Maslow’s Hierarchy of Game Design

What happens when you look at the history of game design through the prism of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs?

Looking at the development history of games and comparing it to the basic psychological needs of humanity, some interesting corrolaries crop up. Let’s take a quick look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and adapt its levels of motivation for gaming. What happens if we adapt the physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization levels of his famous pyramid to historical game development cycles? A fascinating pattern emerges.

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Early games focused on the basics. Can you survive? Can you make it to the next level? The challenge of early games lay in grasping the rules and surviving despite the odds. There was little to no story, and the challenge (and fun) of the game was solely built around besting the harder and harder challenges set in front of you. Examples include Pac-Man, early Mario games, Rogue, or Tetris.


As games advanced, they’ve become more in-depth. Once players grasp the basics of navigating a game world, can they progress, find better gear, and follow a story line? As they revisit earlier parts of the game, enemies that were once hard are now easy. Things change in the game world as the story unfolds. Think of games like Legend of Zelda, Super Metroid, and Final Fantasy.


As games entered the networked era and the Internet became more prevalent, socialization was an obvious next step. While many early video games allowed for multiple players (Pong), the Internet opened up opportunities for play across local area networks and vast distances. Early MUDs set the standard that some games could not exist as a single player entity, which set the stage for MMORPGs. Nowadays, it’s almost expected that the majority of games will have some kind of social features – whether that’s multiplayer, co-op, or straight MMO. Early examples include MajorMUD, Doom, and CivNet while more recent examples include World of Warcraft, the Call of Duty franchise, and Starcraft II.

Social tools can take many forms: from things as simple as in-game friends lists and chat to team-based multiplayer with objectives, multiplayer deathmatch, cooperative campaign play, raiding, PvP, and much more. In MMO games, the persistent, always-connected worlds mean that players can group at any time to accomplish any kind of objective together.


I would argue that rewards and achievements are not possible without some layer of socialization built in. In early games, this was as simple as having a high score list for a game. Achievements in present games measure a great deal more: progress through various aspects of a game (single player, multiplayer, exploration, etc.), prowess at playing the game, and also completely arbitrary objectives (finding rare objects, performing unexpected actions, etc.). While even single player games can track achievements, the social aspect of sharing and comparing achievements is where they truly shine. Rewards take achievements a step further with vanity improvements, such as titles, skins, and sometimes items.

As socialization has become the norm in modern games, achievements are also a fairly common layer built on top of the social tools. They give players a way to compare and compete indirectly; achievements can define a player’s relative social and progressional position within the game world.


Creation represents the present peak and near future of gaming. When players also become the storytellers and world builders for a game, then they can become truly invested in that game. There are many different ways to approach the creation level. It’s baked into the very premise of games like SimCity, Spore, and Civilization where every decision you make influences the world you’re actively building. Players in Eve represent the largest force for making stories and moving things forward within the game universe. And other games like Little Big Planet, Neverwinter Nights, or Garry’s Mod provide the tools for players to make their own levels, mods, or pseudo games.

The holy grail of the creation layer for games is a world that self-perpetuates and where gamers actively create and change the world around them. Very few games at this point can pull this off well, simply because of the amount of freedom it gives the players. The ultimate example right now of this is Second Life.

Is Creation the highest level of motivation that games can hope to reach? Is there something beyond that level I don’t see? Is this all a load of hogwash?

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