16 min read
Featured Blog

Player motivation, part 2: Popular psychological models

As previously we discussed, process of writing/reading memory is really complex and involve hormones and neurotransmitters a lot. In this article I will give some examples on existing motivational models and their applications.

Instead of intro

Hello my name is Andrii Goncharuk, but you can call me Andy, I'm a game designer working in Ubisoft, and to be honest... I’m lost right now...

From part one we established a lot of things and found out how our memory and emotions works, but why? What it gives?

---   *disclaimer*   ---

As previously we discussed in part 1, process of writing/reading memory is really complex and involve emotions (hormones and neurotransmitters) a lot. Here in this article I will give some examples on existing motivational models and some simple examples on how they can be applied in game design process. Also in bonus there is points that was not included to part 1 since it already was big enough.

---   *end of disclaimer*   ---

Where we are now?

In Part 1 we established how our memory works and how emotions are interconnected with it and with process of gaining them(learning). We prove that some psychological models are working and explained how they work.

You may ask, why we spend whole part just questioning psychology?

I would say, there is a superpower that we all possess, the power of doubt. And managers and especially top-managers are one of the strongest doubt heroes

Also as a small addition  journal Science recently published a study “Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science”(link can be found in references).

In short, article explains that fewer than half of 100 psychological studies published in 2008 in three top psychology journals could be replicated successfully that decrease credibility of psychology a little bit…

Self determination theory

From a previous part you may already know about self determination theory. Let’s dive a little bit deeper to it’s application in real world. SDT core idea that human being have 3 basic psychological that are in same line with hunger, thirst and other necessary needs for just being alive.

Autonomy - Need to be causal agent of one’s own life and act in harmony with one’s integrated self.

Low autonomy:

Mass Effect 3 ending is a great example of taking away autonomy from player, because in the end all their choices matter nothing. That’s why it was taken with such distress. But for some people who have a lot of autonomy in their life that could be not a big issue because they had a great story and pleasant experience.

High autonomy:

On the other hand Minecraft is a great example of a game that gives and reinforce autonomy in it’s core, you can do whatever you want you can go whenever you want. But for some people who have a lot of autonomy this game can be not interesting cause autonomy is not something that they seek.

Competence - Need to control the outcome of one’s actions and experience process of mastering any of one’s skills.

Low competence:

Hearthstone is example of a game where luck plays a big role, but more extreme example will be a slot machine working on real randomness. Slot machine is example of a game with a low competence. In general random elements that cannot be controlled by player are reason that suppress competence. But if player already have source of competence in their life they may seek for games that give feeling of random reward or have elements that controlled by pure chance.

High competence:

If there is methods and techniques that can increase or guarantee success in game it is an example of a game with high competence, for example chess. If player doesn't have enough competence refilled in real life they may seek for games or activities that have predictable outcomes and can be mastered, DJ Hero is a good example, since every time you will have same pattern and you simply need to master it, another example is Dark Souls where everything is scripted, and can be mastered also, to a some extend.

Relatedness - Universal need to interact with, be connected to someone/something, and experience caring for others or care from others.

Low relatedness:

Tetris or No Man’s Sky or any game that don’t have a relatable characters or anything that player can tie up himself are example of low relatedness. You may argue about example of No Man’s Sky and you will be partially correct, on paper it should have high relatedness levels through mean of being able to name your own planet and species, but because there are so many of them and all of them are generated, they stop matter to a player.

High relatedness:

Any standard MMO games or any games with relatable and believable characters and especially a co-op games where bond between players even stronger since they need to solve problem together are source of high relatedness. Even solo game streamed through twitch can give relatedness. But people who have a lot of relatedness may seek for solitude, solo games can be an answer.

Suppression quota - autonomy, relatedness and competence can be suppressed in your game during certain timeframes to a certain extent people can be flexible, it depends on each person individually, but there generic minimum and maximums can be found through testing beforehand, that can help you to outline boundaries that must not be broken.

Self determination theory is not the only one model that exist, there is many more others that can be applied to our industry.

Five more motivational models


Hertzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

The Two-Factor Theory of motivation developed by psychologist Frederick Herzberg in the 1950s.

Analysing the responses of 200 accountants and engineers who were asked about their positive and negative feelings about their work, Herzberg found 2 factors that influence employee motivation and satisfaction…

  1. Motivators – enjoying your work, feeling recognised and have career progression.

  2. De-Motivators – weak reward, strict rules, low benefits, stress.

Two factors appeared to work completely independently of each other.

While motivator factors increased satisfaction and motivation, the absence of these factors didn’t necessarily cause dissatisfaction.

Likewise, the lack of de-motivator factors didn’t appear to increase satisfaction and motivation but if they existed, that caused an increase in dissatisfaction.


How to apply it in game design

This theory implies that for the happiest players, you need to work on both factors.

To help motivate players, make sure they feel appreciated and supported. Give plenty of feedback and make sure your players understand how they can grow and progress through the gameplay.

