I have to play versus I want to play: its roots and consequences in video gaming (Przybylski et al., 2009)

One of many types of gamers (Courtesy from Encyclopedia Dramatica)

Gamers are well known for their incredible passion, some have found ways to make a living from their hobby, whereas others made their way into headlines that turn heads in the wrong direction. Non-gamers generally have a negative and simplistic attitude towards gamer’s passion and motivations which most of the negativity is fed from the media and their personal experiences. What they miss is that gaming passion can be no different from passion towards another activity and the motives driving their gaming habits can be positive.

Andrew Przybylski (University of Rochester) and colleagues have published an article in Cyberpsychology and Behavior, investigating the relationship between motivations, passions and personal well-being.


The present research examined the background and consequences of different styles of engagement in video game play. Based on self-determination theory and the dualistic model of passion, the authors hypothesized that high levels of basic psychological need satisfaction would foster harmonious passion for video play, supporting the subjective sense that play is something one wants to do. It was also predicted that low levels of need satisfaction would promote obsessive passion for games and contribute to the feeling that game play is something one feels compelled to or has to do. It was expected, in turn, that passion for play would directly influence player outcomes closely tied to games, moderate links between play and well-being, and relate to overall levels of well-being as a function of basic need satisfaction. As expected, results showed that low levels of basic need satisfaction were associated with more obsessive passion, higher amounts of play, greater tension following play, and low game enjoyment, whereas high levels of need satisfaction did not predict hours of play but were associated with more harmonious passion, game enjoyment, and energy following play. Moderation analyses showed that high amounts of play related negatively to well-being only to the extent that players reported an obsessive passion and that the unique relations between passion and overall levels of player well-being were quite small once controlling for their basic need satisfaction in daily life. Discussion of the current findings focuses on their significance for understanding disordered play and the value of applying a theory-based approach to study motivation for virtual contexts.

Ever since Jamie Madigan started his blog, I am beginning to ponder whether gamers need a gamer-science journalist to keep them abreast of the research in psychological science or to make them stop repeating the same damn suggestions.

The study is based on two theories (mentioned in the abstract), self-determination theory and the dualistic model of passion, in their attempt to explain the relationship of gaming with psychological well-being. The self-determination theory is a macro-theory of human motivation which states that motives originated from basic psychological or satisfaction needs. Three satisfaction needs are mentioned: competence (e.g. I’m good at playing this game and I am good at mathematics) autonomy (e.g. I play this game just because) and relatedness (e.g. I play and connect with others). Keeping these needs filled on a daily basis has lead to greater personal well-being, lower psychopathology, and most importantly in this study, integrating activities harmoniously into our lives.

The dualistic model of passion is concerned with the nature of passionate engagement in activities that are strongly important and interesting. There are two types of passion: harmonious passion is where an activity is personally important, freely chosen, and in harmony with other aspects of a person’s life. Obsessive passion is externally driven, a compulsion rather than free choice, and is in conflict with other aspects of a person’s life. Previous research mentioned by Przybylski has consistently found that obsessive passion in gaming leads towards negative outcomes in psychological well-being. Harmonious passion in gaming is often, but not always, associated with positive outcomes.

With these two theories in hand, they came up with four research questions:

  1. Would the level of need satisfaction influence the shape and level passion in gaming?
  2. What are the differences, in terms of video game enjoyment and player mood, found between harmonious passion versus obsessive passion?
  3. Will the level of need satisfaction and the type of passion affect individuals’ well-being?
  4. Will play time affect, depending on the type of passion, our post-game mood and well-being?


The authors conducted an online survey at a popular online community (name of community withheld). It was conducted in April 2007 and was available for two weeks, a 100$ raffle was offered for participation as an incentive. This survey drew 1,324 participants (mostly men), average age is 24 (SD = 4) with a range of 18 to 43.


Since it was a survey, questionnaires are used. My general criticism (as I am the ever worrywart) is the small number of questions or statements found in each questionnaire. The fewer items there are, the greater the weight an item becomes, but does those few items really measure what they intend to measure?

Game type: participants must name one favourite game they’ve playing for at least a month. The game is then categorized by the research team into 5 genres (in order of response proportions): first-person shooters, massively multiplayer online games, role-playing, strategy games, and action-adventure.

Trait level need satisfaction: 9 items from the Need Satisfaction Scale. This measures autonomy, competence and relatedness. Example: “I feel very capable and effective.”

