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Shoshannah Tekofsky

October 8, 2010

5 Min Read

Ever wondered how you can become so engrossed by those changing lights on a box? I mean, it is definitely cool that the lights change depending on what you do. Still, none of the things you do to the lights will influence reality, except maybe for increasing your energy bill. Unlike movies, game graphics are not even accurate depictions of reality. If you look at it that way, it is amazing that video games are so engrossing and rewarding. So how does it work? What motivates us to play games?

First off, for gaming to be any fun at all for someone, they must be willing to allow something called “suspension of disbelief”. Many people do not, and as a consequence they do indeed see gaming as an absurd pass time where sensible human beings devote hour upon hour to an unreality that looks nothing like real life. When you allow suspension of disbelief then you let yourself be sucked in by the fantasy, instead of criticizing inconsistencies and absurdities innate to gaming. Everyone has a different capacity and willingness to suspend their disbelief. Gamers are notoriously talented at it.

Yet why do they do it? Gaming does not satisfy physical needs as most of us do not play games for food or shelter. Instead it satisfies psychological needs. No one knows exactly what those needs are, but there are some plausible theories out there. Biology might give us a stepping stone toward where the answer might lie. Koepp et al. has found that a high release of a certain neurotransmitter makes people feel very “rewarded”. I’m not sure if that is the same as “happy”, but it is a good feeling nonetheless, and it will make you want to repeat whatever action gave that feeling. The neurotransmitter in question is dopamine, and researchers found that a successful gaming bout puts as much dopamine into your system as a shot of amphetamines. Dopamine fulfills a variety of roles throughout the body, but the most relevant of those is acting as reward and reinforcement for positive actions such as eating and sex.

And gaming.

So why do our brains respond so positively to gaming? We all play games for different reasons. Different researchers recognize different patterns in our motivations. Richard Bartle defined four gamer personalities based on ones playstyle and motivation. He recognized the “Achiever”, “Socializer”, “Explorer” and “Killer”. You can find out which you are here. The motivations for the Achievers and Socializers are clear from the name. The Explorers are novelty-seekers, while the Killers look for competition. This model is appealing in its simplicity but I have not been able to find what psychological model it is based on. Without a psychological model to support it, we are left to wonder if, for instance, novelty-seeking is a basic human need, or why in-game achievements are satisfying at all.

One psychological model that is intuitively appealing to many people is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There are 5 layers and the idea is that the lower down a need is, the more crucial it is to our wellbeing. We will seek to fulfill a lower need before moving on to higher one. Here the hierarchy is shown as a pyramid:

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

It is clear that gaming can hardly satisfy the first two levels. However, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization can all play a role in gaming. Children asked about their motivations to play had widely different answers as you can see here (image is too wide for this blog).

“It’s just fun” and “it’s exciting” beg the question of why they are so fun and exciting. Some answers fit Maslow’s hierarchy, yet others do not. What basic needs are bored gamers fulfilling? And what about the need to escape reality? So-called “escapism” does not seem to be reflected in Maslow’s model yet some of these kids answer that gaming “helps me forget my problems”.

Other research looks at the gaming motivation of a slightly older target group of teenagers. See those results here.

The most popular answer again begs the question: Why is gaming a good way to pass the time? Why is it entertaining? Again escapism is featured with “Get away from everyday life, forget worries”.

Of course, you could simply state “fun” as a basic need in life. This is done in Max-Neef’s theory of Fundamental Human Needs where they recognize 9 needs: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, freedom. Here leisure could be seen as the need for fun and entertainment. Yet, why would we have any such basic need? It has no survival value. It seems much more likely that leisure activities are fun because they either fulfill some purpose that benefits you as a person, or because your brain is fooled into thinking so, like in the case of drugs.

None of the psychological models I could find seemed to explain why video games are so rewarding. On the other hand, Bartle’s gamer types seem to ignore escapism for instance. There is one other prominent gamer typology out there: BrainHex Class. It divides gamers up in seven categories: Seeker, Survivor, Daredevil, Mastermind, Conqueror, Socialiser, and Achiever. Find out which you are here.

The problem with this typology is that it again does not provide for an escapist gamer. Also, a survivor and a daredevil are both have a lot of overlap with one looking for the thrill of a scare while the other looks for the thrill of speed. Most importantly, the model does not relate systematically to human needs.

Both the Bartle Test and the HexBrain Class aim to classify types of gamers based (mostly) on playing style. However, there does not seem to be any coherent psychological model of why we play games. I am trying to think what one should look like. I think I might be on to something here. Stay tuned for my Theory of Gaming Motivation.

Reposted from my blog at Think Feel Play. Check it out now for the Theory of Gaming Motivation.

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