Video Games and Motivation

25 Aug


Every year globally, people spend huge amounts of money and time playing video games. Most people who engage in video game play choose to do so voluntarily, because it is fun and they enjoy it. This makes it an intrinsically motivating activity.

Research into video game play has tended to focus on either the positive effects e.g. a sense of efficacy or improved learning or the negative effects e.g. lower productivity or violent tendencies on players1. However, some studies have examined the motivating effects of video games, albeit from different perspectives.

Sherry and Lucas2 found that players engage in video games to access one or more of the following psychological states:

  • Competition: the experience of defeating others
  • Challenge: the experience of success following effort
  • Diversion: to escape an experience of stress
  • Fantasy: to experience novel or unrealistic stimuli
  • Social interaction: to have a social experience
  • Arousal: to experience activated positive emotions

According to Yee3, people who play Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG) e.g. Star Wars Galaxies, were motivated by three main areas while playing (made up of 10 sub-components):


  • Advancement: rapid progression, gaining power, accumulating wealth or status
  • Mechanics: analysing the rules and system in order to optimise character performance
  • Competition: a desire to challenge and compete with others


  • Socialising: including helping others, making friends, chatting with other players
  • Relationships: developing long-term relationships, finding and giving support to others
  • Teamwork: collaborating with others, achieving as a group.


  • Discovery: exploring the game world, finding hidden things within the game
  • Role-Playing: creating a character back-story, interacting with other characters
  • Customisation: the ability to create the appearance of the character
  • Escapism: providing an escape from real-life problems

Research by Ryan, Rigby and Przybylski4 into the motivation to play video games (regardless of the game type) found that motivation is accounted for by how well the game satisfies our three basic psychological needs:

  1. Autonomy – the extent to which the game provides flexibility over movement and strategies, choice over task and goals, and rewards that provide feedback and not control.
  2. Competence – the extent to which tasks provide ongoing challenges and opportunities for feedback.
  3. Relatedness – the extent to which the game provides interactions between players.

In addition to need satisfaction, their research also found that:

Presence – the extent to which the player feels within the game environment as opposed to being outside the game manipulating the controls, and

Intuitive controls – the extent to which the controls make sense and don’t interfere with feelings of presence, were also important as they allow players to focus on game play and access the need satisfaction provided by the game.

Contexts that satisfy these basic needs will support people’s actions, resulting in more optimal motivation and positive outcomes. Therefore, we should design our eLearning experiences to support the autonomy, competence and relatedness needs of our learners.

Gamification is a technique that aims to replicate the motivational pull of video game play and apply it to eLearning experiences. While gamification has been met with some criticism, it seems that it’s more the application that is the problem rather than the technique itself. In order to successfully gamify an eLearning course we need to satisfy people’s basic psychological needs. If we look at popular video games over time such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario, Angry Birds, Guitar Hero, Wii Sports, Donkey Kong, World of Warcraft or Space Invaders, we can see how they satisfy these needs and use similar approaches to our own eLearning design.

Here are some examples of the game design elements used by these popular games and how they apply to each of our psychological needs:


  • Allowing players to make meaningful choices that have consequences
  • Providing players with more than one way to reach their goal
  • Allowing players to customise their environment e.g. choosing a character


  • Making the rules and goals for players clear and structured
  • Allowing multiple opportunities to complete parts of the game to allow players to build their competence
  • Requiring players to frequently make decisions to keep the game moving forward
  • Measuring player performance in multiple ways
  • Increasing the difficulty as the player progresses through the game
  • Linking progression (the reward) to player competence
  • Providing players with constant and varied feedback and support
  • Allowing players to review or replay earlier parts of the game


  • Providing space/areas for player interaction and discussion
  • Providing opportunities for player collaboration e.g. a group quest or challenge

Popular games use different combinations of game design elements in order to keep people motivated to play. If you substitute ‘player’ with ‘learner’, from the above list, you will see how gamification can be incorporated into your eLearning experiences. Once the mechanics are selected (based on the needs of learners), designers can then look to incorporate the aesthetic elements of game design in order to create presence and intuitive control/navigation which will support the game mechanics.