To prevent dissatisfaction, make sure that players feel that they are treated right by offering them the best possible UX and fair reward. Make sure you pay attention to your players and form supportive relationships with them.


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The Hierarchy of Needs theory was established by Abraham Maslow in his 1943.

Core of the theory is that individuals most basic needs must be met before they become motivated to achieve higher level needs.

The hierarchy has 5 levels:

1. Physiological – needs to survive, such as food, water and shelter.

2. Safety – personal and financial security, health and wellbeing.

3. Love/belonging – the need for friendships, relationships and family.

4. Esteem – the need to feel confident and be respected by others.

5. Self-actualisation – the desire to achieve everything you possibly can dream of.

According to the hierarchy of needs, you must be in good health, safe and secure with meaningful relationships and confidence before you are able to have dreams.


How to apply it in game design

If you targeting your game to a certain audience, consider on what stage most of them are of this hierarchy and offer them gameplay that will resemble not what they desire in real world(next stage) and not what they have already(current stage) but stages they already passed, because this is what they familiar with and can easily relate and associate with.


Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect was first described by Henry A. Landsberger in 1950 who noticed a tendency for some people to work harder and perform better when they were being observed by someone important or someone whom they considered important.

The Hawthorne Effect is named after a series of social experiments on the influence of physical conditions on productivity at Western Electric’s factory at Hawthorne, Chicago in the 1920s and 30s.

The researchers changed a number of physical conditions over the course of the experiments including lighting, working hours and breaks. In all cases, employee productivity increased when a change was made. The researchers concluded that employees became motivated to work harder as a response to the attention being paid to them, rather than the actual physical changes themselves.


How to apply it in game design

The Hawthorne Effect studies suggest that players will be more motivated to be good at game if they know they’re being observed. While I don’t recommend force stream players gameplay to generated twitch channel, you could try giving an opportunity to share their results with others or include twitch integration to your product.


Expectancy Theory

Expectancy Theory proposes that people will choose how to behave depending on the outcomes they expect as a result of their behaviour. In other words, we decide what to do based on what we expect the outcome to be.

However, Expectancy Theory also suggests that the process by which we decide our behaviours is also influenced by how likely we perceive those rewards to be.

Expectancy Theory is based on three elements:

1. Expectancy – the belief that your effort will result in your desired goal. This is based on your past experience, your self confidence and how difficult you think the goal is to achieve.

2. Instrumentality – the belief that you will receive a reward if you meet performance expectations.

3. Valence – the value you place on the reward that you plan to get.

Therefore, according to Expectancy Theory, people are most motivated if they believe that they will receive a desired reward if they hit an achievable target.

They are least motivated if they don’t want the reward or they don’t believe that their efforts will result in the reward. Or they don't know what to do to achieve it.


How to apply it in game design

Give meaningful rewards that increase quality of players experience and give satisfaction. Show them how it can be achieved and through what means. Show examples and make it believable to achieve.


Bernard Weiner’s

Three-Dimensional Theory of Attribution

Attribution Theory explains how we attach meaning to our own, and other people’s, behaviour.

Bernard Weiner’s Three-Dimensional theory of attribution assumes that people try to determine why we do what we do. According to Weiner, the reasons we attribute to our behaviour can influence how we behave in the future.

Example: student who fails an exam could attribute their failure to a number of factors and it’s this attribution that will affect their motivation in the future.

Weiner theorised that specific attributions (e.g. bad luck, not studying hard enough) were less important than the characteristics of that attribution. According to Weiner, there are three main characteristics of attributions that can affect future motivation.

1. Stability – how stable is the attribution? For example, if the student believes they failed the exam because they weren’t smart enough, this is a stable factor.

According to Weiner, stable attributions for successful achievements, such as passing exams, can lead to positive expectations, and thus higher motivation.

However, in negative situations, such as failing the exam, stable attributions can lead to lower expectations in the future.

2. Locus of control – was the event caused by an internal or an external factor?

Example: student believes it’s their own fault they failed the exam, because they are innately not smart enough (an internal cause), they may be less motivated in the future. If they believed an external factor was to blame, such as poor teaching, they may not experience such a drop in motivation.

3. Controllability – how controllable was the situation? If an individual believes they could have performed better, they may be less motivated to try again in the future than someone who believes they failed because of factors outside of their control.

How to apply it in game design

Make sure player have stable outcomes of important mechanics even if it’s intended to be unstable and work by pure chance, fake chance or at least make it work closer to Monte Carlo fallacy.

Reasons and core parameters of players failures needs to be always be adjustable to a certain point that will make chance of a failure lower or impossible. What is most important you need to explain to player how this parameters can be adjusted.

Give player tools to adjust needed parameters or at least explain why certain parameters are not giving expected results all the time. If you have broken matchmaking system, simply add “Beta” to it and it will solve the issue...

So what’s now?

