Motivation and virtual worlds

What motivates people to check out of reality and into a virtual world? Lepper and Henderlong (2000) describes the 4 C’s of intrinsic motivation – challenge, curiosity, control, and context – and notes interestingly how there is often a detrimental effect on people whose initial intrinsic interest in an activity is diminished after the introduction of extrinsic incentives that are not a reflection of a person’s competency or value. More pertinent to the analysis of virtual worlds, Ryan & Deci’s self-determination theory (2000; 2000a) is used by Przybylski, Rigby, & Ryan (2010) to examine the appeal and benefits of video games.

Essentially, Przybylski, Rigby, & Ryan’s findings (2010) from a series of studies reveal that the motivation for sustained engagement in video games is based on how these games satisfy basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Csikscentmihalyi’s decades-long research on positive psychology (i.e., happiness and creativity) has included examining the motivations behind participation in creative and challenging undertakings. In this effort, Csikscentmihalyi has coined the term “flow” to describe the kind of engagement in activities in which people experience control, immersion, and a release from the pressure of external, distracting stimuli like time (2014).

While there has been and continues to be an interest in examining the benefit and draw backs of videos games and what motivates people to play them, there is less research done on why millions of people have been motivated to participate in virtual worlds. The documentary Life 2.0, however, fills that void by examining the lives of three very different participants of the virtual world Second Life, illuminating how virtual worlds can both advance and impede the growth of real world lives and relationships.

Examining what motivates people to spend sometimes hundreds of hours a month in a virtual world is a complex endeavor. Life 2.0 indicates that those that spend an inordinate amount of time in a virtual world seem to do so because their real lives are missing something or are generally unfulfilling. In virtual worlds, there are challenges, curiosity, control, and context (Lepper & Henderlong, 2000) that motivate people to engage in a world of fantasy. If the people in Life 2.0 are representative of virtual world players, their motivation to play is sustained, in part, because their real lives do not seem to have, as Ryan & Deci (2000, 2000a) note, competence, autonomy, and relatedness in their work or interpersonal relationships.

Too, virtual worlds can facilitate a sense of flow, where players are able to: (a) to concentrate on a limited stimulus field, (b) in which he or she can use his or her skills to meet clear demands, (c) thereby forgetting his or her own problems, and (d) his or her own separate identity, (e) at the same time obtaining a feeling of control over the environment, (f) which may result in a transcendence of ego- boundaries and consequent psychic integration with metapersonal systems, (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014).

If Life 2.0 is a representative sample of people who engage in Second Life, than one can extrapolate that virtual worlds enable people to reinvent themselves as either they would like to be or wouldn’t dare to do in real life. Also, virtual worlds enable people to build a world limited only by their imaginations, where they can fly in the air, teleport from one location to another, and free of real world limitations of resources and physics.

Lastly, virtual worlds also enable people to obtain a sense of relatedness from others across great distances, connecting with them emotionally and psychologically if not physically. While this deep immersion in a virtual world might connote to some The Matrix made flesh, for many others this ability to escape and reinvent oneself unfettered by the limitations of reality seems to have actually become a conduit to a more fully realized existence.

Certainly not being at the mercy of reality and the capricious winds of change may be motivation enough to abandon ship and log-on to a world that ensures insulation from real world pain and disappointment.

Works Cited

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014).Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikscentmihalyi.  Chapter 10. Play and intrinsic rewards (pp. 135 – 152) and Chapter 14 Toward a Psychology of Optimal Experience (pp. 209-225).

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627–668.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227–268.

Lepper, M. R., & Henderlong, J. (2000). Turning “play” into “work” and “work” into “play”: 25 years of research on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. In C. Sansone & J. M. Harackiewicz (Eds.), Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: The search for optimal motivation and performance (pp. 257-307). San Diego, CA: Academic Press, Inc.

Przybylski, A. K, Rigby, C. S., & Ryan, R. M. (2010). A motivational model of video game engagement Review of General Psychology 14, 2, 154-166.

One thought on “Motivation and virtual worlds

  1. Isn’t it lonely and isolating to cut off from real world and real time stimuli? People who tune out and drop off the grid without a hint or clue are usually hiding from reality or punishing themselves for being human ; flaws and foibles.

    Life is hard enough on a good day. Pushing out of one’s comfort zone. Trying to put on a good face. Holding on to what little hope that remains from an unraveling of the world that is. Sure, we get depressed. We are overwhelmed by and with expections, either real or imagined. Vulnerability and the need to isolate and put up walls insulates us from thoughts of desperation and despair.

    Quiet is good. Not all quiet needs to be filled with noise. Quiet can be enjoyable. It is the space between the quiet, the area occupied by fear and selfloathing that is unhealthy and unkind. The space that causes one to doubt and to imagine how to be able to be in this world free from judgement…free from truly believing that they are worthy of their thoughts, feelings and actions. Freedom to forget and to reinvent the self.

    Nobody has to go it alone, not when people are willing to share the heaviness and the quiet. You don’t need to go it alone.

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