Kids, what do you like about playing video games? (Ferguson & Olson, 2012)

Found it in reddit’s gaming subreddit

After 4 years since the publication of Grand Theft Childhood, Cheryl Olson and company are still publishing articles based on that large group of children whom they should be in college about now. I wonder if they are still following these now-young adults, perhaps I may have encountered one of them at OSU. Christopher Ferguson (Texas A & M International) and Cheryl Olson (Harvard University) have published an article on children’s motivations to playing videogames.


Although a considerable amount of attention has examined potential positive and negative consequences of video game play in children, relatively little research has examined children’s motivations for using games. The current study hopes to address this gap in the literature by examining children’s motivations for video game play in a large sample of youth (n = 1254). Results indicated that video game use was common, and often a social activity. Social play was mainly predicted by motivations related to socialization, fun/challenge and current stress level. Preference for violent games was more common in males and predicted by fun/challenge motivations and beliefs such games could be cathartic for stress. Children with clinically elevated levels of depressive and ADHD symptoms did not play more games, or more violent games, but were more inclined to endorse catharsis motivations for video game use. Results from this study provide understanding of what motivates children to use games, and how the motivations of children with symptoms of psychosocial problems (as identified via subscales of the Pediatric Symptom Checklist) may differ from others.

I’m heading up to Montreal for some rest.

The authors noted that it is clear that boys spend a lot of time playing video games and prefer violent ones than girls do. They also noted that not much is known about the motivations to play video games, what are some of the conscious and specific reasons that children want to play video games?

The authors discussed self-determination theory that posited that human motivation is based on the fulfillment of three basic needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness. The self-determination theory is quite popular in videogame research as mounting studies found how videogames fulfill these needs and explain why children choose to play some videogames that are satisfying, even those that their parents find it objectionable (e.g. Call of Duty).

The authors also discussed other motivational variables of interests. First, the authors discussed that gender differences in video game preferences may arise from biological and evolutionary origins in that boys are more drawn to action oriented outlets. I would agree that infants as young as 18 months showed preferences for gender-stereotyped toys and persists for a lifetime (see Serbin et al., 2001; Cherney & London, 2006). As I am brushing up on my gender studies, I would like to add that biological and evolution factors are sufficient causes, but I argue that culture working on those biological differences accentuates them even further (okay, I’ve been reading Roy Baumeister’s book). They also considered parents and family as parental involvement in gaming is beneficial (see Wallenius et al., 2007), stress as a motivational factor where videogames can be used to manage mood or children with certain mental health problems, such as those suffering from depression, attention deficit and hyperactive disorder, play video game more often or with different motives. Finally, they are also considered another theory called the uses-and-gratification theory of which I am acquainted with, but never formally introduced to.


Participants: The 1,254 middle school children from Pennsylvania and South Carolina. Average age is 12.9 (SD = 0.76). 53% girls and 47% boys. 50% white, 43% black, 2% Asian and 5% Hispanic. Of course, this data set was from around 2004, they should be in college by now.


Parental Involvement: 9-items on a Likert-type scale. Example item: “My parents play electronic games with me”.

Stress: The Stressful Urban Life Events Scale. It is a 19-item scale using a yes/no response set.

Support from others: This assessed for perceived support from peers and family. It consisted of 16-items on a Likert-type scale, the items were drawn from existing measures.

Exposure to violent video games: Participants were asked to name five videogames they played a lot in the past 6 months. The videogames were then coded according to ESRB (e.g. E, T, M.), the higher the mature rating, the more and intense the violence is. Therefore, naming more M-rated videogames indicated a higher violent videogame play. Through this coding, they multiplied it with the number of hours playing videogames per week, thus creating an index of exposure to violent video games.

Depression/attention symptoms: The short-version of the Pediatric Symptom Checklist. It is a 17-item using a 3-point frequency scale.

Social videogame play: An 8-item scale that assessed for children playing with others, such as friends, siblings, parents, in-person, internet and strangers on the internet.

