Maslow’s Needs and Gaming

What does it mean to achieve something?  Is it good enough to feel like you achieve, when you really don’t?  Does the modern world provide a false sense of achievement too often, to the point at which people don’t actually do anything?


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It is hard not to notice the impact of computers and video games on the overall productivity of oneself.  For me, being a little bit obsessive, features highlighted by the above are just the type of thing to deter me from being more productive.  I do not, however, blame them in any way for my lack of productivity.  In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it can be seen that video games in many ways fulfill a good amount of these needs.  MMORPG’s it has been seen, fulfill almost all of them.

Let us start outside the realm of massively online multiplayer games.  Let us just focus on the world of consoles for the moment.  The Xbox 360 has their Achievement System, and the Playstation 3 as of firmware 2.40 has a similar system branded trophies.  Both of these systems are basically the same:  You fulfill certain goals in a game, and get “points” for it.  What do these points do?  Nothing.  Nothing whatsoever.  They merely add to a never ending total which the world can see, and then use to judge you as to how good of a gamer you are.  I must admit, it is fun trying to get some of the achievements and for the most part, I enjoy the systems.  The problem isn’t with the systems, it is with the people who actually being to feel as if they are achieving something through them.  From a gamespy article on achievement addiction:

Hello, my name is Will, and I’m addicted to achievements. Not the real-life kind, mind you, as I’ve pretty much given up on those (just getting out of bed in the morning feels like an achievement). No, I’m talking about the kind of achievements that you can only get by playing Xbox 360 games. At first, I didn’t really pay much attention to them, although I did feel a slight sense of accomplishment every time I was informed that I had received one. Lately, however, I’m finding that I can’t stop trying to get them. It’s gotten to the point that I’ll stay up late into the night just to get an extra 10 points added to my gamerscore. I … I think I need help.

I too have felt this way, and I have felt even more frustrated when the game developers put achievements in games on purpose, which require an excessive amount of time to complete; leaving obsessive people such as myself spending far too much time playing.  Again, I do not fault the game developers or the console manufacturers for this problem, I fault the players.

In this generation, it is far too easy to get a sense of actual achievement from utterly useless wastes of time.  Getting 10 points added to your gamerscore on Xbox live usually supersedes something more important, such as studying for a test, or getting to work on time.

Consoles and silly achievements/trophies are just the tip of the iceberg.  MMORPG’s are the epitome of evil when it comes to choosing a game, over real life.  I myself have fallen into this trap more then once, and I hope I never fall into it again.

Studying the above pyramid of human needs, I would like to draw parallels to the world of MMORPG’s, illustrating just how easy it can be to not only spend all of your time playing games, but to actually feel like your time is not being wasted.  Your body and mind can actually get all of the things it requires to feel like a well rounded individual from the comfort of your desk chair.

The research published Tuesday in the journal Motivation and Emotion found that the driving force that draws people to games was not fun — which doesn’t keep players interested — but instead a sense of achievement, freedom and even social connectedness.

“We think there’s a deeper theory than the fun of playing,” University of Rochester motivational psychologist Richard Ryan said in a written statement.

Gamers said they felt the best about their experience when the games they played produced positive outcomes in scenarios related to the real world.

(from cbc news, canada)

We can safely ignore the bottom tier, obviously no game can fulfill any of those, and, they are all very easy to fulfill while being hopelessly addicted to a video game.  So beginning from the second tier:


  • In a game, you are truly safe from harm.  In knowing this you can feel secure that your work is going toward something which cannot be destroyed.
  • Health, Morality, and Resources are yours to command.  You do not get sick, you cannot be robbed, and the laws of morality do not apply.
  • Employment and Family bonds can come from that of the group of players you spend your time with, the guild you belong to.


  • Family and Friendship are fulfilled by your fellow players, especially that you are most closely tied to via the binds of a guild, or your games equivalent of a guild.
  • Sexual Intimacy, while often attempted to be mimicked inside a game, is usually viewed as a joke.  However, it is very easy to meet a player of the opposite sex from within the world of a game and have not only instant ties with things in common, but to also have the freedom of the computer screen to hide any of your natural nervous tendencies.  Real life relationships often stem from games, this is probably one of few positive aspects.  Relationship formation in games.


  • Confidence and self-esteem come easily when you can hide behind the safety of your keyboard.  While it is quite rampant to be insulted or otherwise belittled from inside the game, there is always someone else lower on the totem pole then you are.  
  • Achievement, as is the primary topic of this article, comes most easily.  The game is meant to provide this above all else.  You defeat enemies, you receive great rewards, you gain levels.  Very little time passes inside an mmorpg where you are not being rewarded in some small way for your efforts.  It is a constant influx of reward for your time.  It is very easy to get lost in this sense of achievement.
  • Respect comes easily.  If you can play the game even half decently and be a higher level, or have better equipment then other players, they will instantly respect you for it.  There are many avenues for this in mmo’s.


  • Laws of morality do not really apply but are commonly associated with the laws of real world morality.  
  • Creativity and Spontaneity are most easily achieved.  You can literally go anywhere, do anything, you want, any time.  There are no limits.  Everything is open, everything is lively, 24 hours a day.  Creativity can even spawn outside of the game, yet still related to the game.  Such as designing a website or companion addon to the game itself, providing an extra creative surge.  I myself put more time into the design of my old guilds website then I had put into any other web project I worked on previously.
  • Lack of Prejudice is a non-issue as in a game while there are races, there is no racism.
  • The rules of the game are what they are.  They are accepted.  There are also platforms on which you can stand to have the rules changed if enough players agree to such change.  It is easy to accept the rules and laws of a game when it is utterly impossible to break them.

