Researchers, critics, and designers have suggested a lot of ways to analyze the ways that games can engage players. Why throw in one more? Partly, I offer this approach to validate some excellent ideas suggested by others, backed up with additional research. In addition, however, I offer this approach to fill some gaps that may not be discussed on a widespread level yet. And finally, so much of the research and theory on how we engage with games either focuses very specifically on challenge, or defines engagement with games in terms of "fun".
Given that recent years have seen an explosion in popular games that are not at all challenging, and a quieter expansion in "serious" games that provoke thought more than provide amusement, it seems a good time to draw attention to broader concepts of how we play.
I do, of course, intend to follow the grand academic tradition of borrowing wholeheartedly from my favorite theories. Bart Stewart's Unified Model is especially useful in recognizing that certain player behaviors represent legitimate styles of play that designs can purposely accommodate; "griefing" isn't necessarily just for jerks, but something that can be built into a game to appeal to certain needs and interests.
Mitch Krpata's New Taxonomy of Gamers offers some usefully fine-tuned distinctions between different kinds of challenge, immersion, and recreation. Michael Abbott's Fun Factor Catalog offers a data-based set of appeals, but without much rigorous, systematic organization to date (as it is still a work in progress).
Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek's MDA [pdf link] (Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics) approach, meanwhile, offers perhaps the most comprehensive range of ways that players engage with games, but leaves some aspects relatively unexplored. Few theoretical approaches even recognize "submission" as a reason people play games -- so what does it look like?
Consider here, then, five categories of game appeals:
Though my own research has focused primarily on video games, I've noticed that many of these appeals may be equally effectively applied to analysis of how other sorts of games are designed, as well. I'll suggest a few specific appeals for each category, but there is likely room for more.
Accomplishment refers to the rewarding feelings that come from "winning" or otherwise succeeding at a game. Related appeals include completion (finishing a game, getting all the trophies/achievements/unlockable content), perfection (improving one's skills at the game), domination (besting other players), fortune (earning a reward through chance), and construction (using a game to create art or objects).
I take a cue from Mitch Krpata here in making a distinction between completion and perfection. As I found in my own research, completion is what inspires players to earn every Achievement in Halo 3, but perfection is what inspires them to achieve the highest multiplayer ranking possible. Domination is also a factor in the latter, but a player can find satisfaction in defeating other players even if she isn't necessarily improving her skills (as even expert players sometimes take pleasure in crushing poorly matched opponents).
Note, however, that accomplishment doesn't necessarily only include mastering a game through one's own skill, but simply winning at it. Players still find something appealing in lining up three cherries on a casino slot machine, or harvesting all their crops on time in FarmVille, even if there was no actual skill involved in the "win". This is why I add an additional appeal for fortune, representing a sense of accomplishment through no actual ability, or perhaps even any effort.
After describing all of these appeals, it may seem odd to group construction -- an expressive act -- alongside more traditional concepts of "winning." I include this here, however, because acts of creativity in games are similarly goal-oriented, and often accompanied by external indicators of success or failure (such as appreciative comments by forum-goers looking upon your screen shots).
Whether the end result is a mosaic of the Mona Lisa rendered in FarmVille crops, an especially attractive Skyrim character, or an exquisitely-constructed palace in Minecraft, construction offers a sense of user-definable accomplishment all its own; what the game contributes is a platform that makes this possible.
Imagination refers to practices of pretend, with particular regard to storytelling and simulation. Related appeals include spectatorship ("watching" stories), directorship ("making" stories), roleplaying (pretending to take on another kind of identity), and exploration (pretending to exist within a pretend landscape).
Different games emphasize different imagination appeals to varying extents. Skyrim, for instance, has a heavy emphasis on directorship and exploration. Go on any Skyrim forum online, and you'll find plenty of players sharing detailed stories of their adventures and the unexpected things they encountered, each different from the others. There's room for roleplaying -- many players generate quite a bit of back story and additional context for their characters -- but the game itself doesn't really ask players to do this, at least not directly.
In contrast, Mass Effect offers less in the way of exploration, giving players a more linear path to explore, but it more directly guides roleplaying and focuses more on spectatorship, with cinematic cutscenes and clearly defined personality options for the protagonist. Players still have a sense of directorship, discussing on their own forums how they made different choices and told different stories, but the range of narratives is narrower because the game is written to more resemble Hollywood storytelling techniques. Gears of War, meanwhile, offers no opportunity for directorship in its campaign mode, but through dialog, cutscenes, and music, still offers opportunities for spectatorship.
I also humbly posit that spectatorship should include not just engaging with the story of a game you're playing, but engaging with the story of a game you're watching someone else play. This refers not only to players I've spoken with in the course of my research who make their spouses buy certain games so they can watch somebody else play through for the story, but also to the many thousands of spectators of professional sports at stadiums and in front of televisions. Though "winning" plays a part in people's enjoyment of such games, the unfolding drama of a game in progress, with an uncertain end, can appeal to both players and spectators alike.