pursuing new achievements, levels and character upgrades. What then are the specific game elements that attract players and satisfy these needs?

The Need for Competence

This motivation describes our desire to feel that we are mastering the game and sufficiently progressing through the various challenges that we face in the game world. For example, in Destiny players spend much of their time trying to kill increasingly more difficult aliens in order to earn better gear that will make them stronger and more powerful. Such games are designed to deliver visual cues to notify players of their achievements and give feedback for their performance. Ranked leaderboards, progress bars and earning badges for achieving certain tasks are all elements found within games that span a variety of different genres, but what exactly is it about these game elements that cause players to feel a sense of mastery and completion?

There is a plethora of research showing that setting people “stretch goals”—goals that are difficult but within their ability to achieve— alongside providing specific feedback about how they can improve their performance, are highly motivating. In fact, most job performance appraisals systems are built on this principle. Game designers are able to engage players using this principle by asking them to complete difficult yet manageable challenges or “quests”. Over time, as these quests become more demanding, easier quests are introduced. Together, this creates a cycle of progression as players continually develop their skills and abilities as they work towards completing the more difficult quests, alongside maintaining a sense of confidence as they breeze through easier challenges and objectives.

Another common technique used by designers to maintain motivation is through the use of progress bars. Not only do progress bars give an accurate visualization of the player’s current competence, they in fact yield a powerful influence on a player’s behaviour. For instance, scientific research has shown that players are more likely to return to, and complete, quests when the progress bar only takes a moderate amount of time to complete. This finding indicates our preference for short-term gratification, rather than continually grinding away at seemingly never ending tasks.

Similarly, players are unlikely to leave a quest unfinished when there is a visual cue demonstrating that they have already completed a percentage of it. This is called the “endowed-progress effect”: when people feel that they have already made some progress towards completing a goal, they are more likely to invest the time and effort to do so, relative to those individuals who have the same goal to complete but are missing the initial progress.

This research demonstrates that if you want to satisfy a player’s need for competence, you should not only reward them with new gear and badges for their achievements, but structure the game in a way where they perceive themselves to be continually working towards meaningful challenges that are within their reach. Players will also be motivated to take up these challenges in the first place, if they are given a little ‘nudge’ along the progress bar at the start of their endeavor to master the game.

The Need for Autonomy

Games that satisfy a players need for autonomy are those that empower the player to meaningfully shape the narrative of the game, and allow them to act with volition in their exploration of the virtual world. Research has shown that games which allow players to make decisions surrounding how they want to the play the game, and that also have a demonstrable effect on the story’s narrative, are significantly more satisfying. This is due to a variety of reasons, such as our innate curiosity and deep-seated need for free agency, yet there is one mental phenomenon that is particularly compelling and that is “psychological reactance”. This describes the discomfort felt when we lose opportunities or have to make irreversible decisions.

The award winning game studio, TellTale, evoke psychological reactance through out their Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead games, by not only giving players the freedom to make decisions that have a significant impact on how the story unfolds, but also forces players to choose between two or more difficult decisions within a limited amount of time. As these decisions have a direct impact on the story’s development and the player’s interaction with other characters, psychological reactance occurs as they have to choose what virtual path their character will go down. For instance, trying to decide whether or not to help a fellow survivor in the zombie apocalypse will cause the player to become emotionally involved in the game as they have to agonize over whether they are making the ‘right’ decision or not. Will refusing to help the survivor create future enemies for the player? The only way they can find out is to keep playing. Games that evoke autonomy and free agency act in a similar way as the previously mentioned endowed-progress effect. If a player has already made an emotional connection to the game, their virtual avatar is embodiment of themselves that they are unwilling to forgot about. Thus, they continue to play.

The Need for Social Connection

From Chess to Call of Duty, both real-world and virtual games have always been centred around social interaction and competition. I’ve previously written about the importance of social connection and interaction within our lives, and the same is true for video games: they satisfy our desire to get along with, and get ahead of, others.

We only have to look at popular massively multiplayer online games to see how their ability to satisfy such needs are baked into the mechanics for the game. For example, raids require a large group of players to coordinate their actions and work together in order to defeat a difficult boss fight. Typically, this involves each player fulfilling a specific role in the fight, where failing to do so will cause the whole team to fail. Such cooperative activities lead to players forming strong social bonds as they experience stressful (and hopefully exhilarating) feelings as they work together to achieve inter-dependent goals and beat the game.

When viewed from this perspective, the stereotype of the introverted gamer begins to fall apart. When the mechanics of games are studied it is clear that they offer many opportunities to bond and build relationships with a diverse range of people. There are very few opportunities in the “real world” where an 18-year-old can discuss and plan complex strategies with a 60-year-old living in a different country, yet the virtual worlds offered by video games provide exactly this.

Conversely, most online games have competitive modes where players seek to outperform or defeat other players. Doing so will earn them specific rewards and badges, or place them on leaderboards, both of which convey status. Such ‘competitive’ social needs have developed in recent years with the rise of e-sports and Twitch streaming, providing players with new ways to not only interact with gamer communities but demonstrate their skill and competence, establishing our desire to compete and get ahead of others.

So then what are the implications of this research? Scientific studies testing the effect of these motivations on player’s behaviour, have found that players not only find the game more intrinsically satisfying, but they also have higher levels of psychological wellbeing and are less likely to engage in abnormal or maladaptive game playing behaviours. These findings go against the wrongly held assumption that video games are bad for people’s mental and physical health. What is more interesting, is that the positive effect of these needs is not confined to video games. Much research has found work related activities that evoke these motivations are perceived to be more rewarding and satisfying. This is important given the increasing levels of dissatisfaction felt with our careers and increasing life pressures. If we can try to re-engineer our lives so that they contain activities that enable us to develop competence, autonomy and social connection, perhaps we can all become happier, healthier and more satisfied.

To quote Jane McGonigal, reality is broken but we can fix it through games.