A Quick Breakdown of Self-Determination Theory

I was extremely interested in Self-Determination Theory (SDT), as a whole because of the way video games have impacted my own life. This was done with a few classmates and we really got into it.

Self-Determination Theory

By Marlon Morrow, Travis Meador, and Sarah Baumann


The Two Different Types of Motivation

Extrinsic Motivation: Someone will do a task mainly because there is a reward involved with doing it.

Intrinsic Motivation: Someone that will do a task willingly out of pure enjoyment of doing the task.

What is Self-Determination Theory?

The Self-Determination Theory (SDT) was developed by clinical psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan. The theory itself revolves around motivation, breaking down what drives people to act a certain way or their willingness to perform a given task. The SDT works to address three common, intrinsic needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. According to the SDT, if these needs are met, then people will develop optimally and inherent their potential.

The Psychological Needs

The three natural needs that must be fulfilled in order to reach a person’s potential are:

- Competence: The ability to control outcomes and experience mastery of a task or skill
-Autonomy: Independence from conflicting control or influence; the urge to be in control of life (or play-scape) and act accordingly
-Relatedness: The desire to interact and connect with others in a caring way

Self-Determination Theory in Gaming

The Self-Determination Theory becomes relevant in gaming by allowing game designers to investigate the motivation for play and attune their games to best represent those elements and keep players engaged for an extended amount of time. In-game perceptions of competence, autonomy, and relatedness help shape player enjoyment, preferences, and even overall wellness compared to before interacting with a game.

During early stages of development, the SDT can help predict if or how players will be motivated to complete goals before more time and money are invested into a project. Doing so allows game designers to know what elements or quests to focus on and what to cut. Additionally, game designers can mold or change key components of their game in order to meet a certain level of player competence and autonomy. Examples of some elements that may be changed to aid a game in such a way include:

Making the game controls feel more natural. This can be accomplished by following a standard or agreed upon layout for a genre of games  (Trigger buttons always shoot, the shift key is used to sprint). Additionally, interface and menus may also play a role depending on if the menus are easy to navigate or not.

Immersion: A game can have better immersion by decreasing the size or amount of  distracting UI elements (mini maps, quest logs, quest arrows, button prompts). Game breaking or distracting glitches may also need to be fixed into to keep players immersed.

Autonomy Within Gaming

Autonomy is tied closely to a player’s willingness to complete a task. Goals that can be accomplished for the sake of personal interest or value will often give off a high sense of autonomy. Participation in play of video games is voluntary outside of a few exceptions such as play-testing. Because voluntary action is involved, player autonomy is usually high when they begin play since the can disengage from the activity at any time.

Although  player’s sense of autonomy may already be high by voluntarily playing a game, game designers can enhance components of their game to maintain that sense of willingness to play. Game designers can focus on providing a sense of autonomy through:

-Presenting the player with choices
-Rewards as feedback or encouragement
-Non-controlling instructions

Note: Placing the player in a situation where they feel controlled in following through with a challenge or how they approach it diminishes motivation.

Competence Within Gaming

Competence as it relates to SDT and gaming is the need for challenge and progression in effectiveness. During play, a player must feel like the goals they are attempting to reach are obtainable either through progression systems or practice. Game designers can focus on providing competence for players by providing:

-Opportunities to unlock new abilities (Skill Trees)
-Challenging or bonus objectives
-Controls and/or combos that can be mastered

Relatedness Within Gaming

Other than predicting motivation and persistence, SDT can also address factors related to the enhancement of well-being. Relatedness represents a psychological need that enhances motivation and well-being. This is experienced when a person feels connected with others.

For example, in this day and age it is common to find relatedness through “computer generated” personalities and artificial intelligence. Within today’s gaming world you will find that most people find relatedness through MMO and other multiplayer games because of the interactions with real players.

Mini-Theories of SDT

Mini-Theories of SDT mini-theory of SDT is the cognitive evaluation theory (CET). The CET evaluates the contributing factors of motivation both in how they support or derail motivation. Conditions that promote autonomy and competence support intrinsic motivation and the opposite can also be true. A diminished sense of autonomy and competence decreases intrinsic motivation.

Another mini-theory of SDT is the basic psychological need theory. This theory specifies that the impact of any activity on well-being is a function of the person’s experience of need satisfaction.

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