Sunday, October 27, 2013

What motivates the players?

Two and a half years ago, I blogged about character motivation here and a follow up here.

Recently, in my grad school classes we've been talking about motivation with regards to teaching English as a second or foreign language.  And it got me thinking again about motivation in RPGs.  Two years ago, I was thinking about in-character motivations for your PC.  Now, I'm thinking about motivations for you, the player (or DM).

One convenient way to classify types of motivation is as either intrinsic (internal) motivation and extrinsic (external) motivation.  Long story short, intrinsic motivation means you're self motivated, while extrinsic motivation means something outside your own mind motivates you to do something.  In ESL circles, intrinsic motivation is preferred, as intrinsically motivated students tend to work harder, but extrinsic motivations are still necessary otherwise intrinsic motivation can evaporate. 

So what motivates us to play RPGs?  I've made a list.  Not an exhaustive one, by any means.  Not necessarily the most thought out list either.  But I'm gonna put this stuff up here on the blog for people to consider and comment on, and if someone can point out where and how I'm wrong, I'll improve my model.  The essence of peer review right there.

First off, all the stuff I talked about before, the in-character motivations, are really for the player extrinsic motivations, whether they are intrinsic or extrinsic to the fictional player character.  Yes, there is some wish fulfillment in gaming, but I don't think anyone's satisfying their actual craving for gold or power or lovers by playing a game.  Living vicariously can act as a stop-gap measure, but in the end won't satisfy.  Or maybe there are a few people who are, but I'd guess they're outliers rather than part of the normal distribution of players.

Some other extrinsic motivations for players might include:
System Mastery - contact with the rules, Min/Maxing, sussing out the exploits, rules lawyering, etc.  I'd almost consider this as intrinsic, as it's something you can do in your head, but it also relies on the rule system you're trying to master, plus the fact that mastery is pointless if you don't ever play.  Still, it may be a good example of the fact that the extrinsic/intrinsic split is more of a spectrum than an either/or decision.

Character Advancement - some game systems do this better than others, obviously, but in most games there is some way to advance and improve your character, and doing so is often a motivation to play.  It stimulates our reward centers in our brains.  We've got bigger numbers or a longer list of stuff on our character sheet.  We've got a feeling of achievement.  And again, while it's personal to a large extent, it's also something that you need others to pull off.  Even with a solo game system of some sort, you're really still interacting with the designers in order to advance.

Socialization - this one's probably obvious.  Sometimes, it's not so much the game itself, or the character you've created, or the exploration of the game world.  It's spending quality time with friends that motivates you to play.  Related to this are two more types of motive I thought of:

Bragging Rights - some people play in order to win.  Yeah, there are no win conditions in an RPG.  Or at least not in the typical sense of most games' win conditions.  But yet, there is competition at times.  Players can play games of oneupsmanship with each other, and at times that might be a strong motivation to participate for some gamers.

Schadenfreude - and the converse to bragging rights, the gamer who's not so interested in doing "better" than others, but who gets a kick out of all the bad things that can happen to PCs in the game.  I don't know if this would be someone's primary motivation to play, but there is definitely a sense of enjoyment to be had in watching another player do something stupid, or fail a saving throw, or whatever.

Narrative Crafting - one last one I'll mention for now is the desire to create a story.  It's the goal of the game for some games (you know, the Forge-derived "story now" stuff which doesn't really suit my preferences, but that's just me).  Some games don't make it a goal, but players may still have it as a goal or driving force.  They attend the game to create drama, and that's where they derive their fun.

So, now let's move on to what I consider some intrinsic motivations for gaming.  Again, not intended to be an exhaustive list, and also there can be some extrinsic elements or factors within some of these, just as there are some intrinsic factors in the extrinsic motivations I've detailed above.

Immersion - one of the big intrinsic factors, I think, is the desire to lose yourself in the character, the imaginary world, or both.  While it does require some interaction with others to play the game, how deeply you immerse yourself in the imagined fiction depends on you and you alone.  One player can be very immersed in the game, while another player in the same game may not be immersed at all.  Yes, that can cause some dissonance but that's not the point.  You control how immersed you are in the game, so I consider it an intrinsic motivation.

