Game Theory Episode 3: Why We Play Games

What is it about gaming that compels us to join clans like PCP and to spend precious hours (and dollars)?

In Game Theory Episode 1 we referenced the latest economist alarmism about the rise of social gaming reducing qualified workers from the labor market because gaming was substituting for the social motivation which working jobs with others provides. In Episode 2 we covered efforts of gaming companies to find appropriate business models to collect the ongoing social value gaming is creating. In this episode, we explore the basic psychological motivations driving us to game and which give rise to this community of gamers…and we can even start to see why some gamers prefer certain games over others, depending on their motivations.

To begin, psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci propose a theory called Self-Determination Theory, for a framework to describe human motivation. It states: “…that human behavior is driven by the need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. If those needs are met, we enjoy activities more, even in gaming.” (Source). Let’s break it down further:

  1. Competence – simply put, this is a primary motivator why certain gamers enjoy the “grind”, or run the same raid over and over…and are glad to help others learn the game they’ve mastered. Completing the same mission 100 times and completely mastering it is a way one gains competence, and most importantly competence in something that is important to others…and they can become competent leaders.
  2. Autonomy – in gaming, you’re in full control and, with the rise of open-world games, no one is telling you what to do. Complete the mission or team-kill, it’s up to you. Why do the young timmies enjoy team-killing? Because their real life is filling with school, parents, or authority figures telling them what to do – in the game is the only play they achieve autonomy … and they exercise it.
  3. Relatedness – humans are social; gaming allows us to be competent and autonomous in a social setting with others who share our same interests.

Ryan and Deci’s framework is one of several which are used by the gaming industry to build better games (read: addict you into playing and paying more). In the next episode we’ll build on this framework by looking at other reasons why we do what we do when it comes to gaming!