Why Play (VR) Games?

Carrie Heeter, Ph.D.

This article appeared in,

Virtual Reality Special Report, March, 1994.

Table of Contents


About the Sample: Who Plays BattleTech Today?

Why do they Play BattleTech?

Comparing VR Games to TV Motivations

Predicting Who Likes VR Games for What Reasons



As a culture we seem to be convinced that technological progress will inevitably result in new and improved forms of entertainment, including virtual reality. Does this mean that the couch potatoes of today will leap off of their couches and embrace these more active, demanding, rewarding ways of having fun? Surely VR will be more fun than watching television... How much more fun will be people be able to tolerate each day before escaping back to passive TV viewing to get some rest?

Today's consumer VR games offer a small window onto what future entertainment VR may hold. Virtual World Entertainment cooperated in a study by collecting data at their gaming centers in Chicago (the BattleTech Center) and Walnut Creek California (Virtual World) about why the people who go there like playing VR games. Like arcade games and unlike television, the BattleTech simulation has very little content and very much user activity, with a basic, violent plot that repeats over and over. Unlike television and most arcade games, BattleTech brings people together in the virtual world, where they compete and cooperate at blowing each other up. Three hundred and three surveys were collected at Virtual World and 140 were collected at BattleTech.

For decades, researchers have been asking people why they watch TV. The three major reasons most often chosen by viewers are Arousal, Relaxation and Habit.1 Much less common reasons are Learning, Escape and Companionship. These motivations were derived by giving viewers a long list of possible reasons for watching TV and then using Factor Analysis data reduction techniques to identify the underlying patterns. Similar factors have emerged in numerous studies of TV viewers, of different ages, from different countries, at different times.

What happens to the six motives for TV viewing, when BattleTech is substituted for TV as the entertainment experience being studied? Driving through a virtual fire fight blowing people up probably offers the potential for greater Arousal than can be achieved by watching most television programs. It is hard to predict whether players will find it Relaxing or not. BattleTech can hardly be a casual Habit or way to pass time when you need to travel, park and pay to play. There is potential for Learning at BattleTech, but it is learning by doing rather than by watching, and it is learning primarily about how to play BattleTech -- skill based rather than content based, and not very related to real life. Playing BattleTech is probably a good way to Escape problems and get away from the real world. Rather than substituting for human Companionship like TV does for some people, BattleTech is a social activity which brings real live players together with other players and with staff. Competing and blowing people up are things player actively do, as opposed to watching competition and violence on television. This article will explore reasons BattleTech players give for why they like to play, and compare those responses to motives for TV viewing.

The BattleTech VR game transports visitors to the year 3025 (check!!), placing them in control of BattleMech robots at war in a computer-generated terrain amidst computer-generated weather conditions. BattleTech mixes physical and virtual reality. For $7.00 per person, uniformed crewmembers guide six players through a training and strategy session and then escort them to individual cockpits with multiple viewscreens and feedback mechanisms and controls to navigate the terrain and fight each other's 'Mechs for 10 minutes. Some win, others lose, and a high speed instant replay and detailed statistics on the battle are provided after the game.


About the Sample: Who Plays BattleTech Today?

Adult BattleTech players are young, male, highly educated, mostly childless, not very married and often not romantically involved at all. Among players 21 and older, only 13% have children between the ages of 8 and 18. Thus, playing BattleTech is not something most people go do as a way to spend time with their kids. Twenty-two percent of adult players are married; 30% are in a relationship; and 48% are single and uninvolved. It is much more likely that a frequent player will be single and not involved in a relationship than a novice. Sixty-nine percent of adult players who had played more than 10 games were single and not in a relationship, compared to 36% of first time players and novices. People who are married or in a romantic relationship who try BattleTech are less likely to get hooked on it than are those who are single and not involved in a relationship.

Forty-eight percent of adult players have a college degree, 43% have completed some college, and 8% have only a high school degree. Eleven percent of players 21 and older earn less than $5,000 annually; 31% earn between $5,000 and $19,999; 27% earn between $20,000 and $39,999; 15% between $40,000 and $59,999; and 16% earn more than $60,000.

