Borderlands: Self Determination Theory
At its most basic level, it would be easy to write Borderlands off simply as a game about grinding for loot. But, amidst all of the loot, comedy and cel-shaded gore, there is a game that scratches the basic psychological needs of gamers. Sure, finding a new weapon that can lay waste to enemies is fun and rewarding, but how does Borderlands manage to keep that premise fun over the course of a 30+ hour campaign? The answer lies in the psychology behind the game’s systems.
Self Determination Theory (SDT) is a theory describing the basic structure of human motivation, focusing on intrinsic motivation. This is to say if one was to ignore the game’s plot and quests which serve the player with extrinsic motivation, what does the player want to experience themselves? What does the game need to provide in order to be perceived as “fun”?
There are three primary principles, or pillars, as I will refer to them, that are at the core of SDT. Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness. Just about all of Borderlands core systems can be seen as supporting at least one of these three pillars, which serve to create a compelling gameplay experience.
The first pillar of SDT is Competence. Competence relates to the player’s innate desire to be successful. It deals with mastery of game systems and the ability to control one’s environment. As players play the game they are improving along a number of vectors, both within and outside of the game.
Before diving into the ways that Borderlands systems themselves tie into competency, all games have an external factor that must also be mastered. The interface. Be it with a controller or with a mouse and keyboard, the player must learn and master the controls in order to be successful. This is an aspect that I feel game designers may often take for granted, as controlling digital avatars is almost as natural to us as controlling our own bodies, but for new players, it can be one of the biggest hurdles to overcome, especially when introducing new concepts and ideas into our games.
Basic RPG mechanics such as leveling up have long been a way to give the player a form of tangible proof of their competence. It is quite easy for someone to understand that a player at level 50 is far stronger than a player at level 1. Borderlands successfully integrated these RPG mechanics into a First Person Shooter, in a way that few games in the genre had managed to do beforehand.
Since the concept of leveling up is quite easy to comprehend, the desire to gain experience points in order to become more powerful becomes one of the players first intrinsic goals. This desire is reinforced by acquiring gear with a minimum level requirement that is just higher than their current level, giving the player a little extra nudge towards leveling up and feeling more powerful.
Speaking of acquiring gear, one of the ways Borderlands most effectively approaches competence is through its loot/gear. Borderlands, to put it lightly is not stingy with its gear. What is impressive though, is that throughout the duration of the game, loot is almost always valuable, as the game intelligently continues to drop gear that scales alongside the player’s own power levels. This is something that player learns almost immediately, and the game does a great job of getting players to quickly develop the habit of searching through every locker, chest or pile of poop that the game presents to them, just in case there is something in there that will make them just a little more powerful, and more capable of taking on the threats that inhabit the world of Borderlands.
Those threats include basic enemies, but more specifically Borderlands’ bosses which are seeded throughout the narrative, are also a way to deliver upon the player’s need to feel competent. While these encounters essentially boil down to gear/stat checks for the player, each victory, comes the sense of accomplishment and pride. That moment the player feels like a badass for blowing up a psycho midget with a jetpack, is actually just affirmation that yes, they are competent, which is a big part of why it feels good, why it feels fun.
Autonomy, the second aspect of SDT, is the urge to be able to take control of the situation at hand and be the author of one’s own experiences, games like Borderlands deliver a sandbox experience for the player to explore, allowing the player to pick and choose what activities they want to engage with, or how they will approach a situation both on micro and macro levels.
Aside from the narrative, Borderlands is a relatively nonlinear experience. Players are dropped into a large world and given the option to experience it how they see fit. While the game does unfold in chunks, how the player chooses to get from point A to Point B is largely up to them. There are a multitude of side-quests to pick up at any time, in addition to the fact that players may choose to ignore external motivators all together and simply grind for gear. This approach allows players to have a strong degree of ownership over what they will experience in any given play session.
