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Motivational Concepts in Video Games

What are the different kinds of motivational concepts that some games utilize, which resulted in a younger me playing these games all the time and missing important lessons in school in the process?

Tim Eckert, Blogger

April 8, 2015

9 Min Read


If you are developing games, then you surely loved playing them before you started creating them.
Sadly, when working on games, we can observe that the number of those playing for the sake of fun alone is declining and sometimes people  don't even like playing video games at all.

When I, or my friends, play games there are always some special ones that you spend nearly your whole life playing. 
However, at the same time there are games in your library you didn't played at all. These games do not even have to be bad necessarily. 
I played the second Call of Duty or League of Legends over a ridiculously long time. 
But, I only spent about a week, and some of you will hate me for that, in the nearly endless worlds that are offered by The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
This depends on you as a player and what kind of things you like to see in a game.

So what are the different kinds of motivational concepts that some games utilize, which resulted in a younger me playing these games all the time and missing important lessons in school in the process?

Please note that this article aims at giving a short survey of a selection of motivational concepts, and will only examine the possibilities of motivation through game mechanics and not through narratives. Creating an appealing ‘story experience’ potentially offers an intrinsic kind of motivation, like books do, for example.

Learning Games 

A word that was coined a few years ago and came into common use is ‘gamification’.
The process of gamification sets game mechanics in a context that doesn't relate to games at all. So, the key elements of motivation in games is transferred to e.g. learning games, to convey information to students in a way that generates more fun than more orthodox forms of learning can. 

Try to let people play Assassin's Creed without them drawing connections to real historic events.
Albert Einstein: “Play is the highest form of research”.

Jane McGonigal wrote in Reality is Broken, that we need four elements in the process of rewarding someone, and through it, motivate the individual. 
These include:

  1. satisfying work

  2. perspective of success

  3. socialising

  4. significance

To break this down further, we can assess that you should always want to use people's “natural” desires to get them play your games. These include things like competition, achievement, mastery or even status, experienced in a positive environment. 

What am I doing?!

One day, I downloaded Papers, please! and could not stop playing for several hours.
But why was I so engaged in it? 
The whole point of the game is to check documents and information for their validity. 

For me, it was this concept of working through massive amounts of data and information and getting better at it by the minute!
After several in-game days I had become so fast at picking up stuff and validating it that the fact that my skills were increasing rapidly, and the fact that I also had to make few but sensible moral decisions, kept me going.
The challenge was real and I had to take it.

When your capability of playing a game and understanding its mechanics are the only things that stand between you and the goals the developers set for you, you have got a very competitive game. 
When creating such a game, the act of balancing its different components becomes very important, because the player needs a worthy opponent that will constantly challenge him, even as he gradually masters the game’s elements one after the other.

Everyone likes learning. No wait, it is not the process of learning we love, but the feeling of being smarter now than we were just a few moments ago.

Create your success!

Let’s take Tower Defense games. They take great advantage of different enemy types.
Every time they are introduced, the player needs to adapt to the new challenge.
What does it do? How do I fight it?
The player needs to adapt to it and think of new ways to counter their attacks.
And if this is achieved, the player will feel much smarter when negotiating the next few levels, as the enemy isn't a real threat anymore. The player has developed a solution to the game’s challenges.

In the context of multiplayer games, the other players do that for you. 
You can support the quality of the challenge by writing a fair matchmaking algorithm. 
Examples are games like Counter Strike or Trackmania, where the starting point is the exact same for everyone joining the game. No matter how experienced, the game itself, does not give you an advantage.
The exact opposite of that scenario would be RPGs, where the strive for always better (or more beautiful) elements for your character is the key to success. The game itself constantly rewards you for playing it. You collect level ups or items that help you adapt to the constantly growing difficulty, the game offers.
In addition, every level your character accomplishes, documents your overall status of completing the game.
And while playing, there always will be feedback available which will show your progress.
This is all too often used to cover up rather boring game mechanics.