Twenty-eight percent of all BattleTech players sampled are between the ages of 10 and 17. Another 22% are between 18 and 21 years old. Twenty-nine percent are between the ages of 22 and 30. BattleTech is primarily an activity appealing to young adults-- only 13% of the players sampled were over 30, and the oldest was 51. Twelve percent of all players were female, and a greater proportion of adult players 21 or older were female (13%) compared to female players under 21 (8%). Seventy-seven percent of the adult female players surveyed had played 10 or fewer games, compared to 44% of male players surveyed. Thus, females who try BattleTech are less likely than males to get hooked on it.

Nearly half of the players surveyed (48%) were new to BattleTech, having played between 1 and 3 games. Twenty percent were returning novices who had played between 4 and 10 games. Another 19% were devoted players, who had played 11 to 49 games. And 13% were hardcore fanatics who had played at least 50 times and usually a lot more.

The study sample also provides a unique opportunity to consider possible impacts of factors related to the nature of VR gaming centers. The BattleTech Center in North Pier mall in downtown Chicago is quite different in look and feel to the sleepy main street suburban storefront that houses Virtual World in Walnut Creek, even though the VR game that you play is identical. The BattleTech Center has a strong techno/sci fi theme where the entire focus of the experience is playing BattleTech. Virtual World houses the BattleTech simulators in a secluded back area separate from its futuristic yet Victorian style "Explorer's Lounge," a comfortable large room full of Victorian stuffed chairs, a bar with "smart" drinks and very little technology showing. Players leave the lounge and enter the simulation area when it's time for their mission. At the Chicago Center, there aren't even any chairs. Visitors watch players from the Observation Deck (standing) and mingle around a sample simulator cockpit and score screen while waiting for their mission to start. An interesting question is whether these differences in look and feel of the centers affect players' motivations and enjoyment of the experience. A related issue is possible impacts on demographic of who is attracted to come play at the two centers. Based on this study, no significant differences were found between BattleTech players at the Chicago center and the Walnut Creek center on the basis of sex, education, income, marital status or number of children. Given the magnitude of differences between the two locations, this is rather surprising. But there are some differences in terms of motivation which will be described later.


Why do they Play BattleTech?

Survey participants were given a list of 22 possible reason for playing BattleTech, and asked to rate each reason on a scale from 0 to 10, where 10 is VERY IMPORTANT and 0 is NOT AT ALL IMPORTANT. In addition to analyzing the average responses, differences between motivations of novices and frequent players, females and males and adult and youth players will be considered to better understand why people play VR games today. Here are the overall results, in order of decreasing importance:


8.90 Because it's fun

7.75 Because it's exhilarating
7.67 Because it's challenging
7.56 Because the staff is friendly
7.52 To blow up my friends

7.12 To blow people up
7.06 To compete and win

6.76 To do something really different
6.47 To relax
6.36 To experience VR
6.31 For the camaraderie
6.14 As an outlet for aggression

5.93 To relieve stress
5.80 To encounter the unexpected
5.56 To spend time with people
5.56 To get away from the real world
5.52 For a sense of accomplishment
5.37 To enjoy being at the center

4.73 To meet new people
4.61 To pretend I'm in another world

3.86 It's something to do at the mall (BT only)
3.16 To enjoy the "smart drinks" and bar (VW only)


Far above all else, playing BattleTech is reported to be very fun. Playing BattleTech is so fun that it is rated an average of nearly 9 out of 10 and that same degree of fun-ness is reported by novices and fanatics, females and males, youth and adults. The fun rating is a poor predictor of repeat play. People who play BattleTech once or twice and never return are just as likely as those who come back for more than 50 games to say BattleTech is very fun. (I wonder what it means to be fun...)

Next in the list of nearly universal reasons for enjoying BattleTech is that the experience is challenging and exhilarating. Adult players and those who have played 50 or more games are somewhat more likely to enjoy BattleTech because it is challenging. Friendliness of the staff is generally enjoyed a great deal, but there are significant differences among players. Fanatics enjoy their (likely more intimate and long term) interactions with the staff considerably moreso than do less frequent players. Females appreciate the staff friendliness more than males do, and adults appreciate the staff more than youth does.

