Video Games, Motivation and Evolution

Most people who have played video games are aware of how addicting they can become.

A lot of research points towards needs satisfaction as part of the reason behind our wish to engage with video games. I believe there must be more to this explanation, as in underlying reasons for why we have certain needs that we seem to especially take pleasure in satisfying.

These explanations I believe we can find within evolutionary psychology.

In the following I will introduce our needs for competence and autonomy, and ways in which I believe these needs can be traced back into our evolutionary past. There is also the need for connectedness, but this I will cover in a later post.

In the Pleistocene period of our evolutionary history we were hunter-gatherers, which meant we were very exposed to threats of nature, these being both environmental and predatory. Physically, we were comparatively weak if we look at some of the larger primates or many mammalian predators. Our larger brain, social cohesion and more developed cognitive functions could be a way of compensating for this lack of physical prowess; we as Brian Boyd puts it inhabit ‘“the cognitive niche”’ (2010, 434). By this he indicates the way Homo sapiens found a niche in our cognitive development, whereas most other predators rely more or less on some sort of physical niche. Theories go to show that we used our higher cognitive powers to improve our own skills and our surroundings. For an introduction on our cognitive and general evolution I recommend watching this video:

We may therefore find adaptive advantages in the motivation to improve our competence and autonomy through a reciprocal reward system; we improve our skills within a certain area and in return our chances for survival may be improved. With this in mind let us take a look at these needs, to discern more specifically how they may have improved our chances for survival due to increased measures of control.

Autonomy: choosing and acting based on one’s own volition. Need for autonomy can be seen fulfilled when we are able to make choices that influence our surrounding environment (Bard, Deci and Ryan 2004, 2049). The adaptive advantages connected to such behavioural preference is that such exhibited autonomy may also have improved the likelihood of a person being able to yield a desired result from a situation, if based on the person’s autonomous decisions. Autonomy may have played a part in securing early survival as its behavioural advantage lies in the encouragement of flexible thinking and acting. To which extent humans feel the need for autonomy may also be culturally conditioned (Ryan and Deci 2000, 75). How autonomy and culture are linked would be interesting to examine, although beyond the scope of this blog, but if such a link could be established, the implications to this theory would be interesting as it would imply that games will affect and be received in cultures differently.

Competence: our need to improve our skillsets, both physically and mentally. This relates to measures of control in a more direct way than autonomy. Feeling a need to constantly improve leads to better means of control of our surroundings, e.g. through improved hunting techniques, the creation of better shelters, improved artefact and tool creation, and a better grasp on social strategies. These examples exhibit traits that can have positively affected both a person’s natural and sexual selection, and thereby chances of procuring offspring. The need for competence is displayed with females as well as males, although there may be slight variations as to how we are motivated to fulfil the needs, as based on the structure of hunter-gatherer societies. Males may have a higher propensity to fulfil their needs with the improvement of physical competence connected with e.g. hunting, and women have more of an advantage in building competence to do with cooking and crafts. This is not to say that females do not gain competence fulfilment through hunting and males vice versa, it is simply to comment on the possible differences. This observation is offered to add a broader perspective to the theory.

The above is merely an initial look at how needs motivation and evolutionary psychology may be connected. Much of the above is taken from a paper I am currently working on. In the paper I aim to look further into some of the possible explanations investigated here, and will analyse these further through a case study of a video game.

Please leave any comments or questions you may have in the comments section below.

Thank you for reading.

Reference List:

Baard, Paul P., Deci, Edward L., and Ryan, Richard M. 2004. ‘Intrinsic need satisfaction: A motivational Basis of performance and well-being in two work settings’. Journal of Applied Psychology 34 (10): 2045-2068.

Boyd, Brian. 2008. ‘Art and Evolution: The Avant-Garde as Test Case: Spiegelman in The Narrative Corpse.’ In Evolution, Literature and Film, ed. Boyd, Brain., Carroll, Joseph., and Gottschall, Jonathan, 433-456. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ryan, Richard M., and Deci, Edward L. 2000. ‘Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being’. American Psychologist 55 (1): 68-78.


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