Is there a relationship between commercial gameplay and mastery orientation?

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Video games often use situations that test a player's skills and knowledge for them to advance. These situations can often lead to failure which develops the players skills further usually. Different individuals react to failure differently, one of such reactions being mastery orientation. Mastery oriented people can be described as having a positive reaction to failure. 928 undergraduates were surveyed to assess their attitude towards failure. It was found that students that like a challenge when they play video games have a higher mastery orientation.

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A video game's environment contains content that is testing and will include failure. However, failure needs to be framed in such a way that the player does not get frustrated or bored if they cannot complete the game. Developers use different procedures to keep the player progressing throughout the game. There have been positive failure schemes explored for games which are largely used for educational purposes. It is still unclear if commercial games have any impact on a player's reaction to failing.

1 Related Work

DeKoven [2], a play theorist, has said that the rules of a game often have to be changed so that all players may win or lose different challenges. Players like to experience a game rather than just win it. Juul [6,7] has argued that games create a deviation where the player seeks out failure as part of their experience and it helps them to navigate the game. Designers have to create games that are a challenge for players but also keep within their 'regime of competence'. All these challenges and failures help to develop the players skills as long as they react in a positive way.

1.1 Positive Failure Strategies

The way that different people see failure and how it alters their behaviour has been investigated by different theorists. Dweck & Reppucci [4] have stated that people react in very different ways to failure. One of which is mastery orientation where the individual uses positivity and their effort increases after failing. These types of people see failure as information that will help them to improve rather than a personal assessment of their ability. The other way people react is with a helpless mindset. These individuals do not tend to progress well after failure. It is reported that negative affects take place like boredom, aversion and bad performance. Failure shuts down individuals with a helpless mindset.

Dweck, Chui & Hong [3] describe two different mindsets that are related to mastery orientation. They are a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. If a person believes they are able to improve if they put effort in, they have a growth mindset. This mindset is linked with energization. If a person believes they have a fixed level of ability they have a fixed mindset. This mindset can be linked with feelings of boredom and depression when failure is encountered.

Weiner [8] expresses how individuals react to failure through different viewpoints as they pursue their goals. One of which is individuals seek learning goals where they want to get better at the task being completed, and failure is met with perseverance. The other viewpoint is individuals seek performance goals where they want to perform the task at a certain level of competence and here failure is met with hardship.

It can be seen that these different strategies effect the way that players react to failure in many games. However, it has not largely been investigated how the strategies can influence learning outcomes. There is a gap left in understanding how players respond to more intriguing games chosen to be played in free time. This gives the question the paper aims to address.

1.2 Research Question

"Is there a relationship between commercial gameplay and mastery orientation?" [1]

2 Method

Students were asked to take part in a survey called Helmreich & Spence's Work and Family Orientation survey on mastery orientation [5]. This survey was developed to check persistence in completing difficult tasks. The following statements had to be marked from 1 (strongly disagree), to 5 (strongly agree):

1. I would rather do something at which I feel confident and relaxed than something that is challenging and difficult.

2. When a group I belong to plans an activity, I would rather direct it myself than just help out and have someone else organize it.

3. I would rather learn something easy than something difficult.

4. If I am not good at something, I would rather keep struggling to master it than move on to something I may be good at.

5. Once I undertake a task, I persist.

6. I prefer to work I situations that require a high level of skill.

7. I more often attempt tasks that I am not sure I can do than tasks that I believe I can do.

8. I like to be busy all the time.

The responses to questions 1-3 were reversed and then the responses were summed into a mastery score where a higher number indicates a mastery orientation. Students also submitted their academic and demographic data.

2.1 Participants

5000 students were invited to complete the survey, 3000 being part of the general student body and 200 being part of the campus 'game arena'. The game arena is a place for students to play games on high performance computers. 1019 students responded to the survey with 241 being from the game arena. When all the data had been collected it was screened to check for suspect responses and 40 were removed because of non-compliance or missing answers. Along with this 51 students declined to authorise the release of their data so they were removed too. The final count left was then 928 respondents. The removed respondents were checked to see if they were a unique population before they were removed.

The data was weighted by gender for any analysis that was needed to extend the student population and the unweighted data was used for gender-wise analysis. Once the data was cleaned up and weighted, it was then ready to be analysed for mastery orientation.

