Searching a ‚rational‘ approach to playing computer games

I want to try to find theoretical based hypothesises which I can test in an quantitative study. Seems I am pretty alone with this approach. Almost all game researchers I know base their work much more on issues like systematic, rules, narration and use ethnographical and very qualitative ways to research the topic computer games. Why are harder theoretical theories which generate testable hypothesises like rational choice not being used? Is it because it so hard to measure game playing or game playing experience? Is it because the topic of gaming is so complex that if you use “strict” (and more compact ) theories that you can not approach them in an “as if” modelled approach.

I hope this is not the case. I was thinking about a framework which would integrate enough (but not to many) aspects gaming to be actually usable.

All of this is totally sketchy. But I had to get it on paper and out of my head.

The central point for the framework I came up with is “investment”.

To actually play a game a player has to do a certain investment. He will only pay this investment if he thinks it will pay off. Meaning that it would not be rational for him to do a similar investment into another activity (People familiar with rational choice will read the term marginal utility between the lines).

I broke down the investment into four different fields:



Game Capital

Social investment

Time: Time you are investing in a game session?

Money: Money your investing in a game session? Some would argue that time and money are actually interchangeable (meaning “time is money”). I will have to give that idea more thought.

Game Capital: Similar to Human Capital theory you are acquiring Game Capital which is your individual experience with (computer) games. A player will have to master using a mouse and the keyboard in a pretty decent way before he can play an FPS in any reasonable manner (my grandma can’t do that). When you are playing a game session you are automatically bringing your game capital with you. So you already have made this investment into your game capital long before you start the gaming session in question.

Social investment: There are many stereotypes surrounding playing computer games. Many people don’t want to be associated with these stereotypes. Imagine your grandma playing a violent game like Quake. For example most elder people and especially females seem to dislike violent games. Playing these games is not what they are supposed to do. It would not feel right for them to engage in an activity they (partly wrongly) associate with young males. Bridging this gap between the social norm of what you should do on one hand and what you actually do on the other is what is meant with social capital.

You can see the different investments as restrictions in an rational choice way. This is most obvious with the monetary restriction. If you do not have enough money to get your hands on a game you can not play it. If your game capital is not strong enough you will not play a certain game just for fun. But why would people then actually play games not just for fun.

This brings us to the aspect of user motivation. Somebody who just wants to relax a bit with playing a game will actually only enter a game session if he considers it rewarding – meaning having a positive ration of utility to investment. If somebody has the motive to compete he will take more risks concerning the ratio of utility and investments than someone just interested in relaxation. If your motive to play a game is to keep your mind sharp (many older people answer this in questionnaires) your utility will not be fun (at least not primarily) but the knowledge to do something which keeps you mentally fit. This could even explain why you would enter a game session which is actually not fun for you to play.

Some user motives:

  • Competition (typical used concerning playing “hardcore”)
  • Relaxation (typical used concerning playing “casual”)
  • Kill time (casual)
  • Keep yourself mentally fit (casual)

You an break down Competition into

Competing against someone else.

Competing against the game rules.

Competing against your self (Beating your own high score)

The different motives will lead to a different usage of the utility / investment ratio.

Such a sketched out theoretical framework would let you formulate a lot of hypothesises which you could then try to test.

A possible break point of the framework is that you would have to assign the motives certain investments. Sounds very subjective.

Again: These were just some loose thought which I wanted to formulate. I put them in the blog because I have not heard of a similar approach to playing games. The concept is not at all usable in the present state.

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