Videogame motivations: they created a 16-item questionnaire using a 4-point agreement Likert scale.  Their factor analysis revealed four subscales: fun/challenge, catharsis, social and boredom. Children answer the question: “I play electronic games because…”. Here’s an example item: “It’s just fun”. Interestingly, boys scored higher than girls for fun/challenge motivation (M = 16.17, SD = 3.01 vs. M = 14.15, SD = 3.70), catharsis (M = 11.77, SD = 4.02 vs. M = 10.35, SD = 4.08), and social (M = 7.99, SD = 2.68 vs. M = 6.87, SD = 2.43).


A hierarchical multiple regression analysis revealed that social video game play is significantly predicted by stress, motivations of fun/challenge and social. Thus, higher stress, fun/challenge and social motivations lead to greater videogame play with others. The authors noted that 91.5% of their sample played videogames with others at least occasionally.

Another hierarchical multiple regression analysis examined children’s preferences for violent videogames. The significant predictors were gender and motivations of fun/challenge and catharsis. Thus, boys and higher fun/challenge and catharsis motivations lead to greater violent videogame play. I’d like to point out that the beta coefficient for boys in violent videogame play is between -.32 to -.42 (go read the article) which is relatively the largest among the predictors in the regression model. The authors have not elaborated much about boys being heavy players of violent videogames, but there is some books that investigate the role of gender in videogame play albeit from unfamiliar paradigms [1][2][3]. I suspect that violent videogame play has become an important component for boys’ development of their masculine identity.

A third hierarchical multiple regression analysis examined general videogame play in total number of hours. They found that gender, motivations of catharsis and social are the significant predictors.

Regarding to mental health, such as those suffering from ADHD and depression, t-tests were used to compare groups of children who suffer or do not suffer from depressive symptoms. They found that clinically depressive children did not differ in terms of violent videogame play, social videogame or videogame play time. The motivations between groups were also not significantly different, except that depressive children were higher in catharsis and boredom motivation. Comparisons between children who suffer from ADHD or those who do not revealed that there were no significant differences for violent videogame play, social videogame play or videogame play time. The motivations between groups were also not significantly different, except that children with ADHD were higher in catharsis motivation.


The authors regarded their findings on children’s motivation pretty much in line with self-determination theory. Their fun/challenge and social subscales are good fit for competence and relatedness, respectively, but they interestingly reasoned that their catharsis subscale is related to autonomy. However, I’d like them to further explain the theoretical connection between catharsis and autonomy. Alas, their fourth motivation boredom was not much of a predictor for any of the videogame play behaviours. But then again, a two-item subscale and a low reliability coefficient (IMO) are grounds to improve the boredom subscale. Although, I encourage investigating videogame motivations in relation to gender identity (gender schema theory to start) and academic motivations as Roy Baumeister mused in his book that school life may have not meet their competence, autonomy and relatedness needs and boys compensated by playing videogames.

The authors explained how catharsis/autonomy and stress are predictors of videogame play. They reasoned that videogames, according to self-determination theory, fulfill autonomy needs and this is very particular for children, such as those suffering from mental health problems, whose autonomy needs were not met in real life (e.g. school or family). They further elaborated that the fantasy settings of videogames help children fulfill these autonomy needs, they argued that fictional settings may be processed by the brain differently from real life as opposed to historically saying that real life and fantast life are indistinguishable and violence is not even necessary for catharsis. This, the authors argued, is consistent with mood management and self-determination theory.

One important detail for concerned parents is that videogame play is not related to mental health problems as indicated by lack of significant differences in videogame play between groups.

The authors noted some limitations. First, it’s correlational. Second, the mental health measures used in the study are NOT mental health diagnosis; they would need qualified experts to formally give the diagnosis.

Ferguson, C. J., & Olson, C. K. (2012). Friends, fun, frustration and fantasy: Child motivations for video game play. Motivation and Emotion, (pp. 1-11). DOI:


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