Sunday, March 25, 2012

Why do we play games? Pt 2: Self-Determination Theory

This is the second of the multi-part series reviewing psychological theories of why we enjoy playing games.  By understanding why we play games, we can make better games that fit those motives.  In the first part, we looked at flow theory and, because I'd had an extra cup of coffee that day, a case study of Tetris as an exemplar.

Everyone who's ever written a book about video game design is at least passingly familiar with Flow Theory.  However, there is another predominant theory of motivation called Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 1978, give or take a few years), which is gaining some popularity in game studies. Self-Determination Theory (SDT) proposes that all people have three basic psychological needs. The first is autonomy, the feeling of being in control of one's own actions, as opposed to being controlled or commanded by someone else. Next is competence, the feeling of having ability, growing in skill, and being able to meet challenges. The last is relatedness, the feeling of caring for and being cared for by others. Self-Determination Theory posits that people will find an activity intrinsically motivating (that is, they will do it of their own volition) insofar as it meets these three psychological needs.

Dr. Andrew Przybylski, motivation psychology researcher
A psychologist named Andrew Przybylski has done some promising early research looking to whether games satisfy these psychological needs.  In one study, Przybylski had participants either play a critically well-reviewed game (Ocarina of Time) or a critical flop (A Bug's Life 64).  Players who played the better videogame not only reported enjoying it more, but they also reported greater feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.  In another study, participants played three different videogames, all equally well-reviewed.  Participants turned out to like these games more or less depending on the extent to which they felt that these games met their needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

We can conclude that, to at least some degree, people are playing games to satisfy their psychological needs.  This research raises three questions.  The first is a psychology question:  do people play games for reasons other than to satisfy needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness?  The second is a design question:  How can we make games which best satisfy people's psychological needs?  The third is a personality psychology question:  what is it about a particular person that determines whether a certain game meets or fails to meet their needs?

Personally, I find one of these to be much more autonomy-supportive than the other.

The combination of the last two questions reflect my greatest curiosity and greatest criticisms about today's videogames.  To me, games today seem increasingly linear and simple.  As best I can understand, linear or heavily proscriptive games should stifle player's experience of autonomy.  Consider the notorious criticism of Modern Warfare 3's single-player as an "un-game."  I think that the core of this criticism is that the player feels that MW3 fails to be autonomy-supportive.  When the player wants to do something, s/he isn't allowed to: instead, the player gets pushed out of the way so that s/he doesn't end up interfering with the next scripted event. The player is not free to explore or make decisions for himself - instead, you spend a fair portion of the game behind a "follow" prompt so that you move through the cinematic setpieces in the way the developer wants you to.  Remembering the infamous "No Russian" mission from MW2, the player is forced to participate in a massacre, and the game ends abruptly if the player attempts to do anything but follow orders.  At times, one isn't so much a "player" of Modern Warfare's single-player campaign as one is a member of its audience.

Similarly, while I enjoyed Mass Effect 2 for its competent (although simple) cover-shooter combat, vivid alien species, and pleasant fashions by UnderArmour, I never really felt drawn into the general hoopla about the story.  I enjoyed the game well enough, but I never felt like I was really making my own story.  None of the choices I made really amounted to anything.  No matter what happened, I was destined to always go to the same places, shoot the same guys, and at the end, I'd have an opportunity to say something nice or say something mean.  The non-player characters would react more or less appropriately to what I said, but nothing carried forward into the future, except for which of my co-workers I was plotting to doink.  Sometimes I would make an important-sounding decision - do I brainwash an entire species or let them have their liberty? But the consequences were put off until the sequel, where I doubt they were ever addressed meaningfully.  Either way, I didn't feel like I was particularly autonomous or effective within the story - however, it was exactly this illusion of control that seemed to appeal to millions.  
It felt like the only really important decision I made was whom to romance (Miranda, duh).

On the whole, however, people seem to be pretty fond of Modern Warfare's single-player and other heavily-scripted games like it.  Mass Effect, for its part, is one of the most popular new series around.  What is different between me and the die-hard fans?  Maybe I'm just a cranky old coot who has played too many games and knows too well when I'm being railroaded.  If this is the case, we might expect that the more different games a person plays, or the more time they spend thinking about games like some crusty old nerd, the more "game-literate" they are. Highly "game-literate" players might be less convinced by the illusion of autonomy (or in MW single-player's case, the outright denial of autonomy) and receive poorer need satisfaction.  Alternatively, maybe having played certain exemplars which provided exceptional autonomy (maybe something like Fallout or X-COM or Dungeon Crawl) raises one's expectations & turns somebody into a bit of a snob.  This idea isn't too far out either - I remember seeing a similar idea advanced in a recent psychology symposium on nostalgia and experience, in which the lecturer presented data which suggested that people tend to pooh-pooh experiences in comparison to their best previous experience (ie, after having dined on authentic fresh sushi in Tokyo, the stuff at the local supermarket doesn't cut it anymore).  Finally, it's also possible that we enjoy on-rails "experiences" like Modern Warfare for reasons not covered by Self-Determination Theory.  Maybe it's simply exciting or spectacular, literally being a spectacle, and we find that to be fun or motivating.

