On player taxonomies and motivations - Part 1: Psychological foundations

This one will be a rather theoretical article, discussing researchers from different disciplines of psychology such as Maslow, Herzberg, Freud, Deci, or Reiss.


In the following post, I will explain the concept of motivation from a psychological point of view, and afterwards see how each of the discussed theses could be applied to games.

This one will be a rather theoretical article, discussing researchers from different disciplines of psychology such as Maslow, Herzberg, Freud, Deci, or Reiss. I want to give special attention here to the concepts of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations, rationality and needs.

I will then separate this post from further ones in which I will write about more widely used applications in the game industry.

I feel the weird need of starting this post with the driest possible introduction: a basic definition of what motivation actually is – and towards the end of the post, you will be able to recognize that this need of mine is of extrinsic, conscious and introjectedly regulated nature.

Early thoughts on human motivation can be found in ancient Greece, where Socrates described hedonism as the motivation through which a person will take (or evade) actions to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. The only situation in which a person will behave in the opposite way is, according to Socrates, one where sufficient information of the action's effects are lacking.

This thoughts result in two core principles that affects any specialization within game design – players will always seek the easiest/most effective way to achieve their goal, and moreover, they can not behave adequately if the required knowledge has not been acquired.

We can therefore describe motivation as any kind of drives to either obtain something we want or evade something we don't. This definition of motivation as experienced desires and aversions highlights the relationship between motivation and emotion. It is generally accepted that emotions are automatic reactions based on subconscious values or beliefs.

Motivation theory implies mapping “content theories”, or needs, with mechanisms used to achieve this needs. Mechanisms can be for example mastery, challenge, attention, or persistence.

Moreover, this relationship of emotions and therefore motivations with values or beliefs is especially exploited in behaviourist conditioning. A research worth to mention, though not directly related, is Ivan Pavlov's conditional reflex or classical conditioning, with which he was able to produce salivation in his dogs by associating the sound of a bell with food.


Rational Motivation

The concept of homo economicus is an idea that describes the human being as fully rational and calculated. However, this model is undermined by recent research, such as the dictator game, a game theory game first introduced by Daniel Kahneman. In the dictator game, one player(the “dictator”)is awarded a sum of money and is given the possibility to give an amount of choice to the other player. Based on the homo economicus theory, the dictator would maximize the own payoff, whereas experiments have shown that the fully rational homo economicus rarely applies and players tend to share the payoff to an equal amount.

The Skinner Box

Burthus Frederic Skinner was probably the most prominent behavioural psychologist. His concept of operant conditioning, using the “skinner box”, is commonly taught at game design schools. As there are enough resources on that subject, I will just summarize the functioning, where rats or pidgeons where put in a box containing a light bulb and a food dispenser. When the light was on the food dispenser was active. As it is the only unknown object in the box, the animal would from time to time inspect it and arbitrarily tip on the button when the light was on. The animal would then establish a relationship between light and food impressively fast.

This model went further with Skinners fixed and variable ratio schedules. Skinner found out that:

  • Variable ratio resulted in the most instances an action took place.

  • Variable ratio resulted in more persistent behaviour.

Examples of a fixed ratio schedule in games can be daily login rewards, experience per monster in an rpg, etc. and examples of a variable ratio schedule can be found in dropchances in an rpg, randomboxes, or in gambling.

For a more detailed overview of ratio schedules I recommend Ben Levis Ewan's 2017 GDC talk.


Back to neuroscience

In neuroscience, motivation is usually seen as a two-sided coin. On one hand, motivational drives can be aimed either towards a positive stimulus or away from a negative one, and on the other hand is divided in two phases: the active “seeking” and the consummatory “liking” phase.

The behaviour a person takes when wanting something is increased through dopamine shots. I will not dive into neuropharmacology here, the only learning we have to take from there in our field is the fact of individuals being willing to try harder, longer, better when exposed to dopamine as a reward – nevertheless, as Ben states his GDC talk, the brain is more complicated than that and even without dopamine production, the feeling of “pleasure” is still produced.

When talking about neuroscience, we need to mention the concept of motivational salience, which can be described as the process that drives behaviour towards a desired outcome – Motivational salience is therefore the element that regulates the intensity (or “effort”) with which an individual persecutes a goal and the risk the individual is willing to take.

Salience is moreover composed of two processes categorized by the nature of the motivation: incentive salience is the process that drives an individual TOWARDS a desired outcome, while aversive salience is the process that drives the individual AWAY from an undesirable outcome.

A rather practical concept in terms of aversive salience is loss aversion.

The theory here is that a loss always feels twice as painful as a an equal gain would feel pleasurable (Kahneman & Tversky, 1983). The usual example for this concept is that the pain of loosing a 5$ bill feels equally intense as the pleasure of finding 15$.

