Humans are creatures with needs. Air, food, water, shelter, and clothing are the basic ones. But beyond these, for humans to stay sane, we have other needs that fulfill us in deep psychological ways that help us develop and grow. What might not be clear is that our play, and the nature of it, are just as important for us to feel satisfied. Scott Rigby, a PhD from University of Rochester, has founded an institute that has helped game companies figure that out.
In his research, Rigby has identified three basic needs fulfilled by play: “Competence (they need to feel effective in dealing with environment); Autonomy (they need to control the course of their lives); Relatedness (they need to have relationships with others)”(1). By analyzing these as attributes of board games, purchasers can quickly see how a game may, or may not be, fun. Since the level of utility of these needs may differ from player to player, some players may not value an aspect as much as others.
The first need, Competence, is the feeling that players are able to make changes to their environment, that their choices matter. Many games may have ways to gain victory points or accomplish goals, but unless those goals are meaningful and shape the game state, they become empty. The quintessential demonstration of this is when players can pull off an amazing manipulation of the game objects to succeed. Another aspect of this is the need to feel like they have a direct ability to affect others positively (in cooperative games) or negatively (in competitive games).
Players also want to feel like they are given Autonomy to make their own choices. If the game’s options for actions are too limited, then the feeling of having any agency in the narrative of the game is lost. This is a crucial reason why some players hate luck in games. It specifically removes any feelings of Autonomy (or Competence) at times. Games which give players lots of strategies to explore or tactics to use usually satisfy this need.
Finally, Relatedness is satisfied when games reinforce the connections that players can form with others at the table. When a game helps players form their own story or guides them on a shared journey, it typically satisfies this need (Legacy and campaign style games are the immediate thought). This doesn’t have to be a literal journey, but rather that the game helps cement bonds by giving a context for the players to explore together. Even discussing the different strategies after a game or reveling in a friends defeat can encourage the social contracts between us. Hidden role and social games also address this need well because they allow us to be social in non-traditional ways, thus strengthening our formal bonds outside the game.
When browsing for a game to purchase, we should take the time to understand what needs a game addresses. By further understanding the way certain games fulfill our needs, we can all make better game purchasing decisions.