Most people feel like failures from time to time. It’s a debilitating feeling, and the cure—a sense of competence—often feels out of reach. In this article, we’ll be exploring competence, a basic psychological need that has lots of implications for your mental health and wellbeing. One of the reasons that I think about competence, is that you can increase your perceived competence by playing video games—which has interesting implications for gamers.  

Before we get into it, my name is Dr. Cody Phillips (follow me on Twitter) — I have a Ph.D. in Human-Computer Interaction, and I’m an academic Games User Researcher. My research focuses on the impact of games on players’ motivations and emotions.

Self-Determination Theory in a Nutshell

Within psychological literature, there are several core theories around motivation—one of the most prominent of which is Self-Determination Theory. Self-Determination Theory tells us that people have three basic psychological needs (i.e. competence, autonomy, and relatedness). Doing anything that increases these basic psychological needs feels good, and is important for our mental health. Because of this, we are intrinsically motivated to facilitate these psychological needs. My best analogy around these needs is that they exist like insatiable ‘hunger’ bars, where everything we do in life slowly adds to or subtracts from the bar. If this sounds familiar, it’s because I used a similar analogy in my article on loneliness. I’ve spoken about these psychological needs in the past, and will likely to continue to speak about them in the future—I think they’re incredibly important. The facilitation of these psychological needs has been linked to virtually every positive wellbeing outcome that you can imagine. Being cognizant of these psychological needs will help you to understand your own behaviour, and might even help you to break free from some maligned thinking. While basic psychological needs theory is certainly a simplified model of mental health, it’s a useful framework for thinking about our mental states, and our desired mental states. In this article, I’m going to focus on competence. This might be some projection—but I think it’s the need that most gamers seek out. 

Many things in real life can increase or deplete our sense of competence. We might do something difficult, and feel proud of ourselves. On the other side, we might screw something up, and be left feeling the pangs of failure. It’s important to note that people have historically facilitated their psychological need for competence without ever touching a videogame—and no one should be trying to get all of their sense of competence just from gaming. However, your perceived competence can be affected by the games that you play, and they can serve as a tool for increasing your psychological needs.  

As a bit of a thought experiment, imagine yourself playing a difficult game; one of the many games that have been compared to Dark Souls. Why is it enjoyable? What do people derive from this experience? While some people argue it’s just a cheap dopamine hit, that answer’s not satisfying—there are easier ways to get dopamine that don’t involve the same degree of impediment to progress. The real answer, as best I can tell, is that overcoming difficult obstacles increases our sense of competence. While losing fights may temporarily bump down your sense of competence, overcoming a genuinely difficult challenge can make you feel like a champion. Beating that boss was all you. You did it.

Now, imagine yourself being someone who has no sense of competence. Everything you attempt fails (or at least it feels that way). What kind of mental state are you in? What realistic way can you get out of that state? The only solution is to build up your sense of competence, bit by bit. You’re probably not going to be ready to throw yourself at Dark Souls bosses—the losses will just reduce your competence even further, and wipe you out. Instead, you’ll need to slowly work your way up. Every day will present new challenges that reduce your competence, but if your competence gained each day is greater than your competence lost each day, your perceived sense of competence will grow over time.

In my view, one of the best way to ensure that you’re gaining competence, is by seeking out some easy wins. The most popular mobile game of all time is Pokémon Go, with a massive 1.3 billion downloads. While Pokémon Go has added some battle mechanics since launch, the core gameplay still revolves around catching Pokémon (and grinding their bones into candies). Imagine yourself having freshly installed Pokémon Go. The very first Pokémon that you see is something that you’ve never caught before. You catch it. A new Pokémon is added to your Pokédex. It’s an easy win. Your next catch, you get a ‘Great’ throw. Well done, pat yourself on the back. Fast forward a month or two, and you’ll be slinging Perfect throws every time. But then, something happens. Suddenly, the easy wins aren’t so easy anymore—you’ve filled up a lot of your Pokédex, and new Pokémon are getting rarer and rarer to find. On top of that, you’re not seeing much progress on your Trainer level. Your perceived competence has risen to a point where you’re no longer satisfied by the easy wins the game is giving you. So you move on, seeking out competence elsewhere.

It can be really strange to think about your motivations as psychological needs seeking, but it’s a really worthwhile activity to try. When you start noticing your psychological needs, you start being able to take efficient steps to replete them. You also start noticing things that don’t work. In my own life, I realized that playing first-person shooters just doesn’t do anything for me. It doesn’t help facilitate any of my psychological needs, so I’ve cut them out, and instead focus on other types of games that I get more enjoyment out of.