What motivates us to play games?

Written by Alex Harkey

When we decided to start a blog on game design I began thinking of exactly why board games can be such a compelling activity. Why do we play games and what determines the types of games we enjoy most?

In the 1960’s Psychologist David McClelland introduced a motivational model that has come to be known as “Need Theory”. In the theory he identifies three primary motivations which drive the actions of human beings: Achievement, Affiliation & Power. McClelland’s research has found that these motivations are learned behaviors and exist in everyone regardless of age, gender and culture. A variety of characteristics will give each individual a dominant motivator. Let’s look at how these motivators and how they apply to those of us who enjoy games.

Need for Achievement

People with a dominant motivator of Achievement prioritize high performance standards and reaching success.

  • They have strong desire to set and accomplish goals.
  • They prefer tasks of moderate difficulty.
  • They like to take risks in order to accomplish their goals.
  • They desire their work to be based on their efforts rather than on luck.

Need for Achievement: Striving for greatness

All gamers likely display some level of Need for Achievement; we spend our leisure time striving to accomplish effective strategies and we focus on victory conditions while learning new games. As the board game industry began to cater to this dominant motivator the market has flourished. The emergence of Eurogames has introduced supportive gameplay as they commonly offer multiple paths to victory and luck usually has a reduced impact in the outcome of these games. These gameplay developments have helped spur an increase in the diversity of games and growth in the popularity of the industry. Players with this dominant motivator may prefer strategy games with decreased levels of player conflict so that they may build their engine on their desired path to victory as in Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy.

Need for Affiliation

People with a dominant motivator of Affiliation prioritize relationships with others through their actions.

  • They want to be a part of a group.
  • They enjoy maintaining social relationships.
  • They favor collaboration over competition.
  • They dislike uncertainty.

Need for Affiliation: Encountering challenges together

The Need for Affiliation could help explain the re-emergence of the board game hobby. Board games offer a decidedly more social experience than comparable alternatives and allow participants the opportunity to socialize over a common interest. This motivator is a driving factor often responsible for getting non-gamers and significant others involved in games both initially and for the long-term. As the cooperative genre of games has increased, team-oriented gamers with this dominant motivator have enjoyed the collaborative aspects in titles such as Pandemic and Flash Point.

Need for Power

People with a dominant motivator of Power enjoy competition and winning. They wish to see their actions change the landscape around them.

  • They desire to have an impact on others.
  • They are more likely to be assertive and outspoken.
  • They enjoy recognition and status and like to maintain their reputation.
  • They can feel frustrated when they have little control over their status.
  • They wish to observe their surrounding environment move in a desired direction due to their actions.

Need for Power: Influencing others

The Need for Power is driven by player interaction in games. This motivator is a strong fit for negotiation style games or party games that encourage social interaction among players. We may see players with this dominant motivator take the lead in vocal or influential roles in order to maximize control in games like The Resistance or Diplomacy. They can become disheartened when a game provides them little control over their position.

The Need for Power is further broken down into two types: Personalized Power and Socialized Power:

Personalized Power is often interpreted as self-serving; one who influences others to his or her own benefit. A player with this dominant motivator may prefer zero-sum games such as Small World or Risk which are high in conflict as player triumphs come at the expense of opponents.

Socialized Power is generally interpreted as other-serving; a person who wishes to have a beneficial impact on others. Gamers with this dominant motivator would likely be the most active in games that are driven by social interaction such as Settlers of Catan. These players will often seek trades which provide mutual benefit; they will form alliances with weaker players and provide helpful tips to new players.

So there are the four types: Achievement, Affiliation, Personalized Power and Socialized Power.

  1. What is your dominant motivator in playing games?
  2. Do you see examples of these motivations among your frequent gaming companions?

Further Exploration:


4 comments on “What motivates us to play games?

  1. Joel Wolski

    Very interesting.
    When I started reading I instantly put POWER at the bottom of my motivations, but when you divided it into Personal and Social I realized how much “Socialized Power” motivates me. Like Matt I find myself also motivated by Affiliation and probably more than Socialized Power; I am a huge co-op fan and I love helping others find ways to contribute to the group victory of the game.
    It’s also interesting to see how these motivations line up with Maslow’ hierarchy. I see in his top three Self-Actualization=Achievement, Esteem=Power, and Love/Belonging=Affiliation. And then as for gamers’ “needs”, these would be a suitable place to play (Safety) and physical components to play with (Physiology).

    1. Alex Harkey

      Excellent thoughts, Joel. I think you’re in great company; “Power” initially sounds like the reward for the power-hungry in our hobby; a hierarchical ranking system where someone has control and dictates the actions of others.

      As you mentioned, power isn’t always the payoff, it can be the source of strength for those of us who like to enable others to succeed. I gain a lot of enjoyment out of simply being a large contributor in games; being a key trade partner for people or filling a role others may be overlooking. Winning can be enjoyable, but the true triumphs we experience in games go far beyond their victory conditions. A real triumph also don’t have to feel like it is at the expense of everyone else at the table. Thanks for contributing!

  2. Pingback: Qu'est-ce qui nous motive à jouer ? | Xavier LardyXavier Lardy

  3. Alex Harkey

    Our Motivations:

    Alex: Until the last two or three years my dominant motivator was Achievement. I enjoy employing risky strategies when I fall behind in games and attempting to make the optimal decision each turn is my greatest source of satisfaction.In recent years my dominant motivator has shifted to Socialized Power. I’ve found myself teaching games more often and I like to engage new players by demonstrating the basics or acting as the frequent trading partner can make deals happen.

    Matt: I also put myself in the Socialized Power camp, less because I teach games often than because I think player interaction is most interesting when two or more players establish transient alliances and collaboratively react to game states. Secondarily, I’m motivated by Affiliation, as I enjoy group problem-solving scenarios where everyone can contribute a piece of the solution in an area they’re good at (for example, on the side of the heroes in Betrayal at House on the Hill). It’s a tough balance to get right: pure collaboration games like Pandemic can all too easily devolve into one outspoken player playing many hands of solitaire by himself.

Contribute to the conversation, leave us your thoughts and feedback