Sunday, March 20, 2022

How our motivations to play RPGs hints towards what we should play (and why that matters) Part 1

The blog is 10 years now and I have mostly been talking about gaming philosophy and design. The way I see it, I tried to explain (to me, if for no one else) what this hobby is. At times I tried to go a step further, I think, and aimed for some more substantial, more 'usable' content, building on the established insights. I would argue that writing and publishing games and modules was/is one way to do just that: applying what I had learned filling this blog with words. I feel I am at an impass right now, where what I did here should come to an end (of sorts) and my new focus should be on publishing ... And then I realized that I hadn't been giving this blog a chance to grow into its next stage: if I feel I'm done exploring, I should start doing something new instead of mapping. 

 Here is Part 1 of an attempt, as this will be a long one again ...

Preface: where to go, and from where?

With knowing what motivations keep players engaged and how that may relate to different kinds of role-playing games or styles of play, we should be able to make some conclusions about what players we should seek for certain games or what new games might work with existing groups.

That's the premise of this post.

To do this with any kind of benefit, we need to take a close look at what motivates people in general, which (naturally) heavily leans into the psychological. If you are a reader of this blog, you know I dabble in these topics. I am, however, at best somewhat well-read on those subjects (in general) and bring some extensive experience to the table, as far as role-playing games are concerned. I'm not a scientist. Not even an academic, actually (I'll spare you the Elon Musk quote I keep telling myself in that regard).

So, this will be what it will be. As usual. I'll quote sources for the bigger claims, but in general, as per what I wrote in the beginning, I've thought about this a long time and should be able to make my argument without bigger meta-texts.

To get a complete picture here, we also need a firm understanding of how many different types or role-playing games there are. Maybe even, how different styles of play with one game can draw different crowds. Although I'd have to say that, from a design standpoint, if you play a game other than within what the game offers, you are playing something else just claiming you are playing said game, which circles back to the original questions: what kinds of rpg exist and why are they different.

If we manage to get a grip on all that AND manage to work out some significant relations between the two categories, we got a stew going ...


What helped conceiving the idea for this post was a yt video about how personality affects what computer games we want to play. I thought the video somewhat lackluster in that it basically states that your preferences somewhat correlate with The Big Five ... Yeah, no shit Sherlock.

If you are more assertive, you like competing with others, if you are more creative, you like creating shit, if you are more neurotic you like more weird shit. And so on. Not necessarily ground breaking, unless you've never heard of The Big Five (find the video here).

The vlogger also claims that others did some profound research on the topic and shared a link to a survey (here) that'll give you some fancy label (Bard, Gardener, Architect, etc.) after you shared your preferences ... It's quite short, as far as surfeys go, and from what I could gather from others doing it, the results had been mixed or (very generally) accurate. But it ended in an "if you liked this, you might like this" kind of scheme and after thinking about it some more, I came to the conclusion that I don't trust their effort.

For one, the gaming industry at large is way more about how to make a player base dependant than about their motivations. They want you addicted to computer games, end of story ... and a very different set of psychology (addictive, dopamin producing gaming loops, that kind of design). Their approach is so different and sales related, that it really doesn't apply in what we are looking for (in other words, the motivation big corp is looking for is somewhat lesser in the hierarchy of needs, might even be unhealthy and subverting it in order to gain a buck).

Think about it: consumption is our weakest impulse, or say, our weakest state. If you are doing things, you'll consume less. Or even the other way around, once you stop consuming, you'll start being active one way or another.

Here's my takeaway from that video linked above (or another vlogger? can't remember). He (or someone else) said at one point that he has more computer game backlog than future, and that's ... concerning, isn't it? Especially considering that it won't stop a gamer from buying even more.

I mean, I'm no stranger to the problem. I own too many books, computer and role-playing games. Way more than I'm likely to have use for within my lifespan. Pretty sure I'll keep buying them and I'm writing some more, just to add to the pile. The difference is (or so I keep telling myself) that I actually work with the material ...

And I'm a collector! That's really important, right? Right?!

Still like coming home ... [source]

Anyway, I digress. Role-playing games originally came with the premise that all you'll ever need is that one game, which is completely not what you'd want to sell as a product, if you try to earn money with it. That premise still holds somewhat true (although it's constantly subverted and undermined), and playing role-playing games can have honest-to-god benefits for those engaging in them (as do computer games, btw).

