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Top Tips

Expert advice on how to play smart.

In-depth view – why do people play social games?

Dr Rachel Kowert

People enjoy video games for a variety of reasons. They can be an enjoyable way for friends and family to spend time together and a means of competing (or collaborating) with others for fun. They can help pass the time, encourage relaxation, and even be great educational tools thanks to their ability to motivate players and promote collaborative play. 


While the reasons for playing may vary from person to person, research from Quantic Foundry has identified six universal motivations for video game play: action, social, mastery, achievement, immersion, and creativity. It is the case that one motivation tends to be more prominent than the others – but most players are driven by a combination of these (for more about this model, visit the Quantic Foundry website).

Motivations are not mutually exclusive: for instance, if you like playing a certain game because it allows you to be creative it does not mean you will only play games that tap into your creative side. Similarly, social motivations underlie (at least partially) all forms of social online game play – players are choosing to play video games in an internet-based community. For social game players, part of the enjoyment of playing comes from the fact that it is taking place within a social space and being shared with other players.

Lets examine the various motivations that can drive video game play:

Reason #1: Social fulfillment

There are a range of benefits of social online play (for more on this, see the Benefits of Social Play), with perhaps the most obvious being the ability to connect to friends and family. With more than 75% of online game players reporting that they play with friends and/or family members, it may come as no surprise that video games have become a fun, playful activity to enjoy together – at home, in another state or province or on the other side of the world!

Social games also provide a great opportunity to make new friends – young and old, near and far. There are not too many other opportunities for a 20-something in California to befriend a 40-something in England! The social opportunities while playing online are endless.

Reason #2: Psychological fulfilment

There is new research that has found that video games, especially social games, are so enjoyable because they satisfy our intrinsic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Autonomy refers to a sense of freedom and choice. Video games provide players with choices, rewards, and feedback to promote this sense of free will and influence on the outcome of the games they are playing.

Competence refers to feeling successful when overcoming a challenge. Video games provide many different opportunities to develop new skills or abilities and typically provide positive feedback to the players as they overcome ever increasingly difficult challenges. This helps promote a sense of mastery and competence.

Relatedness refers to being socially connect with others, such as the other online players – having this shared social experience with others increases the enjoyment and motivation to play any specific game for longer periods of time.

Achieving a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness has also been related to achieving a sense of flow (often colloquially referred to “being in the zone”). Flow states (discussed in more detail below) are also critically important for promoting learning in video games.

Reason #3: Educational fulfilment

Video games are fantastic tools for learning because they induce what is commonly referred to as a state of “flow”. When in a state of flow, players become focused, seem to loose track of time, and are motivated to continue playing because they are having fun. Flow states occur when in-game challenges are perfectly balanced with their skill level. And if the video game is any good, this should occur often!

Flow states provide unique opportunities for learning because the player is not only hyper-focused on the in-game challenges but also determined to complete them because they are being challenged. Since video games are also genuinely fun activities to participate in, they make the perfect vehicles for inducing flow and, consequently, promoting learning. In fact, video game designers and education scholars have noted learning is a common outcome of video game play because the sense of flow it creates challenges and motivates players to continually develop new and creative ways to overcome in-game tasks. Furthermore, opportunities to learn from video games is not limited to any particular genre and the skills players acquire while playing online are often successfully transferred to other, offline contexts (such as work and school).

Apart from helping to promote cognitive skills, such as creative thinking and problem solving, online social games can be valuable tools for social learning. This can include developing expanding one’s worldviews by befriending other players from different cultures and backgrounds as well as developing new social skills (for more on this, see the Benefits of Social Play).

For example, to be successful in online games, players often have to use a variety of social skills, such as leadership and agreeableness. Typically, social skills such as these are acquired through cognitive-social learning, which is the process of observation, rehearsal, and feedback. Online games (particularly Massively-Multiplayer Online Games, or MMOGs) provide the ideal space for this kind of learning as players are able to observe the social interactions of other players, rehearse and practice their own skills, and are continually receiving positive or negative feedback from other players. Motivated by their “flow” state and their desire for in-game success, players are likely to hone their social skills simply by continuing to play!

Dr. Rachel Kowert is a research psychologist and internationally respected expert on video games. She has written several books which help cut through the hyperbole and, at times, conflicting arguments on the impact and use of  games. Rachel serves on the board of DiGRA (Digital Games Research Association) and the International Communication Association (ICA) Game Studies Division. For more information about her and her research you can visit her website at http://www.rkowert.com.

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