Jason VandenBerghe – The 5 Domains of Play: Applying Psychology’s Big 5 Motivation Domains to Games

To say I was skeptical entering Jason VandenBerghe’s talk on the psychology of play would be a bit of an understatement.  Truth be told, had I not run into a friend who knew about it, I would have attended a completely different lecture that was occurring at the same time. It wasn’t that I was uninterested in the topic of the talk, I very much was. However, when it comes to analyzing things like “play,” I’ve come to expect a whole lot of theoretical pontificating and guessing without much data that is clearly useful. Thankfully, my compatriot was able to steer me in the right direction and I sat down for what turned out to be by far my favorite and most enlightening talk of the conference.

Mr. VandenBerghe quite accurately opened his session by explaining that the entire presentation would mainly be a preview for things he hoped would pique our interest enough for us to research ourselves. Through a series of fast and furious examples, anecdotes, and statistical data points, VandenBerghe went through a quick overview of the O.C.E.A.N. method of analyzing the human psyche and explained how this same method could be used to explain why it is we play games. His theory is that humans play games for the same reasons they live life, and his research seems to back up this claim. An individual who scores highly on one end of the “Facets of Motivation” scale will tend to seek similar things in their gameplay. The evidence is so accurate that, in the process of doing qualitative research into the subject, VendenBerghe has been able to predict individuals’ game habits before even speaking to them simply by viewing the results of their personality test.

The core idea of Mr. Vandenberghe’s talk is that it is impossible to define what players “want”. There is no one thing that every player is looking for when sitting down with a game. Instead, our motivations sit somewhere on a sliding scale according to who we are as a person, rather than being a binary checklist of “dos” and “don’ts.” This could be incredibly useful to designers looking to maximize the audience of their games, as the most successful products will be the ones that appeal to the broadest ranges of the scales. Indeed, if you analyze some of the most popular games of today, you will invariably see that they include elements to appeal to a wide array of game players, not just one small end of the spectrum.

The problem with this, which Vandenberghe conceded  during his talk, is that it is nearly impossible to design for. Attempting to hit all the points on each spectrum from the beginning would be such a limiting factor that the project would never get off the ground. Instead, it is much more useful as a conscious check throughout various points in the design process. If the game has become too limited or leans too much on one facet of motivation, then it may be useful to take a step back and re-examine how the experience is being approached. Still, having quantifiable research that explores why we play and what we look for in games is an extremely exciting prospect, with endless possibilities. I certainly look forward to hearing the results of Mr. VandenBerghe’s further research with eager anticipation. If he is speaking at GDC again next year, you can bet I’ll be back with front row seats to his session.

You can find the slides to Mr. VandenBerghe’s talk at


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