But something more intensely provoking has happened in EverQuest which makes it addictive. Another frequently encountered figure in introductory psychology textbooks is Maslow, known for his proposed hierarchy of needs. Maslow sees human needs in a pyramid scheme. At the bottom are basic hunger and thirst needs. Then follows security. At the top of the pyramid are aesthetic needs and personal achievements, which would only be possible on a strong foundation of sated hunger and security needs. Thus, even though personal achievements are more rewarding than filling an empty stomach, these achievements are only possible once you’ve filled your stomach. But EverQuest makes it possible for Joes and Janes to become heroes. EverQuest makes it so that you can slay Vox in a guild raid on an empty stomach. What happens when people can feel achievement through continuous mouse-clicking? What happens when these achievements are more rewarding than “real life” achievements? And what if it’s easier to click the mouse than to cook dinner?

(from a study of everquest)

Just to re-iterate, this is not an article analyzing MMO addiction, or otherwise meant to belittle the designers or players of such games.  It is meant to provide insight into why these types of systems are so easy to become addicted to.  It is not necessarily the lazy basement dweller playing these games anymore.  It is professionals, and parents.  Gaming has become so advanced that the human brain gets just as much out of 10 hours inside an mmo as it would from a well rounded life involving children, exercise, and constructive hobbies.

I myself was addicted to games, and I still do play probably more then I should, but I do not feel everyone who plays these games is hopelessly addicted, however, Maslow has provided us some insight into just how it can be so easy for something as pointless as a video game to take precedence over everything else in our lives.

20 thoughts on “Maslow’s Needs and Gaming

  1. This reminds me of something I read years ago, on the boardgame Monopoly. Monopoly gained popularity during the Great Depression. Making monopoly money gave the poor a sense of “being rich.”

  2. Interesting article!

    I’ve recently stopped playing MMORPGs after a fairly long period of what would qualify as addiction. The argument that Maslow’s needs are almost all addressed and fulfilled by such games is robust, and demonstrates how people can spend so much time playing them.

    After reading the article, my thoughts were of some of the ‘hardcore’ players whom I encountered during my recent MMO days. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that over 90% of their waking hours are spent in-game.

    My question is this:

    Assuming these people are law abiding citizens, doing no harm to the real-world community – if they are content and satisfied by spending the overwhelming majority of their time playing a game, is it a ‘bad’ way to live? Should it be discouraged?

    Secondly (and for this I will assume that the aforementioned lifestyle is seen as a negative one), you suggest that the players are at fault, and not the game’s designers.

    I think it is fair to say that MMOs are addictive by design – it is obvious that in order to maximize profits the game is designed to keep people paying their monthly fees for as long as possible. So from this respect the game designers are not at fault – they are simply doing their job successfully.

    However, compare MMOs with another addictive habit – smoking. In many European countries warning messages are posted on cigarette packaging that smoking is addictive (see this, and the general widespread knowledge of the addictive nature of nicotine allows me to feel much more confident when I suggest that smokers are ‘at fault’ when they decide to start smoking than I do when I suggest that a MMO gamer is at fault for having a lifestyle entirely taken up by a game. I may be wrong, but as far as I know, there are no addiction warnings on MMO boxes, and the knowledge of their addictive nature is – though growing – far less widespread than that of smoking. Perhaps the designers, or maybe the publishers could be faulted for this?

    Returning to the assumption made at the start of this point – if the hardcore gamer’s lifestyle was *not* seen to be a negative one is there still a case to suggest that a warning should be put on the game boxes? To put this question a different way – if smoking was not harmful, but still as addictive, would the manufacturers still be asked to print a warning about addiction on the packaging?

    What are your thoughts?

  3. I tend to agree with you, however, living what might be considered a ‘bad’ life versus, living a ‘good’ yet, low quality life, are two different things.

    While someone who holds a job, raises their children well, and supports a family, yet supersedes all other social interaction in the real world with gaming might find themselves full of regret later in life.

    Happiness is relative, and there is no way to say whether or not someone can or cannot feel happy and fulfilled when spending an excessive amount of time in a game. Just as many people watch tv, or read books in their spare time. I draw no differences from those types of things.

    It can easily be argued that a life full of gaming, when one feels fulfilled by it, is equal to a life full of any other sort of achievement. I am simply a different type of person who wants more. If I spend hundreds of hours working on something I wish to be able to look back on that time spent later in life with pride.

    When a gaming company pulls the plugs on the servers of a game, all you have are memories and screenshots, then its on to the next game.

    I have seen some people who form many quality life-long relationships and friendships from within a game. Quality ones where groups of guilds have annual meetups in person, or a group of gamers who move, together, from game to game.

    This post was not meant to bash games, but to draw a parallel on how they can fulfill your needs. This is not necessarily bad.

    Just not in line with what I want for my life, personally.

  4. The thing to do, of course, is to put games to work on fixing social problems. If people can be drawn in to the challenges of solving big problems, we’ll get somewhere. It’s like using the web as a lens to burn ants.

  5. Great article.

    Why are the gov, private institutions not doing anything to curb this? This problem is very serious, not a lot of people realized this. It’s destroying families, kids, relationships, health, sanity, etc. There should be a worldwide campaign or something similar to that of illegal drugs. So the video game addicts can acknowledge their addiction. Bec what’s happening now,is that when you tell them they are addicts they say there is no such a thing as video game addiction.

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      As for advice, as you can tell I am not exactly a professional blogger myself – however, I have received advice from a few and it is always the same (which I have clearly not followed): Be consistent. Write often, every day, three times a week, or whatever schedule suits you. As soon as you start going weeks or months without a post you lose a lot of momentum. Case in point, at a time this blog did have decent readership but now it has almost none, because I don’t post very often.

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