Looking at Player Motivation Models

Paula Neves
Jun 1, 2018 · 12 min read

As an undergraduate in Psychology, a graduate in Marketing and as someone who works in the gaming industry, I’ve always tried to combine what I learned in college with what I do at work. Psychology and marketing are very much alike, going hand in hand, and that’s even more so when it comes to designing games, especially if they’re Free to Play.

In Free to Play games most systems and mechanics are built on psychology (behavioural psychology) and we hear a lot about risk aversion, reciprocity, endowment and the like. But when it comes to planning your next game, I felt as if the industry was missing good game design frameworks that were built on science and psychology. Well, that was until 6 years ago, when I first heard of Scott Rigby and his work at Immersyve, and the guys at Quantic Foundry. A couple of years later I ran into Jason Vandenberghe’s model and talks at GDC and it all started coming together.

This post is intended to explain a little bit of what motivates players into picking up a game and continuing to play it. It’s a combination of psychology models transposed into gaming and its characteristics. It’s meant to educate product people, marketers and game designers on psychology and how they can leverage it to make a game that more people will play. Thankfully, this work is already being done by the people I mentioned earlier, so my sole intention is to try and put it all together and explain it.

Going Beyond Bartle

Richard Bartle, co-creator of MUD and a professor and game researcher, came up with a taxonomy of player types. This taxonomy had players put into certain “boxes” depending on what type of gaming character they had: if they were an achiever, a killer, a socializer or an explorer. You could fall into more than one category as a player, but the truth is that Bartle never intended it to be something universally used by the industry. This was meant to describe players of MUDs.

The simple fact that the industry held onto this taxonomy so avidly was already an early sign that it needed a good game design model built on psychology. That’s where Self Determination Theory comes in.

Self Determination Theory

The Self Determination Theory (SDT) is a psychological theory of human motivation that addresses 3 basic psychological needs.

According to the theory, these needs are innate, are universal to everyone and if met will lead to self-motivation and growth. They are:

  • Competence: Described as the need to experience mastery, to feel successful, effective, feel that you’re growing and learning.
  • Autonomy: Described as the need to feel like you’re in control of your choices and in harmony with them. That you’re free to do whatever you want. In games it translates to choice, customization and agency.
  • Relatedness: Described as the need to be cared for and to care for, to be connected with others, knowing that you belong and you matter.

The theory also makes a clear distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations: The former being caused by external factors, such as being paid to do your job or being led to feel guilty about not doing something. When said guilt — an external factor — motivates you to do that something, that behaviour is not self determined. Intrinsic motivation on the other hand is when one feels inwardly motivated to achieve something in order to satisfy things like autonomy and competence.

For quite some time extrinsic motivation was judged as bad and intrinsic as good, but it isn’t so black and white. It’s almost impossible to have something — like a game — that’ll only motivate people intrinsically. As a game designer you have to try to kindle more intrinsic than extrinsic motivations, but some extrinsic motivations, like giving rewards for completing actions, are unavoidable and not always bad. If you have an external, and therefore extrinsic goal and that is something you identify with, you’ll feel motivated to complete tasks in order to fulfill said goal and that’s a good type of extrinsic motivation (SDT refers to that as Identification).

Self Determination Theory and Video Games

Scott Rigby and the people of Immersyve used SDT as a foundation for their own model: The Player Experience of Need Satisfaction (PENS). They studied over 7500 players and their motivation to keep at a game for a long time and found that the PENS has a strong correlation with what motivates players to not only play a game for months and years on end, but to identify as a _____ player. I’m a DOTA player.

The basic needs as described by SDT can translate into gaming as such:


A game being easy to learn, but difficult to master. First Person Shooters and skill based games like Super Meat Boy are big on competence need satisfaction.

Rigby proposes that in order to satisfy competence, game designers should try to create the optimal level of challenge for the player. Polish psychologist Csikszentmihalyi created the concept of Flow, a psychological state where one would be completely immersed and engaged with a task. According to him, Flow happens when challenges are correctly matched to one’s ability. That is: If the task at hand is too simple, people will get bored and not experience Flow. It it’s too hard, people will get frustrated and also not experience Flow.

