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The Zero-Sum Funomaly pt.2

Fun is made up of time, engagement, and volition. Volition runs much deeper than the decision to play this game or that one. It is something that's behind every step of a fun gameplay experience. Since interactivity sits at the core of the video game medium, how and why players decide to interact is a core consideration in our investigation of fun. To help us understand the importance of volition we need to understand the concept of play. Using a more sophisticated definition than in part 1, we have from wikipedia...

"Play is a term employed in ethology and psychology to describe to a range of voluntary, intrinsically motivated activities normally associated with pleasure and enjoyment. Play is commonly associated with children, but positive psychology has stressed that play is imperative for all higher-functioning animals, even adult humans."



By this definition we can deduce that all of play is fun, but not all fun is play. Fun can be had passively, while play is active. The other key difference between fun and play is intrinsic motivation. Again wikipedia says:

Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within the individual rather than relying on any external pressure. Intrinsic motivation has been studied by social and educational psychologists since the early 1970s. Research has found that it is usually associated with high educational achievement and enjoyment by students. Students are likely to be intrinsically motivated if they:

[1] attribute their educational results to internal factors that they can control (e.g. the amount of effort they put in). 

[2] believe they can be effective agents in reaching desired goals (i.e. the results are not determined by luck). 

[3] are interested in mastering a topic, rather than just rote-learning to achieve good grades.


By tapping into the research that's already well supported, we can see how important the freedom of choice is to play and fun. Without the freedom of choice both fun and play are not be possible. After all, fun, play, and intrinsic motivation require no external pressure. Consider the other significant bonuses that are associated with intrinsically motivated individuals. Intrinsically motivated people tend to have an increased of sense of agency, belief that they can reach goals by building skills (practice), and have an interest in mastery. These are important qualities for users to have with any learning environment. Since video games are interactive learning/testing systems, we should never forget that game design is enhanced when designers create teacher-student relationship between the game and the player.

"Social-cognitive models of behavior change include the constructs of motivation and volition. Motivation is seen as a process that leads to the forming of behavioral intentions. Volition is seen as a process that leads from intention to actual behavior. In other words, motivation and volition refer to goal setting and goal pursuit, respectively." ~wikipedia

Games require goals. Gameplay is inherently interactive. Fun, play, and intrinsic motivation require the freedom of choice. Volition is the choice pursuit of a goal. Seems pretty obvious to me if you put all of these concepts together, you'll have the key to creating fun video games.

We can dig deeper still into intrinsic motivation. To explain what intrinsic motivation is made of or where it comes from we must rely on theories. Let's use professor Steven Reiss's theory of the 16 basic desires that motivate intrinsic desires. The following are roughly arranged in order of game design relevance.

  • Power, the need for influence of will. Skill (DKART) is the means through which we interact with games. We meet the game half way using whatever tools or mechanics it allows us. From mechanics we express our agency. Since interactivity is a core feature of video games, this intrinsic need is at the top of the list.
  • Curiosity, the need to learn. Exerting will inside of a game world is great in itself, but it isn't much without understanding the context. What actions do what? What's at stake? What are the rules? How do things react? Form-fits-function and other elements of intuitive design help us leverage our real-world knowledge against the game world knowledge. But even the most realistic looking games can be filled with nuances, abstractions, and arbitrations that must be learned. Since complexities cannot be compressed, we have to essentially learn everything individually one element at a time one game at a time. Curiosity, the need to learn, supports power (mainly through developing knowledge skills). The drive to explore or experience more of a story is also driven by this need. 
  • Vengeance, the need to strike back/to win. It takes effort to win. It takes effort to continue living. And it takes effort to overcome the forces designed to prevent you from reaching your goals. From multiplayer opponents to that first Goomba on 1-1, vengeance is one of the most fundamental needs in video gaming.
  • Saving, the need to collect. Our self concept is little more than a collection of details. Who, what, where, when, why, and how? Our opinions and preferences are also aspects of ourselves that we collect. One way we store this information is in stories. And by building our LTM or extending our minds (writing things down) what we think and how we think become the snowballed accumulation of our many actions. Perhaps as natural as it is for us to hold on to memories, we have a need to collect. Coins, achievement points, high scores. Appealing to this intrinsic need can be as simple as scattering a bunch of doodads in your game world.

The following are more applicable in a social or multiplayer context.

  • Independence, the need for individuality. Nowadays, we can customize the look and the voices of the characters we play. Games like Mass Effect or Demon's Souls are good examples. But customisation extends to games like Animal Crossing characters, towns, and homes. It extends to naming your Pokemon or the characters in many RPGs. Outside of gameplay there are Miis, Avatars, and gamertags. Individuality is not as obvious in single player, non-role playing experiences. But it often manifests in player's drive to be creative and express their unique playstyle.
  • Acceptance, the need for approval. 
  • Honor, the need to be loyal to the traditional values of one's clan/ethnic group. The concept of fanboy/girl and platform wars exist because gamers commonly take sides in communal settings. Within games some gamers adhere to the honor system and other codes of their friends/clans.  
  • Status, the need for social standing/importance. Achievements, gamer scores, and trophies are all symbols of status.
  • Social contact, the need for friends (peer relationships).

The following are stressed most when role playing in games.

  • Tranquility, the need to be safe. Games, by some definitions, must not have real consequences. It's not a game if your life is on the line, or your livelihood. This is especially true for video games. So, technically we're never in danger when we game. In some sense buying into the fiction and role playing allows for this need (and the ones that follow) to motivate our actions.
  • Physical activity, the need for exercise.
  • Order, the need for organized, stable, predictable environments.
  • Idealism, the need for social justice.
  • Family, the need to raise children.
  • Eating, the need for food.
  • Romance, the need for sex.


To sum up, it's easy to think of "play" as being a hard to define, child like activity surrounded by innocent intentions, but it's really nothing more than what I've described. The concept of play has not baffled researchers and scientist. Why should we treat it as something we can't wrap our minds around. Also, contrary to commonly held beliefs, play does not require imagination, pretending, or an environment without rules and consequences.


In part 3 we'll look at important features that sustain intrinsic learning and the features that can easily destroy it. Coming up, the dark side of motivation: extrinsic. 

« The Zero-Sum Funomaly pt.3 | Main | The Zero-Sum Funomaly pt.1 »

Reader Comments (1)

The focus on volition is eye-opening for me. I really like the description of motivation as goal setting and volition as goal pursuit. It's so easy to forget, when designing games, that even when you have set up an intended goal for the player, that goal does not actually exist in the player's mind until they have decided to pursue it on their own. Motivation can be set up, but in cannot be forced.

October 26, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteraxcho

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