2.2 Analyses

Gender differences in mastery score and the relationship between GPA and mastery score were checked. It was examined if playing games has any link to mastery orientation. The Kruskal-Wallis tests were used to check the differences in mastery orientation in the students that stated they play games and those who do not. The tests grouped the number of hours a student plays games per week and it was investigated to see if the number of hours had any association with their mastery score.

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3 Results

The Kruskal-Wallis test that compared gender showed that men had higher mastery levels than women. There was no significant link between GPA and mastery score however this could be further explored. Those who stated that they play video games and those who don't showed no compelling difference on mastery score but once again this could be further explored. There was no relationship found between the number of hours playing games or the bundled hours and mastery score. What was found though was a link between players who liked a challenge in playing games and their mastery score.

4 Discussion

It was found that gender has on impact on mastery score, but GPA does not. The moderate p values in the test show that further tests are needed to understand more about the links between GPA and mastery orientation.

Persistence is really important for any student to do well in their studies and it can be assumed that studying at a University calls for a level of persistence. The sample that was used in the survey may have higher levels of mastery orientation because they are all students and it may be true that the survey sample doesn't take into account the range of the general population. There was also no strong link found between playing video games and mastery orientation. However, those who like to be challenged when playing a game did show a higher level. It is important to mention that not all games are equally challenging and the mechanics to maintain that level of challenge has to be investigated. The results may suggest that the students who play games that are challenging are better set up to persist when they are met with a challenging task also. Although more investigation is needed to establish if people with a higher mastery level are just automatically drawn to games like these. It would be beneficial to take into account what a player considers as failure for studies done in the future. The current way that mastery orientation is measured is through selfreport however behaviour driven analysis would provide a better look at how the player reacts to failure. This approach would be able to track how the behaviour changes over time and would give a better point of view.

4.1 Limitations

As the sample was students at a university it is unlikely that the lowest end of the mastery scale has been taken into account. This restrains the findings as they cannot be applied to the broader population as the findings may not apply. The sample was relying on self-reported data also which could lead to biases. A behaviour driven methodology would give a clearer picture.

4.2 Implications

Some games are designed that when a player is struggling with failure that the skill level gets simpler to allow the player to progress. This could be a basis for the players who have a hard time with failure and needs to be looked into further. A better understanding of different players skill levels and how they react to failure could help developers to create better environments where players are not finding it too difficult or passing the game too easily.

5 Conclusion

When playing video games players are provided with challenging environments that push them to the best of their ability. Failing is very common in games and even helps the player to improve and progress. Research has shown that mastery orientation a positive failure strategy is associated with persistence and increased effort. This can lead to better grades in school also. These analyses present findings that people who like playing challenging video games are better able to deal with challenges and pick themselves back up from failure. Although it is still unclear if playing the games is giving the players a better mastery orientation or if they always had it to start with and that's why they are drawn to those sorts of games. Finally, it would be useful to study the players behaviour to further discover about how they react to failure.


[1] C.G. Anderson, K. Campbell, and C. Steinkuehler (2019 August). Building persistence through failure: the role of challenge in video games. In Proceedings of the 14th International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (FDG '19). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, Article 34, 1–6. DOI:

[2] B. DeKoven (2013). The well-played game: A player's philosophy. MIT Press.

[3] C.S Dweck, C. Chiu and Y. Hong (1995). Implicit theories and their role in judgments and reactions: A world from two perspectives. Psychological Inquiry, 6(4), 267-285.

[4] C.S. Dweck, and N.D. Reppucci (1973). Learned helplessness and reinforcement responsibility in children. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 25(1), 109.

[5] R.L. Helmreich , and J.T. Spence (1978). The Work and Family Orientation Questionnaire: An objective instrument to assess components of achievement motivation and attitudes toward family and career. American Psycholog. Ass., Journal Suppl. Abstract Service.

[6] J. Jull (2009). Fear of failing? The many meanings of difficulty in video games. The video game theory reader, 2(237-252).

[7] J. Jull (2013). The art of failure: An essay on the pain of playing video games. MIT Press.

[8] B. Weiner (1972). Attribution theory, achievement motivation, and the educational process. Review of educational research, 42(2), 203-215.


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