97% of American teens play video games. You’d be hard-pressed to find many other activities that 97% of teens do. Maybe school and sleep. Maybe. So what is it about video games that appeals to nearly all teens? Well, to get the obvious out of the way, video games are play, and play is fun. (It’s also more important than many people realize.) But in addition to using video games as a source of play, teens might be doing something else quite sophisticated. Whether they know it or not, teens are harnessing video games to boost well-being by meeting their psychological needs.
Gaming to Thrive
According to Self-Determination Theory, all people share three basic psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. And the same psychologists who developed this theory argue that one reason video games are so motivating is that they help players meet all three of these needs. Here’s how.
1. Competence: Video games can help teens feel masterful.
You know those word searches on the back of Honey Nut Cheerios boxes where you have to locate obscure cereal jargon like “milk” and “spoon”? Have you ever started one of those and refused to leave the table until you completed it, even though you had long since devoured your bowl of Cheerios? No? Just me? Well, in a (honey) nutshell, that’s the need for competence. Teens (and people of all ages) seek out opportunities to be challenged and to master a given task–even if that task is finding inane words on a soon-to-be recycled strip of cardboard.
Video game developers use a set of tools that reliably help players feel masterful. Great video games get harder as you progress through them. They ensure that you’re always challenged, but not so much that you’ll give up. And they provide constant feedback via leaderboards, achievements, and progress bars to make your accomplishments tangible and highlight how to succeed.
Take Guitar Hero. As you play through story mode, the songs get harder, requiring trickier strumming patterns and more fingers on the fretboard. But you also get concrete affirmations of your skills: the song sounds radio perfect when you get it right, your note streaks are satisfyingly tallied and displayed on the screen, and the crowd cheers you on when you shred a sweet solo. In other words: Challenge? Check. Mastery? Check. More fun than the Cheerios word search? Check.
2. Autonomy: Video games put teens in charge.
In Self-Determination Theory, the need for autonomy means that people are more motivated to do something if they can make choices about it and shape their own experience. This need becomes a top priority as kids grow into teens. Teen expert Laurence Steinberg calls becoming autonomous “one of the fundamental developmental tasks of adolescence.”
The majority of people who play video games do it because they want to, not because they have to. The very decision to pick up a controller and pour hours into a boss battle is one way a teen exercises autonomy. What’s more, there are so many styles of games (racing, action-adventure, role-playing, simulation, platformers…) that, just by picking a genre that matches their tastes, teens have the freedom to generate the experience they want every time they switch on a PC or console.
And there’s one video game genre that’s just brimming with opportunities to feel autonomy. “Sandbox” games–Minecraft is one example–let the player roam wherever, build whatever, and complete tasks whenever. Minecraft players have the choice to build a home (or not), explore the far reaches of the map (or not), and slay the Ender Dragon (or not). In games like this, teen players have the freedom to–quite literally–craft their own experience.
3. Relatedness: Video games connect teens.
What is relatedness? Relatedness is friends. Relatedness is fellow adventurers, soldiers, teammates, band members, and super heroes. Relatedness is humans’ desire for connection with others. Positive relationships are key to leading a healthy, fulfilling life, and research finds that teens are using games to make friends.
According to a Pew Research Center report, gaming is social for most teens. Three-quarters of teens play video games with other people at least part of the time, and nearly half of the time that gameplay is done with someone a teen already knows in “real” life.
Katherine Isbister looks to players’ publicly posted reflections on gameplay as one way to research how digital games support relatedness. Isbister’s book calls out examples of meaningful connections forged through gaming, like the surprisingly deep bond a player felt with an unknown fellow traveler in Journey, even though no words passed between them. Or another player’s re-connection with an old friend she didn’t know lived in the same city, until Words With Friends matched them up for a challenge.
Game-based relatedness covers a range of connections. Feeling the warm fuzzies for a non-playable character run by the game’s artificial intelligence, deepening a connection with someone a player already knows, or taking a friendship with a fellow player out into the real world are just some of them.
Appreciating Why Teens Play
So the next time you’re playing a video game (or watching a teen play), see if you notice how the game challenges, frees, or connects. Does the game succeed at teaching skills little by little, paving the way to mastery? Are players free to customize their avatars, choose their difficulty level, or explore at their leisure? Are quests more fun when completed with companions sitting across the room or across the globe? Considering video games from the viewpoint of competence, autonomy, and relatedness, you may develop a deeper appreciation for why many teens choose great video games as one reliable way to meet their needs.
How do video games help you feel competent, free, or connected? Share your story with us!