It's the reason for their popularity, I'd wager, and it's our approach for mapping possible motivations to engage with the hobby.

We need to talk about what we are not talking about ...

Alright, as established in the preface, we aim to look at "healthy" motivations and how those are satisfied by playing certain kinds of role-playing games.

By way of exclusion, however, we should start by pointing out motivations that might apply but tend to be based on unhealthy impulses and are therefor to be avoided, or at least not supported.

Here's why one propably shouldn't play role-playing games:

  • out of BOREDOM
  • out of OBLIGATION
  • out of ADDICTION
  • as a form of CONSUMPTION
  • as an outlet for DISCONTENT
  • ...

Not sure if this list is exhaustive (it's close, I think), but the main theme here is that you shouldn't just play for reasons that have nothing to do with playing the game, so it should be able to bring the point home. External factors will always try to intrude a game one way or another. People have bad days or bad cases of ego or are in a slump for one reason or another. It happens. It's just, when it is the SOLE motivation to participate, it will create problems down the road.

Bored players might get bored by the game or engage in something else, obligations might change, addictions might interfere with the game (switching from, say, coming to drink and play, to just drinking and ignoring the game), the novelty necessary for consumption fades or the antics grounded in a persons general discontent starts hurting others (a good example here might be the attention whore that uses the game as a platform to present themselves, another one would be someone trying to live out some extreme desire that way).

Again, I could go on, but the point remains that all of those might motivate all players to one degree or another one time or another, but if it's the sole motivation (or ends up to be, as those things might change over time as well), it's no good for the game or those involved.

Since people with unhealthy motivations like that are usually not that aware of it, it's a group effort to work out solutions how to handle it. However, that might be fodder for another post*.

What we should talk about, now, are healthy motivations to play role-playing games.

5 is a good number ... 

What could be considered "healthy" motivations? In general, it is obvious to assume that all of them will be somehow related to some form of personal growth. To go with Maslow again:

Ideally, you should be in the upper half** [source]

What we individually seek for growth would be related to the Big Five linked above, so this is about circumstances first, and then defined by preferences. Still, I'll be making an abstract leap here, not directly linking the motivations with The Big Five.

For one, all five are manifest in all of us, with the mean being in the average and the interesting extremes quite rare. We also can be in conflict with them (or our surroundings are in conflict with how they manifest in us) and they change with age. So while it is possible to get a snapshot of an individual's personality with a test, it is not necessarily a convenient approach to motivate said individual to play (correlation needn't be causation and all that).

Because that's the thing with growth: it is what we think we need to develop our personality in a direction, something we feel necessary. Not what we are (or the result of a test), but what we want to become. Hence, as far as motivations go, I'm thinking of them as offerings, as invitations to play. A bit like the unhealthy examples above are signs that show someone plays for reasons other than playing (looking closer at those 'bad' motivations, I'm pretty sure you'll find some form of deficiancy or even trauma that makes the motivation manifest ... that's just not necessary to determine if it helps the game or not).

So here are possible motivations for playing role-playing games (as far as I can see):

  • DOING something meaningful (mainly socialicing with others for a collective experience ... leveling up, campaign play, those things)
  • LEARNING something meaningful (collecting experiences & testing approaches to reality)
  • COMPETING meaningfully (negotiation, tactics & strategy)
  • BEING someone meaningful (exploring who you are or aren't & why)
  • CREATING something meaningful (a game, an experience, a story)

See? It's about what a DM/group/game can offer that potentially triggers intrinsic motivations to engage. I'd be willing to bet that there are people looking for all five and that there are groups with games that allow for the full spectrum (although quite rare!). However, more often than not people will only be interested in parts (those interested in BEING someone would maybe not have much fun with playing a more tactical game or with people coming with a COMPETING mindset, for instance).

They all intermingle, of course, but the main point here is that those motivations are so distinct and necessitate flow states so differing that it might need role-playing games with just as differing design approaches to keep players properly motivated.

But before we can tackle that, it needs a bit of an excursion about the science of "fun".

