Self-determination theory in Video Games: Misconceptions about Basic Psychological Needs
Myths and misconceptions about what the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are, and why they matter in games.
Many researchers and games industry professionals may be familiar with the “Player Experience of Need Satisfaction” (PENS)1 model as a way of understanding why video games are so incredibly motivating. If you aren’t, I hope this will be a decent primer. Those of you who are familiar with it, however, should especially stick around, because there’s a chance that some of what you’ve learned is incomplete or possibly outright incorrect.
PENS is a theory of motivation in video games based on a big overarching theory of human motivation in general called self-determination theory (SDT)2. SDT is fundamentally concerned with well-being, defined here in eudaimonic (as opposed to hedonistic) terms; rather than maximizing pleasure or happiness, well-being in this sense is defined as thriving and flourishing, or being able to access the full range of human functioning. SDT states that intrinsically motivated activities—that is, activities that one undertakes purely for the joy and pleasure of doing them—are most supportive of well-being. Extrinsically motivated activities on the other hand (which can be broken down into four categories), will have less beneficial or downright negative effects on well-being. As we know, video games are really good at fostering intrinsic motivation; most (but not all) of the time, people play video games simply for the enjoyable experience of doing it. When discussing in these terms, intrinsic motivation is actually a formalized description of fun or enjoyment, which is precisely the experience that many (but again, not all) game developers strive to create for their players.
First of all, let me come out and say it: I like SDT. Or, to maintain the illusion of being objective—even though there’s not a researcher, or human, on the planet fully capable of this—the evidence supporting SDT is pretty strong, and stronger than competing theories in my opinion. It is falsifiable, has improved since its conception in order to better account for forthcoming evidence, and has withstood a large number of severe tests3.
But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect or true, and it especially doesn’t mean that it’s always used appropriately. The 186 word description I just gave you represents as much depth, and in some cases more depth, than what I see in a large portion of games research based on PENS and SDT. Core aspects of SDT are often poorly measured or ignored, and simply used as vague sources of hypotheses or post hoc explanations. For reference, the flagship SDT textbook released in 2017 is 756 pages long. A lot of work has been done using this theory, and if we dig a little further than the surface-level descriptions found in a lot of papers on video games and motivation, we can learn a lot.
So I’d like to dispel some myths associated with SDT, starting with the concept of basic needs.
SDT is built upon a number of smaller, more specific theories. We’re focusing on the first and most widespread of those today, namely basic psychological needs theory. Basic psychological needs theory states that humans have three innate psychological needs. These needs are both essential for well-being, and also support more autonomus forms of motivation, like intrinsic motivation. A comparison is often drawn with physical nutrients; just like we need calcium and iron in order to thrive physically, SDT states that we need these three physiological nutrients to do the same. The three needs, as many of you will already know, are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. I’m going to look at each one in turn, describing what it is, what it’s not, and how avoiding misinterpretations could be crucial for designing great games.
Autonomy describes the need to feel that one is in control over their own life and that one’s actions are self-endorsed; in other words, that what you’re doing is what you want to be doing, and that you are doing it freely. Autonomy is perhaps the most often misunderstood basic need, and my suspicion is that this comes as a result of confusing factors that support autonomy with autonomy itself.
What autonomy is not:
- Independence (i.e., not needing to take others into consideration when making decisions)
- The feeling of having a lot of options
Sample autonomy survey items:
- “I feel that my decisions reflect what I really want.”4 (1 = not true at all, 5 = completely true)
- “I could approach the game in my own way.” 5
Choice is indeed heavily implicated in autonomy. But while having amd making (certain) choices may support autonomy, this is not necessarily the case. Instead, it will depend on a few things, including (1) whether the particular issue is important for the chooser, (2) the extent to which the available options are considered meaningful (vs. unattractive), such that one is not confronted with the false choice of deciding between two undesirable alternatives and (3) the number of available options is perceived as manageable (as opposed to overwhelming), such that one feels competent to select an option. Sometimes I may only have one course of action, but I undertake that action completely willingly, and other times I may have 50 choices, but I don’t actually want to choose any of them.
Implications for game design:
- Giving your players tons of choices may actually thwart autonomy
- Highly linear games may still satisfy the need for autonomy, as long as the actions required by the player are still perceived as being done voluntarily
Three things you can do to support autonomy in your games:
- Giving players a clear rationale for what they do when choices are restricted
- Acknowledge to the player that certain actions may be challenging or tedious (empathize)
- Use non-controlling communication: minimize the use of phrases like “have to”, “should”, and “must” unless they serve another purpose (e.g., an NPC saying that a player has to save their family, thereby providing a clear rationale for the players’ next action)
Competence is the need to act effectively and feel capable in one’s activities. People experience competence satisfaction when they develop new skills and experience growth, and this is hypothesized to reflect some evolutionary tendencies of humans to learn, be curious, and to specialize in increasingly niche roles in complex societies.
