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I donít enjoy playing in a no-win scenario: Enjoyment and self-determination in winning videogames
by Wai Yen Tang on 08/22/14 02:10:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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


Following the blog post on†videogame cheating and after watching a scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, James T. Kirk explained how he beat a no-win scenario:

He cheated, but we can interpret his meaning in that he changed the simulation to an easier difficulty level allowing him to win. However, would players enjoy their wins from a easy game? Two recent studies have examined the enjoyment of winning in videogames. Michael Schmierbach, Mun-Young Chung, Mu Wu and Keunyeoung Kim (Pennsylvania State University) titled their article in reference to Kirk: “No One Likes to Lose” in the Journal of Media Psychology.


Although scholars of video game enjoyment propose that games are meant to present a reasonable and appropriate challenge to players, not enough research has tested the effects of difficulty on enjoyment or the psychological mechanisms driving this relationship. In an experimental study involving college students ( N = 121) playing a casual online tower defense game, we tested the relationship between difficulty and enjoyment and the possible mediating roles played by competency, as specified by self-determination theory, and challenge-skill balance, as specified by flow theory. Path analysis suggested that feelings of competency contribute to enjoyment by helping players obtain a balance between challenge and skill, and that competency is enhanced when players are assigned an easier game mode. This paper then addresses implications for theory, game design, and laboratory studies.

Diana Rieger (University of Cologne), Tim Wulf (University of Cologne), Julia Kneer (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Lena Frischlich (University of Cologne) and Gary Bente (University of Cologne) titled their article a majority sentiment: “The winner takes it all”.


Recent research found that playing video games is able to serve mood management purposes as well as contribute to gratifications such as need satisfaction. Both aspects can foster the enjoyment as entertainment experience. The current study explores the question of how in-game success as a prerequisite for satisfying the need for competence and autonomy positively influences mood repair and game enjoyment. In a laboratory setting, participants were frustrated via a highly stressing math task and then played a video game (Mario Kart). Results show that in-game success drives mood repair as reflected in the experience of anger, happiness and activation. Moreover, fulfilling the intrinsic needs for competence and autonomy mediated the effects of in-game success and predicted enjoyment of the video game. Results are discussed in context of recent conceptualizations of media entertainment and the hierarchical order of emotional gratifications.

I’ve wondered for some time about doing a similar study using the Impossible Game. This post is cross-posted at VG Researcher.

Schmierbach and colleagues examined how difficulty affects players’ enjoyment. The authors acknowledged that the literature has no universal definition for difficulty, so they defined it as in-game actions constituting failure and the punishments of such failure according to Jesper Juul’s explication. A game like Dark Souls is a very difficult game as any missteps can lead to defeat and the consequences are severe whereas an easier game like Candy Crush where there are fewer missteps towards defeat and the consequences less severe.

A game’s difficulty is set by its algorithms which can affect players’ subjective experiences. For new players, winning an easy game would satisfy their intrinsic need for competence which can contribute towards their enjoyment of the game. However, the authors observed that games provide a balance between its challenges with the player’s skill which can elicit enjoyable flow experiences. The authors noted that the relationship between a player’s sense of competency and the challenge-skill balance is not known. They argued that both involve overcoming challenges conceptually, but differ in degrees and its relationship with enjoyment with skill-challenge balance closer as it is related to flow experiences. Hence, what role does the balance of challenge-skill reside in players’ videogame enjoyment is examined.

Rieger and colleagues examined how winning in a videogame affects players’ enjoyment and mood, in particular when they were in a bad mood before playing the game. Following Mood Management Theory which posited that individuals’ current mood influence their behaviours in maintaining or changing their mood. When they are in a bad mood, such as sadness or anger, they will seek out something that will lighten them up, say a videogame. The research on videogames effects on mood indicated that the actions players need to do distract them away from the negative mood and provide emotional gratification during play, such as fun or suspense.

Similarly mentioned in Schmierbach’s article, media and videogames can satisfy intrinsic needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness which leads to enjoyment and possibly lighten them up too. The authors argued that one pathway for satisfying these needs is, as you guessed it by now, winning the game. Hence, what role do winning and need satisfaction would have on players’ mood and enjoyment is examined.


Schmierbach et al.

Participants: 121 undergraduate students from Penn State. Avrerage age is 19.65 (SD = 1.51), 64 men and 57 women. Average video game play time is 1.80 hours per week (SD = 3.04).


Competency: 3 items stemming from the self-determination theory answered on a 7-point agreement scale.

Challenge-skill balance: 3 items adopted from another measure answered on a 7-point agreement scale.

Enjoyment: 7 items adapted from other measures answered on a 7-point agreement scale.

Challenge-liking: 1 item used as a control variable in case some people like difficult games.

Rieger et al.

Participants: 46 participants. Average age is 24.72 (SD = 3.53). 31 women and 15 men.


Mood: Participants rated their agreement with adjectives reflecting moods. There are five factors: angriness, happiness, depression, deactivation, and balance.

Enjoyment: 4 items from the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory, answered on a 5-point scale.

Competence and autonomy: 6 items from the Player Experience of Need Satisfaction Scale answered on a 7-point agreement scale.


Schmierbach and colleagues had participants come in individually to play Bloons Tower Defense 4. Presumably, all of the towers were unlocked. They were randomly assigned to play easy or hard. In easy mode, they played one of the beginner tracks on easy mode. In hard mode, they played one of the intermediate tracks on hard mode. They can restart as many times until play time is over. Play time is approximately 30 minutes ending in their current wave.