Motivation = Flow State = FUN

First of all, as soon as I start going down these roads, someone gets ready to point out that we are "just playing for the fun of it". As in: we don't have to think too hard about it, we know what it means to have fun. End of argument ... or is it?

Actually, what it is, is called a "rhetological fallacy". Several, to be a bit more precise here. For one, it is a Sweeping Generalisation to assume all fun has the same cause (playing=fun), but one could also argue that it also describes the fallacies of the Undistributed Middle (by basically saying fun=fun) and it is also, and I quote from the page: Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (Claiming two events that occur together must have a cause-and-effect relationship. (Correlation = cause)) or, to play is to have fun ... 

You see what I'm hinting at? Fun can be several things, is actually derived from several very different things, and can definitely had for the wrong reasons. Those "unhealthy" examples I wrote about earlier? There are people that will have FUN destroying your game or making someone else unhappy or pushing others aside to have the undivided attention of the group or ... I could go on.

I'd go as far as saying that you'd need to surround yourself with people that have the "same understanding" of what fun is, but how helpful is that? It directly leads to questions of "why are you playing" or "what games do you like", as if that was conclusive enough (it usually isn't, really). So going with motivations is a good bet, imo. It's easier to say what interests you enough to make a commitment.

How's that, though?

There is one approach to this that makes the most sense to me, and that'd be that we are looking for activities that help us experiencing something that is called a "flow state". It describes a phase of perception that is so dissolved in an activity, that we can "lose ourselves in it", or in other words, moments where our consciousness is reduced and we experience immersion.

Now, the conditions to reach a state like that can be summoned as follows:


What it says, is, that when your skill level is high and matches the challenge level, you can experience a flow state (which also implies continual growth, as you'll see). If your skill is higher than the challenge level, you are either in control, or, if the challenge level is really low, you are relaxed.

However, if you are not as skilled as you could be, a low challenge will result in boredom. Why boredom? My guess would be that "high" in that regard must mean a limitation you have reached and are aware of (as in "highest possible at the time", while medium means you are aware that you haven't reached said limit, and that would make a medium challenge "boring" as it only matches the state you already reached but will not grow your skill.

I think the rest explains itself easily (also I don't see medium skill to medium level explained here ...). Apathy describes a state where offer (the challenge) and motivation (a skill to use) don't match to the point of disinterest. Low skill level versus high challenge is way more intimidating than facing a medium challenge, but both are daunting. Medium skill versus high challenge level, finally, is arousing in that it describes the tension that the challenged is aware that their skill might not be enough, but they have a chance to still overcome.

Frustration, then (missing on the chart, but one wonders ...), would be when arousel violently turns into anxiety due to the forced insight that one's skill is way lower than expected. That's just me guessing here :D

Btw, notice how the word "fun" never enters the equation?

Anyway, ideally we move in the realm of medium to high challenges with medium to high skills. That'd at least guaranty a somewhat pleasant experience (none of the words in that spectrum imply a negative experience). If all involved are high level, a bit of low challenge to keep things relaxed might work as well, if the dose is kept low or there is a good reason for it (high level skill playing with low level skill, for instance).

One can easily see how players with a high skill level could help adjusting the difficulty level for those players with lower skills or how highly skilled Gamemasters would be able to establish the skill level of their players ...

For the wife ... [source]
That said, the flow state is where it's at. From experience I would say no flow state will last for an entire session. I'm not even sure that it would be something to seek, to be honest. But I know that it can happen several times in a game, sometimes even with all involved at the same time. And those are always the moments where you get better at "the game". 

At this point we have two of three aspects down that describe how motivation manifests. It needs something you want to get better at (the skill***) and a desirable emotional condition that can be achieved while you are getting better (the flow state). What we've not been talking about so far, would be how that connects with the five "good" motivations described above. Why have skills related to "gaming"?

Well, for one, the skills aren't "for gaming" necessarily, but should be generally applicable instead. Just like shown in the list above, playing role-playing games could allow for several areas of growth through playing that are connected, but also describe strong motivations on their own. Another good description of the mindset necessary for this kind of intrinsic motivation would be the japanese philosophy associated with Ikigai (basically about filling your life with meaningful activity).

