Video games satisfy universal psychological needs

Ever wondered why video games can be so engaging and addictive, even in the absence (for most people that is) of any external reward for playing (i.e. payment, fame)? You are not the only one. Przybylski, Rigby and Ryan wrote a paper for the “Review of General Psychology” in 2010, tackling this exact question. Their ideas are really interesting.

Video games provide experiences that satisfy universal psychological needs
Przybylski, Rigby and Ryan propose that the extent to which games are appealing, immersive, improve our sense of wellbeing and activate our desire for future play  is based on the capacity of the game to satisfy three universal human psychological needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness.

is the experience of increasing levels of skill, with application of effort – or more simply, getting better the more we try. Video games create this experience in three main ways: the use of levels within the game (starts easy, gets harder over time), the use of feedback (e.g. scores/kills/skills) to communicate improvement and advancement, and the creation of intuitive sophisticated interfaces that provide players with an immediate sense of mastery but also opportunities to improve.

is the experience of having choice. Video games achieve this by giving players choices over the “missions they choose, the skills they acquire and how their characters appear”. Even in the short time that I have played games, I have seen a marked increase in the degree of autonomy provided in modern games: expansive open worlds, multiple ways of getting to the same end point (e.g. shoot everyone vs stealth) and choices at key points in the storyline.
Finally, relatedness is the experience of interacting and connecting with others. In the early days, of console and arcade games this was achieved by playing with a buddy. Now, through the internet, players can connect through large virtual worlds, competitive and collaborative multiplayer games, forums, and social media. I can even go online and watch another person play a game on Youtube and make incredibly witty comments.

So what?
Well there are a few interesting (albeit preliminary) findings that have emerged from this work that are worth noting:

  1. Increases in aggression following gameplay may be related to the thwarting of these needs, not necessarily the impact of the violent content of the game. What do I mean by this? Well games that have overly complex control schemes can thwart a sense of competence. Games that have poor network connectivity can thwart the multiplayer experience (relatedness).
  2. Individuals for whom these three basic psychological needs are not being met in their everyday life, are more likely to develop obsessive gaming behaviour (i.e. the ones that end up in the psychologist’s office with “gaming addiction”). Those for whom these needs are being met report a more harmonious relationship with gaming.
  3. How immersive a game feels appears to be influenced less by the fidelity of the graphics and sound and more by the extent to which it satisfies these three fundamental needs?
What are your experiences?
Reflecting on my own gaming patterns and preferences, I’d say competence and autonomy are the most important drivers for me. I like games where I can master the controls quickly and progress through the game without dying too many times. I have a really low tolerance for very difficult games. I also like games where I am free to explore (open world) and have choices on how to play the game (I prefer stealth). The social aspect of games however is relatively unimportant to me. I much prefer to game alone, and have no interest in social gaming. Interestingly, these preferences for games mirror my everyday life, in which competence and autonomy outweigh relatedness in terms of their importance.
What about you?  What needs do you think gaming satisfies for you?