The diagram shows the intensity curve of pain and pleasure when loosing or gaining a value.( image source: Wikipedia)

Indeed I have had the chance to observe this phenomenon in a virtual environment through monopoly. Knowing the theory it was still rather surprising how without exception every player (me included), but especially adolescents who's sense of reason is still developing, are MUCH more likely to accept an inconvenient trade when exposed to the possibility of having to pay a small amount to their competitors.


Motivation can be perceived as an eternal cycle of influence between behaviours, drives and thoughts. Each stage of this cycle is composed of various elements including attitudes, beliefs, intentions, effort, and so on. We will now move on from the physiological to the psychological aspects of motivation.

Motivation in the unconscious mind

Freud argues that unconscious impulses have a major effect on behaviour. When these impulses serve as a motive, the person is only aware of the goal but not the actual source of the motivation.

He divides these impulses into life, death and self-preservation and later introduces the concepts of super-ego(“ideal me”), ego(“actual me”) and id(“subconscious me”). Life(including sexual and survival instinct) and death (the instinct of self-destruction) are opposed, constantly active and therefore constantly in combat against each other. The death instinct is linked to the id, which represents the drive towards experiencing pleasure immediately and regardless of the consequences. The self-preservation instinct is created in the ego, and drives towards self-validation (justifying the id's needs).The subconscious desires are further released to of blocked from the ego by the mental censor, a mechanism that filters subconscious desires the ego (or moral) could not justify.


Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations

Motivation can be divided by reward in two opposing categories, known as intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external).

Intrinsic motivation is driven by internal satisfaction through the task itself, regardless of any reward – it is the pleasure obtained by the process, not the outcome.

Extrinsic motivation is any kind of motivation driven by an external reward, may it be of economic, academic, or of any other nature – it is the pleasure obtained with the outcome, not by the process.

To give an evolutionary example, look at animal play. Cubs usually obtain valuable skills by playing, but they do it for the joy of playing and not the resulted learning (intrinsic motivation). However, when they grow up they apply those skills for hunting, obtaining food and therefore surviving (extrinsic motivation).
Moreover, Deci (1971) found that intrinsic motivation could actually be undermined by extrinsic reward.

Advantages in intrinsic motivators are that they can be longer-lasting, self-sustaining and purely satisfying, whereas they are individual to each user and harder to modify than extrinsic motivators.


Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Abraham H. Maslow was an American psychologist and founder of the discipline of humanistic psychology.

To summarize, Maslow organized human needs in a diagram, where one level needs to be completed before taking pleasure of the next level. Philosophically speaking, I like to see this diagram as the “way to happiness”.

Since this is a commonly used and misused theory, and rather useful in game design, I will leave the topic here and go into more detail in the next posts.

(image source: Wikipedia)


Taking it further

In 1972, Clayton Paul Alderfer further developed Maslow's original theory, dividing needs in three core categories – existence, relatedness and growth.

  • Existence describes the need of basic material requirements (physiological and safety needs).

  • Relatedness concerns maintaining personal relationships and interaction (love/belonging and self-esteem).

  • Growth describes the intrinsic desire of overcoming the own self.

Those need categories are interrelated, and need relationships are described by the so-called dominance principles, or hypothesis:

  • Frustration hypothesis: An unsatisfied need becomes dominant.

  • Frustration-regression hypothesis: If this need can not be satisfied, the hierarchically lower need becomes dominant.

  • Satisfaction-progression hypothesis: By satisfying a need, the hierarchically higher gets activated.

  • Frustration-progression hypothesis: A continuously unsatisfied need can influence in personality development and activate higher needs.

From these initial hypotheses, seven basic statements are made:

  • The less the existence needs are satisfied, the stronger they become.

  • The less the relatedness needs are satisfied, the stronger they become.

  • The less the relatedness needs are satisfied, the stronger the existence needs become.

  • The less the growth needs are satisfied, the stronger the relatedness needs become.

  • The more the existence needs are satisfied, the stronger the relatedness needs become.

  • The more the relatedness needs are satisfied, the stronger the growth needs become.

  • The more the growth needs are satisfied, the stronger they become.

(image source: Wikipedia)

Two-factor theory

Frederick Herzberg's two-factor theory can be seen as a response to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, though aimed at WOP or I/O psychology(1).

Herzberg divided workplace factors in motivators (which lead to satisfaction) and hygiene factors (the presence of which does not lead to satisfaction, but their absence can cause dissatisfaction).

(image source: Pinterest, saved from

Applied to games, and mapped on Maslow's diagram, motivating factors can be achievement(esteem and self-actualization), social recognition (love/belonging), or progression(self-actualization). Some hygiene factors can be usability (physiological), safety (as for PvP protection, difficulty or anti-cheating) or freedom (self-actualization).

When working on game design, we can analyze the needs that different systems cover and find missing motivating and hygiene factors, eventually using them for retention or monetization.



Deci and Ryan (1985) have developed the self-determination theory (SDT). SDT identifies three innate needs that, if satisfied, allow optimal function and growth: competence(the ability of doing something), relatedness(the ability to interact with others), and autonomy(the ability of decision-making).

