How is it that games are able to entertain millions of people around the world for hours every day? How is it that a game can motivate players to play through hours of content, completing numerous missions, dying, restarting, failing, but ultimately reaching the end of the game while offering no real, tangible incentive for doing so? Why is it that when we play a game we feel numerous heightened emotions, from excitement to empowerment, even though games, at face value, aren’t even real? If you’re a gamer you know that a game can make you feel larger than life.

Games don’t achieve this through some bizarre pixel-magic. At their centre, games are psychological powerhouses. Developers know what it is that makes gamers tick, and they turn the desires, imaginations and emotions of gamers into a product of entertainment. Entertainment, however, is just one small part of gaming. The true power of gaming comes from understanding how games motivate and empower gamers.

Once you understand how games motivate you and make you feel empowered, you can apply the same laws to real life. In this article we will be revealing the many wonderful ways in which games work psychologically, and then applying those gameplay mechanics to real life. We’ll cover all major gaming genres, from shooting games to RPGs, looking at the psychological rules governing their gameplay, and then applying those rules to real life. What this means is that if you’re a gamer who loves RPGs, you’ll discover why you love RPGs, how RPGs motivate you to keep playing and how you can turn the laws of RPG design into laws for real life. Or, if you’re a fan of shooters, you’ll discover how shooters make gamers feel empowered, and likewise apply those laws to real life. Games have the power to motivate, to empower, to create joy and happiness and many more positive.

By learning to apply those laws to real life you’ll discover the secret to motivating yourself to complete your real life objectives and find success outside of gaming.

Fact: Games are not about gaming


Games aren’t about gaming, or about characters, or about weapons or any other immediately observable aspect of a game. Games are about people. More specifically, games are about you. If you play a game you love and find yourself motivated to play through tens of hours of gameplay to reach the end, clearly that game is creating a sense of motivation in you, the gamer.

In this sense, though every observable aspect of the game, from its characters to its story and its weapons, is entirely fictitious, there is one very real aspect of the game: the way it motivates your brain. Your human reaction to what is happening on screen is the reality of gaming. Similarly, if you play shooting games and feel a tremendous sense of power from wielding a fictional gun, though the gun itself might not be real, your emotional and psychological reaction to it is. The sense of empowerment you get from playing is real.

Whether it’s the sense of creativity we experience from playing a game like Scribblenauts or Little Big Planet, the sense of emotional attachment we develop to the characters in a game, or the feeling of freedom we experience when looking out over a vast and gorgeous backdrop, such as those in Assassin’s Creed 3, Bioshock Infinite, Uncharted or similar games, the psychological reaction to gaming is always real. And because our psychological reaction to gaming is real, we can use it in real life. Imagine being able to take the sense of motivation we feel when playing a large RPG like Skyrim and applying it to our real life jobs. Imagine being as confident in real life as you are when you play games you’re good at. Imagine living with the sense of freedom you feel when playing an adventure game, only in real life. This is all possible once we understand the laws governing game design, and once we apply those laws to real life.

The Laws of Motivation in Game Design Applied to Real Life

Many of us lack motivation in real life. There’s nothing strange about that. Motivation in real life, it seems, can be difficult to achieve. Whether our real life ambition is to lose weight, to earn top grades in our exams, to get a promotion at work or any other worthwhile goal, finding motivation can be challenging. There most likely isn’t a single person alive who doesn’t know what it feels like to be unmotivated. We might get out of bed late, struggle to get ourselves to the gym, lack energy in the workplace, or simply not give a damn about our sense of progress in real life. But then we turn on a game and we immediately experience a heightened sense of motivation. We want to be the name at the top of the online leaderboards, we want to reach the end of the game and unlock all the achievements, we want to have characters with maxed-out stats. Motivation is never lacking in a quality game. But just how does a good game motivate us to complete every objective it sets before us, and how can we apply those laws of motivation to real life?


The First Law of Motivation: Setting the Scene

The first thing a game must do in order to motivate gamers is to give them a purpose. We want to know why we are playing. There are many ways in which games establish this sense of purpose. Story driven games will usually begin with a cutscene that tells us what the game is all about and what we are going to achieve in it. One of the best openings in any video game is in God of War 3. As the game opens we see the towering Mount Olympus, home of the Olympian Gods, the number one power in the world, wielding an all powerful army of sentries, guardians, sentinels and more. We meet Kratos, the Spartan demigod, and in meeting him we are informed of our mission: vengeance against Zeus for his betrayal.

