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Games, Drive and Motivation

Hi all.

Mostly theory in this post. I wanted to get some thoughts down about the model of motivation that’s starting to crystallize in my mind. It’s partly shaped by my PhD research, and partly by recent reading I’ve been doing in the psychology of work motivation.

The theory might well generate many practical principles that will help us achieve our dreams with high levels of motivation. And I plan to elaborate and draw out practical applications in the future.

If you’re mostly interested in finding practical ways to motivate yourself to work more effectively, you can safely skip this post and wait for future developments.

On the other hand, if you want to consider how the building-blocks of motivation might relate to each other, then read on. It might well trigger some brainstorms of your own.

A fledgling game-drive theory of motivation:


GAME + ROLE are independent variables in this model. Games are not just games like football, chess or Skyrim — though they include them. They include all the social games we play — the American Game, the mating game, the entrepreneur game, the relationship game, and so on.

An important factor in games, with respect to motivation, is who the other players are, and what they expect of the individual as they play their role in the game.

Much of the spice (and frustration) of life comes from the way in which games are embedded in other games.

If the word ‘game’ is difficult to relate to, the words ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ might be close enough (though they might lack the sense of “dynamic system” that ‘game’ conveys).

DRIVES constitute an independent variable (and for an individual can be treated more or less as a constant. They are not strictly constant over a lifetime, but change more slowly than the other independent variables.). Drives include any stable personality traits and basic biological needs. x

VALUES, as “valuations” of various states of affairs within the game, are a dependent variable, and depend on the game, role and drives.

This is controversial. Most theories of motivation count values as independent variables on par with drives and personality traits. Our values are considered to be guiding principles we take with us across all the contexts of our lives.

However, there seems to be some evidence that values are re-constructed afresh within each new game frame, perhaps as a way to mediate between basic drives and the demands of the game. Millgram’s obedience and authority experiments, and Zimbardo’s “Lucifer Effect” prisoner-guard experiments provide some evidence that this is what happens (at least sometimes). And, if the values from “higher order” games are sufficiently shielded, these new values can determine goals and actions within the local game.

(I’ll need to give some thought to what would count as evidence against this claim)

GOALS , PLANS, and ACTIONS are likewise dependent variables, and depend on the game, role, drives and values. This is less controversial.

Goals and actions are where the rubber hits the road for those of us who are trying to accomplish more in our entrepreneurial and creative endeavors. The hope is that by understanding the games we are playing, and our basic drives, we can influence how effective our plans are, and how motivated we are to execute them.

This model is incomplete (obviously). Two interesting factors so far left out are SKILLS, and PUTATIVE FACTS as perceived by the actor. Skills and facts seem to come into play most when it’s time to adopt goals and make plans.

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