A motivational model of the gamerface (Przybylski et al., 2010)

A gamerface photographed by Robbie Cooper for his immersion project

Videogames surely motivated people to play for hours on end, but the summer heat sure takes it out that I’ve forgotten how to write a blog post.

Andrew Przybylski, Richard Ryan (University of Rochester) and Scott Rigby published an article reviewing much of their work on video game engagement and how it affect well-being in the special issue of Review of General Psychology.


More Americans now play video games than go to the movies (NPD Group, 2009). The meteoric rise in popularity of video games highlights the need for research approaches that can deepen our scientific understanding of video game engagement. This article advances a theory-based motivational model for examining and evaluating the ways by which video game engagement shapes psychological processes and influences well-being. Rooted in self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2000a), our approach suggests that both the appeal and well-being effects of video games are based in their potential to satisfy basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. We review recent empirical evidence applying this perspective to a number of topics including need satisfaction in games and short-term well-being, the motivational appeal of violent game content, motivational sources of postplay aggression, the antecedents and consequences of disordered patterns of game engagement, and the determinants and effects of immersion. Implications of this model for the future study of game motivation and the use of video games in interventions are discussed.

On a personal note, I’m planning on moving into Columbus on 1 September in the morning, before that I have to deal with the slow pace of getting two pieces of paperwork completed from OSU administration. It’s been dragging on for months.

Their motivational model is based on self-determination theory which is a “macrotheory principally concerned with the potential of social contexts to provide experiences that satisfy universal human needs.” One subtheory, called the cognitive evaluation theory, is instrumental on motivation in sports, education, leisure, and by extension videogames. It also explains why it’s fun.

Human needs within their model do not necessarily pertain to bodily needs, but rather psychological ones. They’ve identified three universal needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness. Satisfying those needs would lead to greater well-being, but how they are satisfied is a different matter. There are two types of motivation, intrinsic motivation is behaviours directed to pursue for one’s own sake or from their inherent satisfaction, and in other words you push yourself. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation is behaviours direct by external forces or to pursue a desired goal or avoid an undesirable state. Such external forces can be salient feedback on their performance. For example, to play the game for the sake of getting reward points on your credit card. What they’ve found between the two motivation types is that extrinsic motivation undermines the intrinsic type and intrinsically motivated players have higher well-being than extrinsic ones.

How do videogames satisfy these three human needs?

Competence: The purpose of games is to challenge players on a specific skill sets. It started from reflex-based challenges (e.g. Pong), hand-eye coordination (e.g. FPS), to long-term thinking (e.g. turn-based strategy games and RTS), etc. One key aspect of videogames in satisfying competence needs is its potential to match its difficulty level to the player’s abilities. By such balancing act, the player would be sufficiently challenged and would feel competent. The authors noted online ranking and player matching in multiplayer games contribute to satisfying our competence needs. In-game features also include immediate feedback responses to success and failure. For example, how every perfect beats in a Osu! beatmap matches with the musical tempo.

Autonomy: Every game has certain degrees of freedom, with RPGs and sandbox games (e.g. GTA and the Sims series) granting the greatest freedom to players. Przybylski et al. noted that such games give players the sense of equifinality, that every route to an end is valid. This is demonstrated through the player’s freedom to choose missions, equipment, skills, pace, etc. Emergent narration in videogames can be considered a game mechanic that can satisfy one’s need for autonomy. Other features include side missions, mini-games, open world. A unique aspect is videogames’ customizability can be related to satisfying our autonomy, either through cheating or modding. Why not start the game with a fully armed Death Star?

Relatedness: Videogames has taken advantage of the internet’s capabilities, from community forums, gaming social networks, Teamspeak, to spawning new genres like the MMOs and multiplayer FPS, such as Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead. Such social connections through videogames can feed one’s need for relatedness. Especially beyond the gaming context, it’s certainly good conversation topics between guys, much like sports.

Pryzbylski and colleagues established an important factor towards player’s need satisfaction which is called mastery of control. Every game has a tutorial in order for players to familiarize with the controls, this way they can concentrate on the gaming experience and avoid the frustrations of being a newbie. They emphasized its importance as necessary, but not sufficient for satisfying needs. So, Starcraft players will still feel satisfied despite the fact they can’t do 200 APM.


