"We think there's a deeper theory than the fun of playing," says study leader Richard M. Ryan, a motivational psychologist at the University of Rochester who worked in collaboration with Immersyve Inc., a virtual environment think tank.
"It's our contention that the psychological 'pull' of games is largely due to their capacity to engender feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness."
Players reported feeling best when the games produced positive experiences and challenges that connected to what they know in the real world, according to Ryan.
Study volunteers answered pre- and post-game questionnaires that were applied from a psychological measure based on Self-Determination Theory, a widely researched theory of motivation developed at the University of Rochester.
Though different types of games and game environments were studied, Ryan points out that "not all video games are created equal" in their ability to satisfy basic psychological needs. "But those that do may be the best at keeping players coming back," he says.
The findings are published in the journal Motivation and Emotion.