Motivation plays an important role during eLearning experiences and our challenge is to create eLearning that our learners want to engage in. While it does require more effort in the design, gamification is a technique that, if used correctly, can improve the motivation of all learners who experience gamified eLearning.


1 & 4 Ryan, R. M., Rigby, C. S & Przybylski, A. K., (2006). The motivational pull of video games: a self-determination theory approach. Motivation and Emotion.  30, 347-364.

2 Przybylski, A. K., Rigby, C. S. & Ryan, R. M. (2010) A motivational model of video game engagement. Review of General Psychology. 14 (2), 154-166.

3 Yee, N. (2006). Motivations for play in online games. CyberPsychology & Behaviour. 9 (6), 772-775.

Game Over


Posted by on August 25, 2013 in Gamification, Motivation


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

22 responses to “Video Games and Motivation

  1. Kathleen

    August 26, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    This is a very nice summary indeed. In addition to the word “motivation” I like the word “engagement” to describe the psychological state we want to promote and take advantage of in learning. Jane McGonigal interesting things to say about engagement in videos available on YouTube, and I learned a great deal from the course on gamification. This is an intriguing area. Thanks for the great article!

    • learningsnippets

      August 26, 2013 at 10:48 pm

      Hi Kathleen
      Thanks for your comments! I agree with you in that we want our learners to be engaged with the content and if they are engaged it will lead to positive outcomes. I also find gamification a really interesting topic and I’ve seen Jane talking on TED about gaming and I believe there is a lot of potential there especially in the area of e-Learning.
      Thanks for reading 🙂

  2. Kenneth Phun

    August 27, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing that Matt. My students and I create board and card games in my Educational Psychology class in Malaysia. Personally, I find the non-electronic format easier for students whose classes are not so wired, to engage with games while learning. A big reason for what I do is bcos I’ve found games to be an excellent vehicle for learning as students get so motivated to play, so much so that learning becomes almost effortless, and before they realize it, they are interacting with material which was previously thought to be difficult or boring.

    • learningsnippets

      August 29, 2013 at 10:36 am

      Hi Kenneth
      Thanks for reading and sharing your experience. It sounds like you are doing some great things by using games in the classroom. I like how you said ‘my students and I create’ meaning they have buy in too. I agree that games are great especially when students don’t realise they are learning!

  3. dwjanicki

    September 10, 2013 at 11:01 pm

    Great work! I have just recently found out about gamification literally only a few months ago. I have heard talks that Blackboard will be creating a system that allows teachers to make achievements for their classes. Just like in Video Games the student will understand how to achieve these awards and then can display them on his or her profile. I find this to be quite interesting because as a gamer and a teacher I wish I could get my students as involved as I get in a Video Game. I feel that while the achievements are an interesting idea, I feel like there should be more behind them. Like in many video games if you unlock so many things you get a special reward. I feel that this would be more so up to the instructor, what do you think? Would you be more inclined to earn achievements to have bragging rights or to use them to be rewarded? Thank you again for your great posts.

    • learningsnippets

      September 11, 2013 at 5:25 am

      Thanks for reading and for your comments. I believe that Gamification has great potential for use in classroom and online learning environments. I like playing games too and if we can harness to motivational pull of video games in other areas there will be great benefits for learners.
      The use of points, badges and rewards is one way to make the learning more game-like but there needs to be ‘challenges’ that are rewarded by the points, badges etc. and this comes back to the design of the course itself. Unlocking parts of the course once earlier parts are completed is a great idea.
      Another thing is that points and badges aren’t motivating for everyone so you really need to know your learners.

      • dwjanicki

        September 12, 2013 at 8:47 pm

        I completely agree and I can imagine many learners finding badges to be unimportant to make them strive to achieve them all. Also I have helped to create trainings that the learner must complete a session assessment with a grade of 90% or higher to move onto the next session. I never knew that that was a gamification idea!

      • learningsnippets

        September 13, 2013 at 6:50 am

        Well done! See you are already gamifying your courses – using levels and learners having to achieve a score before moving on – both game-like.


    March 8, 2014 at 9:27 am

    Nice post, this iss just what the gaming worlpd wants, sustain the nice work!


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