Spielwarenmesse: Why we play – part 1: our motivation to play

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Why we play – part 1: our motivation to play

from Eva Stemmer und Jörg Meister

What motivates us to play? What drives us, again and again, to playfully interact with objects and situations? Do we play just for fun, or are there deeper reasons and motivations urging us to play? And what significance does the motivation of customers have when it comes to the toy retailers' sales pitch?

What motivates us to engage in play

Numerous scientific studies and behavioural analyses attempt to find answers to these questions. Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci explore the factors of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in their article" Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation." The authors point out that the intrinsic motivation of the person in question is greater than extrinsic motivation.

Play satisfies basic needs

According to Ryan and Deci, intrinsic motivation can be achieved by satisfying three basic innate psychological needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness.

  • Autonomy

Autonomy means the feeling of independence and control, i.e. of being able to influence your own destiny and always having a choice. Play already satisfies this need because we choose whether to interact with the toy or game or not. However, if the game always offers players options, the need for autonomy is satisfied on a deeper level, too. Canadian game designer Sid Meier describes games as a "series of interesting decisions".

  • Competence

Naturally, there are also games that are very linear. Decisions have no influence on how the game goes; the only thing that matters is whether you pass or fail the challenge. These games satisfy the second need of competence even more: players are motivated to be good at something, and to improve this ability and knowledge. This ambition satisfies the innate need for competence. This motivation becomes apparent, among other things, when people strive for sporting successes. Whether it's a matter of successfully completing various skateboarding tricks or learning game tactics and strategies, everything helps the players to achieve victory better, faster or more safely.

  • Relatedness

The third need that makes us "homo ludens" is relatedness. It is only being together that makes us social beings. When playing, this is increasingly expressed through cooperative games that seek to solve problems together in a group – either in specifically assigned roles or as a collective. Even single-player games can satisfy this need by sharing scores and skills with each other in forums, on YouTube channels or in public rankings.

Direct connection between motivation and gaming experience

Researchers Andrew K. Przybylski, C. Scott Rigby and (again) Richard M. Ryan discuss the relationship between motivation and the game engagement in a meta-study. They establish a direct correlation between the three needs described, as well as fun, engagement with the game and well-being when playing the game. The more the needs of intrinsic motivation are satisfied with players, the more pleasure they experience when playing.

What does that mean for the retail trade?

In order to generate a good turnover with visitors to the shop, it is vital to find out what motivates the potential customer as quickly as possible.

  • Observe customer behaviour

On the one hand, this can be done by closely observing the customers' behaviour: what attracts them? What guides them on their way through the shop? Do they go to one specific place – or are they just browsing for something?

  • Find out what your customers want

In addition, it is, of course, crucial that you talk to them to find out why they want to make a purchase. Are they looking for something for themselves or for a third person. And what is the key motivation for playing in this case?

  • Assess their gaming experience

By asking the following questions, retailers can find out what the motivation behind the urge to play is. How much experience of playing do the recipients of the toy or game already have? Are they already familiar with a certain game category, and are additions, expansion kits and higher levels a good choice? Or are they meant to be introduced to a specific game category? Then the gift-giver should buy a basic set or some simpler variant.

  • Discover what motivates them to play

The motivational model discussed above can help you figure out what drives the player. Is he a persevering player, who wants to improve step by step? Is he interested in playing together with other people? Or does he want to develop himself and lose himself in his own game world?

These questions can help you find the right games as well as construction toys or collectible toys, because depending on the ability of the player, a good retailer will recommend other items. And the better the advice a customer gets, the more likely it is that the satisfied customer will return to the shop for more.


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