While the world itself offers a degree of autonomy, Borderlands also excels at delivering a sense of self and personalization at the character level. The first thing a player does when starting a new game of Borderlands, is to choose a class/character to play as. Each of these characters offers a distinct skill set, which augments the basic FPS playstyle of Borderlands. Sirens offer players skills which provide crowd control and high damage, at the expense of low HP/Defenses, while classes like Soldier, Hunter and Berserker/Gunzerker fill out other roles. Players may choose their class based on aesthetic preference, or playstyle.
Building upon the ability to choose your class, Borderlands also employs the use of Skill Trees. Skill trees are a personal favorite system of mine, allowing for player choice in regards to upgrade vectors. In Borderlands each class has access to skills split across three core skill trees. Players may progress along each of these skill trees as they see fit. Though there are certainly optimal builds for each class, players are encouraged to build their characters that suit their individual playstyles.
Topping off the character customization system is the vanity systems, where players can unlock various skins and helmets allowing them to customize their appearance in game. Players may unlock these vanity items in a variety of ways, sometimes stemming from individual achievements, and other times as rare loot drops. Vanity items and the ability for a player to express themselves through their avatars has become a very important element in many games, as they allow the player to have a greater sense of self and attachment to their avatar, especially in a game where they can play with others.
It is in the moments that Borderlands allows you to play with others that the third and final component of SDT comes into play. That pillar is Relatedness, which refers to the innate need to interact with others, be social and care/be cared for by others. Since the co-op aspect of Borderlands is such a core component, the game does many things to encourage players to be social.
Before discussing how the systems themselves empower the players to find relatedness within the game, I find it important to stress the importance of the purely Co-Op multiplayer experience that Borderlands offers. In an industry with such a focus on competitive multiplayer. Borderlands purely cooperative elements set it apart from its competitors, and offer, in my experience, a purely positive experience when playing with others. Each and every other vaulthunter you run across in the world of Borderlands is an ally, and your goals are always aligned.
Spending any amount of time in Borderlands, it becomes clear that this is a game that is meant to be played with others. This fact is reflected even in the core combat systems which drive much of Borderlands’ gameplay. When in the heat of battle, many of a class’s abilities will synergize effectively with those of other players. But perhaps even more so than when players are succeeding in combat, it is the moments of failure which allow relatedness to shine through the most. This is in large part thanks to the revive system, which is the most social element of combat, and perhaps the game as a whole, as one player is in most cases completely reliant on their teammate(s). Reviving feels good both to the player performing the revive, as it helps reinforce their own competence, the first pillar of SDT, but also to the player that is being revived, as they could rely on their fellow players, strengthening social bonds and relatedness.
Another way Borderlands goes out of its way to encourage this type of social behavior is with two-seater vehicles, meant to be operated by two players. While one player steers, the other operates the weapons. Though these vehicles can be operated just as well by a single player, it's just more fun to do it with others. Also by relegating roles between the driver and the gunner, the need for communication between the two parties is reinforced, strengthening the social connection.
Another way that Borderlands encourages group play is that as players progress through the game, loot will be dropped that cannot be equipped by the class that is currently being played. This serves two purposes. Firstly a player could store these items for use on an alternate character, but the stronger use of this is to encourage players to pick up items to give to their teammates and friends. Gifting mechanics are employed, to great effect in many mobile and social games, and though this system is not quite as deliberate, it does serve to strengthen the sense of camaraderie felt.
In summary, the systems present within Borderlands present the player with a multitude of intrinsic motivators. Systems like Leveling up, Acquiring new gear and skill checks in the form of Boss battles support the pillar of Competence. Class selection, skill trees and vanity items allow for a strong sense of Autonomy, while Social interactions such as reviving teammates, trading items and mutl-seat vehicles reinforce Relatedness. At the end of the day, Borderlands clearly supports many of the needs that Self Determination Theory, and offers plenty of loot to be found along the way.