So that third aspect is about having or cultivating a mindset for growth. Not "just" playing to play, but seeing (or at least assuming) that there is meaning to it. There's even some neurological science to this that shows how we can "hack" our brains to produce dopamine from "just" doing things: you basically learn to work towards a goal through stress with completion being the gratification ... you can strive just on that without extrinsic (often unhealthy!) factors.

You see, the science behind that is actually quite solid, even from yet another scientific angle. A good introduction into the topic can be had in this interview with Dr. Andrew Huberman (Huberman Labs) and I had written about it (in a somewhat different context) in this post.

There you have it, your recipe for "fun". As a last thing I'd mention that there is the concept of "group flow", since we are here talking about people playing a game in a group. Mass psychology has a couple of twists to it, as we act somewhat differently in a group than we would alone.

I decided not to go into it, since it is easily enough explained with what musicians, for instance, do and my argument would be that if the motivations align, it'll produce the desired effect following the same principles described above. For now I see no benefit in going down that specific rabbit hole beyond mentioning that there is something to that aspect as well.

That's already lots of words ...

The next post will be about looking how those 5 intrinsic motivations interact with each other as well as recognizing and utilizing different types of role-playing games. It should close with some words on what we could do with categories like that. Just not in this post. It is a lot to digest as it is, I guess (I thought about making this here two posts to begin with, but I couldn't decide where to make the cut, so here we are).

Only if we on the producing end take our hobby serious, we can make meaningful contributions to it. For that, we need to take a close look at what we have here, define it and go from there. Map it, then formulate ways to navigate it. I think intrinsic motivations are the way to go, in all dimensions of this (me writing this, you reading this, we playing this ...). I hope I was able to contribute to that a bit.

As I said in the beginning: I've done a lot of mapping here over the years and it started to feel as if I'd seen enough to believe I've seen it all. Which I haven't obviously, but there is a point where you need to use a higher resolution to get somewhere new. I'm still feeling my way towards that.

So what do you guys think? What's your take on how the five motivations I pointed out interact? I have an approach for that in mind (a quite surprising one, I hope, but working very well), and it should be interesting to explore it ... but I'm, naturally, curious to see what people think as well!

Also, what benefits do you guys see in this approach, if at all? Better marketing? Better designs? Would it help asserting the quality of role-playing games out there? Could it be used to usher in a new appreciation for the hobby? What are your thoughts?

Different flow state. Ha! [source]


Tooting my own horn a bit: You can check out a free preview of Ø2\\'3||  right here (or go and check out the first reviews here). I'm still doing a sale on the game proper ...

If you already checked it out, please know that I appreciate you :) It'll certainly help to keep the lights on here! I'd love to hear about that, too.

Just look at that beauty ...


*Well, that sounded a bit more dramatic than it needed to. I had all those players. the girlfriend playing out of obligation, the party guy who thought this was just another form of party (and played along until he one time brought way too much beer to the game and started to get drunk on his own as everyone else was there to play). I had the player who just came to be passively entertained (as if he was seeing a play, I guess ... he was always surprised when I asked him if he wanted to do something). I had the players that started out of boredom and moved on quickly after that and I even had the players will some unhealthy impulses they tried to vent in the game ... None of them stayed, and it almost always ended with some drama, but in my experience it's all just trial and error and a solid group can take a curveball or two like that. Still, knowing is half the battle, right?

**There is a possible therapeutic dimension to playing role-playing games. It can help with self-actualisation, socialisation and so on and so forth. Trauma, even. That's just a completely different ball-park and I'd wager that you do not just need to be a great Gamemaster to pull that off, but you'd also need some form of certified training to even go there. Maybe (and that's a big maybe) a solid rpg group can give a kid a feeling of belonging and self esteem has even a good possibility of manifesting, I think. But if it needs therapy, you shouldn't assume you could be the cure JUST by playing a game. You'd have to bring more to the table than that. That said, I might add that it is a great educational tool and role-playing has been used successfully in therapy.

***I could easily off script here and lose myself in how this is a great argument for why it not only needs "player skill", but how it is unavoidable, a necessity even. I won't. Or rather, I did that already in another post (here), defining player skill as:  

So what is player skill? As a consequence of the argument I'm making here, it is using player communication with system and DM to inform a narrative beneficially towards the goals all participants formulated in the game they are playing by narrowing down the narrative options to a manageable scale.

Read the post for details :) 

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