Saturday, October 29, 2022

Ryan and Rigby - gamification and Self-Determination Theory


Ryan and Rigby

Richard M. Ryan, professor at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at the Australian Catholic University and a research professor at the University of Rochester.and Rigby, founder of Immersyve Inc. provide a theory of gaming built upon ‘Self-Determination Theory’, developed by Ryan and Deci, the idea that specific, deep needs explain what we require to live fulfilling lives.

They applied Self-Determination Theory to explain that intrinsic motivation was the key to understanding the power of games and gamification. Gaming has become wildly popular globally, as it provided autonomous action, optimised learning and connections with peer groups. Gaming has been researched by them in detail and they provide a compelling account of why games are so popular.

Self-determination theory

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, put forward Self Determination Theory in their book Self-Determination and Intrinsic Motivation in Human Behavior (1985). It sees the active self, being in control, as the primary driver behind growth and fulfillment. It is essentially a theory of motivation, placing importance on intrinsic, not extrinsic motivation. It is your own need for growth that drives other personal needs. This means growing in competence as well as feeling related or connected to other people.

Self-determination theory has three components:

Autonomy - being in control, able to take action that results in actual change

Competence - learning knowledge and skills to achieve more autonomy

Connection or relatedness - feeling attached to other people

Gaming and SDT

It was this theory that Ryan and Rigby applied to games and gamification. Self Determination Theory (SDT) claims that autonomy, competence and relatedness are the three ways to true fulfillment and growth but are they also the reason why games are so popular?

They argue in The motivational pull of video games: A self-determination theory approach (2006) that gaming is fundamentally about meeting basic needs. Matching challenges to stretch abilities, optimal challenges, allow the gamer to progressively acquire competences, mastery through action, which they experience virtually. In Glued to Games (2011) they further suggest that superficial narratives are less important than these deeper psychological needs and experiences. 

Ryan and Rigby did four studies confirming that computer games offered autonomy within games and this was a key component in the enjoyment of the game. Competence was also studied and, as competence, in terms of knowledge and skills and achieved competences, manifested in actual performance up through levels in games, is a primary feature of gaming. Connection was also a strong feature in multiplayer games, a sense of being part of a team and wider community, within that one game, across all players of that game and the gaming community in general.

Rigby and Ryan studied actual motivations. consequences and game interventions. They claim that it is not the ‘content’ of games that matter but the feelings and achievements through playing the game. Unlike books, TV programmes and movies, it is not the narrative or story but the player interactions that matter. Game players get their satisfaction from the actions they take, not ‘fun’ as some assume. Hardcore gaming can be far from fun as game players will endure intense periods of effort, frustration, even disappointment but the satisfaction comes through the gameplay. This gameplay is the sense of control, achievement and relatedness to others (especially in multiplayer games). After playing, engagement in fan chat, videos and streaming, shows that the social side is very important. They go beyond the game to discuss, create and mod games.

All of this confirms their view that SDT explains the huge popularity and success of computer games. Rigby and Ryan give a solid explanation for the huge success of games, beyond mere entertainment, differentiating computer games from other media.

This has even more explanatory power in newer genres of games. Hundreds of millions play Fortnite, Minecraft or Roblox games because they give you the opportunity to create those games, confirming a strong sense of autonomy. You then succeed in killing, surviving, getting somewhere or gaining something, confirming your learned competences, in your own self but also in the eyes of others. The trajectory of a game is in the deep game design, in keeping you going with achievable challenges and satisfying these primal needs.

Gaming, learning and SDT

Note that SDT contains an important word - the acquisition of ‘competences’. This is central as one must feel good about gaining and exercising gained abilities in a range of different contexts. They provide a well-researched and sound basis for the power of games including the need to learn. Games gain their power, in a sense, by being learning experiences, becoming more competent, namely learning.

So, to learn best one must feel in control, set your own objectives, and also be in control oneself, whether playing a game or learning, sometimes both. How do you help people learn? You situate them in the context in which they will be autonomously motivated to learn and become more competent by overcoming difficulties and learning from failure, then connecting with your peer group within that multiplayer game, players of the game in general or gamers in general. 


Although this provides a general theory of learning, as well as an explanation as to why gaming and gamification may be useful in the delivery of learning, one must be careful in assuming this means games are always good in learning. Their focus on intrinsic, Self-Determination Theory, looks for deeper aspects of gamer motivation and games design, not superficial or simplistic fun.

Games may distract from actual learning by providing opportunities to learn how to play the game, rather than pick up required knowledge and skills. The rules and execution of the game mechanics may take up valuable cognitive load, thereby inhibiting useful learning.


SDT has influenced learning theory and those who see gaming as a useful way to deliver learning. Naruda sees it as important in framing a vision of the Metaverse providing a pull for meaningful activity in virtual worlds, satisfying deep and identified needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness.


Ryan, R.M., Rigby, C.S. and Przybylski, A., 2006. The motivational pull of video games: A self-determination theory approach. Motivation and emotion, 30(4), pp.344-360.

Przybylski, A.K., Rigby, C.S. and Ryan, R.M., 2010. A motivational model of video game engagement. Review of general psychology, 14(2), pp.154-166.

Rigby, S. and Ryan, R.M., 2011. Glued to games: How video games draw us in and hold us spellbound: How video games draw us in and hold us spellbound. AbC-CLIo.

Naruda, H. 2022 Virtual Society