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How Social Casual Games Meet Our Unmet Psychological Needs
by Elisa Heiken on 01/22/14 07:51:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Social casual games are psychologically addicting.  Whether on mobile, tablet, or computer, these enticing games lure us in and make us hooked.  Well, at least the good ones do.  The games provide us a few minutes of entertainment, and we repay the favor with more gameplay and a few dollars.  But what makes these games so compelling to play? One way to answer this question is to evaluate how well they satisfy our psychological needs.

How do we look to technology to satisfy a growing set of needs?  Imagine that you are sitting alone at a table at a crowded restaurant waiting on a friend to arrive. You take out your phone to shoot off a word in a game of Words With Friends. Harvard psychologist Henry Murray would argue that, in that moment, you are feeling a deficit in the needs for affiliation and play. You are satisfying your needs for affiliation and play by briefly connecting with your opponent and having fun while doing so.

We humans are a complex species.  Our minds are in a constant state of disequilibrium.  We are in a constant deficit of one thing or another.  Whenever we have a deficit, our behavior is such that we will perform some sort of action to fill whatever need we are deficient in.

Murray identified 28 core psychological needs to explain these deficits, which in turn shape our motives and behaviors.  Murray’s identification of these needs provided the theoretical basis for Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Positive psychology.  His work can be looked at in the context of social casual games to better understand why they fulfill such a wide range of needs, and, therefore become so addicting. Murray’s 28 needs fall under six categories:

  • Intimacy – The need for warm, close, communicative interactions with others.
  • Power – The need to control situations and have an impact on other people.
  • Achievement – The need to accomplish goals and be superior to others.
  • Defense of Status – The need to defend yourself, avoid humiliation, and make up for failures by trying again.
  • Materialistic – The need to collect, build, retain, and organize.
  • Informational – The need to learn and grow.

Every one of our behaviors, including deciding to take action of pulling out your cellphone to check Facebook, is driven by a constant deficit of one thing or another.  Generally speaking, humans have a need to feel affiliated with others.  The baseline state of this need can vary from person to person, by gender, and even by age.  In addition to having various baseline states, our individual level of deficiencies can vary from week to week, day to day, and even hour to hour.  At any given time we are essentially complacent on some needs, have some filled up to excess, and in a deficit of others.  This ever-changing state of disequilibrium is what drives people to play social casual games.

The three most important categories for social casual games are Intimacy, Power, and Achievement.  In order to make a satisfying social casual game, all three of these needs must be clearly expressed.  It would not feel good to spend months building upon a beautiful kingdom if you didn’t have anyone to show it to (Intimacy), show off the product of your time spent building (Achievement), and know that your kingdom looks infinitely cooler than your friends’ (Power).  The remaining three, Defense of Status, Materialistic, and Informational Needs, can be used in conjunction with the three most important groups in order to enhance gameplay.  For example, in CastleVille, an online game in which the player builds/collects/advances in the story of the kingdom, depends more upon the fact that it is a purely social game.  Who you are connected with is just as important as the virtual castle you’ve built. Without the Intimacy, Power, and Achievement needs being satisfied, Defense of Status, Materialistic, and Informational needs wouldn’t work as well to create satisfying gameplay.

CastleVille is small beans compared to the Candy Crush Saga universe built by King. Candy Crush Saga is one of the top grossing mobile and Facebook games to date, with 6.7 million active users as of July 2013. Furthermore, it exemplifies all of the psychological needs described above in a single game. Candy Crush Saga fulfills the need for Intimacy by creating a sense that you are participating in game play with friends.  A player needs their friends to send rewards to help out with the tough levels, unlock gates, and send more lives so that they can immediately start playing again the second they run out.  Players can see what their friends’ scores are and which levels they are on so that they can feel connected and superior—or even inferior—to them at the same time.

Power needs are expressed by the ability to dominate friends’ high scores.  Pass a friend’s score?  Immediately inform them of this information with one click to rub it in their face.  However, don’t try to ask anyone how many times he or she has played a level or paid real money for a little extra help and then expect to get an honest answer. Our Defense of Status needs cause us to want to appear in as positive a light as possible and conceal any failure of the self.

The need for Achievement is satisfied repeatedly throughout this game with each level completion.  A player’s ranking is important, but the real reason this game wins is, because unlike many other casual social games, Candy Crush levels are hard and cognitively engaging, both of which boost Achievement and Power need stimulation. Its widespread popularity has reinforced its effectiveness at satisfying psychological needs by expanding into water cooler conversation, which makes its effects on Intimacy even stronger.  

The success of social casual games is due in part to our brains and their ever-changing states.  Because of our minds’ constant state of disequilibrium, we are always seeking stimulation in one form or another, depending where our deficit of the moment is.  Social casual games are made up of the mechanics we need to satisfy our cravings.  If our minds were constantly in a state of homeostasis, without feelings to activate us towards our behaviors, what kind of interactions would we have with our surroundings and what kind of world would that be? That’s the recipe for a world without Candy Crush Saga, and that’s not a world I want to live in. 

Social casual games offer a unique opportunity to fulfill my psychological needs in a safe environment with complete control over how much mental energy, time, and physical energy that I would like to invest.  The more psychological needs that are met by a game, the more time I’m likely to spend playing it.  Why venture out into the real world for psychological stimulation when I’ve got all that I need at my fingertips?  

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Michael Joseph
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Are we allowed to question whether this is even normal? This constant state of deficiency we are all supposedly in suggests to me that our culture is extremely unhealthy and producing unhealthy neurotic individuals. If people are unable to simply sit still and enjoy some peace and quiet, then something is surely wrong.

