Motivational Design

Lenses and Patterns for Motivational Game Design

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Mood Management

Mood Management theory states, “individuals are capable of choosing materials for exposure that modify and regulate affective experience and mood states in desirable ways, and that these individuals frequently and habitually make choices that actually serve the specified detail” (Zillman, 1988a). arousal, absorption, mood alignment, and emotional tone have been identified as the four major categories of mood-impacting characteristics in media items. While other characteristic categories likely exist, these four provide a context for describing mood management in a meaningful way (Zillman, 1988b).

Lens of Mood Management

A primary focus of Mood Management theory is a piece of media's ability to shift a consumers mood from a noxious state to an optimal one. This potential for mood repair is powerful enough to guide consumer choices without conscious thought. While the all four mood-impacting characteristic categories play a large role in media mood manipulation, Bowman and Tamborini showed that games could leverage interactivity to increase absorption potential, allowing for uniquely effective mood management. As one might expect, this was more effective when attempting to raise arousal intensity from a state of boredom than it is when lowering arousal intensity from a state of stress. Beyond a player dependent threshold, in-game task completion can overwhelm players and pull them towards the stressful side of high arousal (Bowman and Tamborini, 2012).

Focusing Questions

  • What moods is your game attempting to support or repair?
  • Where can facilitation of the target mood be maximized?
  • Where can undermining of the target mood be minimized?
  • How do mechanics, dynamics, narrative, and aesthetics each individually affect mood management.
  • Do game elements support conflicting moods? Should this be resolved, and how?
  • What is your game's balance between high stimulation experiences, which support moods like excitement and anxiety, and pleasant experiences, which support moods like happiness and relaxation?
  • If your game's content builds a emotionally negative experience, through elements such as horror, intense violence, and personal loss, how does this fit with the other mood-impacting features of your game?

Can be instantiated by




World of Warcraft


World of Warcraft offers players an expansive world as an escape from real life. Unlike real life, this game provides an stream of accomplishable goals that reaffirm the player's competence. From the perspective of a person returning home from a taxing day of work, WoW could be appealing because it asks for relatively focused attention to play, without requiring overly complex thought, displays cartoonish violence within a pleasant art style, provides experiences that range in intensity level, and likely does not encourage behavior that is similar to the player's recent real world behavior. On top of these characteristics, the game is played over many discrete play sessions, allowing players who are able to repair their mood through play to associate the game with mood repair and return later.

The reversal of mood manipulation caused games such WoW is also worth mentioning. Players of MMOs have reported that the games became 'a second job' as other players began to rely on them, and some of their responsibilities, such as maintaining a guild bank, started to resemble responsibilities in real life.



Uplifted is a small mobile game built specifically to facilitate the development of a more optimistic self perspective. The core game involves pulling a simple creature through an abstract landscape. In between levels that game asks the player open-ended questions about her sources of happiness, in an effort to train the player to look for positivity in her life. The joyous and non-threatening visuals and the upbeat soundtrack also reinforce the projected mood of the game.



Mood management through media consumption can be a useful tool in improving quality of life, as it helps consumers overcome noxious moods. It is possible, however, for the media to simply be consumed in an attempt to escape the troubles of the real world temporarily. This escapism is not necessarily bad for the consumer, because it allows the consumer to step away from ruminations and comeback potentially refreshed. An issue can arise when this escapism takes the place of actually acting on situations in real life, or when situations in the game consistently feel more important that those outside it. It is important for designers, especially those attempting to tap into mood management, to consider these extremes of escapism. It may not be possible to solve for every case of a player reaching these extremes, but avoiding compulsive gameplay traps and guilt mechanics can help minimize the number of cases.

Return Tendency

According to Mood Management Theory, when attempting to repair their moods, media consumers tend to return experiences they know to be effective at doing so. When speaking on the theory, Zillman assumes, “arrangements that are incidentally made during good moods and that extend or enhance the hedonically positive state leaves a memory trace that increases the likelihood for making similar stimulus arrangements under similar circumstance,” and a similar assumption is made about bad moods (Zillman 1988b). If a designer is using the mood management lens, she should attempt to project the intended mood in the game as soon as possible, so that players can build the affiliation between game and mood early on. Building a game that shares strong similarities with other games and media that players associate with optimal moods can also take advantage of this expectation.




Applied to traditionally 'fun' games, this is an industry standard and empirically validated

Outside of this tradition, this is experimental and theoretical


Motivations: Mood Management


Bowman ND and Tamborini R (2012) Task demand and mood repair: the intervention potential of computer games. New Media & Society 14(8): 1339–1357.

Zillmann, D. (1988a). Mood management through communication choices. Am. Behav. Sci. 31, 327–341.


motivations/mood_management.txt · Last modified: 2014/05/19 12:24 by strapp