The Hierarchy of Needs - Pt. 1

Psychology & Game Design #2

Why do we play games? While your personal answer to that question may vary wildly from my answer, I still think it's an important question to ask, especially when looking at games from a designer's standpoint. If I want to design a game that people genuinely enjoy, what experience should I be striving to create?


Over the the next two entries in my series, Psychology & Game Design, we're gonna take a look at the WHY behind playing games and discuss how, in order to understand how to create games that people love, it is crucial that designers first understand people.


Humanistic Thinking

I'm going to start by introducing you to one of history's most well-known psychologists whose "Hierarchy of Needs" is still studied and cited in modern day literature. That psychologist was a man by the name of Abraham Maslow.


Maslow was born in 1908 in Brooklyn, New York. He lived in a poor neighborhood, and (although his parents highly valued education) his financial situation in life made pursuing college difficult. After several transfers and near dropouts due to poor grades and a lack of funds, he eventually earned a Master's in psychology from The University of Wisconsin.


Over the course of his career, Maslow became a pioneer of what became known as "humanistic psychology" (often called "positive psychology"). Humanistic Psychology is rooted in the belief of free will and the notion that we are innately valuable by virtue of simply being human beings. Regardless of your past actions, no matter how negative they may be, you have inherent value. As such, to improve our mental health, our innate, primary focus is always one of personal growth. No matter where you are in life, your goal is always the same: to achieve your own highest potential.


To better understand this idea behind mental health, Maslow proposed that their are levels of needs that we strive to satisfy in order to come closer to achieving our own highest potential. He organized these levels into what he is most well-know for today, his Hierarchy of Needs.


Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs


And there it is... The hierarchy to end all hierarchies. As you can see from the image above, Maslow organized our innate needs into 5 primary categories. The organization of these 5 categories is important. The first needs you are seeking to fulfill, he argued, are your basic needs. When those have been met, you next seek to satisfy your psychological needs, and then finally your self-fulfillment needs (achieving your highest potential). Here's a quick rundown of each level:


1) Physiological Needs

These are priority #1 in terms of what we need as humans. Food, water, shelter, sleep... Basically anything that you need to physically survive goes here.


2) Safety Needs

Next up, we have what most people would also argue is necessary to survive: a feeling of safety. This level primarily refers to how secure you feel you are. You may have food and water right now, but will you tomorrow? Do you have a secure job, savings, a home...?


3) Belongingness & Love Needs

Also known as your "social needs". These are your primary psychological needs in life after you basic needs have been met. Do have friends you can trust, family that cares for you, friendships, feelings of belonging to a group...? At this level, we simply strive to have relationships.


4) Esteem Needs

This level is typically further separated into 2 subcategories: esteem for oneself, which includes feelings of personal achievement and dignity, and esteem from others, which consists of feelings of respect or that others have a high reputation of you.


5) Self-Actualization

The holy grail of humanistic psychology... In the grand scheme of things, this need is quite simply achieving what is seemingly unattainable: becoming your best self. On a smaller scale, this means realizing your potential and seeking personal growth.


The 3 Types of Gamers

So... what does this have to do with board games? From a designer's standpoint, I would argue that Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs outright gives us the three distinct reasons why people play board games. We aren't playing games to satisfy our basic needs of food, water and shelter, so we must be playing them for some combination of the top three needs of the hierarchy: Belongingness, Esteem and/or Self-Actualization.


And, I would say, these 3 reasons follow along in the same order as the top 3 needs (in terms of how common it is that they are the driving force behind our desire to play games):


1) Belongingness & Love

The most common reason we play games. Look up any article about why tabletop games are "having a comeback" and they will tell you exactly this. We play games to have memorable experiences with others. We are social creatures that want to have good times with one another. Almost every gamer plays games (at least to some extent) because they want to have a fun time interacting with others.


2) Esteem Needs

Less common, although still certainly prevalent, this need is most recognizable in highly competitive players. We love playing games because we love being with people, but when we sit down to the play them, our goal isn't always JUST to have fun. A good chunk of gamers (especially regular gamers) also love playing games because of the perks that come from winning. That sense of accomplishment that not only did you win but that you beat everyone else and have earned their respect by doing so.


3) Self-Actualization

Want a good example of this one? Come to one of my game nights. I wouldn't describe myself as a sore loser, although I do sometimes come across as one because I can get easily frustrated when I make mistakes. The third reason that people like to play board games is for the sense of accomplishment that comes from playing games. This isn't about winning, this is about you striving to do your best. When you are at the end of a game, you want to feel like you played the game well. Not necessarily perfect or the best out of everyone, but that you didn't let yourself down and that you grew from the experience.



What combination of these three reasons for playing games do you think best describes

why you play games? Let me know in the comments section down below!


Want to read part two? Check it out here!


If you want to read more about humanistic psychology, check out this great article.


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