Escapism - I think we can all relate to this one, and yes, it's connected to immersion.  We game to escape work, study, family obligations, the quotidian reality of daily life.  There's a desire to be something more than we are, if only for a few hours a week.  Does it seem like I'm contradicting myself where above I talk about wish-fulfillment being an extrinsic motivation?  Maybe I am, but the way I'm looking at it now, escapism is more of a general wanting Calgon to take me away* feeling than a specific vicarious activity performed through play. Gaming to escape worrying about the mortgage payment for a few hours = intrinsic escapism.  Gaming to pretend to do something you can't in real life = extrinsic vicarious motivation because that thing you can't do in real life is by definition not part of you.

Completionism - this is one of the weaker ones on the intrinsic list, but similar motivations exist in other types of games.  Completionism could take many forms, from wanting to play every type of character or try every option, to wanting to fully explore (or create) a fictional world, to wanting to play out that ideal character type over and over again until you get it "right."  Yes, there are some aspects of extrinsic motivation in this one.  Exploring a prepublished game world, or your DM's masterpiece involves something outside of you.  Playing "one of everything" requires lots of game time, which requires other people (usually).  But the motivation to do so exists regardless of the feelings of other players to some extent. 

Emergent Story - in contrast to the extrinsic motivation to actively craft a story, the hope that an interesting story will emerge from play organically is more of an intrinsic motivation.  It's up to semi-random chance that an interesting and satisfying narrative will emerge from any session, as player choice and the whims of the dice may see fit to scupper any coherence or sense of rising and falling action in one session, and enhance it in another.  So I consider waiting around for it to happen and basking in it when it does is again something that mostly can happen just in your own head, although if others share this motivation it becomes more extrinsic.

Fun - should I include this?  I think so.  JB was writing a while back about how fun is not a goal of play, it's an expectation of play, and I agree.  We expect playing games to be fun, so we are motivated to play them.  And while it's best if everyone is having fun together, what makes something fun for me might not be the same thing that makes something fun for someone else.  There's a whole big list of motivations in this thread, none mutually exclusive, that will lead you to have fun at the table.  And my fun is not always contingent on your fun, and sometimes may even hamper your fun (a sign of incompatible players).  So, in my opinion, fun is an intrinsic motivation of play.

*dating myself, but then I figure much of my readership is of the same generation as me.  For all you whipper-snappers reading this, Google is your friend.


  1. Socialization is a big one for me, and one that often gets left off list like this. I usually don’t care if we actually get much game play in, because I spent a few hours with people I like to spend a few hours with.

    I don’t care about bragging rights, and while I can enjoy some Schadenfreude, it’s usually not when my friends are involved. But I really enjoy watching my friends succeed or simply watching some in-character discussion. There’s also enjoying the valiant effort that failed. Not quite the same as Schadenfreude.

    The intrinsic that you list that applies to me is emergent story. But I’m not sure that really rises to the level of a motivation for me. I think my strongest intrinsic motivation is collaborative problem solving.

  2. Socialization is big for me, as well. And yeah, I was being too negative. Watching others succeed is also quite thrilling and worth coming back to games for. We've all had those moments where one player's character has the potential to do something awesome, and everyone at the table is on the edge of their seats waiting for the result of the die roll.

    Collaborative problem solving is also a good one to add to the list, although I wonder how intrinsic it is, since it requires a problem and others to solve it with. It can be a very personal motivation, especially if others in the group aren't so keen on the matter, but...

    Not to knock what you're saying, Robert. Just considering things in type rather than in my head. Not always a good idea, I know. At least it will be here in print for when I come back to this idea in the future. :D

  3. Good point. Even if I didn’t have collaborators, I’m there for the problem-solving. Collaborating makes it better, but I guess that isn’t really a requirement.

    But it does rely on problems too. (Though, I guess I can create problems myself even if the GM doesn’t present any. ^_^)

    But then, I think you could argue similarly about many of the other intrinsic motivations. Immersion requires something to get immersed into. (And extrinsic stimuli is perhaps an necessary ingredient of immersion.) Completion requires something to complete. Emergent story requires inputs from other people and/or random generators.