In reality, this epic opening scenes serves a few key purposes: 1) it introduces us to our character and in-game self(Kratos), 2) it inform sus of our mission and 3) the reason for the mission (as an act of revenge).

Nearly every opening scene in history serves these three points of telling us

1) who we are (sense of identity),

2) our purpose

and 3) the importance and reason for our purpose.

These three key points are more than just the basics of a good game intro. They serve to create a believable sense of identity. In real life, just as in gaming, our sense of who we are most usually revolves around the answers to these three questions:

Who are you?

What is your ambition?

Why is your ambition important to you? Just as a game intro gives us a fictional sense of self with these three questions and in so doing launches us down a path towards an objective, so too do we define ourselves with these three questions, and send ourselves into the future based on their answers.

Self motivation through character definement

The first and most important rule of self motivation, then, is to provide clear answers to these three questions. To provide an example, allow me to answer these three questions for myself, as I sit here writing this article.

1) Who are you: A games journalist

2) What is your purpose: To take the positive psychology rules of game design and apply them to real life

3) Why is your mission important? : Because revealing the real life applications of game design empowers gamers in real life.

By simply answering these three questions we create a sense of purpose that will motivate us towards our end goal.



Expanding on our motivations

Naturally, motivation in game design isn’t just about the opening scene. Once a game developer has created our sense of in-game self and given us purpose, it is imperative that we be constantly reminded of these elements as the game progresses. The most traditional way for game developers to remind us of our identity and purpose is by breaking a game up into levels, each with their own missions and bookmarked by cutscenes.

Typically, a game will follow a logical sense of progression which will look something like the following:

1) Opening cutscene for a level: each level starts with a cutscene or piece of dialogue that tells us what is going on, what our mission is and how we are to achieve it.

2) Action: We will go through the motions of completing the level

3) Boss Fight: We will defeat an enemy or complete some other important task that provides a sense of success, moving us towards the end of the game. For instance, a shooter might have us taking down the members of an evil organisation one by one. With each boss we take down we move closer to the end goal of eliminating the entire evil organisation.

4) End cutscene for the level: This will provide a sense of achievement by showing us what we have accomplished, and perhaps by developing our character. Essentially, the entire game comes down to one large objective, broken up into smaller objectives. For every step of the game we are constantly told what we are doing and why we are doing it, as well as being shown the results of our action so as to reward us for our effort. This might sound a little complex, but it becomes much more easy to understand once we apply it to real life.

How to apply the concepts of level design to real life

Motivation in gaming comes down to always being aware of our goal and having manageable missions to complete towards the attainment of that goal.

Whatever your goal is, apply the concepts of game design by doing the following:

1) Write down your end goal and why it’s important: If, for instance, your end goal is to achieve the top marks in your university degree, then you might write down “Achieve top marks (which is the goal) in order to be qualified for a high paying job (which is the reason).

2) Break the goal down into smaller goals (levels) : having too big a goal will only cause you to feel overwhelmed. For success, it’s imperative to break the goal down into smaller, more manageable chunks. Continuing with the example of a university degree, you may choose to logically break your main goal down into smaller goals by taking each module of the degree as a level.

3) Create your intro “cutscenes” for level 1: In order to motivate yourself, remind yourelf of what your goal is for your current “level” (objective) and why that level / objective is important.

4) Break the level into actions: Now that you have a series of levels, break each of those levels into actions that you can begin to take. For the university degree example, you might choose to break your levels into units of work, laying out the hours you will work each week.

5) Perform the actions: Begin to work through the actions you stated above. If at any point you need further motivation, remind yourself of your mission and reason.

6) End cutscene for the level: It is imperative that at the end of each unit of action you remind yourself what you have achieved. This enforces a sense of accomplishment which will motivate you for the next level. By breaking down your main goal into levels and by continually reminding yourself of the reason for each level, as well as your overall goal, you create a workable plan and support it with continual motivation. This is how a game gets you from start to finish, and it is twice as effective when applied to real life.