That being said, according to Rigby, focusing only on optimal challenge isn’t enough. Game designers should focus on creating a balanced mastery curve (or difficulty curve) for their games. Said curve should be such that challenges presented are slowly more conquerable — because the player is getting better at the game — and that gives him the possibility to express his mastery. So, to Rigby optimal challenge is important but if the player doesn’t get a chance to put forward and express this mastery in action he won’t satisfy his competence need.

Moreover, whenever he expresses his mastery, he must receive clear and immediate feedback of his awesomeness. That dictates the importance of over the top animations and feedback design in the User Experience.


A game giving players choices, customization and agency. RPGs and MMOs are usually big drivers of autonomy need satisfaction, by maximizing the player’s opportunities for action and giving them an entire open world to explore and character sheets to customize.

Choices that are forced upon us, like invisible walls in a game world, feel weird and are demotivating. Scott Rigby states that it isn’t exactly the act of — for instance — customizing your character that will satisfy autonomy, but rather coming back to said character later and having a feeling that “I created this and it’s awesome.” According to PENS, autonomy is particularly important for titles that achieve a perennial value for players, those that are played for years and that defines their players’ identities. In his research he found that FPS titles — that are more commonly known for creating competence need satisfaction — that stand out from their competition are those that also satisfy the need for autonomy.


Having the possibility of social grouping and status feedback systems. MMOs and MOBAs are big on relatedness need satisfaction, because they provide a strong sense of belonging through parties and guilds and you’re always looking after your party and being looked after by them.

Relatedness is commonly thought of as “the social one” and often thought of as pertaining only to multiplayer titles. However, NPCs can be a big driver of relatedness in a game when scripted well, because you will end up having an emotional connection with that character. Whomever played Fallout 4 probably related do Dogmeat, the NPC dog that accompanies you in your travels through the wasteland.

By focusing on the 3 basic psychological needs that the SDT proposes, game developers would be dealing with the psychological experiences that form the building blocks of fun and not on fun itself. This is a better approach, according to the scientists at Immersyve, because fun is “only” the outcome of the experience and therefore an intangible construct.

Lastly, it’s important to emphasize that game mechanics and systems can either promote or thwart the 3 basic needs, if not done properly.

Taste versus Satisfaction

Up to now we’ve touched upon Self Determination Theory and its counterpart and application in gaming, the PENS. This model tries to prove that certain games can satisfy the basic psychological needs, therefore being long lasting for players. But is the reason why a person first picks up a game also related to SDT? Is a gamer’s taste over buying game A versus game B also related to this theory of needs satisfaction?

According to Jason Vandenberghe, game designer at ArenaNET and one of the people who constantly applies psychology frameworks to game design, the answer to this question is no. All the research and playtesting he’s done validated his hypothesis that the motivations behind the act of first buying and playing a game are not the same as behind the act of playing that game for the long run. That is: satisfaction is one thing, but taste is another thing entirely.

We’re guided by our individual tastes when choosing what to begin. We’re guided by universal satisfactions when choosing what to continue.

Therefore, he started applying a different psychological theory as a driver of taste. Instead of trying to determine taste through SDT, he resorted to the Five Factor Model, aka the Big Five personality traits.

The Big Five

The Big Five puts forward five broad dimensions often used to describe the personalities of people. They are:

  • Openness to Experience: If one is inventive and curious or consistent and cautious.
  • Conscientiousness: If one is efficient and organized or easy going and careless.
  • Extraversion: If one is outgoing and energetic or timid and reserved.
  • Agreeableness: If one is friendly and compassionate or challenging and detached.
  • Neuroticism: If one is sensitive and nervous or secure and confident.

The five traits, under the acronym OCEAN, are therefore treated on a spectrum where you can be open or closed to experience, conscientious or unconscientious and so on.

Jason Vandenberghe treated the 5 traits as different gamer types and mapped these different types to videogames and their elements, creating the 5 domains of play. He mapped each OCEAN “gamer” to a game trait as such:

So, a gamer that is big on neuroticism, might enjoy more playing stealthily, because threat makes him nervous.

