How Games Motivate People to Keep Playing

Every year globally, people spend huge amounts of money and time playing games. Most people who engage in video game play choose to do so voluntarily, because it is fun and they enjoy it. This makes it an intrinsically motivating activity.

Research into video game play has tended to focus on either the positive effects e.g. a sense of efficacy or improved learning or the negative effects e.g. lower productivity or violent tendencies on players1. However, some studies have examined the motivating effects of video games, albeit from different perspectives.

Sherry and Lucas2 found that players engage in video games to access one or more of the following psychological states:

  • Competition: the experience of defeating others
  • Challenge: the experience of success following effort
  • Diversion: to escape an experience of stress
  • Fantasy: to experience novel or unrealistic stimuli
  • Social interaction: to have a social experience
  • Arousal: to experience activated positive emotions

According to Yee3, people who play Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG) e.g. Star Wars Galaxies, were motivated by three main areas while playing (made up of 10 sub-components):

Achievement:

  • Advancement: rapid progression, gaining power, accumulating wealth or status
  • Mechanics: analysing the rules and system in order to optimise character performance
  • Competition: a desire to challenge and compete with others

Social:

  • Socialising: including helping others, making friends, chatting with other players
  • Relationships: developing long-term relationships, finding and giving support to others
  • Teamwork: collaborating with others, achieving as a group.

 Immersion:

  • Discovery: exploring the game world, finding hidden things within the game
  • Role-Playing: creating a character back-story, interacting with other characters
  • Customisation: the ability to create the appearance of the character
  • Escapism: providing an escape from real-life problems

Research by Ryan, Rigby and Przybylski4 into the motivation to play video games (regardless of the game type) found that motivation is accounted for by how well the game satisfies our three basic psychological needs:

  1. Autonomy – the extent to which the game provides      flexibility over movement and strategies, choice over task and goals, and      rewards that provide feedback and not control.
  2. Competence – the extent to which tasks provide      ongoing challenges and opportunities for feedback.
  3. Relatedness – the extent to which the game provides      interactions between players.

In addition to need satisfaction, their research also found that:

Presence – the extent to which the player feels within the game environment as opposed to being outside the game manipulating the controls, and

Intuitive controls – the extent to which the controls make sense and don’t interfere with feelings of presence, were also important as they allow players to focus on game play and access the need satisfaction provided by the game.

Contexts that satisfy these basic needs will support people’s actions, resulting in more optimal motivation and positive outcomes. Therefore, we should design our eLearning experiences to support the autonomy, competence and relatedness needs of our learners.

Gamification is a technique that aims to replicate the motivational pull of video game play and apply it to eLearning experiences. While gamification has been met with some criticism, it seems that it’s more the application that is the problem rather than the technique itself. In order to successfully gamify an eLearning course we need to satisfy people’s basic psychological needs. If we look at popular video games over time such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario, Angry Birds, Guitar Hero, Wii Sports, Donkey Kong, World of Warcraft or Space Invaders, we can see how they satisfy these needs and use similar approaches to our own eLearning design.

Here are some examples of the game design elements used by these popular games and how they apply to each of our psychological needs:

Autonomy:

  • Allowing players to make meaningful choices that have consequences
  • Providing players with more than one way to reach their goal
  • Allowing players to customise their environment e.g. choosing a character

Competence:

  • Making the rules and goals for players clear and structured
  • Allowing multiple opportunities to complete parts of the game to allow players to build their competence
  • Requiring players to frequently make decisions to keep the game moving forward
  • Measuring player performance in multiple ways
  • Increasing the difficulty as the player progresses through the game
  • Linking progression (the reward) to player competence
  • Providing players with constant and varied feedback and support
  • Allowing players to review or replay earlier parts of the game

Relatedness:

  • Providing space/areas for player interaction and discussion
  • Providing opportunities for player collaboration e.g. a group quest or challenge

Popular games use different combinations of game design elements in order to keep people motivated to play. If you substitute ‘player’ with ‘learner’, from the above list, you will see how gamification can be incorporated into your eLearning experiences. Once the mechanics are selected (based on the needs of learners), designers can then look to incorporate the aesthetic elements of game design in order to create presence and intuitive control/navigation which will support the game mechanics.

Motivation plays an important role during eLearning experiences and our challenge is to create eLearning that our learners want to engage in. While it does require more effort in the design, gamification is a technique that, if used correctly, can improve the motivation of all learners who experience gamified eLearning.

References

1 & 4 Ryan, R. M., Rigby, C. S & Przybylski, A. K., (2006). The motivational pull of video games: a self-determination theory approach. Motivation and Emotion.  30, 347-364.

2 Przybylski, A. K., Rigby, C. S. & Ryan, R. M. (2010) A motivational model of video game engagement. Review of General Psychology. 14 (2), 154-166.

3 Yee, N. (2006). Motivations for play in online games. CyberPsychology & Behaviour. 9 (6), 772-775.