Games and Motivation


Good games have focus. Their designers have picked one idea, a core concept, and made it the thesis statement that guides the entire experience. Players often find that the most emotionally powerful games have a focus that resonates with their innate desires and motivations. In this post, I’ll examine the relationship between different types of games and human motivation.

Hierarchy of Human Needs

In his 1954 book titled Motivation and Personality, psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced his idea that all human needs can be categorized using a hierarchy.


Maslow’s hierarchy builds from our most base needs at the bottom, and works toward more sophisticated and abstract needs at the top. Advancing to any level in the hierarchy requires that the needs of all previous levels are satisfied. Let’s look at each level, starting at the bottom:

  1. Physiological
    • The need for food, water, and shelter to continue one’s metabolic processes
  2. Safety
    • The need to maintain a sense of security and stability
  3. Social
    • The need to have love, friendship, family, and feelings of belonging
  4. Esteem
    • The need to feel successful and respected
  5. Actualization
    • The need to fulfill one’s full potential

Now that we’re armed with this understanding of our inherent human desires, let’s take a look at how to apply it.

Adapting Maslow for Profit

‘The Experience Economy’ by Pine and Gilmore describes the idea that Maslow’s hierarchy can tell us why consumers buy certain products. They introduced a five-tier hierarchy that mirrors Maslow’s original hierarchy:

  1. Commodity
  2. Goods
    • Distinctive and tangible products
  3. Service
    • Someone who does work for you
  4. Experience
    • The product is, or includes, a pleasing experience
  5. Transformation
    • A product that improves the buyer

In order to articulate the extreme difference between prices of products at different levels of the hierarchy, Pine and Gilmore use the example of coffee. Buying coffee from the grocery store is cheap. Each bag contains several cups, so each cup ends up costing only 5-25 cents on average. They continue to explain how switching to a higher level in the hierarchy changes the price:

But wait: serve that same coffee in a five-star restaurant or café such as Starbucks — where the ordering, creation and consumption of the cup embody a heightened ambiance or sense of theatre — and consumers gladly pay $2 to 5 dollars a cup.

Businesses that understand the hierarchy of needs clearly have a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Maslow in Games

Similarly, we can better understand genres of games by organizing them hierarchically. I propose the following hierarchy for games, wherein the emotional response of the player matches that of a person fulfilling the corresponding need in Maslow’s hierarchy:

  1. Survival games
  2. Zombie games
  3. Social simulators
  4. Negotiation games
  5. Empowerment fantasies
    • Games where players become increasingly powerful over time and are able to express their control over other players or in-game entities
    • Examples: Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, Infamous

Although it’s impossible to say which games are subjectively better, it’s clear that the games on the lowest level tend to be lower-budget, independent games, while the highest level contains some of the most popular video game franchises. Clearly games which satisfy our needs that are high on Maslow’s hierarchy have a broader appeal than those focused on baser needs.

Another interesting observation is that the negotiation games tend to be board games instead of video games. This is likely due to the inadequacy of artificial intelligence in such nuanced scenarios.

Wrapping Up

I hope this post has provided a useful new way to look at games. Next time you find yourself playing a game, maybe you will ask, ‘What need am I satisfying?’

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