Taste Maps

In order to apply this reasoning to groups of players, Jason developed Taste Maps, a tool game designers can use to score players in the 4 traits, and therefore finding out their tastes. I mentioned 4 and not 5 traits because Jason didn’t find a lot of correlation in the Threat element and chose to score players only on Novelty, Challenge, Stimulation and Harmony.

He tried to figure out how to transpose them using the scores of the personality tests he applied on his subjects. If a person scored high on imagination (one of Novelty’s facets), it means said person finds more interest in what is in his head rather than what is outside and real. So it was clear to him that these people would prefer games that are big in fantasy rather than realism. In this way he breaks up each of the 4 traits into their facets and transposes those to gaming elements, in 2 spectrums.

Novelty can be scored on a Fantasy/Realism axis together with a Build/Explore axis.

Challenge can be scored on a Skilled/Unskilled axis together with a Work/Not Work axis.

Harmony can be scored on a Coop/Combat axis together with a Mechanics/Context axis.

Stimulation can be scored on a Multiplayer/Solo axis together with a Calm/Thrill axis.

Taste Maps

The gradient of colour in each map is what Jason refers to as investment layers. If someone is really invested in that game trait, they will buy or not buy your game just because of that. For instance, if one is really into thrill and your game is completely on the calm spectrum, they would not buy your game. Whereas people in the middle are not really that invested in the trait so they don’t really care if the game is thrilling or calm.

He also considers population distribution along these axes, saying that the majority of people tend to group around the middle and at the far end of the spectrums, the super invested end, there aren’t as many people.

So in the lighter colour, in the middle of each map, are where 60% of people are, the group that doesn’t really care about that trait. In the next darker shade are the 15% of people that care about that trait and in the darkest shade are the people that care a lot, but those are only 5% of the population distribution.

So, the people on the outer ring are the really passionate gamers. They will really love your game if it does that one thing they really love really well, because they have very strong opinions about it. But they are at just around 5%, there aren’t as many of them. So, according to him, game designers should balance out this distribution in order to get enough people from the middle too. At least some of the game traits should get a good chunk of population from the middle, but also some of the passionate outliers.


We’re guided by our individual tastes when choosing what to begin. We’re guided by universal satisfactions when choosing what to continue.

Therefore, when first trying to find out what type of player will pick up your game, you should find out their tastes and how your game tends to those tastes. Using Jason’s model, that involves scoring your game along the 4 taste maps (and making sure that they match your budget).

But over time the impact of taste satisfaction is going to go down. The longer you play a game the less you care about how well it matches your individual tastes. And that’s when Self Determination Theory and the PENS model come into play. Not only do you want the player to pick up your game, but also to play it for a long time.

When the player puts downs the controller, what will they walk away with? What are the key takeaways and how they satisfy Competence, Autonomy and Relatedness?

These two psychological theories (Big Five + SDT) when transposed into game design frameworks (The 5 Domains of Play + PENS) provide a powerful tool that helps in playtest interpretation, because you will know the tastes of the subjects testing your game. It allows for better communication within the company of what type of game is being made and it’s a stratight forward way to test the game design prior to starting development, in paper prototype stage even.

These models are, however, not exhaustive. Jason Vandenberghe himself mentions that emotions aren’t addressed here. The scientists at Immersyve left emotion such as fun out on purpose and decided to focus on the building blocks of these emotions. Drives, tricks that always work, are also something not included in these frameworks.

In my next post I will apply Jason’s framework to one of my favourite games in order to illustrate how this can be applied in a gaming company about the start developing a new product. I will also explain the taste maps and their facts more thoroughly.

If you liked this post and would like to dive deeper into player motivation and psychology, I recommend these talks, papers and books.


Psychology of Engagement

The Importance of Player Autonomy

Engines of Play

The Gamer Motivation Profile Model

The Freedom Fallacy: Understanding “Player Autonomy” in Game Design


The Player Experience of Need Satisfaction — Richard M. Ryan and C. Scott Rigby

The Motivational Pull of Video Games: A Self-Determination Theory Approach — Richard M. Ryan, C. Scott Rigby, Andrew Przybylski


Flow — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Holds Us Spellbound — Scott Rigby

Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us — Daniel H. Pink

Paula Neves

Written by

Product Manager @ Square Enix

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