I also feel like most big-budget single-player games are not very good about providing opportunities for the player to exercise competence.  When gameplay mechanics are simple, or challenges too easy, there's no thrill in victory.  The player cannot feel triumphant or skilled for winning, because victory was given to him/her on a plate.  Many games also do not seem to have much meat to their mechanics and dynamics.  Rather than being "easy to learn, difficult to master," these games are "easy to learn, easy to master."  By the end of the first stage or two, the player already knows everything necessary to skate to the end of the game.  It's just a matter of time to slog towards the end, usually more to see the conclusion of the story than to test yourself as a player.

This is why I often feel frustrated at the recent emphasis on stories in videogames.  Developers seem to give much more thought and publicity to the paper-thin layer of theme on top of their game, rather than the mechanics and challenge of the game itself.  It seems that every week there's a new video or interview with Ken Levine talking about Bioshock Infinite's characters or political themes or graphical design.  By comparison, we know very little about the mechanics of the gameplay, other than that there will be roller-coaster "Skylines" (a dubious-looking mechanism, given that the player seems to be a sitting duck on these rails).  Blockbuster after blockbuster, it's the same old run-and-gun, just with a new story sprinkled on top.

However, I'm probably in the minority here.  It's possible that stories might be able to provide feelings of competence for some, as players could be experiencing competence vicariously as they role-play a strong character like Bioshock Infinite's Booker DeWitt or Mass Effect's Shepard.  Challenge might not be necessary either.  Many players seem to get feelings of competence just from shooting something or watching those RPG numbers go up, regardless of challenge. Competence is theoretically driven by "setting goals and meeting them," but it's possible that those goals don't have to be particularly challenging to be rewarding.  Maybe it's that challenge makes for bigger variations in feelings of competence, experiencing higher highs and lower lows as we struggle between triumph and frustration.  If this is the case, maybe easy games are blandly comfortable, like a sitcom in its twelfth season, something marginally interesting and relaxing but unlikely to provide a peak experience.  This will appeal to many, but the experienced and daring will want something more challenging.

Yeah, yeah, you're a big man behind that turret, aren't you?

I've done a lot of thinking about what might cause some people to experience feelings of competence while others might not.  The most obvious predictor should be player skill.  When skill is matched perfectly to difficulty, competence is experienced.  When skill is too low for the difficulty, frustration ensues, or when skill is too high relative to the difficulty, the player becomes bored.  It's also possible that feelings of immersion or of actually being the game's hero might cause players to feel more competent - sort of an effect of power fantasy, as we make-believe that we are the powerful hero.  I also think that some people are more or less afraid of losing.  One day, I'd like to do a study to see if there are reliable personality differences in whether people feel like losing is fun or not.  As a fan of competitive games, sports, and roguelikes, I'm very comfortable with losing as often, if not moreso, than I win.  Every defeat teaches us a little something about how we can improve as players.  However, I've seen enough tantrums from players and read enough developer postmortems about frustrated playtesters to know that not everyone is like me.

If there's one thing that games are doing well, it's the capacity for relatedness.  Online games are more robust and popular than ever.  Never has it been easier to play in pairs and in larger groups, both with and against each other.  Developers should keep in mind that it should be easy for players to find and play with their particular friends, however - it's frustrating when you can only play with strangers, or when a game with online multiplayer also fails to allow for local multiplayer. The proliferation of internet discussion forums also seems important - games are more fun when you and your friends can talk about them together!  Relatedness motives might be part of why we seem to have no self-control about buying games.  We need to buy the game a week before it comes out so that we can play it the second it's released for fear that we miss out on discussion or find that the multiplayer community has moved on.
Are people still afraid that Farmville is the new game to beat?  Maybe it's easier to provide feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness than we thought.

In summary, Self-Determination theory suggests that people play games to satisfy their psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and that players will enjoy a particular game to the extent that it provides for those needs.  However, people are probably very different from each other in whether a game will ultimately suit their needs.

There are still many things about games which we enjoy that may not necessarily relate to the satisfaction of Self-Determination Theory needs.  For example, many players seem to enjoy games for their stories, but I'm not so sure how that might provide feelings of need satisfaction.  There also are plenty of wildly popular "no-challenge" games like Farmville, which wouldn't seem to provide feelings of competence or relatedness (spamming your friends with requests for energy isn't exactly quality time together).  I have at least one more theory to write about in a future article which may address some of those things. In the meantime, I have to keep thinking about Przybylski's study and wonder:  why does the same game meet some players' needs and fail to meet other players' needs?

Next time, we'll talk about what developers can do to make games which provide for Self-Determination Theory needs.


  1. That's already covered:
    See "Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound"


    1. Interesting! Fortunately, the library seems to have a copy on e-book - I'll check it out right away.

  2. BTW where is Kira Bailey at?

    Leonard Reinecke


    1. Do you mean "where is Kira Bailey in your articles" or "where is Kira Bailey working?" Her research, at least as far as I know it, is more about the psychological consequences of playing videogames - usually negative consequences, to hear her tell it. I think her data is fascinating, but I disagree with her conclusions. I'll probably write some about her research in a future article.

      As to where she is, she might be working in our lab soon :)

  3. "I also feel like most big-budget single-player games are not very good about providing opportunities for the player to exercise competence."

    Joe, providing opportunities for the player to exercise competence in single player has ceded to the future of multilayer. I feel most people now days simply don't care about how good you are at a single player game, AI can only be so good. Developers realized this, and are not worried about building a relic of the past into their single player games.