Gamer Motivations: 4 Surprising Findings

Nick Yee
Nick Yee
Jan 8, 2020 · 5 min read
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In the context of rising development cycle costs and higher consumer expectations, ensuring you know what makes your target audience tick and the nuances of gamer motivations will help you maximise your return on investment. From the differences between Chinese and North American gamers to the trade-off between certain motivations in game design, here are four surprising findings from Quantic Foundry’s survey of over 450,000 gamers.

1. Chinese gamers are much more competitive than US gamers

In the U.S., we tend to stereotype Asians as being compliant and striving for social harmony. However, data we gathered with Niko Partners, a market research and consulting firm covering the games markets in Asia, suggests this stereotype doesn’t hold true. We found that the average gamer in China cares more about competition than 75% of U.S. gamers. The higher interest in competition can help explain the popularity of games like PUBG in China. After all, Battle Royale is probably the furthest away you can be from “social harmony”.

Conversely, Chinese gamers care less than U.S. gamers about being immersed in a compelling game world (fantasy), elaborate storylines with numerous characters (story), in-game exploration and experimentation (discovery), and customizing their avatar/town/spaceship (design). This could be a result of educational and cultural factors in China championing STEM over humanities, which as one journalist puts it produces a “weak institutional fostering of creative behavior”.

2. We don’t talk enough about age in the gaming industry

When gamers and game developers talk about demographic differences, it tends to be about gender. However, our data shows that many motivations, such as competition, actually vary more by age. Despite this, comparatively little attention is given to the fact that an entire generation of gamers is now 35+, and the implications that has on game design. Here are some findings that should be taken into consideration when designing your game:

Read more about these and other age-related findings from Quantic Foundry and how to leverage them in game design.

3. Chinese gamers are more homogenous

Extending on the themes addressed in points 1 and 2, we found that age and gender differences in China have less of an impact on gaming motivations compared to U.S. gamers. For instance, while the appeal of competition and excitement drops rapidly with age for North American gamers, in China, the data shows age has a much less influential effect. The table here quantifies the correlation between age and each of the 12 motivations in both countries: none of the correlations in the China data exceed a score of 0.10 (what is considered a small effect in psychology research), while 7 of the motivations exceed 0.10 in the U.S. data.

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Similarly, for Western gamers, our data shows a clear split: men are driven by competition, destruction, and challenge, whereas female games tend to be more driven by design, fantasy, and completion. Like with age, there is minimal gender-based variation within the 12 motivations for Chinese gamers. Game designers for the Chinese market likely have to worry less about appealing to opposing interests among different players. In fact, the only gender-based difference of note is that female gamers are less interested in guns, explosions, and mayhem than male gamers.

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In the U.S., there’s much debate around the cause of contrasting gender proportions in different game titles and genres, specifically as to whether these differences reflect the historical marketing and cultural framing of games or deeply-rooted biological differences between men and women. The data from China suggests it is not the latter, and that even the most significant gender differences in gaming motivations can be largely explained by cultural or marketing factors.

4. Gaming motivations can work against each other

Often, developers looking at our model assume that if they add as many motivations as possible, they can maximize their game’s appeal. However, our data reveals this is not the case. Gaming motivations aren’t additive because sometimes, combining multiple in one game creates a cognitive threshold of what humans find fun. The trade-off between excitement and strategy is one good example of this.

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On the bottom axis of the chart is strategy (measured by analytical complexity) and on the vertical axis is excitement (measured by speed or tempo). As you can see, adding high excitement and high strategy motivations in the same game doesn’t work because there is a point when making complex decisions under time pressure takes the fun out of the game, and exceeds the cognitive threshold of the gamer.

This is an example of the psychological Flow Channel theory, which posits that Flow is the state of mind that keeps us focused on an activity, and is the sweet spot between Boredom and Anxiety. The chart suggests that in games, maintaining Flow requires a trade-off between high excitement and high strategy — an important point to keep in mind when designing your game.

With technology advancing and development costs rising in tandem, now it’s as important as ever for game developers to understand their target audience and how to design for them. These findings, as well as our numerous others, can help set you on the right track.

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