It is amazing and worrisome how much people enjoy blowing up their friends in the BattleTech simulation game. Granted, that is the objective of the game. The fanatics actually enjoy blowing up their friends significantly less than do people who play less frequently, although even they rate it an average of 7 out of 10. Younger players enjoy blowing up their friends far moreso than do adult players (8.7 versus 6.6). In fact, a larger number of write-in responses were observed for this item on the questionnaire than I have seen in any other survey in my 15 year career in survey research. All by young males writing in numbers ranging from 100 to 1,000,000 instead of the stated high score of 10. People seem to find it amusing. There is no significant difference between how much females and males like to blow up there friends. (Wow?) It is not as much fun to blow up strangers as it is to blow up your friends. The same pattern occurs for play frequency (50+ player like blowing people up significantly less) and for age (adults like it less than youth.) Significant gender differences also emerge. Young females like blowing up their friends an average of 8.7, but they like blowing people up in general only 7.2. Young males like blowing up their friends an average of 8.7, and they like blowing people up in general nearly as much (8.5). Adult males are not significantly different in their enjoyment of blowing up friends or people in general. And adult females are the most different in terms of preferred targets, enjoying blowing up friends an average of 6.0 but people in general only 4.5.

Playing BattleTech to improve your skill and to compete and win are important reasons. Novices and females are least likely to enjoy trying to improve their skill as players, while fanatics are most interested in improving their skill. Females enjoy competing and winning far less than males do (5.8 versus 7.2) and youth are more interested in competition than adults (7.6 versus 6.4).

For the remainder of the motivations, data reduction factor analysis will be used to identify a smaller subset of unifying concepts, for comparison with the original TV viewing motives. Factor analysis yielded 5 factors which combine 16 of the original 22 motives: A factor I am labeling "Fun & Excitement" combines the top three motivations -- "because it's fun," "because it's exhilarating" and "because it's challenging." The second factor, called Violence & Competition (testosterone?), combines "to blow up my friends," "to blow people up" and "to compete and win." The third factor, called Virtual Reality, combines "to do something really different," "to experience VR," "to encounter the unexpected," and "to pretend I'm in another world." The fourth factor, labeled Therapy includes "as an outlet for aggression" and "to relieve stress." The final factor, Social Interaction, adds together "for the camaraderie," "to spend time with people," "to enjoy being at the center," and "to meet new people."


Comparing VR Games to TV Motivations

Below is a chart which compares reasons for watching TV with reasons for playing BattleTech. The average rating for each BattleTech factor is included in parentheses. The chart is ordered on the basis of decreasing importance of TV motivations.

Reasons for Watching TV

Reasons for Playing VR Games


Fun & Excitement (8.13)


Therapy (6.05)

Habit or Pass Time


Virtual Reality (5.92)



Social Interactions (5.55)

Violence & Competition (7.25)

The first three motivations are the most salient, strongest reasons people cite for watching television. Although there are vague parallels between many of the motivations for playing VR games and watching TV, there are extreme substantive differences. Fun & Excitement from VR games is active, about challenge and exhilaration and fun, while arousal-related reasons for watching TV are more muted -- reasons like because it's exciting and to avoid boredom. People watch TV to relax, but not as an outlet for aggression. TV is a way to relieve stress, but perhaps not as effective a way as competing in a virtual game to blow up your friends. Although learning is not a strongly rated reason for watching TV, there is currently more breadth of content to be learned by watching TV than by playing VR games. The VR game motivation labeled Virtual Reality suggests that some people come to play BattleTech specifically to learn about VR. The VR motivation question related to escape (to get away from the real world) was not highly rated and did not factor in with other motivations. Companionship is entirely different in VR than on television. Real people and real interactions occur. And Violence & Competition are active, first person experiences rather than passive viewing experiences. Thus VR games appear to meet very different needs, or in some cases, the same needs in very different ways.