Rieger and colleagues had participants come in individually to play Mario Kart Wii. Before participants play the videogame, they performed a task called the paced auditory serial-addition task. This is used to frustrate the participants and darken their mood because it is difficult and unresolvable which is confirmed from the mood questionnaire. When the participants started playing Mario Kart Wii, they played two race tracks. The researchers kept an eye on the participants ranking which is used as in-game success, kept the game settings constant and turned off the power-ups. Playtime is between 10-12 minutes. Afterwards, they completed the mood questionnaire once more.


Schmierbach and colleagues conducted path analysis and their results are shown below.

Hard games decreases feelings of competency, which it affects challenge-skill balance and in turn enjoyment. The authors reasoned challenge-skill balance is closer to enjoyment as it is related to the flow experience which is a pleasurable experience. The authors investigate whether participants liking difficult games might have a role, but it was not a significant factor. The authors added a footnote that they examined autonomy and found it as a significant predictor to enjoyment and its inclusion did not change the results anyway.

Rieger and colleagues first conducted T-tests to see if playing Mario Kart changed participants mood and it did. Their moods were uplifted by Mario Kart from that frustrating task. They further examined this change looking at in-game success and need satisfaction (i.e. competence and autonomy) through hierarchical regressions. What they found is that in-game was a significant predictor for angriness, happiness, and deactivation.

The authors examined how in-game success and need satisfaction affect enjoyment. Initially, they found that in-game success was a predictor of enjoyment, but once competence and autonomy are entered into the equation, it became non-significant and is thus mediated by competence and autonomy.


The take home message from both studies is that winning is an enjoyable and uplifting experience, at least in the case for single player videogames. This enjoyable experience is mediated by whether the videogame satisfy the players’ intrinsic needs of competence and autonomy as posited by the self-determination theory. The unique contributions of both studies illustrate the complexities of videogame enjoyment in that there are many structural characteristics of a videogame that makes it enjoyable and to whom and what changes the dynamics. These studies showed that winning and playing an easy game that satisfy our intrinsic needs are quite enjoyable.

Schmierbach and colleagues investigated the role of difficulty in videogames and found that difficult games does not make it an even more enjoyable experience. They noted that the hard mode in their experiment was rated as moderately difficult and it is perhaps that a non-linear relationship may exist, that is perhaps a “middle” difficulty level may be the most enjoyable, as it is not too easy to be boring and not too hard to be frustration and less enjoyable. However, the authors suggested to examine this idea of the middle/balanced ground by considering how a game adjusts its difficulty to the players’ performance level. Although, I should point out from Rieger et al.’s study that winning is mediated by the fulfillment of intrinsic needs. Finally, the authors noted that the games researchers should be of aware of the difficulty of videogames that may further frustrate participants.

Rieger and colleagues investigated the role of winning in videogames and found that a positive outcome of a game can uplift players’ mood after an unpleasant experience. Importantly, they noted that our gratification from playing videogames is multiple. Our mood is predicated by our direct gratifications within the game, that is winning. Our enjoyment is predicated by our indirect gratification, that is playing the game. Although, I should point out from Schmierbach et al.’s study that this indirect gratification depends on the gaming situation that fulfills these needs. Thus, the authors suggested developing a theory that gratifications might hierarchically structured like Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The limitations from both studies is that the videogames are what some call ‘casual’ games and do not necessarily reflect and generalize some of the more challenging or violent games. If the studies used violent videogames, additional considerations will be needed to confirm the present results. In terms of mood repair, the role of catharsis would be a research question. In terms of difficulty, mastery of controls would be an important consideration, especially when a videogame, such as Real-Time Strategy game that has a higher learning curve would pose a significant likely of frustrating new players (see Przybylski et al., 2014). On the other hand, consider how winning or losing with other players affect enjoyment?

The presence of other players would entail many factors. First, the players’ comparative skill levels which was recognized by videogame companies who implemented matchmaking algorithms in multiplayer games ensuring similar players are paired with each other, what happens if we upset the matchmaking. Second, the players’ comparative social mannerism, even though they are comparatively skilled, they may or may not lend an enjoyable or positive gaming experience which could render playing a game more difficult (see Breuer et al., in press). Third, the relative ranking position of players would affect their experiences (see Jamie Madigan’s piece about second place; Schmierbach et al., 2012). Finally, how would cheating affect enjoyment?


Breuer, J., Scharkow, M., & Quandt, T. (in press). Sore losers? a reexamination of the Frustration–Aggression hypothesis for colocated video game play. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. DOI:10.1037/ppm0000020

Przybylski, A.†K., Deci, E.†L., Rigby, C.†S., & Ryan, R.†M. (2014). Competence-impeding electronic games and players’ aggressive feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106 (3), 441-457. DOI:10.1037/a0034820

Rieger, D., Wulf, T., Kneer, J., Frischlich, L., & Bente, G. (2014). The winner takes it all: The effect of in-game success and need satisfaction on mood repair and enjoyment. Computers in Human Behavior, 39 , 281-286. DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.07.037

Schmierbach, M., Chung, M.-Y., Wu, M., & Kim, K. (2014). No one likes to lose: The effect of game difficulty on competency, flow, and enjoyment. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 26 (3), 105-110. DOI: 10.1027/1864-1105/a000120

Schmierbach, M., Xu, Q., Oeldorf-Hirsch, A., & Dardis, F.†E. (2012). Electronic friend or virtual foe: Exploring the role of competitive and cooperative multiplayer video game modes in fostering enjoyment. Media Psychology, 15 (3), 356-371. DOI:10.1080/15213269.2012.702603

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