A psychologist's thoughts on how and why we play games

Friday, March 9, 2012

Why do we play games? A psych review, part 1

This is going to be the first of a multiple-part series in which I write about some of the research questions I have about video games and psychology, talking about video games from the perspective of major psychological theories.

What motivates people to play video games? Clearly, people enjoy playing videogames - some people play for forty hours or more a week, making video games almost a second job. Unlike a job, however, people are not paid to play videogames, so we generally understand video game play to be intrinsically motivated - that is, motivated by the enjoyment of doing the activity, rather than extrinsically motivated, engaged in for the sake of earning rewards like money or social prestige.

It seems only natural that the more we're motivated to play a game, the more we enjoy it.  Motivation to play a game isn't the same for everyone, either.  For any one game, some people might love it and some people might not, suggesting that motivation comes from an interaction of the game's features and the player's personality.  So, given that people tend to have different opinions of the same game, we should expect that people are looking for different things when they play games.  To understand what and why we enjoy in video games, we could look to psychology.  Additionally, there might be things about video games that we find motivating that existing theories do not yet account for.

One of the predominant and most frequently-cited theories of enjoyment is Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Theory (1991). Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheek-sent-me-high-ee) identifies the "flow state" as being an enjoyable psychological state experienced when a highly skilled person engages in a highly challenging activity, being completely absorbed by that activity.  Flow is described as coming from a number of factors:

1) balance between the ability of the person and the challenge of the task (often called "optimal challenge")
2) concentration and focus on the activity
3) clear and direct feedback of success or failure
4) clear goals for the activity
5) control over the activity
6) the activity is intrinsically motivated
7) loss of self-conciousness or self-awareness
8) distorted sense of time (ie an action seems to take place in slow motion, or hours pass in a moment)

When I think Csikszentmihalyi, I think "challenge", 
mostly because it's so hard to spell his name right.

It should be noted that even when we don't necessarily attain complete flow, the result is still pleasant, and certainly better than being bored.  Flow isn't necessarily an all or nothing proposition.

From this we can see some very basic design principles: the player should have effective and precise controls, the player should be able to tell what the heck is going on, the player should be neither bored by too little challenge nor frustrated by excessive challenge.  A good game should be attention-grabbing and have a clear goal - although a player could also take a non-game software like Minecraft or SimCity and make his/her own goals.

There still seems to be a lot that people like about video games that can't be explained by Flow Theory alone.  For example, there wouldn't seem to be anything about a story that provides flow, but people still enjoy those, in movies, books, and in video games.  What, then, motivates people to read or participate in stories?  Flow Theory can't seem to account for a good book.

Also, there seem to be some gamers that have no patience at all for a challenge.  I wonder about these people - they set their video games to the easiest difficulty & just plow through them to their inevitable victory.  My guess is that everybody really does want a challenge, but maybe some people just need very tiny challenges.  Some people might be more or less resilient in the face of failure, too - for some players, failing twice might be enough to break the controller in half.  It's also possible that these players might have more fun if they allowed themselves to lose once in a while, but they're too high-strung or impatient to savor a challenge or enjoy losing.

 Can you have fun without a challenge? Maybe you'd just have more fun with one?  
I also don't know how well we understand the other sections, like "relaxation" or "apathy".

Going back to the example of Minecraft, no project seems more "challenging" than any other (with the exception of intricate redstone programming).  Projects are all performed in the same way, digging and placing blocks, so it's mostly a question of the time commitment of working on a big project.  However, people seem to have a good time and the hours still rip by, suggesting that maybe they're sort of in flow, even though there's no optimal challenge involved.

Also, I'd expect that being optimally challenged would mean that the player periodically loses or suffers setbacks.  For example, if I have an opponent whom I beat every single time, we can probably assume that I'm not stretching myself or really having a challenge.  Why, then, are developers so afraid of challenging the player?  Why are players afraid of losing?  Maybe it's the linearity of progress - losing the game means a loss of progress, meaning that you have to repeat the last five or ten minutes (or more), which might preclude the player's getting back into the flow.  Flow theory hypothesizes that people get frustrated when they're too challenged and bored when they're not frustrated enough.  How long does it take for somebody to get frustrated and post on an internet message board that they've had it with the "bullshit" difficulty?  Can losing be as fun as winning?

Next week we'll talk about another psychological theory.  In the meantime, I'd love to hear from any readers:  does a good challenge mean that you have to lose sometimes?  Why are some people happy to lose and others have no patience for it?  And what about popular but non-challenging activities like Minecraft - maybe these involve some pleasant psychological state other than flow, like relaxation?


  1. I don't feel you have to actually lose in order for something to be a good challenge, but the threat of losing can't be illusory and if you do lose it's because of poor mastery of the mechanics. If you have to lose to get better, then that just reeks of "artificial" challenge to me, like bullet hell games where you just have to memorize a bullet sequence to win so the gameplay is just butting your head until you have the whole thing down pat.