All this is look like common sense and obvious things, but as we know from Part 1 on how our memory works, repetition do works. Even if some things were obvious, there were always a small details that added up to a full picture. With all this new details, new opportunities and perspectives rise on how to apply existing models or at least how to check them and to what extend they can be trusted.

There is always place for doubt, there is always a place for unique cases, but at least it can give a right direction.


  • It’s hard convince people to trust theories, facts are more important!

  • Self determination theory is commonly used in big companies as direction

  • There is more motivational models than you can think!

  • Sometimes models contradict each others but most of them just common sense

  • Common sense are rare and uncommon in modern world...

Bonus level

Bloopers and outtakes from part 1

Since we now know how experience and emotions are tied up, we can assume that there is no clear audience simply because every ones experience is unique by default. But there is statistical similarities, and patterns like:


Cultural background

Since we know how connections with symbols and emotions work in one brain, we can assume that it works almost in same way on bigger scale, on cultural level. Each culture are different that’s not a new knowledge, and they have different values and symbols.

Values - each culture because of buch of parameters have different values, simplest and plainest examples could be value of water for desert cultures and island cultures, they both value it but in different terms, and mainland cultures who rely on water resources like rivers and lakes have completely different approach to water.

Symbols - symbols and signs in different cultures have different meanings and most of the time when product is oriented for multicultural audience the only thing that must be avoided is offensive symbols.

Cultural differences lead to different emotional reactions to certain objects and themes, for some cultures sword and shield means offense for other defense. During development process some symbols and values that can be offensive should be avoided not because it’s will upset someone, but simply because it will connect your project tied up with unpleasant personal experience for some players.


Special case: internet culture

Current world situation is great example of new culture that are being raised now, people who spend more time in internet have blurred lines of their own cultural background and other people ones. We can't predict how this will affect game design decisions made for future games, developed by people who are part of this common internet culture more than their own.

Imaginary director commentary:

-What that nonsense is? It’s too broad and unusable! It cannot be explained that simple, there is too many parameters and interconnections! This cannot be included into well structured document! Cut it out!



Nostalgia is a all best that you remember about subject without any bad things(because they simply usually erased because they don’t have positive feedback from neurotransmitter system). Nostalgia can be used to your advantage you just have to remake all the good things from the subject and fix all the bad things that were there but not anymore in one's memory.

If you will release SAME game people will get worse experience simply because it’s incomparable to their memories, this is why we won’t see any Half-life 3 soon…

Check out Doom and Wolfenstein, this is how use nostalgia to your advantage correctly, or Hearthstone as example on how to reuse well beloved lore of your previous projects.

Imaginary director commentary:

-This is too much out of context! This is not proving any psychological models, it’s simply an interesting fact, it cannot be included into part 1 there is already too many information!


One more turn in Civilization

From my personal observation: people don't like to leave unfinished processes and problems, when problem arise certain part of brain holds information of this problem. It stays there for a certain amount of time and not solving this problem cause unpleasant feeling, this is why people don't like leaving things undone.

And this is why it’s hard to leave Civilization unfinished! Because if it's not finished there is many problems that in progress waiting to be solved, and leaving them unsolved cause pain. And with civilization when you solve one problem another appear and so on and so on. This is also used in WoW, with a quest system, when they chained up one after another. This is why distribution of quests and tasks needs to be done right, not like in Andromeda...

One of the problem of Mass Effect Andromeda that after 2 hour of gameplay, quest log looks like a christmas tree filled with glowing Unsolved markers, when there is TOO many problems to solve, and easiest and more preferable option for our brain to solve it, ignoring it, this is why I wasn't able to progress much in Andromeda, just too many things to do at one time….


Imaginary director commentary:

-Civilization? In brain and neurobiology topic about memory and experience? Really? Completely out of context and sidetracking! Also! Don't say bad things about other games! There is audience for everyone, and if you didn't like something doesn't mean it’s done wrong, it’s just you are not having fun, it’s you problem!


Adam Ruins Everything - Why People Think Video Games Are Just for Boys

Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science

How to Research Your next Game’s Target Audience for Free

Targeting Your Audience: 3 Important Tips for Designing Games

Your target audience doesn’t exist

Cultural Influences on Marketing Strategies

5 Psychological Theories of Motivation to Increase Productivity

Latest Jobs


Playa Vista, California
Audio Engineer

Digital Extremes

London, Ontario, Canada
Communications Director

High Moon Studios

Carlsbad, California
Senior Producer

Build a Rocket Boy Games

Edinburgh, Scotland
Lead UI Programmer
More Jobs   


Register for a
Subscribe to
Follow us

Game Developer Account

Game Developer Newsletter


Register for a

Game Developer Account

Gain full access to resources (events, white paper, webinars, reports, etc)
Single sign-on to all Informa products

Subscribe to

Game Developer Newsletter

Get daily Game Developer top stories every morning straight into your inbox

Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more