Psychology of Board Games

Statistics and Speculations on the Behavioral Science of Board Gaming
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Motivation in Board Gamers

Corey Butler
United States
Saint Paul
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What motivates board gamers? Fun obviously, but this is not a particularly informative answer. Is it the social interaction? The cognitive exercise? The ego boost from winning a hard fought struggle? It's certainly going to depend on the person and the game, but what general motivating factors exist, and how do they relate to game preferences and personality traits?

Nicole Lazzaro has proposed a four factor model, the 4 Keys to Fun, based on extensive interviews with 60 video game players at XEODesign. According to this research, players tend to experience enjoyment from one or more of the following: Hard Fun involves mastering challenges. Easy Fun involves enjoying the immersive experience or theme of the game. Serious Fun involves stimulation and excitement. Finally, People Fun involves social interaction and bonding. This model was not really intended to describe board gamers, but parts of it seem to fit pretty well.

From gallery of shotokanguy

Nick Yee at Quantic Foundry took a more quantitative approach to the problem. A statistical tool known as principle components analysis was conducted on a huge dataset obtained from an online sample of thousands of video game and board game players. The resulting Board Game Motivational Model suggests that there are 11 distinct motivations, which cluster together into four superordinate factors: Conflict, Immersion, Strategy, and Social Fun. These factors overlap substantially with the 4 Keys discussed above. And like the 4 Keys, people will tend to have some combination of each motivational style. Personally, I score high on strategy and immersion, but lower on conflict and social orientation.

Check your own gamer profile here:

From gallery of shotokanguy

Can I add anything to this accumulated wisdom? In my BGG survey, I included 13 items drawing from both models, as well as my own intuitions about the motivations of board gamers. I did my own principle components analysis on the data and compared half a dozen different solutions to see what looked clearest. Principle components, like all factor analytic methods, relies on a certain amount of subjective judgment. Let me show you the relevant survey items before I get to my results.

From gallery of shotokanguy

I came close to replicating Nick Yee's work, but try as I might, I could not find a solution in which the motivation to win lined up with the strategy cluster. There may be some sampling or methodological differences that account for the discrepancy, but it looks like the need to win and the desire to have a cognitive challenge may be two different motivational states, at least according to my data. It certainly seems possible to dislike games that require strategic planning, but still be highly motivated to win.

My analysis used principle components with varimax rotation, with N = 522. The best solution accounted for 64% of the variance with five components extracted. These five motives consisted of Strategy, which included challenge, minimal luck, and using one's brain, Social Fun, which included socializing and time with friends, Immersion, which included a rich theme, drama and excitement, Need to Win, which included winning and avoiding loss, and finally, Conflict, which included direct player conflict and drama. The desire for conflict also correlated inversely with a preference for cooperative games when I added that item in a separate analysis.

From gallery of shotokanguy

So what motivates board gamers? A consensus across all this research suggests three clear factors. First, hard fun, strategy and cognitive challenge. This might be most available in abstract strategy games and heavy weight Euros. Second, immersion in a rich theme, or what Lazzaro calls "easy" fun. Ameritrash and roleplaying games come to mind. Third, the social fun of interaction with other people, which can be readily found in light Euros, roleplaying games, and party games. People will vary in how much importance they place on these three aspects of the gaming experience, but I would argue that a good game will have to embrace at least one of these core motives.
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