Theoretical Framing of Empirical Studies on Video Games

Considering the theoretical claims about the motivational benefits of video games together with the overarching literature on achievement motivation, it is reasonable to assume that video games could potentially promote both students’ expectancies (i.e., sense of competence and control) and value for learning (i.e., interest, a focus on mastery, intrinsic motivation). In this section, we consider how current studies on video games and motivation have been framed and to what extent they coincide with the motivational theories reviewed earlier.

Across the studies reviewed, self-determination theory appears to be the most common motivational theory used to frame the research on video games and motivation (Chang & Zhang, 2008; Dickey, 2007; Przybylski, Ryan, & Rigby, 2009; Przybylski, Rigby, & Ryan, 2010; Ryan, Rigby, & Przybylski, 2006). Przbylski and his colleagues, for example, propose a motivational model of video game engagement that is based on cognitive evaluation theory, a subtheory of self-determination theory (Przybylski et al., 2010), which suggests that video games promote intrinsic motivation by satisfying the three psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness. They argue that the broad appeal of video games is directly related to need satisfaction, above and beyond differences in individual characteristics of players, and across game genres and content. For example, they propose that violence is not a primary motivator for game play; rather, satisfying the needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness is a much more powerful reason for video game engagement. Their model of video game engagement also suggests that immersion in game play is based in large part on need satisfaction, and that it also might amplify the effect of video games on outcomes such as prosocial goals and decision making.

In line with self-determination theory, passion theory has been used to frame empirical studies on video games (Wang, Khoo, Liu, & Divaharan, 2008). Like Przybylski et al. (2010), we consider passion theory as a complement to self-determination theory, given its focus on autonomy and control; specifically, whether users engage in video game play because they choose to (harmonious passion), or because they feel compelled to (obsessive passion). To this end, passion theory is directly related to another subtheory of self-determination theory: organismic integration theory (OIT). OIT specifies that externally regulated behaviors, or behaviors that are controlled by rewards or other people, are more likely to lead to more maladaptive outcomes than internally regulated behaviors, or behaviors that are self-determined. Collectively, this line of research suggests that, in accordance with OIT, engagement in video games is enhanced when users are motivated by harmonious rather than obsessive passions.

Flow theory has also been used to frame research on video games (Hoffman & Nadelson, 2010; Sherry, 2004). Sherry (2004), in particular, argues that video games are designed to promote flow: they contain concrete and manageable goals and rules, variable levels of play that promote a sense of competence, clear feedback on game progress, and visually appealing graphics that help to focus attention and promote concentration. He further suggests that gender differences in video games could be explained, in part, by flow theory. For example, he suggests that structural features of video games, such as 3-D graphics that rely on spatial rotation ability for their interpretation, may favor boys over girls and may explain why certain video games are more engaging for boys.

Finally, reflecting back on the historical research on achievement motives (McClelland, 1953), some studies on video games focus on specific, dispositionally- based motives for game play. In general, this line of research assumes that video game play, in part, reflects individual differences, that contribute to distinct player “types” (Bartle, 1996). For example, Yee (2006) suggests that there are three primary factors that explain why individuals engage in video game play: achievement, social, and immersion. In terms of achievement, players are motivated to play because it fulfills their desire for (1) advancement, as indicated by a need for power, progress, accumulation and status; (2) mechanics, as represented by a general interest in analyzing and optimizing game rules and mechanics; and (3) competition, as indicated by a need for provoking, challenging, or dominating others. The social component, in turn, is represented by a desire to socialize, maintain, and develop long-term meaningful relationships with others, and to derive satisfaction from teamwork. Finally, the immersion component fulfills players’ needs for discovery, role-playing, customization or personalization, and escapism.

Correspondingly, uses and gratification theory (Sherry & Lucas, 2003) suggests that individuals are motivated to play video games to access one (or more) of the following psychological states: (1) competition, (2) challenge, (3) diversion, (4) fantasy, (5) social interaction, and (6) arousal. Noting that many video games are embedded with cognitively demanding activities related to problem-solving or puzzles, Hoffman and Nadelson (2010) also suggest that video games may satisfy players’ need for cognition, or preference to engage in effortful, thought-provoking activity (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982).

Despite claims about the role of games in promoting situational interest (Mitchell, 1993; Squire, 2011), we failed to find any studies on video games that were directly framed in terms of interest theory (Hidi & Renninger, 2006; Renninger & Hidi, 2002). Although empirical findings suggest that goal orientations may be linked with video game engagement (Hoffman & Nadelson, 2010), we were unable to locate any studies that were based mainly on achievement goal theory. Moreover, despite numerous claims about how video games promote competence through challenge, very few studies were framed entirely in terms of expectancies such as self-efficacy. Thus, more emphasis has been placed in the current literature on the value component of motivation (i.e., why individuals play video games), particularly as it relates to need s and motives and intrinsic motivation and less emphasis has been placed on the interest, expectancy, or goals components.

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