G.A.M.E. Games Autonomy Motivation & Education: How autonomy-supportive game design may improve motivation to learn

How to create games that motivate players to engage in learning, physical activity or ideological engagements? Menno Deen, game design[er] researcher explored this question in his PhD thesis G.A.M.E. Games Autonomy Motivation & Education.

G.A.M.E. Games Autonomy Motivation & Education:
How autonomy-supportive game design may improve motivation to learn

How to create games that motivate players to engage in learning, physical activity or ideological engagements? Menno Deen, game design[er] researcher explored this question in his PhD thesis G.A.M.E. Games Autonomy Motivation & Education: How autonomy-supportive game design motivate motivation to learn.

Annoyed with phrase on and remarks on serious game conferences that games would be ‘intrinsically motivated’, Deen started his PhD project to study what motivation meant in terms of learning and gaming. He found that games are not intrinsically motivating, but that games can improve players’ motivation towards learning. In order to explain this proposition, first, Deen needed to explain his perspective on play. Secondly, how he characterized learning. And finally, how he perceived motivation in regard to game design and education.

Play, according to Deen, is more than often characterized by players’ emotional response to the activity. Many scholars depict play as a frivolous, carefree and voluntary experience. Other scholars tend to define play by the artifact from which it emerges. These scholars tend to define play by the ‘game’ where it originates. According to well-cited scholars games are defined as artificial conflicts, based on rules with a quantifiable outcome. Deen found that play was seldom characterized as an activity, as a process.

Deen characterizes play as restructuring process. With this, he qualifies the activity of manipulating, rearranging and changing existing configurations to create something new. A good example is MineCraft. In this playful environment, players literal take away the existing world, rearrange blocks and create new units, building a complete new world with different rules and regulations. This restructuring process appears fundamental to playful activities, which can also be witnessed in learning.

Learning is a process of accumulating knowledge, internalizing content and creating new perspectives and approaches towards/in a specific domain. According to neuropsychologists the brain functions as a semantic network. New knowledge is perceived as a novel actor being added to an existing configuration of actors. In order to fit the new knowledge actor in this network, the network needs to be restructured in order to connect new knowledge to existing knowledge. As such, learning is a process of cognitive restructuring existing semantic networks to create new knowledge.

Deen considers both learning and playing as a restructuring process: the continuous rearrangements and manipulation of existing structures to create something anew. As a result, designers, creating a game with educational purposes, only have to search for the playful activities in the learning content. The ‘playful’ in the learning content is found in the ‘changeable’ or ‘restructureable’ elements in the learning content. If designers can find what players can change in the learning content, without changing the learning content itself, they found their game.

How this is done precisely is well documented in Deen’s PhD thesis. However, integrating the learning into the gameplay is only one part of motivating students to engage in learning activities. The second step is to add motivational features to the learning game. For this, Deen aligned with thoughts brought forward by Self-Determination Theory.

Self-Determination Theory is a perspective on human motivation that originates from cognitive psychology. Scholars in this field of study suggest that highly motivated people are ‘intrinsically motivated’. This means that individuals do not need any other incentive to engage in the activity, because the activity in itself is satisfactory to them. According to the psychologists, people who feel competent, related and autonomous will become intrinsically motivated.

Since schools already satisfy the universal human needs for competence (I can do it!) and relatedness (I do it with people I care about), Deen thought that games could satisfy the needs for autonomy (I do it! Ánd I do it my own way). Especially, because autonomous experiences appear to be an intrinsic quality of play.

Being autonomous, means being self-legislative and self-determined. In means that the ‘locus of causality is internal’. In other words, it means that you know that you did it, and you did in your own way, and for your own reasons. Games can do this. They can give players a sense of agency (mastery and control) on their own actions. This can be accomplished by presenting player with many restructuring possibilities. The more players can change, alter and/or manipulate, the more they may feel autonomous.

In order to validate this hypothesis, Deen compared the motivational impact of two games on students’ motivation towards learning. The games were identical, but differed in autonomy-support. In one game, players could merely change (i.e. restructure) the answer of a mathematical equation. In another game, players were asked to reverse engineer the mathematical challenge by restructuring and possible solution in multiple ways. Deen found that players of the autonomy-supportive game felt less enforce by their environment to engage into learning. The decline in reported external regulated experience towards mathematics learning suggests an improvement in motivation towards learning.

In conclusion, Deen suggests that we cannot longer assume that game always increase motivations to learn. According to him, it all depends on the didactic approach used and a ‘fit’ between learner’s expectations and way of instruction. In his opinion, games could positively influence students’ motivation to engage in learning, especially if they offer an autonomy-supportive learning environment in which players can restructure parts of the learning content without changing the subject and construct their one knowledge.

Find Deen’s dissertation at



Latest Jobs

IO Interactive

Hybrid (Malmö, Sweden)
Gameplay Director (Project Fantasy)

Arizona State University

Los Angeles, CA, USA
Assistant Professor of XR Technologies

IO Interactive

Hybrid (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Animation Tech Programmer

Purdue University

West Lafayette, IN, USA
Assistant Professor in Game Design and Development
More Jobs   


Explore the
Advertise with
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer


Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Advertise with

Game Developer

Engage game professionals and drive sales using an array of Game Developer media solutions to meet your objectives.

Learn More
Follow us


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