Mark Velthuis
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Some people just don't like sitting still. Also one state of deficiency is peace and quiet.

What I'm worried about more is that a lot of these companies abuse these for their own good instead of for the player's entertainment.

The need for social interaction is quickly turned into a social obligation. As far as things can still be considered social. These games often treat friends as nothing more than game resources, and so will many players.

The need to control situations is often an illusionary one : Developers decide the ammount of control and sometimes even timeframe in which you can/need to use that control, turning this into a situation that controls the player's behaviour.

The need to accomplish goals and be superior to others : Many of these games are time based, this pretty much prevents people from actually catching up let alone beating their friends. Skill is rarely a factor. These accomplishments are often nothing more than "who played/paid more".

I would like to see some examples/situations about where and how these could be used for the player's enjoyments without any link to monetization.

Sam Stephens
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It is easy to play pop psychologist and see the many people who enjoy casual games as "deficient" and "unhealthy," but the truth is they play games for the same reasons we all play games. Though I am not a fan of King's games, they are simple, accessible, and challenging. We play games to challenge ourselves, to socialize, and to learn. We all, in some broad sense, enjoy the basic concept of Candy Crush, even if we don't like its execution.

Albert Khusainov
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This is question, that is long forgotten. People want something - they will receive it and someone will receive money. To limit people and tell them that their lifestyle is wrong and they should live in another way do not work in modern world an is considered as tyranny and abus of democratic and human rights.

People's minds is embarassed by modern society and in the end come to primitive behaviour ways.

Real interest and ambitions are different from from simple lack of personality and inconsistence of mind.

ganesh kotian
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Thank you so much for sharing

Theresa Catalano
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I think this article illustrates something very important about game design, albeit unintentionally:

The worst trend in modern game design is a focus on manipulating the player psychologically. It's the equivalent of McDonalds saying "how can we make our food more addictive?" It's a question born of cynical greed. The real question should be how to make a better product, or in the case of game design how to make an interesting new game.

Elisa Heiken
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I believe that all games are meant to manipulate players psychologically, for the good and the bad. Designers of great games create experiences for the players to feel stimulated and rewarded. I'd rather feel psychologically engaged (and satisfied) while playing a game than feel nothing at all.

Bart Stewart
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I was nodding in agreement right up to "[t]he three most important categories for social casual games are Intimacy, Power, and Achievement." That assertion raises lots of questions.

1. Most important? Or simply most common in today's crop of social casual games? The distinction matters. "Just the most common currently" implies that there's a commercial opportunity for social casual games that emphasize Defense of Status, Materialistic, and Informational needs.

2. I think Intimacy as defined here, and "social" as expressed in social casual games, are related but not identical concepts. Social in "social casual games" means nothing more than that the game mechanically permits functional user interactions. There might be more (such as a chat feature), but it's not required. To the extent that this is social behavior, it's often so shallow as to be a pale reflection of actual human Intimacy.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing, because not every gamer (including players of social casual games) expects or wants deep personal connections from that or any other game. The very casual nature of those games, both in low time commitment and low investment in anything beyond very simple mechanics, directly opposes real, lasting, and special Intimacy in favor of multiple brief, anonymous hookups. A game that tried to favor actual Intimate connectivity might do very well, or might tank completely... but I'd bet it wouldn't be described as a social casual game.

3. I group Defense of Status, Materialistic, and Achievement needs under the same fundamental Security-seeking motivation. Call it the need for Possessions.

4. If you're willing to accept point #3, hey, it turns out that you've got four basic motivations: Power, Possessions, Information, and Intimacy, which are conceptual twins for the four core playstyles I've mentioned maybe one or two times around these parts:
_styles_a_.php .

Based on that unified model, I'm inclined to see social casual games (SCGs) in two broad groups: competitive and cooperative.

Cooperative SCGs such as FarmVille emphasize the Guardian/Achiever/Possession and Idealist/Socializer/Intimacy styles. These games encourage growth through persistent simple effort while enabling help from friends, and do emphasize the "social" aspect. Achievement generally happens from helping others and being helped by them, though in a very light, asynchronous (casual) way.

Competitive SCGs -- which is most of them -- emphasize the Guardian/Achiever/Possession and Artisan/Manipulator (Killer)/Power styles. The social aspect in these games is almost entirely utilitarian: a constant stream of new players is needed in order to manipulate and exploit and defeat them (Power) for progress in collecting objects, coins, and rank (Possessions).

While this may seem like a different way of understanding SCGs, it actually seems to me to be pretty neatly congruent with Murray's clusters of needs as described here. It's just a mildly different way of organizing the ideas.

Thanks for posting this! Even if we see things a little differently, articles like these are, I think, valuable for understanding why we play. With no model for explaining what people find fun and why they like those particular things, how can you effectively analyze and understand the responses to your game?

Magnus Borg
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I can definitely see a clear path towards the more simple social casual games and how these needs are being fulfilled within these games, but as one of the comments touch upon it isn't always done the nice way, and it feels straight up greedy many times. But I do disagree with that it is all about figuring out how to make a game more addictive hence more revenue. I think that to create an interesting new game, we should be looking into the needs theory with its deficiencies to also create a game with greater satisfactions associated with it.

I thought it was an overall interesting article, maybe a follow up could touch upon other examples of how the needs theory can be applied to other more complex gaming genres and also maybe discuss how the needs theory could be a support pillar for general user experience, not just in gaming.