Interview: Why do we play games?

Colin Campbell, Wednesday, September 27th, 2023 8:46 am

Image credit: Jamie Madigan

Jamie Madigan is the host of popular podcast The Psychology of Video Games, and the author of multiple books that look into why people play games.

His books include The Engagement Game: Why Your Workplace Culture Should Look More Like a Video Game, which looks at ways of applying lessons from the psychology of video games into being a better manager or leader through employee engagement, goal setting, feedback, training, competition and teamwork.

In Getting Gamers, he delves into gaming culture to find out why “normal people become raving lunatics online,” and other cultural and psychological elements of gaming such as cheating, a preoccupation with nostalgia, extreme fandom, intense competition, and the prevalence of violent entertainment. The book also asks if games can make you smarter.

Recent podcast episodes have looked at such fascinating subjects as the psychology of loot in games like Diablo 4; the motivation behind grinding; and how games can be used as a therapeutic device.

I recently spoke to him about his work and his findings, and in particular why I personally derive so much psychological satisfaction from games like Civilization 6, and Crusader Kings 3.

GameDaily: Hi Jamie, can we begin by talking a bit about yourself and your work?

Madigan: I have a PhD in psychology, and my work day is mostly around industrial organizational psychology which looks at how we make work not suck, and how we make organizations more effective.

Since 2009, I’ve been doing the psychology of games thing on the side, which is just something that interests me – the intersection of psychology and video games and other types of games. Why are games designed the way they are? Why are they marketed and sold and priced the way that they are? In what ways do they affect us when we play? What does psychology have to say about that?

I’ve got a new book coming out next year about the psychology of Dungeons and Dragons. And I’ve got a podcast where I let guest experts do most of the talking about a particular topic linking psychology and games – usually a researcher, somebody who’s published scientific research on the topic, or who works in the games industry and is applying research that’s being done by other people.

GameDaily: Why do we play games?

Madigan: The question is the same model that’s used to understand why people are motivated to engage in any voluntary activity, and that model is self determination theory. It says there are three basic psychological needs – to feel competent, to feel like you have meaningful choices, and to feel that you’re important to other people.

The cool thing about games – and video games in particular – is that they are engineered to satisfy those psychological needs. Games give you constant feedback about what you’re doing, how you’re getting better at it, and how you’re progressing. It presents feedback very neatly, very timely, very easy to consume, very easy to understand.

Games do a better job than other things in our life, like work, education, and your personal life, where we don’t get that kind of feedback very often. It’s motivating and gratifying to see how we’re making progress – getting to the next level or climbing the scoreboard or improving our time or whatever metric the game happens to use.

GameDaily: I’m obsessed with strategy games like Civilization 6, which I find calms me down when I’m feeling stressed. Those games are also popular with a lot of people who have stressful lives, like tech CEOs, for example. Why?

Madigan: They’re especially good at making us feel like we have meaningful choices, right from the start. You choose which civilizations or empires to start with, which resources, buildings and research programs to prioritize. It feels like your autonomy is being satisfied, and you feel like you’re important to other people, if they are human and you’re in a multiplayer game.

Research also shows that AI opponents can make you feel the same way. You’re interacting with them and competing with them in a way that makes you feel like you’re exercising that autonomy and you’re demonstrating your mastery of the game to them.

One of my favorite models is from Quantic Foundry, which was founded by game academics. They have what they call a gamer motivation profile which looks at the needs or desires of players.

What I really liked about them is that they have the scientist practitioner model down. They’re trained as scientists and as psychologists, but then they’re also very grounded in gaming culture and the games industry as well.

They show the things that players want to do through playing games, whether that’s the satisfaction of blowing things up in an action game, or connecting with other people through a social game, or demonstrating their skill and ability through gaining achievements or playing against others and showing mastery.

Other people want to feel a sense of immersion by visiting a fantastic world or experiencing a narrative or story. Then there’s creativity and the act of expressing myself through customization and choice and design.

Not all of our preferences go into one bucket or another. We can like competition and creativity and narrative but most of us have stronger or weaker preferences across these different areas.

Going back to your question about strategy games – I think those players are seeking out a sense of mastery, creativity and expression. They’re shaping an experience that suits their desire to understand and to excel within complex systems that interconnect in lots of ways. And, of course, they want to come out on top.

If you invest your resources in certain ways, you create efficiencies and opportunities. People who tend to like those kinds of games probably enjoy the same sorts of challenges in real life – looking at a system, learning to understand it, and how to exploit and build upon it. As I said before, games are better at providing satisfying feedback and conclusive results than real life.

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist. © 2024 | All Rights Reserved.