Gamer Theory

I'm a bit of a video/computer gamer. No, that's a lie. I am (from time to time) a hardcore gamer and I can allow myself to get swallowed whole by a game (particularly a good shooter or RPG) to the point where it's affecting my health, mental state and general awareness that I have a family who require me to put food on the table for them. But I don't care because, for that time which I'm playing, being in that game is being in a totally satisfying Pavlovian escape bubble.


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare = Fun!But it feels like games are getting very sophisticated, almost generationally, where younger audiences are most accustomed to more complex gaming skills. New games assume certain skills to the point where certain, unaccustomly low-skilled audiences may be excluded from truly enjoying or even playing a game. Obviously, a game that limits its audience may not accrue as big a commercial success as those which target a wide audience or those which just have simple game-play.

However, it's because of these varied levels of skill involved in playing games that I'm very intrigued into what goes into making a game genuinely enjoyable and successful.

James Madigan, a Ph.D. in psychology with a leaning toward industrial-organisational psychology, but who, like me, has a near unhealthy fascination with games (actually, I would say he takes it to another 10 levels higher than me). Magidan recently wrote an article published in GamePro magazine (October 2010, #265) about the psychology of shooters.

In this article he says:

Researchers Andrew Przybylski and Scott Rigby, who work with game designers, believe people are motivated to play a particular video game based on how well it satisfies three basic psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

Competence deals with a sense of control, mastery, and feeling like you’re making things happen the way you want. A well designed difficulty curve makes us feel an ever-increasing sense of competence, as does appropriate matchmaking in multiplayer games.

Games high in autonomy give you the opportunity to make many meaningful decisions about what goals to pursue and how to pursue them.

Finally, relatedness is concerned with a feeling that you matter to other players and social interactions with them.

A favourite game of mine, Portal by Valve Software, did a fantastic job of addressing all of these needs in a highly complex game that was both entertaining and humourous.


The physics-based gameplay concept behind 'Portal'It ensured the player experience was a fine balance of challenge and new skill learning to provide a strong sense of competence (the "difficulty curve"). Autonomy was realised through the many options in levels could be completed. But not only that, the plot of the game itself provided a drive of rebellion against the main virtual antagonist, GLaDOS. Such an endearing character was she that the player related accutely with GLaDOS, as twisted as she was.

Note: If you play the game through once you will unlock the "developers commentary" which goes into much detail about the reasons behind their developmental decision making, which I highly recommend.

Now, it's certainly apparent that these needs aren't only applicable to virtual worlds where you need to rack up as many kills as humanly possible, but life in general. Not only that, as someone who is also fascinated by advertising, I'm pretty sure that addressing these needs very much defines the fundamentals of a successful product marketing campaign. Sure, these cause and effect might not be as immediate as in a video game, but the process is still similar.

But this isn't really new. Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory did a good job of outlining this back in 1943, and most good marketers are aware of this. The trick comes down to communicating these needs in clever and entertaining delivery that tweaks these emotional strings.


An interpretation of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, represented as a pyramid with the more basic needs at the bottom.Of course, we're all human and have basic desires that need to be fulfilled, and there are new experiences, particularly in the online space (aka Facebook and other social networks) which do extremely well to achieve this. It's a compelling reason why social media marketing is so attractive to advertisers at the moment. To me, in this respect, it looks like that these basic needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness are getting fulfilled in newer and very sophisticated ways.

Essentially, it boils down to one word "Interactivity". Most would consider this to be very much a digital, 2.0, not-for-the-Grandparents, kind of word. Not so. In marketing terms, any good creative with a strong call-to-action is interactive. But it's instilling that interactivity with a strong emotional base that makes it resonate.

When you get back to basics, a geniune smile between two people is interactivity at its purest. That, and the unbridled exchange of raw, uninhibited virtual gun fire.

Posted on October 25, 2010 and filed under Opinion.