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Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose: The keys to a compelling game?

A few months back I watched a TED talk by Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation, and I'm still pondering it today. To surmise, the talk suggests that three key elements are required for successfully motivating workers to their full potential:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Mastery
  3. Purpose

Which made me think - assuming the content of the talk is accurate - that the three elements are applied just as effectively to game development as they are to work. After all, a good game is merely one that compels a player to invest time in it.


My perspective on the three elements, in regards to games is:


Autonomy could be considered the "play" of games. Games with great autonomy drop the player into an elaborate, interactive, sandbox environment and let them explore and play their own way at their own pace. Games with greater autonomy still allow the player to create their own world and run it their way (Of course, games don't need to be that elaborate to have autonomy, simply allowing the player to progress through certain challenges in a non-linear order may be enough). A perfectly autonomous game will allow it's players to return again and again to make new discoveries, create new works and enjoy new experiences every time.

Mastery could be considered the "fun" of games. A game that is too difficult is frustrating, one that is too easy is boring. But a truly fun game is one that challenges the player in a gradual slope, forcing him to improve his skills along the way. I can't really say any more on this topic that wasn't already covered better in A Theory of Fun, so I suggest you read that.

Purpose could be considered the "rewarding" aspect of games. Games allow us to have thrilling experiences that we couldn't hope to have in real life, from flying dangerous vehicles right through to rescuing a Princess. They also allow us satisfaction of conquest when we can finish them. Sometimes they even offer more tangible rewards as tokens of our achievement, like collectible items, beaten speed run challenges, and of course "achievements".


So, that's my two cents. Thoughts?



jdeuel (not verified)

Or you could be Bioshock and pretend all of those arguments are null by forcing a player down a linear corridor and then berating him for going down the corridor.

Earok's picture
Joined: 02/06/2009

Heh. You jest, but in all seriousness I think Bioshock is a good example of autonomy/mastery/purpose in games.

You could argue that Bioshock offered good autonomy through the decisions that the player had to make in order to upgrade his character, and purpose through the compelling, immersive story and enviroment.

However, it generally received criticism for it's lack of mastery by simply respawning the player a short distance from the action after every death (ie, the player wasn't forced to get better at the game to win).