A high-score display from a video game arcade. (Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash)

What keeps a gamer interested? Perhaps parents of the video game generation were the first to ask this question, not from curiosity but from concern, while their kids became hypnotized by a screen.

It’s been 47 years since the first home video game console was released (the Magnavox Odyssey) and video games have evolved dramatically since their launch in the consumer market.

In the 1980’s, Nintendo released the NES and for many gamers, it was the first time they had an opportunity to play games at home. The games of that era were simpler, and much the same types of games you’d see in an arcade, featuring gameplay that we don’t find nearly as engaging now. The modern gamer, by comparison, has the opportunity to interface with a richer experience at home — one that offers more than just a shot at the high score.

The “Gamer Motivation Model”

With the growing size of the video game industry, tremendous work is being done to figure out what makes gamers tick.

An interesting model was released in late 2015 by Quantic Foundry. They identified 12 different features in video games that motivate gamers to play. Here’s an overview of the features they listed:

• Action

Motivation toward Destruction, which is exactly what it sounds like — Grand Theft Auto, for example; and Excitement (situations requiring quick reflexes and/or quick thinking).

• Social

Attraction to Competition (hierarchical ranking, like an arcade high score board or tournament play) and Community: chatting, interacting, and groups such as squads or MMORPG guilds.

• Mastery

Thirst for Challenge, which is found in high-difficulty games such as Cuphead and Dark Souls, and Strategy, found in tactical titles like XCOM.

• Achievement

Interest in Completion (gathering and collecting all that the world has to offer; a prime example being Pokémon GO) and Power, which is the build-up of power in the game world, whether it means maximizing stats or equipment.

• Immersion

Love of Fantasy (in-depth elaborate alternate worlds such as Skyrim) and Story (engaging, well-written characters and narratives).

• Creativity

Desire for Discovery — which is the activity of exploring the game world and the things which the player can do — and Design, which is when the game gives the player an empty canvas to create something on. The Sims is a good example of this.

Photo by Caspar Camille Rubin on Unsplash

Examining Games Using The Gamer Motivation Model

While modern games such as Skyrim are sophisticated enough to encapsulate almost every one of these facets of gaming motivation, early games didn’t necessarily have the technology to create such an experience.

To examine this concept, let’s use Quantic Foundry’s Gamer Motivation Model to examine a game most of us are familiar with: Super Mario Bros.

Super Mario Bros.

Primary Features:
Challenge — Some of the difficulty levels are pretty brutal, but because the action is choreographed, you can “learn” the level from practice.
Excitement — The game is fast-paced and rewards quick reflexes.
• Competition — If you play well in single-player mode, you can earn a high score. When playing 2-player-mode, the focus is on outscoring your opponent.

Secondary Features:
Discovery — You may find hidden power-ups or secret routes to later levels.

Features Not Included:
• Destruction
— The physics are very simple; there is no complex destruction.
• Community — 2-player-mode is not a simultaneous experience.
• Strategy — There is no long-term planning in the game.
• Completion — Besides beating the final boss, there are no achievements.
• Power
— Mario doesn’t have power gains beyond eating a mushroom or getting the fire flower: and both of these are frequently gained and lost.
Fantasy & Story — Even though the world is a strange and different place, there’s no explanation for why Goombas exist, how turtles became a violent species, or what led Mario and Luigi to go into the plumbing business.
Design — There is no aspect of this game in which you design anything.

Mario is such a classic video game. If it omits all of these features that are so popular in a modern game, how did it receive so much popularity at the time? I believe there are many factors to this, one of which was the consumer availability of the NES console. But besides permeating the market, Super Mario Bros. also fit the desires of the typical gamer of 1983: that is to say, it met the needs of a young male gamer’s primary motivations.

When Quantic Foundry created their model, they surveyed over 250,000 gamers and discovered some interesting trends; for example, the most common primary motivations for men are Competition and Destruction. Another interesting trend was that for all young gamers, Competition was a top motivation.

