7 Essential Resources for Understanding Motivation in Games

motivationMotivation is an important topic for game designers and social scientists. Many herald the ability of games to motivate players through incentive systems, by fulfilling intrinsic needs, capturing attention, or hooking into evolved motivational systems. In the following article I provide a list of seven articles and books that anyone who is interested in motivation should know about. This list is not comprehensive and my own reading has certainly biased it, but it does provide a good cornerstone for understanding the current state of research regarding the motivational forces in video games. As you read you’ll notice that absent from the scientific articles is anything on the psychology of reward pathways or behaviorism. This literature is certainly relevant for game designers, but I thought these other articles might provide some new perspective for those who already have knowledge of the positive and negative reinforcement. If anyone thinks I have left something out or is interested in adding to this list then feel free to create a comment that follows my format and as long as it is relevant I will include it in the body of the article.

In addition to providing links to papers and books, at the end of each section I also provide links to relevant articles that have been written here at Motivate Play.

Light reading: Something for the nightstand or water closet.

1: A Theory of Fun for Game Design (2004)

Raph Koster

A Theory of Fun provides a primer for anyone wishing to understand the motivational forces of games from a dual social scientific and game design perspective. In it Koster does an extraordinary job of summarizing what social scientists know about fun and packaging it an engaging book.

As if witty writing wasn’t enough. Koster, also an illustrator, treats the reader to a comic on each page. For those that aren’t familiar with his work, I also recommend Koster’s Blog, which features insights from his many years in the game industry and his own songs – because being a game designer, author, poet, and illustrator just isn’t enough. I also believe Koster is currently working on a 2nd edition of the book so check his website for that as well.

MP Post: Koster - 40 Social Mechanics for Social Games

2: Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound (2011)

Dr. Scott Rigby and Dr. Richard Ryan

In this recent book, Rigby and Ryan examine the motivational forces of games from the perspective of self-determination theory and their player experience of needs satisfaction (PENS) model. For those who are not familiar with self-determination theory it posits that individuals are motivated to fulfill core intrinsic needs. One of these is a perception of autonomy and volitional choice; however, the PENS model expands on these to include a feeling of competence and mastery and a desire for meaningful social relationships. If you want to read one book that takes a rigorous scientific perspective to how games motivate players this is a good place to start.

MP Post: Self-Determination Theory at GDC

3: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (2008)

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

In short, flow theory describes a mental experience, which occurs when an activity has the correct balance of challenge in relation to skill. Although the version of the book linked here was published in 2008, as far as I can tell the original version traces back to 1990. Flow is not a new theory. For those interested in the cliff notes, the Wikipedia entry for the Flow is quite comprehensive. Also, it’s worth knowing that flow theory inspired the video game Flow by Jenova Chen.

MP Post: The Origins of Flow and Refining the Flow Diagram

Heavier fare: Best accompanied by coffee

4: The Limited Capacity Model of Media Message Processing (2006)

Dr. Annie Lang

The limited capacity model of mediated message processing (LC4MP) is a cognitive model for how individuals attend to and mentally process mediated messages. The link I included here is an older version of the model (free) and since this was written LC4MP has been applied to games. LC4MP is different from many of the other theories here because it describes attention and motivation at a very fine time-scale  - seconds to milliseconds rather than hours or days. The theory is supported through a large body of empirical research. In fact, researchers have extensively tested LC4MP using psychophysiological methods – measuring observable biological processes that correlate with brain activity.

For game designers LC4MP is worth understanding because it can explain how and why individuals attend to media. The findings can be applied to help to guide players through levels or make sure that they attend to the information that is necessary for solving puzzles or completing the game. Interestingly, Richard Lemarchand, formerly of Naughty Dog and now USC, touched on many of these issues GDC Talk: Attention not Immersion.

MP Posts: Cognitive Overload and Game Play and Psychophysiology in Games Research

5: Optimizing the psychological benefits of choice: Information transparency and heuristic use in game environments (2011)

James J. Cummings and Travis L. Ross

I have to include at least one of my own articles. This article by James Cummings and myself details how players likely rely on mental heuristics – cognitive shortcuts for decision-making – when playing video games. We provide some examples of how heuristic use can lead to surprising outcomes for game designers and provide ample references to previous work on heuristics.

MP Post: Video games as choice environments

6: The Motivations of Players in MMORPGs (2006)

Dr. Nick Yee

This research comes at motivation from a different angle than the rest. Rather than theorizing about what makes players tick it simply asks players what elements of MMORPG play they enjoy. Interestingly, Yee finds that players enjoy many of the factors addressed by theories of extrinsic motivation (rewards) and intrinsic motivation (exploration, social needs, competence and mastery). These findings actually provide some evidence to support Gabe Recchia’s proposal that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are a false dichotomy.

MP Post: To Bartle or Not to Bartle

7: Evolution's Pedagogy: An Adaptationist Model of Pretense and Entertainment (2001)

Dr. Francis F. Steen and Dr. Stephanie A. Owens

Finally, this paper details an evolutionary perspective of why we play and provides an evolutionary account for why we are engaged by stories and play. It’s a longer read, but a very unique perspective to understanding the role of play. It also provides references to other literature that takes an evolutionary approach to motivation and play.

MP Post: Reflections on Hoarding

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Community Contributions

8: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2011)

Daniel H. Pink

Thanks to Carlo Delallana for the contribution: "Drive is not that different from the core findings of "Glued to Games", it speaks of motivation in a more general sense. According to Daniel Pink we desire Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. The first two line up with the core needs of Autonomy and Competency but Glued to Games speaks of Relatedness which is outward facing while Purpose is inward facing."

 

7 Essential Resources for Understanding Motivation in Games by Travis Ross, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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