Nick Ballou

A Revised Motivational Model of Video Game Engagement: Addressing Problems in the Use of Self-determination Theory in Games
Queen Mary University of London
Tell us a bit about yourself – what stage of your PhD are you in and what’s your project about?
Hey there—I’m a first year PhD student working on motivational theories of video game engagement. In particular, I’m interested in self-determination theory, a highly influential theory of human motivation in general, but one that I think has been either superficially or inappropriately applied to the study of video games in some cases. The long term goal is to help game designers and developers make games that support long-term healthy engagement and well-being, and to advise players and parents on ways that games can be used to support their social, emotional, and mental health.

What does a typical day or week look like for you?
I try my best to treat my research like a 9-5 job, with actual weekends. After a quick breakfast, I bike to work and start the day with the more active parts of my work—generally writing or data analysis (i.e., writing code). My program also has a few months of coursework during the first year, so during some weeks I’ll be in lectures or working on group projects, either in London or in York where the other half of the program is located.

What’s one thing that you’ve enjoyed the most during your PhD?
Well, my research is on self-determination theory, which states that humans have an innate psychological need for autonomy—namely, to feel that their actions are volitional and self-endorsed. My research gives me that in spades; I have the freedom to study what I want, when I want to, and like the ability to challenge myself to think of ways to make sure my research will have an impact on as many people as possible.

What’s been the most challenging part of it?
The most challenging part by far has been my relationship with the research groups at my university. The program I’m in, IGGI, is a centre for doctoral training split across two universities, Queen Mary and the University of York. I have supervisors at both sites, and have a mix of skype and in-person meetings. For reasons involving international student restrictions and my partner’s career, I wasn’t able to go to York, even though the students and faculty there overlap with my research interests much more than at Queen Mary. So the challenge has been to build a community around me on the day-to-day level with whom I can level and be excited about what I’m doing, for example by starting an open science reading club and by connecting with researchers at other universities in London. It’s a work in progress, but my hope is that it will be very rewarding in the long run.

Where do you see yourself 5 years after completing your PhD?
I intend to stay in academia if I’m able to pull it off and do well enough in my current degree to have a sufficiently competitive CV. Thus, in five years I hope to be doing interesting post-doc work with one of my current or future collaborators. I see my PhD research as just one of many topics in which I’m interested, so I’d like to branch out and could see myself working on the role of technology/games in psychopathology, identity formation, toxic behavior, and much more.

What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer students that are thinking of doing a PhD?
Wait as long as you can. I benefited tremendously from the two years I took off after my bachelor’s and master’s, respectively. The older students around me, and to some extent myself as well, seem universally to have gained a keen insight into their own goals, strengths, and deal-breakers, and I think entering a PhD without a clear understanding of not just what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it and how it reflects your values, is a dangerous endeavor.

What makes your university a good place to study?
As mentioned above, I have a bit of a strange relationship with my university, as my research interests are rather different than most of the people around me. Despite the challenges this has presented, it’s also given me opportunities to stretch my own limits, think of creative ways in which my research could intersect with the people around me, and learn about areas to which I’d otherwise never be exposed, like machine learning. I feel that I have a real opportunity to make an impact at Queen Mary, particularly through my interest in reproducibility/open science, which is an area in which we have a lot of work left to do. Finally, London as a city is a wonderful place to be.


What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Pretty boring, domestic stuff really—I cook a lot with my partner, try to read as much as I can (side note, if anyone hasn’t read A Gentleman in Moscow, I’ve just finished it and loved it as much as I’ve loved any book in the last few years), watch movies, and play some tennis. Oh, and of course I’m involved with games! These days, I watch more than I play, but do some of both for games like Hearthstone, Stardew Valley, Legends of Runeterra, and big AAA RPGs like the Witcher 3.

Want to know more about Nick?
Follow him on twitter and check out his personal website using the links below:

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