Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Motivated to Play

ptong's picture

The reasons behind human actions and behaviors are directly related to the idea of motivation. There are many different levels of motivation that range from needs, to desires. For example, hunger motivates people to search for food and consume it while a new car may motivate teenagers to get a part-time job. However, this does not directly answer the question of why we become motivated.

The reason we become motivated is in large part a question of incentives and rewards. If people are offered something as a reward, if it is not enticing enough, they may not be motivated to work towards it. However, if the reward is something that is yearned for, it becomes the motivation for whatever action needs to be taken. This effectively creates a system that encourages repeated actions. At the most basic level, if a fisherman is rewarded with dinner when he spends many hours fishing, he will most likely repeat the action because he associates it with a positive meaning.

Interestingly enough, this system can be further categorized in two ways. In the case of the fisherman, he was motivated by hunger and was therefore obligated to act. In order to satiate his hunger, he needed to catch fish. It was never an issue of whether or not he would gain a sense of accomplishment (though this may be a by product). However, in some cases the only reward of an action is a feeling of satisfaction. An example would be a child winning a video game. The child does not actually gain a physical reward, only the satisfaction of winning.

In some cases, negative consequences can serve as motivation. Fear for example can motivate people to take different courses of action even though no satisfaction is produced. However, some psychologists explain this as a natural defense of the brain. They believe that the body recognizes when negative outcomes are possible and steers itself to take precautions to avoid those outcomes.

Additionally, there have been several theories developed to help explain the idea of motivation. One of these theories, the Drive Reduction Theory, states that people have certain biological needs such as hunger (which was previously mentioned) and that they motivate people to do certain things like eat. If the need is not met, the strength of the drive or motivation increases and as the need is fulfilled, the strength of the drive decreases. This is based mostly on Freud and the idea of feedback control systems.

However, there are several issues with this theory. First, it does not explain why people are motivated by rewards that do not meet biological needs. Money for example, often reduces motivation when people receive it, yet this does not satiate any biological needs. Second, it does not explain why when people are hungry, they wait until they can prepare a meal rather than just eat whatever food they find. The Drive Reduction Theory does not account for human restraint which is what allows people to wait and not meet their needs immediately.

Another theory is called the Cognitive Dissonance Theory suggests that people are often motivated to take actions that they know are contrary to their own well-being. For example, people choose to start smoking, even when they are aware of the negative effects. These people know they are damaging their health by smoking, but they still decide to smoke because it gives them temporary enjoyment. Another similar situation is excess spending. Some consumers are motivated to buy certain products but at the same time feel guilty of spending too much. Despite the guilt, they act against their better judgment because they cannot overcome their desire to purchase the product.

The concept of motivation is interesting to me because of the life goals I set for myself. Specifically, as a pre-med student, I have always been motivated to get into medical school and to become a physician. As one of my greatest drives, I feel that it is important to know where it comes from. My origin and family background seem to have contributed strongly to my desire to be a doctor. Being born into a Chinese family, especially having immigrant parents influences my behavior. The Chinese immigrant culture values hard work and financial stability. I know that if I do not succeed to my full potential I will disappoint my parents and my relatives. Furthermore, to earn respect from the Chinese community one has to prove one’s worth. Becoming a successful doctor would certainly fulfill those expectations.

The motivation to become a doctor is a positive motivation. It puts me in the right direction to creating a strong and healthy future. However, another of my motivations coincides with the Cognitive Dissonance Theory, my video game addiction. Playing video games has been a problem of mine because of my addictive nature. I have spent many hours playing World of Warcraft and although I am aware the game takes time away from my studies, the thrill of the experience keeps me playing. In this situation I feel that it is not necessarily my lack of motivation to do work, but a greater motivation to play video games.

From examining the Cognitive Dissonance Theory and the Drive Reduction Theory I have realized that my tendency to play video games is not necessarily a result of a lack of academic motivation. The Cognitive Dissonance Theory states that we are often motivated to partake in unhealthy activities. My gaming seems to be closely related to this theory. However, even though I know gaming does not contribute to my goals in life, I am motivated to play because it fulfills one of my needs. My gaming may be more connected to the Drive Reduction Theory than it first appears. My primary goal is to become a successful doctor, but I cannot maintain my drive without the ability to occasionally release stress. Therefore, my motivation to play video games could actually help me to fulfill my long time desire to become a doctor.


Geen, R. (1994). Human motivation: A psychological approach. Wadsworth Publishing.



Paul Grobstein's picture

the satisfaction of winning

As a stress releaser that contributes to achieving a different motivation? Interesting notion. How are different motivations related to one another in general? Is there always one that accounts for the others, or can there be several different ones, potentially in conflict?