    1. Since games are artificial, all challenges in games must be as well. How is memorizing those bullet patterns any different from playing a round of Dance Dance Revolution or Step Master, or doing a combo in Street Fighter, or running through a level quickly in Mario or Sonic, or playing a Zelda title for the umpteenth time?

      I think you're right; you don't have to lose for something to be challenging to you, it just has to be difficult to win.

    2. On second thought, maybe we should think of challenge, in relation to this theory, as any disincentive or difficulty to complete a task and skill as both confidence and willingness to complete it. Looking at it in this way, if a player is too afraid of dying, it may be because there is too little confidence or willingness to overcome obstacles.

  2. I'd like to posit that Minecraft is not a 'game' under classical definitions, and so a person's enjoyment for it would be for different reasons than challenge or entering a flow state.

    1. Specifically that the reasons of enjoyment between Toy (Minecraft, Sim City, Lego) and Game (Civilization, Company of Heroes, Dragon Age: Origins) may share some similarities, but are ultimately different.

      A better example of looking at Low Skill, Low Challenge games would be some of the grind MMORPGs.

    2. Well, while I agree that the difference between toy & game is ludologically meaningful, people can derive flow from many goal-oriented behaviors which are not games. For example, flow could be attained while working on an engrossing carpentry project or freely playing the piano.

      Since people make and pursue their own goals in Minecraft, there must be at least a teeny bit of flow going on. The chief question for me, then, is whether challenge is important to that. It's also possible that Minecraft doesn't provide flow at all, but is instead "relaxing" or something.

    3. I think the 'flow' from Minecraft wouldn't be coming from the difficulty of harvesting resources and protecting them (unless the player has exceptionally low skill, in which case challenge would be optimal)

      Instead the flow is centered around the activity of creating something aesthetically pleasing and complex. If the piano player's 'optimal challenge' is creating 'good music' from their instrument given their playing ability, then the Minecraft player's 'optimal challenge' is 'create something interesting' from the tools available to them in Minecraft given their ability to imagine and design.

    4. There's a "game" part to Minecraft if you're actually talking about the real game, where the goal is "don't let monsters kill you" in addition to self-defined goals, as opposed to the free beta software.

    5. Personally, I don't believe the flow state exists (well it does, but not at the same level for motivating someone for an action) for something like Minecraft and other 'non-game' activities. This is simply because the challenge or required skill is so low that you are unable to get the kind of focus or loss of self-awareness.

      Unless they have some for of autism or obsessive compulsive disorder, in which case the motivation would change entirely.

    6. Minecraft is at it's best in something like Treepunch. While a lot of people just play the game to build toy castles, there's a fairly strong competitive survival game when you emphasize cooperative and uncooperative player interactions. Goals change from "build immortal fairy castle" to "set up traps to stop people stealing your shit".

      Playing Minecraft just to build something is the same as going to the store "mining" some lego and building something aesthetically pleasing by yourself or with some friends, but Minecraft is still also a pretty rich multiplayer survival game. Single player Minecraft captures a little of that but it's definitely too easy and static to be a good challenge.

  3. I think the answer to some of your questions come from what is defined as the 'optimal challenge': "balance between the ability of the person and the challenge of the task". Some tasks you or I find of appropriate challenge are "bullshit" to other people, while its completely possible for those same people to find challenges appropriate that we would find either "bullshit" or yawn inducing.

    So lets examine: 'Why, then, are developers so afraid of challenging the player?' with this in mind.

    Imagine a developer/publisher with limited resources who wants to sell their game to create the most profit. Let's assume that reasonably they can only spend time to create a game with so many challenges, and they they want to sell it to an audience of players with varying skill levels and tolerances. Let's also assume that players are capable of interpreting through reviews if a game is enjoyable for their skill level.

    If the game is released with low challenges then perhaps the highly skilled players will be 'relaxed' by the difficulty (or at worst bored), but the medium to low skill players will be approaching flow. If the game is released with high challenges, the lower skilled players will be frustrated with the experience, while only higher level players will achieve flow.

    The question then turns to what is the distribution of skill levels among the game players developers are trying to sell to? I imagine there are many, many more lower skilled players than there are higher. It would be in the developers interest to cater games to these gamers, so that they will like it and sell as many games as possible. I'd also imagine that this is the case even if publishers and developers are completely ignorant of flow theory, and that this state evolved over time because of economic forces.

    So, in summary: Casual Gamers are ruining Games.

    1. Hmm, I don't think that Low-Medium skill players approaching Low-Medium challenges will get anywhere approaching flow, to be honest. The closest they might get is a feeling of control but otherwise you'll see apathy and boredom, which is why so many 'gamers' tend to focus on story and other decorative features.

      Of course, the game developers don't realize this so they continue the downward spiral.

  4. "Why, then, are developers so afraid of challenging the player? Why are players afraid of losing?"

    I think your content explanation was pretty spot-on; "losing" in a game doesn't mean anything but being sent back in time, because that's all they can really do to the player.

