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?