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How Do Video Games Motivate People? (VG Series Part 9/10)

2010 November 9

Neo-Academic coverage of the Journal of General Psychology special issue on the psychology of video games:

ResearchBlogging.orgThere are few topics so hotly debated on the Internet as the value of video games. Are they the next generation’s artistic advance, as film was for the last, or are they a blight that makes children overly aggressive and dangerous? In this 10-part series, I’m reviewing a recent special issue of the Journal of General Psychology on video games. For more background information, see the first post in the series.

In the ninth article in the series, Przybylski, Rigby and Ryan (2010)[1] detail a model by which researchers can frame the motivational forces in video games. They do this because of a perceived shift in the research:

Until very recently, the preponderance of research in video games has been concern-focused, with studies aimed at identifying the potential negative effects of gaming… more recently, a number of researchers have become intervention-focused, hoping to harness the magnetic motivational appeal of video games to help relieve pain and stress or customizing games for educational or health-related interventions… Increasingly, intervention-focused researchers are demonstrating that games can positively influence both psychological and physical well-being.

Well, sort of.  As we’ve been discussing here on Neo-Academic, there’s certainly a great deal of potential for video games, though the empirical evidence is sparse.  We know that video games can have a positive effect.  The question remaining is, “How do they have a positive effect?”  And this is just the question that this article wants to help answer.

Przybylski et al. frame the argument in terms of self-determination theory, which posits that motivation is principally a function of how well our basic needs are met.  They hope to use this framework to mature the discussion of video games from “People want to play this game because it is fun” to “This game motivates people to play because of these specific characteristics.”  This is a sign of the first step of maturation of a research literature.  It is no longer sufficient to say “X happens.”  Instead, we must find out why X happens.

The research, to some extent, seems to support the idea that players are attempting to meet what the authors call player experience of need satisfaction.  In one study, they even found that the experience of need satisfaction was related to sense of well-being, enjoyment of the game itself, and desire to play again.  That sounds quite promising as a theoretical structure from the perspective of game designers for both entertainment and “serious game” purposes.

Perhaps most interesting to me in this article was the authors’ discussion of the appeal of violence in video games.  In a series of studies, the authors tested the interplay between need fulfillment and violence.  Here’s an interesting report on one of those studies:

To this end, we extensively modified the content but not play mechanics of Half-Life 2, a popular computer game. The high-violence version provided graphic violence featuring firearms, gore, and a conflict-based kill-or-be-killed narrative, whereas the low-violence version had a friendly competition story describing the play as a game of tag wherein players teleported adversaries away. Following training in the game controls, we randomly assigned participants to high violence or low-violence versions of the game. Results showed that the violent and nonviolent versions did not differ in the need satisfaction, enjoyment, or immersion they inspired.

While I won’t quibble with the confounding of the use of firearms, gore, and narrative structure with the concept of “violence,” what I am a little confused about is where this was published previously.  No citation is given for this study – only this cursory description.  This places some of their following sweeping generalizations (“we found that violent content does not by itself contribute to the appeal of games, a result that runs counter to the commonly held view that popular violent games such as Grand Theft Auto IV are popular because they are violent”) on somewhat shaky ground.

So is self-determination theory a valid approach for studying video games?  Sure.  But once again, the authors make a fairly convincing argument that their approach makes sense, but not much of an argument that it makes more sense than any other competing approach.

  1. Przybylski, A., Rigby, C., & Ryan, R. (2010). A motivational model of video game engagement. Review of General Psychology, 14 (2), 154-166 DOI: 10.1037/a0019440 []
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  1. trent permalink
    December 1, 2011

    ya good argument.

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