    But what I think that ends up implying is related to the concept of Novelty. People like seeing new things and new content, in addition to liking basic gameplay things. That's part of why people like stories: they like seeing events unfold, and perhaps predicting what's going to happen. The human psyche is almost innately designed to enjoy new experiences and surprises; it's something different, it's new information to pore over, it's something to assess and appreciate. In some cases this can sort of be "exploited" by providing content that can be periodically cycled: if you get bored of x, start playing y; when you get bored of y, go back to x.

    What "you dying a lot" translates to in games is "you're doing the same section over and over", and yeah if you enjoy the gameplay this isn't so bad, but that alone rarely holds up gameplay. Soul Calibur V has only like two game modes, and yet you have to play for a long time to unlock everything. Ergo, I ended up playing it a lot to try to unlock new things. To map this out:

    MOTIVATION: Discovery (New Clothes, New Items, New Weapons)
    MOTIVATION: Creation(Building Characters & Playing As Them)
    MOVIVATION: Gameplay (Basic reflexive enjoyment of fighting game combat)
    DETRIMENT: Repetition (Same arcade mode over and over, no tag-team modes or special rules or anything)
    DETRIMENT: Uselessness (Hit a point where no new weapons or fighting styles are unlocked)

    The severity of the two "detriment" statuses is what made me stop playing the game, but for a while the process of unlocking new items was enough to keep me interested - yet my enjoyment of the basic gameplay was tempered by the fact that I had to do the SAME gameplay over and over hundreds of times.

    1. Good points - I think that video games as a product have a lot to offer in terms of discovery and creation that don't have to do with "core" ludological traits like rules, strategy, or competition. I resent these things sometimes because, in retrospect, earning the right to these unlockables seems hollow - why couldn't I have saved myself a couple hours with a cheat code, if all I wanted was the new clothes, items, weapons, etc? It's undeniably a draw, though. I wonder sometimes to what extent different people are more or less interested in the discovery/creation processes, or may even see those as wasting their time by making them "earn" things.

    2. Unlocking items, to an extent, is like savoring any other sensory experience: if you unlocked them all at the same time, you'd get bored easily. The (wholly artificial) concept of working for a goal adds a level of purpose to it. My MOTIVATION is new content, and therefore while I'm playing I can feel fulfilled by the idea that I'm moving towards it (while also hopefully enjoying the gameplay itself). It provides meaning and goals, which are another instinctual survival concept being psychologically farmed for their emotional response.

      However, when the draw is supposedly the game itself, and the "new content" is just things that give you better stats, then it begins to feel fake. You're playing so you can get better stuff, which will let you play better, but you'll be in a harder area so it'll even out. It's a total treadmill concept, though some people have justified it (in MMOs, for example) by connecting it to new areas and thus new content. Now that you have "better stats" you can go to the new area without dying, something that wasn't possible when you were weaker.

    3. The unlock systems in most games mean nothing other than psychological exploitation. In a culture that is rapidly becoming more accepting and understanding of videogames, videogames themselves are becoming shallower and less interesting and more dependent on psychological engineering and narrative experiences than the merits of interaction.

      Soul Caliber would be a better game without the unlock system. Letting the player make choices on the level of "what character I should choose" is great, it's what RPGs are built upon, it's a choice that gives fighting games meaning because it determines a large part of your strategy. Giving the player a diversity of choice means that the player has to use some critical acumen to make a decision. The result of having unlock systems is that you take that choice away from the player.

      Unlock systems (in the form that they exist in BF3/soul caliber) are actually not a part of gaming at all, and should be viciously attacked for what they are, the soul-less result of marketing to idiots.

  5. Let's try not to get pejorative or accusatory, commenters! As a serious, competitive kind of player, I already understand pretty well what compels the serious player. What would really help to generalize my future research would be understanding people unlike me - Minecrafters, MMO players, casual players, fans of Farmville, etc, so I hope nobody will run those players off with name-calling. I can understand where you're coming from, though.

  6. I think it's important to remember that "high skill level" is part of relaxation. My buddy's room mate plays WoW and Minecraft a lot and we recently asked him about it. He said that pressing the right sequence of buttons did take time to learn, but he played it a lot so he knew his class really well, so for him grinding dailies in WoW was a "high skill/low challenge" activity. WoW takes just enough of his skill to play that it's relaxing instead of boring. He also brought up the "novelty" concept, cause "seeing something new" is a big motivator for him in games (also loves skyrim, second life for similar reasons). Mastering something easy is still a form of mastery. I think the reason he wouldn't just use a cheat or look up new WoW armour online is that he enjoys the relaxation of the process of getting there. I think that "novelty" also explains why people like Dear Esther or Flower, since the "stuff to look at" prevents them from slipping into the apathy corner.
    Also I think Counter Strike is a good example of people entering flow state and not having their flow broken by dying.

    Unrelated questions about that graph:
    What does the middle area represent? I'm guessing competence? When skill level and challenge level are equal you're just doing stuff, it doesn't elicit any kind of heightened state?