The demographics of gaming are starting to change, as we can see in this 2015 Earnest article. One factor, possibly the largest, is that the average gamer is older now, and age appears to have a dramatic impact on the motivations of a gamer: as a gamer gets older, their interest in Competition drops significantly. The second largest factor is that women now account for 48% of gamers, and their top motivations appear to be Completion and Fantasy. Non-binary gamers’ top motivations were Fantasy and Design.

I think it’s safe to say that, if Super Mario Bros. were released in 2019 — even with fresh graphics and music — the game wouldn’t be received nearly as well as it was in its time.

Although comparing Super Mario Bros. to a game like Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is like comparing apples to oranges, let’s take a look at Skyrim to see how Bethesda Game Studios’ modern design has fulfilled the desires of many gamers, both male and female, young and old.

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Primary Features:
Fantasy & Story—This is obviously a main feature of Skyrim. The group of writers who worked on the game created a deeply immersive experience.
• Completion — There are many collectible items and features in the game — houses, equipment sets, etc. There are also hundreds of quests to complete.
• Power — As you play, your character will go from being a no-name prisoner in rags to being one of the most powerful and respected adventurers in the land.
Discovery — The world contains roughly 15 sq. miles of playable land to explore, as well as item crafting combinations, alchemy combinations, libraries worth of readable books, and hundreds of characters to discover.

Secondary Features:
Excitement — Although you can choose to face dangers head-on, it’s possible to play in a stealthy way and avoid or minimize direct conflict.
Challenge — Depending on the difficulty level you choose, the situations you find yourself in might require you to save the game and try multiple times before you succeed.
• Strategy — Many of the skills and combat styles have different effectiveness in different situations. Using this knowledge, you can play more strategically.
Design — You’ll start out with full customization of your character, and as you play, you’ll make small skill improvements that fit your play style. In the mid-game, however, you don’t have as many options about your aesthetic choices.

Features Not Included:
• Competition & Community
—There isn’t really a scoring system in Skyrim, nor is there any way to directly interact with other players.
• Destruction — Some players indulge in creating mayhem and chaos, but it’s a short-lived experience with little purpose, as you either get arrested or end up killing a character that you needed to complete a quest.

The main things I’d like to compare here:

  1. Skyrim tries to involve almost all of the features we’ve talked about in the Gaming Motivation Model. Skyrim was released almost 9 years ago, and to this day continues to provide entertainment. This sets the bar high for many other blockbuster games. Indie games, by comparison, don’t often have the manpower or funds to create an all-in-one experience, and they often find themselves with niche audiences.
  2. Although Competition is one of the main motivations for youth gamers and for male gamers, it is not a feature of Skyrim. Remember the article about the trends that Quantic Foundry discovered? Here is a relevant quote mentioning Pokémon GO, but the same applies for Skyrim:

Whether we’re comparing gender or age segments, Completion is always in the top 3 [motivations]. In this sense, Completion is a very low-risk, high-reward motivation. It helps explain why games that emphasize Completion, such as Pokémon GO, can be so broadly appealing across different demographic segments, especially when these games also steer away from motivations that are more volatile and polarizing, such as Competition.

It’s a sign of the times that a game like Skyrim has experienced so much success — it’s a sign of a major demographic shift in gaming. I’d like to theorize that it might be a motivational shift in gamers as well. It may be that games like Skyrim, which offer a multitude of non-violent motivations alongside the typical medieval combat, are teaching their generation of gamers that there’s more to be had from playtime than violence and competition.

It all comes down to a very general principle in any design field: know your audience. Understanding why design motivates your audience will guide your process, providing much clearer goals and standards for what you’d like to create. And when you connect with your audience on a deep level like that, they’ll reward you with loyalty, word-of-mouth advertising, and relevance.

I took the Gamer Motivation Profile at Quantic Foundry’s site, and here are my results.

What are your results? Do you feel that this is a meaningful way to analyze gaming? Did I accurately represent Super Mario Bros. and Skyrim? Are there any types of motivation that you can think of that weren’t included in their model?

Let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

Austin R. Scott

Polymath Writer Extraordinaire. Expert in all things tech, gaming, sci-fi, and fantasy. Logical and thorough, but adventurous and creative.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store