About half of their article is summaries of their research which supports their motivational model and how it affects psychological and physical well-being.

Do games satisfy the three human needs? See Ryan, Rigby and Przybylski (2006). The results from this article are the creation of a new questionnaire, called player experience of need satisfaction, to gauge their need satisfaction from gaming. Games can satisfy human needs and the greater a game can satisfy them the greater it is enjoyable, immersive and likely to be played in the future. Popular games (they used Zelda: The Ocarina of Time) was found to increase participants experiences of autonomy and competence more so than non-popular ones (in their case A Bug’s Life).

Does violence in videogames play a motivational role in enjoyment? See Przybylski, Ryan & Rigby, (2009). [or my post] The results were found that violence does not significant contribute to enjoyment or making the game more popular. Another result is that those with an aggressive temperament would want to play violent game in the future despite not enjoying more than the others. Thus, it is not violence, but its related features that contribute to the gaming experience. For example, the affordance of multiple options in achieving an objective satisfies our need for autonomy (e.g. guns blazing or rocket blazing), immediate feedback for our competence needs (e.g. blood splatters or confetti in the case of TF2) and team-based challenges for our relatedness needs.

It makes me think about how localization might affect videogame engagement

So where does the aggression come from in the gaming context and from the motivational perspective? This was answered by Andrew Przybylski’s Master’s thesis. He poked a hole in Anderson et al.’s 2004 study by replicating it and showed that differences in control schemes between the violent and nonviolent videogame contributed to differences in aggression levels post-play and violence was not a significant contributor. Tutorials and familiarity with the controls lessened the frustration, as well as long the videogame satisfy those need, it’s alright.

One question is how needs satisfying videogames contribute to players’ resilience and persistence to failure. Or the more general question: why do we persist in failure in videogames? (via Kotaku)

Is a gamer who play long hours an addict? See Przybylski, Weinstein, Ryan and Rigby (2009). (and my post) They explored this matter through the dualistic model of passion in addition to their model, looking at players who are harmoniously passionate versus players who are obsessively passionate. They found that obsessive players are in a worse mood and don’t enjoy their games as much as their harmonious counterparts.  Additionally, the type of passion had a correlation with general well-being, although it did not play a significant role when other factors (i.e. everyday life factors) were taken into account. They concluded that obsessive play may be a symptom from need deprivation in everyday life than being a cause.

Do immersive experiences have a role in all of this? Well, they said that if videogames meets the players’ needs, then they also experienced greater immersion. Aside from that, they pointed to a non-videogame study by Weinstein et al. (2009) (and my post) where immersed in nature environment (say a forest) would lead to higher prosocial goals and decision-making behaviours. This is especially enhanced if the participant felt immersed within it.

Other video game motivational models

They mentioned the uses and gratification model where players have 6 types of motivations: competition, challenge, diversion, fantasy, social interaction and arousal. The difference between theirs and the uses and gratification model is that the former emphasizes video game motivation is based on whether these games can satisfied the three psychological needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness. Whereas the latter emphasizes people are motivated by what they are consciously seeking.

Another video game motivational model is that of Nick Yee’s research on MMORPGs. He found three factors which are achievement, socializing and immersion. The difference is that Yee’s model is based from what multiplayer video games are providing.

What now?

Well, they’ve just started this line of research and they require more funding and construct additional research labs. These additional resources would allow them to research how different ways of feedback might affect videogame motivation, that is need satisfaction and intrinsic motivation. Second, the potential of need satisfying videogames effect on learning and promoting healthy behaviours because if these needs are satisfied, then these games are fun and incidental learning is enhanced (IMO). A more fundamental question is how needs satisfying videogames compare to other need satisfying activities (e.g. sports) or a how big of a role does videogames it has in everyday life. The bottom line is that burgeoning research is showing the potential benefits of videogames towards our psychological well-being and how not to make crappy videogames at the same time.

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. doi: 10.1037/a0019440.


One thought on “A motivational model of the gamerface (Przybylski et al., 2010)

  1. Pingback: Impressions of videogame research of 2010 « VG Researcher

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