I tried World of Warcraft one time. In the beginning you get a Quest that sounds something like this: “Catch 100 silver something fishes”.
It took me way too long, to catch these little time eaters.
But instead of “What the hell am I doing here, do you really call this a game?”, I was thinking “Oh just 90 more!”, “Ha! 50 to go.”, because of the constant informations how I was doing. So they caught me, with feedback.
Even if I would have caught other fishes (yeah you don't always get the silver ones) I was rewarded: “Wow, I can sell this one for 2000!”.
This commits a very productive feeling. I am not useless!

Besides progress bars, stats are always great to look at, the more the better. Achievements, are also a motivation keeper for some player types.
They give you some kind of suggestion, what is possible within the game, or show you the challenges you have to master, like in Counter­ Strike:Global Offensive :
Defuse This!:Kill the defuser with an HE grenade.”
Aerial Necrobatics:Kill an airborne enemy while you are also airborne.”

Unless you have such useless (but funny) achievements like The Stanley Parable . 
Go Outside: Do not play the game for five years.“
Or “Commitment: Play The Stanley Parablefor 24 hours during Tuesday.”

Also these long term mechanics, who let you build progress over time, are perfectly adaptable for gamification, and a lot of mobile games use them too.

Stop playing, and go outside!

Do you remember Flappy Bird? All my friends, including me, hated it.
But we were playing it and competing against each other. 
Flappy Bird brought simplicity and thats the reason why so many people played it.
The game has no secrets, after about 5 seconds and without a tutorial, the clear goals of this game are understood and the tools how to achieve them are mastered.
But thats not where my motivation to play came from. I was highly motivated to play because the goal is so easy to understand, and in no way hard to archive. 
How can it be, that I can't beat my highscore of 5? A challenge, that seems so easy soaked me in and made me play to finally beat it.

“All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth.” - Nolan Bushnell

Because of the market situation and other aspects sadly many mobile-gamedesign-approaches go hand in hand with monetisation.That often introduces a new dimension in the way we play a game: waiting time.
Some developers are using a motivational concept, where one of the keys is, to limit you in playing their game. That is usually pretty annoying even if you just started playing and then the game tells you: “You can't play now, wait 10 minutes or ask friends to send you time. Also consider simply paying us to let you play again.”
Also other mechanics, like collecting resources, want you to play in shorter sequences but therefor more regular on your phone.

Most times, you need other things to keep the players interested in the game, even if they are not playing it. Sozial mechanics help out here. Game Elements you can send to your friends, will keep the player busy and he can keep getting level ups. This offers you new customisation functions to show off to your friends.Thats where you try to leverage the strive for social status.

Back in my time, we weren't playing for fun!

Those of you who started gaming years ago, will know that video arcade machines were really hard to beat. One failure and you and your friend hat to start all over.
Yes that may be a “monetisation strategy” but even modern retro games like Faster Than Light (FTL) use “Motivation through Frustration”.
The concept is Failing, Learning, Failing, Learning and Failing again.
This sounds like more than a motivation killer. Important is that the game is fair and will give you feedback on what went wrong.

This feedback should trigger thoughts like “Damn next time I have to shoot these rockets earlier.”. This will gives more perspective on the next try and you get to player more and more until you succeed.
And if the challenge is finally beaten, you will be more than satisfied with your work. Until the next challenge comes along.



“Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun. In other words, with games, learning is the drug.”
- Raph KosterATheory of Fun for Game Design

If you take the these parts from McGonigal: satisfying work, significance and perspective of success you can perfectly adapt it to the quote of Ralph Koster. 
Work is always satisfying if you get better at it and if you gain remarkableness through it.
The process of learning in a positive environment offers a perspective of success to your tasks and because of constant development, new problems fastly open up for results.

A player should always be confronted to the game developers challenges with a toolbox, which can be used to get behind your puzzles.
Your game should be a journey full of thinking of solutions and keeping the player smart. 


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