Significant age differences emerge for Fun & Excitement and Violence & Competition, with adults reporting somewhat lower levels of enjoyment of BattleTech for those reasons than youth report. Significant gender differences appear for Violence & Competition as well as Virtual Reality. Females are less interested in violence and competition. They are MORE likely to say they came to one of the BattleTech center to experience VR. Coming to the centers to experience VR is significantly associated with novices and infrequent players. Experiencing VR is a good reason to visit the centers once or a few times, but is not a motivation that sustains playing over time. In fact, the novelty wears off after less than 10 games, and the playability and social interactions become the sustaining reasons for going. Social interaction motives are significantly higher for 50+ game fanatics than for any other group of players.


Predicting Who Likes VR Games for What Reasons

As one final approach to understanding motivations for playing VR games, respondents were asked lifestyle questions in the form of how much they generally enjoyed a list of 13 activities, using a scale from 0 = NOT AT ALL to 10 = VERY MUCH: going to the movies, playing a sport, using a computer, watching TV, going to a sports event, driving, working, playing arcade games, going to parties, playing a game, going to the mall, reading/watching science fiction and traveling. These variables along with age, sex, marital status, which Center, and the number of BattleTech games played were entered into multiple regression equations to see which ones successfully predicted each of the five factor motivations for playing.

How much someone enjoyed BattleTech for the Fun & Excitement was significantly predicted by three lifestyle variables: liking to read/watch science fiction and/or enjoying their work, and/or going to the BattleTech Center in Chicago rather than Virtual World in Walnut Creek. This combination of variables accounted for 16% of the variance in the Fun & Excitement factor. Although it did not emerge as a significant predictor of the VR motive factor, BattleTech Center respondents also rated VR motives significantly higher than did Virtual World respondents. On the other hand, Virtual World respondents were significantly more likely to say they enjoyed just being at the center moreso than did BattleTech center respondents. Thus, the Chicago center seems to offer a more intensely futuristic and exhilarating VR experience, while Virtual World is more pleasant.

Enjoying BattleTech for Therapy reasons was significantly predicted by liking to read/watch science fiction, liking to drive, NOT liking to play sports, and/or liking to travel. These people consciously seek stress relief and outlets for aggression. Since they don't play sports, BattleTech may be a useful channel for excess energy. Perhaps they are aggressive drivers. Twelve percent of the variance in Therapy was accounted for by these traits.

Those who come to BattleTech or Virtual World to experience VR tend to be people who like to go to the mall, like to read/watch science fiction and/or are novices who are playing for the first time or first few times. Twelve percent of the variance in the VR factor is explained by these three variables.

People who particularly enjoy the Social Interaction at BattleTech and Virtual World tend to be those who like to read/watch science fiction and/or are experienced BattleTech players and/or like going to the mall and/or dislike using a computer (perhaps being more people oriented than computer-oriented) and/or enjoy their work. Eighteen percent of the variance in Social Interaction is accounted for here.

Those who enjoy BattleTech/Virtual World for the Violence & Competition also tend to like arcade games, they tend to be younger, like to go to sports events and/or to dislike working. Thirty-eight percent of the variance in Violence & Competition is accounted for by these four variables.

Liking to read/watch science fiction was a significant predictor of four of the five motivation factors, but not of Violence & Competition. Frequent players and males also rate reading/watching science fiction more highly. Liking to watch TV was uniformly rated 12th out of 13 activities by every demographic subset of BattleTech players. (Playing arcade games was third to last; going to the mall was last.) So perhaps those who go out to play BattleTech today represent the active subset of the population who are already rejecting TV viewing in favor of greater activity and involvement, and who will continue to do so as more consumer VR experiences become available. Meanwhile, hard core couch potatoes continue to stay home and watch. BattleTech for the most part does not appeal to thirty-something and older adults. It attracts a disproportionately small number of women. The experience caters to those who like science fiction and those who find it amusing to blow up their friends. It also offers an exciting glimpse into the future promise of virtual reality.



Katz, E., Blumler, J. and Gurevitch, M. (1974). "Uses and Gratifications Research," Public Opinion Quarterly, 37, 509-523.

Rubin, Alan (1986). "Uses and gratifications and media effects research," in J. Bryant and D. Zillmann (Eds.) Selective Exposure to Communication. Hillsdale: Lawrence Ehrlbaum Associates.


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