What competence is not:
- Being an expert in something
- Feeling that your skills are better than those of others
- Having no more need for improvement
Sample competence measurement items:
- “I feel I can successfully complete difficult tasks.”4 (1 = not true at all, 5 = completely true)
- “My mastery of the game improved with practice."5
One of the biggest misunderstandings (or missed opportunities) regarding competence is the role of feedback. Feedback, depending on how its presented, can have very different effects on motivation. Informational feedback, where responses reflect praise for specific things that a person did well alongside guidance on ways in which performance might improve in the future, can support intrinsic motivation. For example, seeing that I got 94% of collectible items in a particular level, and getting some guidance about where or how I might find the remaining 6% is feedback that gives me additional information and helps me to do even better. Games are good at providing this in their own right, but this is also a reason why people turn to Twitch, or forums, or strategy guides (boy, I feel old just saying that)—they want to compare their performance with even higher level players so that they know how to improve.
This is contrasted with controlling or evaluative feedback. This type of feedback increases extrinsic motivation, often at the cost of undermining intrinsic motivation—instead of doing this activity for the pure pleasure of it, I am now motivated by the reward of a positive evaluation, or avoiding the punishment of a negative evaluation. The mere addition of a leaderboard, as seen in corporations all around the world thanks to some hype about gamification, is minimally informative. Instead, it can be controlling, cause shame or guilt for the lowest performers and inflated pride for the highest performers. It may provide some temporary performance benefits, but if not integrated into a competence-supportive system, will sap away the intrinsic motivation that had been there.
Games do this well most of the time; the use of ‘juicy’ audiovisual feedback for successful actions, progression and leveling systems, all this is informative and indeed has been the focus of most of the research on basic needs in video games. So I don’t necessarily have a big take-home point here, but want everyone to think about the fact the third-best StarCraft player in the world may be just as likely to experience competence frustration as some middling silver player, for example. The key question is whether those two players perceive their actions to matter and be impactful, that challenges are appropriate to their skill level and expectations, that feedback is informative rather than controlling, and that they have both room for growth and the structure to help them achieve it.
Finally, we turn to relatedness. Relatedness describes the need to love and care, to be loved and cared for, the acceptance of one’s “true self” by others, and perceived membership to wider social or cultural groups. This can be derived by being cared for by others, by caring for others yourself, and by feeling that you have a role and can contribute to groups.
What relatedness is not:
- Physical closeness
- Exclusively found in symmetrical relationships
- The existence of people who love you
Sample relatedness measurement items:
- “I felt close and connected to other players or characters” (1 = not true at all, 5 = completely true)
- “I consider players I regularly interact with to be my friends”5
Now, it should be pretty obvious that relatedness satisfaction is possible in multiplayer games. You can join a guild, chat with teammates, strategize, contribute with a unique role, etc etc etc. And this is the context in which relatedness has almost exclusively been studied: in multiplayer games (and specifically MMOs). So here, I want to focus on why relatedness still matters in non-multiplayer games, despite this having been almost entirely overlooked. I’m taking inspiration here from an excellent paper by April Tyack and Peta Wyeth6, who describe three ways players may feel relatedness in a single-player context.
The first way is through relationships with non-player characters, or parasocial relationships. My personal favorite example of this was from when I played through The Last of Us, and becoming immensely attached to both Joel and Ellie over the course of that game, and deeply empathizing with the characters at the end of the game, even though the decisions made were not what I’d have done if I had the choice myself. In other words, I didn’t view those characters as avatars for myself or opportunities for self-expression, I saw them as loved ones in some small way.
The second is through what is referred to as ‘habitus’, or the collective history. When players’ understanding and expectations of video games are met, say by correctly intuiting a certain mechanic they may have the experience of being part of a community, that their knowledge of how games work and what games offer are met by the designers and developers of those games. That they’re on the same wavelength, so to speak.
Finally, we have people relating to video games as an object. People use social scripts when interacting with non-human things a lot, even when fully aware of their non-humanity. See ELIZA for an interesting example of this. If a game asks you to do a tedious thing, a player may feel a sense of trust that the game will continue to provide these positive experiences again in the future. In this way, supporting a player’s autonomy by explaining why a certain action must be taken, even if the player may not want to take that action, may also help the player connect with the game itself and lead to some relatedness satisfaction.
Slightly Abrupt Conclusion
I could keep writing about this stuff for ages, but I’ve already been quite demanding with your time, so I think that’s enough for our part 1. If you made it to the end, thank you. I hope this post was useful in explaining how SDT and Basic Psychological Needs Theory can help us understand why games are so effective at harnessing motivation, and create games that maximize their potential to do that—but only if understood and used appropriately.
 R. M. Ryan, C. S. Rigby, and A. Przybylski, “The motivational pull of video games: a self-determination theory approach,” Motivation and Emotion, vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 344–360, Dec. 2006, doi: 10.1007/s11031-006-9051-8.
 R. M. Ryan and E. L. Deci, Self-determination theory: basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Press, 2017.
 D. G. Mayo, Statistical Inference as Severe Testing: How to Get Beyond the Statistics Wars, 1st ed. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
 B. Chen et al., “Basic psychological need satisfaction, need frustration, and need strength across four cultures,” Motiv Emot, vol. 39, no. 2, pp. 216–236, Apr. 2015, doi: 10.1007/s11031-014-9450-1
 A. Azadvar and A. Canossa, “UPEQ: Ubisoft perceived experience questionnaire: A self-determination evaluation tool for video games,” presented at the ACM International Conference Proceeding Series, 2018, doi: 10.1145/3235765.3235780.
 A. Tyack and P. Wyeth, “Exploring relatedness in single-player video game play,” presented at the ACM International Conference Proceeding Series, 2017, pp. 422–427, doi: 10.1145/3152771.3156149.