The second intrinsic psychological need of the PENS model is autonomy, which is the experience of volition or choice in one’s decisions and actions. In activities in which we feel we have the freedom to choose and create the experiences we want for ourselves, we are more likely to be energized and intrinsically motivated to engage in those activities. There’s no way to fudge this -- choices that are forced upon us don’t count and are actually demotivating. In gameplay, these can include such things as our avatar being taken out of our control too frequently by cut-scenes, running into invisible walls, or generally gameplay that gives the illusion of choice (e.g. you are free to cut the blue wire or the red wire to defuse the bomb) when in fact there is only one solution to a challenge or one path to follow (e.g. red wire = boom).
The intrinsic need for autonomy is what fuels the player’s hunger for more freedom in games, and why games that provide freedom and open-ended gameplay are so highly valued. The best examples are “sandbox” titles, such as the Sim City, although our data shows that all game genres benefit from supporting player autonomy.
We found that when looking at turn-based strategy games, player’s experience of autonomy was by far the greatest predictor of enjoyment – showing a correlation of nearly .50. This indicates that a large proportion of the enjoyment of the game was directly related to the player’s experience of autonomy. Similarly strong relationships were found between satisfying the need for autonomy and commercially relevant outcomes, such as game value, intent to recommend game to others, and desire to play more games by the developer. Table 2 provides a snapshot showing the global value of measuring the experience of autonomy across genre.
As the table shows, the experience of autonomy showed consistent relationships with important outcomes regardless of genre or platform (much as we found with competence). This is particularly true in MMO’s (e.g. WoW), Strategy (RTS and TBS), and Adventure (e.g. Zelda) genres. The broad ability of autonomy to significantly predict outcomes lends further support to our hypothesis that PENS is a global model. Conceptually, the autonomy need lies at the heart of efforts to create open-ended gameplay and the broad trend to grant players more and more choice in customizing multiple aspects of their gaming experience.
The strength of the intrinsic need for autonomy also explains other aspects of player behavior as well, for example, the incredible persistence of many players to “break” the game (as Will Wright sometimes puts it). Head over to YouTube and you can find an increasing catalog of videos that demonstrate players remarkable persistence in discovering ways they can stretch their freedom in virtual worlds, particularly to go beyond what even the developer intends. The PENS model gives us the means to both understand this important need for autonomy, and objectively measure how well we are providing it in games.
The final basic motivational need in our lightbox is that of relatedness, and we turn our attention there next.