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.


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?

Featured Correspondent

Published Mar. 20th 2013
  • 4tomic
    @GL_Stephen : "An important aspect of Maslow's hierarchy is that the individual will not not (cannot?) focus on the higher until the lower are met."

    You pointed out the one aspect of Maslow's hierarchy which is the most bullshit in my opinion. There is some truth to the idea that people struggling to fill a lower hierarchy will often ignore higher ones, but if you look around you'll see it really isn't an absolute (as Maslow painted it). There are people in the slums of India who are inventing windmills out of our old trash, and not just purely out of need. There are also plenty of musicians and artists happily making new art while they can barely stay fed.

    And finally, there are plenty of minecraft players who bravely put off developing their own security in order to focus on making sure their toilet shaped fort would end up perfect.

    The hierarchy helps us understand the world and explain some phenomenon, but it isn't an absolute statement about how everything works or how video game history developed. It's just a rough generalization.
  • anon_5585
    i guess someone hasnt played minecraft...
  • Mitja_9139
    Few people know, but Maslow modified the hierarchy of needs near the end of his life - he added self-transcendence as the ultimate human need, which comes into the forefront after one has a relatively fulfilled need for self.realisation (

    As to what kind of games would correspond to this need, I don't know, but something along the lines of placing practical, real-world impact of playing a game, that would benefit society in some sense, as the ultimate goal (for example, who is going to clear up the biggest area around your home, or help the biggest number of children with learning, or elderly with chores, or [insert a random personally significant act of altruism here]), seems a reasonable speculation :)
  • Jonathan_5488
    Maybe because minecraft hits all these targets its given them a license to print money!

    I've been wondering about the integration of charities in freemium games... I wonder what sort of dynamic would emerge if your in game play had real world benefits. Would real world good be the gaming worlds self actualization?

    Great article.... you were featured on pbs idea channels "math" video for this. .(Wayyy at the end)
  • Jason Wilkins
    I think these concepts are not hierarchical and to make them so is contrived. To relate it to history is to be selectively forgetful.
  • Stephen Johnston
    An important aspect of Maslow's hierarchy is that the individual will not not (cannot?) focus on the higher until the lower are met. Once there is sufficient levels of the lower items the person never stops paying attention to the lower levels they are just able to focus a bit higher.

    Minecraft nails this. When you first start the games scares the crap out of you by killing you with zombies... then you learn to camp... make torches etc. After you've figured out basic needs and safety you adventure out, but you are still vulnerable. You can pay less attention to safety and basic needs, but you can never abandon them.

    The top 3 levels might be underdeveloped in a human sense, but in Minecraft playing with friends and building things hits Esteem and Actualization pretty well.
  • Kiffaer
    I think games like the ones Bethesda makes tend to pay attention to the top of Maslow's hierarchy, and it's served them well. Sandbox games that place you in a world that has morals that you have to problem solve around (e.g., join the racist rebels or support the uncaring Imperial machine, or give your life to give the post-nuclear world pure water or continue to help those who cannot help themselves), but that are open enough to allow for spontaneity (e.g., forget the main quest, I'm just going to explore the closest things to me as I wander).

    Not that they ignore the other levels, they have them in spades, it's just they do the top level well too.
  • tome_7199
    each succesfull pure/almost pure different games for each section:
    create-simcity or rollercoaster tycoon
    acheive-acheivement unlocked
    socialize-zynga games
    progress-binding of isaac
    survive-super meat boy
  • John Golden
    Tumbled that neat graphic adding a URL. Z'at OK?
  • Ste Grainer
    Featured Correspondent
    By all means - considering the artwork is nearly all inspired by Nintendo. It just seemed a fitting metaphor for a fun graphic.
  • John Golden
    I'll 2nd RAVault about it being interesting to apply this to design.

    I think this is what makes Magic and other CCGs so good. Makes co-creators. I haven't tried it, but Little Big Planet seems to meet this, too.

    As to whether there's anything else, I think the clue is in Maslow. That top level is really self-actualization, which just includes creation. A game that brought you to greater knowledge of self, or impacted your out-of-game life with new skills or attitudes would be at least as fulfilling.
  • postmastron
    Interestingly enough, Minecraft hits every single one of those levels.
  • RAVaught
    Featured Contributor
    It is curious that you relate Maslow to the history of game design instead of to the individual game. That was not a perspective I had considered, but it does actually explain the growing discontent with games.

    If your premise is correct, which I believe it is, then the older games catered to a much more primal level of the consciousness of the gamer, which could explain why they were so compelling. Conversely, modern games seem focused more on the upper end of the scale, which while satisfying, feels empty if the base of the scale is left unfulfilled.
  • RAVaught
    Featured Contributor
    Dear lord, please tell me it is simple irony and coincidence that we wrote very similar articles at the same time.

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