Motivational Top-ups

As well as creating motivation through purpose, identity and reason, as discussed above, games constantly motivate gamers through various rewards. Back in the days of Space Invaders, an example of a game reward might be a tiny little block representing a spaceship blowing up into tiny pixels, representing a successful hit. These days, gamers are much more demanding. Developers have to reward gamers in many various ways. Among the most popular rewards in gaming are:

Weapon upgrades: We’re constantly hoping to find the next big gun, or a new part which will upgrade our current gun. Many times, we continue playing specifically to unlock the best weapon so we can watch huge explosions or gory deaths.

Unlockable Items: Going side by side with weapons are other unlockable items, like armour, tools, keys and so on.

Character Upgrades and Stats: Character stats have long been the main motivational factor in RPGs. By telling us how many points we need to achieve to upgrade our character, RPGs keep us playing until we have a completely maxed-out character.

Graphics: Graphical treats abound in all forms of games. Whether it’s a beautiful piece of scenery like those in Bioshock Infinite or Skyrim, or a stunning set-piece, like the explosion of an enemy vehicle or building, or a new and beautiful character, we’re constantly being treated to new graphics.

New Areas: There’s nothing quite like unlocking a new room or a new are of the map to explore. We complete one area in order to unlock the next, and so on, until the entire map has been seen.

Online Score: Online scores become hugely addictive. Games like Super Street Fighter 4 Arcade Edition 2012 have tons of players playing each and every day in order to get their name near the top of the scoreboard.

Whatever type of rewards a game offers, one thing is always clear: we need rewards in order to motivate ourselves to keep going. This is precisely the same in real life. By associating awards to positive actions, we motivate ourselves to keep on the right track. No one just wants to work, and no one wants to wait forever for an eventual success that may or may not come. It’s imperative to reward yourself day in and day out for positive steps that you take. To motivate yourself to keep moving towards your objective, reward yourself for every positive step. What have you done today? What have you achieved? How are you going to reward yourself for it? Reward is imperative to motivation. If you don’t reward yourself for the good you have done today, you will feel less motivated to do good tomorrow. “Games reward you for effort. This keeps you motivated. Just as in a game, reward yourself for every positive action you take. This will motivate you to continue working positively in the future.”

The Importance of Rewarding Effort, Not Result

The final point of note in our section about motivation is this: it is essential to reward yourself not for results, but for effort. Game developers and psychologists both know this to be true. In a game, you don’t want less skilled players to stop playing because they’re not good enough to unlock new items and weapons or to reach the end of a level. Instead, developers offer rewards regardless of the amount of success a player has in the game. This is part of the reason why games have become progressively easier over the years.

Hardcore games of old were great for skilled gamers, but casual and unskilled gamers found zero motivation to play because they weren’t talented enough to complete missions. These days, games are easy. A game like God of War Ascension gifts players with amazing moves and combos that require almost no skill to perform. Other games offer “Easy” settings, and others still reward gamers for time spend playing, regardless of how well they were playing. Again, this isn’t a rule specific to gaming. Positive Psychology coaches (whose work in applying the science of psychology to happiness and positivity) proved that the key to staying motivated is rewarding your effort, not your results. The reason why it’s important to reward effort rather than result is simple to understand. Oftentimes, in life, we do the wrong thing but don’t get the right results.

If, for instance, we try our hardest in an exam but end up with unsatisfactory results, it can tempting to throw your hands up in the air and give up studies if you focus on results alone. By focussing on effort instead, we reward ourselves for having tried hard in the exams, even if we weren’t successful. In this way, we are still motivated to try hard next time around. Whatever your goal is, you need to reward yourself for effort and time spent trying, rather than hard results. You wouldn’t continue playing a game if you kept dying over and over with no sense of reward, and likewise with life. Reward effort and you will stay motivated, just as you do in games.

CONCLUSION By taking the rules of game design and applying those laws to real life, you will be able to achieve and maintain heightened levels of motivation.

Categories: gaming

Paul Harrison

Paul M Harrison is an entertainment journalist, novelist, and blogger, and a specialist in the theory of storytelling. Paul Harrison can be contacted via his personal website or on Twitter or Facebook.


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