There are three essential elements to the theory:

  1. Humans are inherently proactive with their potential and mastering their inner forces (such as drive and emotions)

  2. Humans have an inherent tendency towards growth, development and integrated functioning.

  3. Optimal development and actions are inherent but not automatic.

In their thesis, Deci and Ryan distinguish between four types of extrinsic motivation, depending on the level of autonomy:

  1. External regulation: Only determined by external punishment or reward.

  2. Introjected regulation: The individual has internalized regulations but does not fully accept them, due to self-esteem reasons or social acceptability.

  3. Identified regulation: The individual consciously perceives the action as valuable.

  4. Integrated regulation: The action has been aligned to the individual's beliefs and values. However, it is still considered extrinsic as the actual reward does not come from internal enjoyment.

In later posts, I will talk about how this theory was adapted by Richard Ryan and Scott Rigby (1985) to game design with the PENS (player experience of needs satisfaction) model.


    16 Basic desires

    Steven Reiss (2004) proposes a theory of end goals, called the theory of 16 basic desires.

    In this model the basic desires that motivate our actions and define our personalities are:

    • Acceptance: the need for approval

    • Curiosity: the need to learn

    • Eating: the need for food

    • Family: the need to raise children

    • Honor: the need to be loyal to the traditional values of one's clan/ethnic group

    • Idealism: the need for social justice

    • Independence: the need for individuality

    • Order: the need for organized, stable, predictable environments

    • Physical activity: the need for exercise

    • Power: the need for influence of will

    • Romance: the need for sex and for beauty

    • Saving: the need to collect

    • Social contact: the need for friends (peer relationships)

    • Social status: the need for social standing/importance

    • Tranquility: the need to be safe

    • Vengeance: the need to strike back and to compete

    He further developed a scientific test procedure called the Reiss profile that can be used to measure the intensity of the basic desires of an individual.
    The profile is represented by a colored bar chart, going through green over yellow to red indicating how active each desire is in the tested individual.

    As you can see, the 16 desire theory can be perfectly applied to a virtual environment (except for the “eating” and “physical activity” desires, which may only apply in specific cases like a survival game with a hunger system, emulating the eating desire, or a virtual or augmented reality game that delivers physical activity).

    Furthermore, Reiss' model may be applied in psychograms, and could be of special usage when combined with Maslow's and Bartle's diagrams and LeBlanc's taxonomy, about which I will talk in the next post.


    Cognitive load and the Flow theory

    Cognitive load is a concept developed by John Sweller and Fred Paas, and refers to the amount of working memory used on a task.

    Cognitive load can be categorized in intrinsic, extraneous, and germane:

    • Intrinsic load is associated with a specific topic in the mind (the good kind)

    • Extraneous load refers to the way information is provided (the bad kind)

    • Germane load is used to save information in the working memory to the long-term memory (the kind we need to plan some space for)

    I described the concept of cognitive load as an introduction to the actual topic of this paragraph: Flow theory.
    Flow is a concept developed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi which describes a state of mind in which an individual is fully satisfied with an activity – inside our flow zone, we are not too challenged to be overwhelmed, yet not too unchallenged to be bored.

    Csikszentmihalyi describes 8 characteristics of flow:

    1. complete concentration on the task

    2. clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback

    3. transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down of perceived time)

    4. the experience is intrinsically rewarding

    5. effortlessness and ease

    6. there is a balance between challenge and skills

    7. actions and awareness are merged

    8. there is a feeling of control over the task.

    In games, we often have very differing audiences to reach, including very differing initial skills and learning abilities, thus making it impossible to balance a game into the flow zone for all users. As flow is an absolutely non-numeric concept, the only way of finding the sweet spot for your audience is by excessive playtesting, and aiming for the average target user.



    Motivation theory is a crucial element to game design, as without motivation players can not be maintained interested in the game. Even though this was a rather theoretical introduction, all of these theories somehow apply to any game, and therefore it is always useful to have them somewhere in the back of your mind when taking design decisions.


    Further readings

    • B.F. Skinner and C.B. Ferster (1957): Schedules of reinforcement

    • Sigmund Freud (1917): A general introduction to psychoanalysis

    • E. L. Deci (1971): The effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation

    • D. Kahneman and A. Tversky (1983): Choices, values and frames

    • C. P. Alderfer: Existance, relatedness, and growth; Human needs in organizational settings

    • F. I. Herzberg (1959): The motivation to work

    • E. L. Deci and R. Ryan (1985): Self-determination and intrinsic motivation in human behaviour

    • S. Reiss (2004): Multifaceted nature of intrinsic motivation: The theory of 16 basic desires

    • S. Reiss (2008): The normal personality: New way of thinking about people

    • Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (1990): Flow: The psychology of optimal experience

    Further watching


    (1)Work, organizational and personal in Europe, and industrial/organizational psychology in America are essentially the same disciplines by different names.

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