Passion: 10 items from the English version of the Harmonious and Obsessive Passion for Gambling Scale. Example: “My playing [insert game name] reflects the qualities I like about myself.”

Game enjoyment: 4 items adapted from the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory. Example: “I enjoy playing this game very much.”

Weekly play time: participants are asked to estimate the hours played per week from the past month on their favourite game. Average weekly playtime is 13.39 hours (SD = 9.54).

Postplay energy and tension: 10 adjectives (e.g. energetic, jittery, etc.) participants respond to in terms of how they felt after playing their favourite game. Taken from the Activation-Deactivation Adjective Checklist, two subscales are used: energy and vitality versus tension and anxiety.

Life satisfaction: 5 items from the Satisfaction with Life Scale. Measures participants broad sense of the satisfaction with their lives.

Psychological and physical health: the short-form of the Medical Outcomes Study Inventory. This inventory assesses for psychological health, general health, tapping social functioning, physical functioning, emotional well-being, emotional limitations, physical limitations, fatigue, and pain.


They found support for their first hypothesis which stated high levels of need satisfaction would support (correlated) harmonious passion (r = 0.11) and low levels of need satisfaction would support obsessive passion (r = -0.17).

The second hypothesis expected that harmonious passion would be correlated with high game enjoyment (r = 0.30) and postplay energy (r = 0.24) whereas obsessive passion is correlated with weekly hours of play (r = 0.38) and tension following play (r = 0.18). Further analyses revealed negative relations found between obsession passion and game enjoyment among MMOG, strategy and action adventure gamers.

The third hypothesis predicted that harmonious passion is positively correlated with well-being, which is supported by positive correlations with life satisfaction (r = 0.17) and mental health (r = 0.07). Similar predictions are supported for obsessive passion with negative correlations with life satisfaction (r = -0.07), mental health (r = -0.19), and physical health (r = -0.18). Further hierarchical regressions revealed that passion accounted for a small variance and need satisfaction account almost 40% of the variance, meaning it comes down to need satisfaction.

The fourth hypothesis was that the playtime would be related to well-being as moderated by the type of passion. They’ve found moderation links among three outcome variables. They’ve found that playtime, with high levels of obsessive passion, is negatively correlated with postplay energy, and life satisfaction. Playtime, with low levels of obsessive passion, is positively correlated with postplay energy and positively, but suggestively correlated with mental health. However, inputting need satisfaction reduces these significant relations in that postplay energy remained statistically significant.

The authors listed some limitations and suggestions for future studies. It would be useful if they can find more gamers with bad gaming habits (i.e. playing overly long gaming sessions) which would improve the results generalizability. More longitudinal measures would complement the study’s correlational results. Third, a more in-depth look into the individuals’ gaming habits and their passion, such as their play behaviours with various games, would help disentangle individual differences from formal features of video game.

Let's keep our needs in the green too

The take home message is our gaming habits and its relationship with well-being is dependent on satisfying our psychological needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness. Satisfying these needs would flow our gaming passion as harmoniously as possible. Blocking these needs would present a risk towards obsessive passion and negative health outcomes. Therefore, if we can keep our sims’ needs in the green, so can we and perhaps we can enjoy our games and job. Another implication is the usefulness of self-determination theory in understanding positive and negative gaming habits and behaviours which can help psychologists in developing intervention strategies more useful than reducing playtime.

Przybylski, A. K., Weinstein, N, Ryan, R. M., & Rigby, C. S. (2009). Having to versus wanting to play: Background and consequences of harmonious versus obsessive engagement in video games. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 12 (5), 485-492. doi:10.1089/cpb.2009.0083


6 thoughts on “I have to play versus I want to play: its roots and consequences in video gaming (Przybylski et al., 2009)

  1. Hi,

    My name is Heather Jones and I am the assistant editor of Epsychologist.org. I am contacting you today in hopes of developing a relationship with your website; we have seen your site and think your content is great. Epsychologist.org offer a free informational resource to both the general and professional public on several issues.

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  2. Nice summary! It sounds like a lot of the same models of motivation and passion at work translate into play activities, which probably shouldn’t be that surprising. Except that few of us get paid to play games.

  3. Pingback: A motivational model of the gamerface (Przybylski et al., 2010) « VG Researcher – Psychology

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