The effects of intrinsic needs on selective videogame play and mood repair (Reinecke et al., 2012)

Michigan State University was one of the graduate schools I applied for my doctoral education. The communication department is as strong as Ohio State’s and they have published many videogames studies. Whatever choices I made for my PhD, I would regret a lot either way.

Somewhat related to this study

Leonard Reinecke (Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz), Ron Tamborini and company (Michigan State University) published an article about why people choose to play videogames from a mood management and Self-Determination theory perspective


This study attempted to (a) extend traditional mood management theory research by investigating the influence of the intrinsic needs for competence and autonomy on selective exposure to video games and (b) test the influence of satisfying these needs on resultant mood repair. An experiment varied satisfaction of competence and autonomy needs using false feedback. Subjects then selected media that varied in level of user demand. Measures of need satisfaction were taken before and after media selection. Results demonstrated that (a) thwarted intrinsic needs significantly predict the choice of video games with different levels of user demand and (b) the satisfaction of these needs predicts enjoyment. Findings indicate that mood management can result from mood repair through need satisfaction.

Yes, yes I realize that this post is a day late, the day was hectic and a lot of things happened.

I must put this study in context as it is part of a series. If you have the inclination to read their two previous articles published in the same journal. [Tamborini et al., 2010 & 2011].

Mood Management Theory posits that media use is often impulsive and that negative affect, such as boredom, anger, sadness, loneliness, drives us to soothe these bad feelings and optimizing towards good feelings by distraction. However, the authors argued that entertainment media does not only distract us, but also repair our bad feelings. They argued that such repair is done through the satisfaction of our human needs, not our biological needs, but our psychological and intrinsic needs as explained by Self-Determination theory. These needs are competence, autonomy and relatedness. This videogame study will focus on competence and autonomy, but relatedness cannot be examined in the context of their study because they will need to do it under a multiplayer context.

According to Mood Management Theory, there are four characteristics that drive people in choosing their entertainment media: excitatory homeostasis, the tendency to choose to reach optimal levels of arousal. Intervention potential, the ability of a media that can engage or absorb an aroused person’s attention. Hedonic valence, the positive or negative nature of the media. Message-behavioral affinity, the similarity of media content to behaviors as seen in real life. The authors argued that intervention potential, hedonic valence and message-behavioral affinity represent distraction processes from negative mood, but does not address its causes whereas excitatory homeostasis represent as a repair process on negative mood. This is something new for Mood Management Theory as it was originally limited in explaining media selection by the regulation of affect and arousal and only looks at distraction from negative mood rather than repair. The authors linked this mood repair through Self-Determination theory which posited that thwarted intrinsic needs as a significant source of negative affect.  Thus, the authors argued that repairing our perceived lack of competence and autonomy would repair our negative mood.These insights are gathered into this figure.

One’s current levels of competence and autonomy satisfaction determine one’s affect and one’s choosing of a level of user demand, which is defined by a videogame’s control scheme difficulty. When one played a videogame whose control scheme (i.e. the videogame’s controls are just right and challenging) satisfy their competence and autonomy needs, this would result in good enjoyment. If not (i.e. the controls are too easy or too hard), then they don’t enjoy it. They predicted that a negative correlation between intrinsic needs satisfaction and affect to one’s selection of user demand, that is lowered needs and negative mood would lead to playing games with challenging controls. Why? Since you are in a good mood and intrinsic needs satisfied, you don’t have more reasons to play a challenging videogame and you are not going to derive more enjoyment for playing a challenging game since you’re already in a good mood.


Participants: 111 undergraduate students. Average age is 19.96 (SD=1.35). 28 males and 83 females.


Intrinsic needs: The Player Experience of Needs Satisfaction Scale. This assesses participants’ satisfaction of competence and autonomy needs. There are only three items for each needs and it uses a 7-point Agreement scale.

Affect: The Affect Grid. Participants mark a spot that characterized their moods based on affect (x-axis) and arousal (y-axis).

Enjoyment:  Four items from the interest/enjoyment subscale of the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory. It uses a Likert-type scale.

User demand: The NASA-Task Load Index. Each item/subscale ask the participant how much demands the activity requires them in terms of: mental demand (“how much mental and perceptual activity was required?”), physical demand, temporal demand, and effort. Each item/subscale uses a 20-point intensity scale. This is used four times for each activity. Referring to the figure above, the “level of user demand selected” is the composite score of the selected game mode taken during training, that is if a participant chooses a low user demand game, the score taken during training is used. The “user demand experienced during play” is the composite score of the game where the participant was asked to choose. Thus, the user demand scores were matched based on the participant’s choosing of the videogame.

