One of the advantages of pulling an index of all of my games writing together was that it means I can see the gaps. I’ve hinted before that there are several different motivations for playing games, but never really dug into the idea. I was first persuaded of the notion in an Extra Credits episode. The computer games industry is light years ahead of the board games industry in terms of deep research into why people play their games. That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise since the amounts of money being thrown around are so much larger, there’s more to gain from that sort of study. We can use their findings.
Quantic Foundry have done an interesting survey on why people play computer games based on a few hundred thousand gamers. Their findings are slightly different to studies I’d seen before in that they have arranged their hierarchy differently. For instance the model I first saw had “Discovery” as a primary motivation (Indeed I went to a lot of trouble to meet that motivation with Wizard’s Academy because I felt few other games were prioritising it) whereas they have it as a subset of “Creativity”. So there are some debates in how the information should be organised, but for now lets dig into this model.
The core motivations and subsets that they identify are:
Action – Destruction, Excitement
Social – Competition, Community
Mastery – Challenge, Strategy
Achievement – Completion, Power
Immersion – Fantasy, Story
Creativity – Design, Discovery
So let’s get into how board games are serving those needs, where the differences between computer and board games might edit the model and where there might be under-exploited design space waiting for just the right game to scratch and itch board gamers weren’t even sure they had.
While less visceral than computer games board games deliver well on the action motivation. A lot of board games define themselves by pushing for that “edge of your seat” moment, particularly Ameritrash (Do we still not have a better term for that?) games that try to funnel the game to the point that it feels like everything depends on a throw of the dice.
It seems like the excitement subcategory gets a lot more attention than destruction. For instance “minimising downtime” could be framed as “maximising excitement”. Everything on meaningful decisions is about setting up a situation in which a player can be excited to see the outcome of a choice. Excitement we have.
Destruction seems underused by comparison. There’s certainly a visceral thrill to physically forcing a piece off the board in something like Cube Quest, but that sort of physical destruction is seen as the domain of less serious games. Though I wonder if undermining someone’s engine in a deep Euro isn’t appealing to the same motivation. Often that sort of destruction is very understated – unless the player makes a point of telling you, you wouldn’t even know that a curse you put into a Dominion player’s deck had ruined their perfectly good plan. Perhaps there’s room for some sort of heavy engine building game in which the game makes a point of showing players the consequences of their sabotage rather than leaving them wondering if their opponent is having to strategise around it or is just having an off turn. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
Social aspects are exceptionally well represented in board games as they’re overwhelmingly placed face to face and do a lot to take advantage of that situation.
However there might be interesting lessons learned there for solo board games. Solo computer games sometimes make an effort to tag social motivations, for instance by having high score boards that compare your performances to other players. Why not solo board games with a social dimension?
Imagine some sort of remote cooperative solo board game in which players are individually playing games in a larger world. A completed game is uploaded to a forum somewhere and this in some way affects the game state for other players. Does anything like that exist? Could it?
Mastery aspects are also very deeply considered. A lot of thought as gone into related issues of decision making and balance – but fundamentally most games define themselves by their win condition and designers put a lot of attention into how every element of the game feeds into meeting that condition.
The challenge / strategy distinction makes more sense for computer games than board games. “Can I work out how to do it?” vs “Can I actually do it” makes more sense where actually doing it depends upon the right twitch input than in turn based games where you can consistently input the exact moves that you intend. Though of course dexterity based games and (to some extent) bluffing games scratch that itch.
It’s also neat to see games that give challenge a voice earlier in the process. Rather than going “I’ve figured out how to win – now can I do it?” saying “I’m going to win without ever attacking another player – what’s the best strategy for that?” Often this happens in a self-selecting way but it’s neat to see games push for it as an explicit inclusion.
Which brings us neatly to achievement. Most games set up something to achieve and award victory when it’s done and obviously there are explicit achievement systems such as the one highlighted above – but here I’m interested in the completion aspect.
Are there players out there motivated by the desire to complete things, to the point that the act of having something to complete is desirable in of itself?
Is 504 some sort of completionist board gamer holy grail that has someone doggedly playing through every possible scenario, delighted to have finally found a game that contains enough stuff to make a completionist run last more than a couple of games?
I know completionist video gamers who absolutely have to find every area and side quest, but I’ve not really come across it in board gamers. I’d be curious, because if such a set of people does exist in significant numbers, then it seems like the gaming world hasn’t done nearly enough to make things to suit them. There are a few games with multiple scenarios that’ll take a while to see in their entirety, but I’m not sure I can think of anything on 504s scale besides 504. Even that I’m not sure is ideal because I’m not convinced that the extra 400 things to complete after someone’s done the first 104 are meaningful in a way that’d particularly matter to a player motivated in that way. I could be wrong here but I found that one interesting to think about.
Immersion is somewhere that I’ve focused a lot of my writing, when discussing the role of narrative in games. There are a lot of games with nods to immersion, but few that seem aimed at someone who’s interested in immersion more than (for example) action or mastery. However in those writings I’ve focused almost entirely on what this model describes as “story” and barely touched “fantasy”
The notion here is that a game offers someone the capacity to take themselves out of their current life and into a completely different situation. People play a game in order to be immersed in its world and forget everything that’s happening “outside”. A board game has some natural disadvantages over a computer game in this regard but linguistically you can see when players have been taken in this way. “How could you attack my castle?!” is something uttered more naturally once a player has surrendered to the fiction that that little bit of yellow plastic is in fact a castle and that they own it.
This happens across all genres of games, even extremely abstract ones. While some games offer a fantastically elaborate lore for players to lose themselves in, it’s just as viable for a player to wind up invested deeply enough in a chess game that they lose all sense of the outside world. The type of immersion that I’m describing here is somewhat outside either subcategory (Fantasy or Story) but I feel like it’s important when a game can grab a player in this way. What sort of games best do that? How can you design for it?
Finally, creativity, which I think is overwhelmingly my personal primary motivation for playing games 😉
Design is well represented. Besides games that explicitly ask players to design something, a great many games give players room to build something. Any time that players are given a toolkit and a problem there is the opportunity build something. That opportunity is maximised when the problem is complex, the toolkit is big and there’s more than one viable way to use it.
Discovery is much harder to implement. A computer game can do a lot “behind the scenes” but with a board game players will typically have to do most of the calculations to run the games themselves. They also will probably look at the rules and components in advance. This gives a designer two routes to achieving discovery in a game. The first is to explicitly hide some things and have them revealed at appropriate moments, the legacy games are the most recent expression of this, but I’d argue that stuff like Betrayal at House on the Hill using the same fundamental method. The second is to tap into ideas of emergence to have a game that can surprise players with its resulting properties despite them understanding the component parts.
That brings us to the end of Quantic’s list, but it feels like there are things missing. Particularly “expression”, I think there are players motivated to use a game to express something about themselves or how they see the world, though few games tap into this effectively. That could arguably be part of “design” but it feels like its own beast.
What motivates you to play games? Is it on the list?
This is a post with more questions than answers. Any one of these motivations could be its own post, perhaps they will be some day, but I think it’s interesting to look at why people play games as a starting point for other thoughts.
Happy gaming, whyever you play 🙂
Interesting thoughts, Greg, thanks for pondering them aloud.
Quantic Foundry has added a new survey for tabletop gamers: https://apps.quanticfoundry.com/lab/tabletop/
It’s not clear to me how they divided the motivations up the way they did, and when I took the survey it didn’t feel quite right. But I’m kind of intrigued that they decided it was worth doing.