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Self-determination theory at GDC

Self-determination theory, one of the most well-studied theories of motivation in psychological science, is becoming increasingly applied in the game development industry--at least, if the number of shout-outs it received at GDC is any indication.

From Motivate. Play.


In a previous article, I argued that theories of motivation that include a diverse range of motivators might be more useful to game designers than parsimonious theories that pick out a small handful of motivators as primary. Apparently, I have much to learn about what game designers find useful. In the very first talk I attended at GDC, Noah Falstein (7th employee at what was then LucasFilm Games) described self-determination theory as a “revelation” that changed his approach to game design, and Troy Skinner of WB Games described several ways in which WB leverages a deep understanding of this framework to create games that appeal to a wide range of demographics. In addition to distinguishing between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, self-determination theory–one of the most well-studied theories of motivation in psychological science–asserts that there are three key components to intrinsic motivation, as follows:

  • Need for a feeling of competence: This lines up roughly with our everyday definition of the word, but in the context of self-determination theory is construed more broadly as our perceptions of our “capacity to interact effectively with the environment” [1]. Scott Rigby, author of Glued to Games, describes it as “a fundamental need that we have to feel effective and successful moment-to-moment, and also to feel like we’re growing over time.” Relevant mechanics include positive feedback related to a player’s skill level and indicators of forward progress.
  • Need for a feeling of relatedness: Formally defined as a “desire for interpersonal attachments” [2], relatedness includes the desire for interaction and connection with others–to feel that one matters to others, and that others matter to you. Nearly all social features of games appeal to this need, particularly games played in teams. However, it can be present even in single-player games played alone, as we can feel a degree of relatedness even to fictional characters.
  • Need for a feeling of autonomy: Although the everyday definition of the term implies freedom and a desire to be independent of others, in this context the term really refers to the feeling that you are acting volitionally. A game that affords a high level of autonomy is one in which players feel that they can do what they want to do in the game, and are offered meaningful choices.

It’s important to note that the key is the player’s perceptions of competence, relatedness, and autonomy. It’s okay if the player doesn’t truly achieve mastery over the game as a whole–early positive feedback on those aspects of the game at which a player is doing well (even if there aren’t many of them) can go a long way. Similarly, self-determination theory predicts that the ability to make meaningful choices and to feel that one’s actions are volitional and self-directed–even if the game is in fact nudging them in a certain direction, or constraining their options fairly rigidly–is one of the most important facets of motivation.

Even for studios with sophisticated analytics, some speakers argued that reams of data about player behavior make a robust understanding of the psychology of motivation more important, not less. “Sure, you can do your best to infer what’s happening, and say, ‘well, I notice all of the players are over here in the magical forest of Narth, and that’s awesome, so we now understand the player experience,’” said Rigby. “You don’t… Why do they like it? What’s going on? What’s the experience they’re having? What are the different columns of experience? How can we be measuring those? And having that forward to create the next set of content–that’s the great opportunity of being able to get into applied psychological models. Big data alone doesn’t open up that black box.”

[1] White, R. W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: the concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66, 297-333.
[2] Baumeister, R., & Leary,M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497–529.

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