Videogame used: Lock-on: Modern Air Combat, a flight simulator. The participants were asked to land a jet fighter on a landing strip. Three versions were made based on user demand. The low user demand condition has all the controls set on autopilot which means the participant does nothing. The medium user demand, the participant controls the jet’s direction (joystick) and speed (acceleration and deceleration). The high user demand condition, the participant is using all of the jet’s controls (e.g. landing flaps, air brakes, wheel brakes, landing gears, etc.). All participants were given training in all modes. Playtime is 5 minutes.

Mood manipulation: To experimentally affect the participants’ mood, competence and autonomy, they used a performance false-feedback task. The task was made to be emotion recognition task where participant see a series of faces showing ambiguous emotions and rate them. The participants were given feedback on their ratings, either “right” or “wrong” and eventually given a grade. Participants were randomly assigned to positive feedback where they were given a high grade or negative feedback where they were given a low grade.


Participants were given instructions on how to play the videogame. They were given training for each user demand level, starting with the high user demand, then low and finally medium user demand. After each training, they were given the NASA-TLX. Next, they performed the emotion recognition task where participants are randomly assigned to one of two conditions: positive or negative feedback. Participants then complete measures of affect and needs satisfaction. Participants were asked to play the videogame again, but they can choose which user demand level (low, medium or high). After play, they completed the affect measure, NASA-TLX, needs satisfaction, and enjoyment.


They analyzed their data using structural equation modeling resulting in this figure that you have seen earlier and all the numbers you see are significant. Their analysis mostly supported their hypotheses.  Although, no matter how many times I tried to understand the middle part of the figure, I always get hit by nausea.

Intrinsic needs are positively related to affect. The two variables, except autonomy which is positive, are negatively related to user demand selected. As participants were able to sample the videogame different control schemes, the game mode they choose were influenced by their needs satisfaction and affect. As the participant played their self-selected game, the level of user demand between training and their self-play is nearly perfect, when they played their game this is positively related to their needs satisfactions which in turn influence enjoyment which means their media choices repair their negative mood. According to Mood Management Theory, the participants have completed the excitatory homeostasis process.


The take home message is that Mood Management Theory should integrate Self-Determination theory in explaining why we choose certain entertainment media based on our mood, and importantly on our intrinsic needs satisfaction. A second message is that our media choices have both distractive and reparative mood processes and the latter done through intrinsic needs satisfactions.

The authors offered several explanations to the unexpected positive relation between autonomy and selected user demand. They argued that the false feedback task affect competence much more than autonomy which may affect the statistical relationship.  A second explanation is that high autonomy does not lead to greater challenging gaming, but rather lead by strong feelings of autonomy. They argued that this may not represent a repair process, but reflect behaviours reflected by high autonomy.

The authors noted several limitations from the experiment. The first limitation is that the choices the participant made could be due to distractive processes rather than reparative. Although, the authors argued that their experimental design support their interpretations. A second limitation is that the outcome variable is enjoyment rather than affect, as measured earlier in the experiment. However, the authors argued that enjoyment is proxy of positive affect and therefore is comparable. A third limitation is about the low user demand which is noninteractive and being compared to other noninteractive media (I don’t get it why it’s a limitation). A fourth limitation is the sample characteristic being a small college sample.

The authors suggested that future research involving other media should integrate Self-Determination theory into Mood Management Theory. Such integration could explain some of the counter-intuitive findings in the literature, such as why people enjoy listening to songs about relationship breakups. Another future direction is linking them to coping style and media choices, they argued that people who are emotion-focused are likely to choose media that would distract them from negative mood whereas those who are problem-focused are likely to choose media that would repair their negative mood.

My take home message is that perhaps this theoretical integration of Mood Management Theory and Self-Determination theory would have greater explanatory power and is parsimonious than Uses and Gratification theory of which I have yet to be formally acquainted with. Furthermore, we can try examining catharsis from that perspective, although I think they don’t fit conceptually, but I cannot articulate how they don’t fit.

Reinecke, L., Tamborini, R., Grizzard, M., Lewis, R., Eden, A., & David Bowman, N. (2012). Characterizing mood management as need satisfaction: The effects of intrinsic needs on selective exposure and mood repair. Journal of Communication, 62 (3), 437-453. DOI:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2012.01649.x

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