A complete theory of motivation in the arena of gaming must not simply catalog observations of player behavior (e.g. “players like carrots” or “players pursue challenges”) but should also be able to describe the underlying energy that fuels actions in the first place (i.e. our “motivational lightbox”). Our research shows that this underlying motivational energy takes the form of three basic psychological needs: Those of competence, autonomy, and relatedness, which comprise the major components of what we call the Player Experience of Need Satisfaction (PENS). Over the last two years, we have conducted a variety of studies both in our game testing lab and with thousands of gamers in the field. Across the board, when games satisfy these motivational needs, it has significant implications for the player experience and the game’s success.
Methodologically, the PENS approach is easy to administer because it efficiently targets specific experiences related to need satisfaction and yields almost immediate feedback. These measures can be easily tailored to apply to specific design or gameplay ideas, or to more fully developed titles. Despite this simplicity, we’ll show some pretty exciting predictive relationships with a wide range of outcomes. It is the ease of the methodology combined with its predictive power that leads us to believe this approach is a strong addition to a developer’s playtesting arsenal, even during very rapid iteration of ideas.
Let’s look at each of the motivational needs in the PENS model more closely, and how they comprise the motivational lightbox that powers the outcomes developers strive to achieve.
Competence can be defined very simply as the intrinsic need to feel effective in what we are doing. Numerous studies have shown that in both our work lives and our leisure that we are intrinsically motivated to seek out opportunities to experience competence and the satisfaction that accompanies it. No matter what we’re up to, feeling effective energizes us and motivates further action, while feeling ineffective decreases motivation and brings a negative psychological impact.
Why do players find it rewarding to go through the exact same game content multiple times on harder and harder difficulty settings? Why do game challenges so captivate players and bring such exhilaration when conquered? Because overcoming game challenges satisfies the intrinsic need for competence and allows us to stretch our abilities, perhaps in a more immediate and direct way than many activities in “real” life. Whether its reaching the next level of Geometry Wars or unlocking “Insane” difficulty in Gears of War, the game is rewarding when it offers more opportunities to satisfy competence – and it is this satisfaction that gamers intrinsically value.
So we believe that the need for competence unifies and explains the energy behind many experiential outcomes coveted by developers such as “optimal challenge” and “flow”. But to demonstrate that a need for competence and the other components of the PENS motivational model are behind important outcomes (e.g. perceived value, enjoyment) we need to show that measuring competence satisfaction has predictive power as a playtesting method.
Table 1 summarizes the predictive value of competence satisfaction in relationship to a variety of relevant variables and across multiple game genres. As the table shows, gameplay competence is significantly related to the player’s enjoyment and sense of immersion, as well as how much value the player feels the game provides and a variety of other commercially relevant variables. This predictive value held true regardless of genre, thus demonstrating that the need for competence is globally meaningful as a playtesting tool.
Table 1 clearly demonstrates the strong predictive power of brief but carefully designed and validated PENS assessments of competence satisfaction. We should note that this approach can be applied in multiple ways during development, measuring how well specific design iterations meet competence needs, as well as illuminating how needs are differentially being satisfied at various points along the gameplay progression. As to the kinds of measurement questions themselves, remember that the goal with this method is to focus on underlying need satisfaction (experience of effectiveness) rather than emotional outcomes (such as fun and enjoyment). We find it valuable to ask players questions related to the experience of competence with regard to both gameplay and game mechanics (e.g. controls), and have consistently found both to have strong relationships to positive outcomes.
Notice in the above table that not only are the results strong for competence across the board, but where they are slightly less strong – for example, the relationship between competence and immersion in strategy games – makes conceptual sense. Feeling competent at adjusting city production during a round of Civilization IV is not as likely to “pull you in” to the game world nearly as much as making an uber headshot during a heated round of Counter Strike. As we’ll see below, other motivational needs, notably autonomy, shine more brightly behind the enjoyment and immersion in strategy games.
Let’s look at autonomy next, as it is the second motivational need in the PENS model.