Self-determination theory (SDT) postulates that the existence of three basic psychological needs—namely, autonomy (the need to experience choice and psychological freedom), competence (the need to feel effective or a sense of mastery), and relatedness (the need to feel connected with significant others)—is essential for people to develop their fullest potential and attain personal growth [1
]. SDT is such a versatile theory that it has been widely applied in many research domains. There is ample scientific evidence suggesting that people who have met those psychological needs may experience high levels of personal well-being [3
] and low levels of psychopathology, such as Internet gaming disorder (IGD) [5
]. In a recent development of SDT, Sheldon and Gunz proposed a new construct of need frustration or dissatisfaction, which is related to, but distinct from, need satisfaction [6
]. They provided empirical evidence that the unmet three psychological needs aroused corresponding desires to obtain the missing experiences, while a surfeit of need satisfaction did not predict a decrease in desires for the respective needs. A Balanced Measure of Psychological Needs, measuring both need satisfaction and need dissatisfaction, has been developed [7
] and used for scientific research [8
]. Benefiting from the theoretical and measurement advances in psychological need satisfaction and dissatisfaction, this study examined the independent effects of need satisfaction and dissatisfaction on IGD and flourishing.
Online gaming is a global concern [10
], especially in China. According to the China Internet Network Information Center [11
], the number of domestic online gamers has increased from 336 million to 422 million in the past five years, representing a growth rate of 25%. While recognizing the recreational function of online gaming [12
], excessive and prolonged online gaming is shown to be associated with detrimental effects, including poor academic performance [14
], low well-being, and high loneliness [15
], as well as lack of real-life relationships [16
]. More seriously and specifically, online gamers may eventually develop IGD, which has been labeled as a condition for further investigation in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) [17
] and recognized as a new mental health condition in the World Health Organization’s 11th edition of International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) [18
]. Given that students from high schools, technical secondary schools, technical schools, and junior colleges accounted for a majority (55%) of Chinese online gamers [19
], more research attention should be devoted to reducing IGD risks on campus.
Considerable research has been conducted on the relationship between psychological needs and gaming. For instance, a study done by Przybylski and colleagues has revealed that overall need satisfaction was negatively associated with obsessive passion, amount of play, and tension following play [20
]. In particular, Wu and colleagues found in a Chinese adult sample that relatedness satisfaction negatively predicted problematic video game playing, while autonomy and competence satisfaction only showed indirect effects on problematic video game playing via purpose in life [5
]. Meanwhile, some researchers attempted to enrich gaming studies by employing the latest development of need frustration or dissatisfaction in the field of SDT. For instance, a recent study on both need frustration and need satisfaction found that problematic gaming was positively correlated with need frustration and negatively correlated with need satisfaction in an online sample [21
]. In a Taiwanese adolescent sample, Wan and Chiou found that the compulsive use of online games may be driven by the relief of need dissatisfaction, rather than the pursuit of satisfaction [22
]. Other research only covered daily need frustration in their studies, and demonstrated how it could explain the increasingly problematic style of video gaming engagement in North American samples [23
]. Collectively, previous research has suggested that psychological needs, especially when being dissatisfied, may predict IGD. However, to the best of our knowledge, as the dearth of empirical studies mentioned above illustrates, there are few studies that explicitly investigate the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness separately—except [5
]—and the unique impact of satisfaction and dissatisfaction for the three needs by including them all in the same model.
While need dissatisfaction may evoke ill-being and higher vulnerability for psychopathology alluding to IGD, need satisfaction may foster well-being [25
]. Two approaches can be adopted to understand well-being, namely the hedonic perspective and eudaimonic perspective [27
]. In general, the hedonic perspective defines well-being as pleasure attainment and pain avoidance [28
]. In contrast, the eudaimonic perspective holds that well-being is more than just pleasure—instead, this perspective is concerned with actualizing human potential [29
]. Eudaimonic well-being is a process of realizing one’s daimon, or true self, which means acting congruously with one’s deeply held values and fulfilling one’s virtuous potentials [27
]. Previous empirical studies on psychological needs have been mainly focusing on hedonic well-being. For instance, a research study sampling Chinese adolescent and college student participants found that need satisfaction composite positively predicted life satisfaction and positive affect, while negatively predicting negative affect [30
]. Moreover, Sheldon and Elliot showed that need satisfaction significantly predicted subjective well-being both at the same time point and one semester later [31
]. In spite of these aforementioned studies on hedonic well-being, there are few empirical studies explicitly examining psychological needs and eudaimonic well-being. The closest empirical clue only reveals that satisfaction of the three separate needs is positively associated with the two proxies for eudaimonic well-being, namely, self-esteem and subjective vitality [3
]. More SDT research on eudaimonic well-being should be conducted to fill this research gap.
One of the latest indicators commonly used by researchers to evaluate eudaimonic well-being is flourishing [33
]. Flourishing refers to optimal human functioning, and its core components include meaning and purpose, supportive and rewarding relationships, engagement and interest, contribution to the well-being of others, competence, self-acceptance, optimism, and being respected [35
], though some argued it should be a combination of feeling good and functioning effectively [36
]. A brief eight-item Flourishing Scale was developed to assess major aspects of a person’s social-psychological functioning [37
], thereby creating a broad overview of the person’s psychological well-being. Similar to IGD research, another limitation of past SDT research on well-being is that most studies have only focused on need satisfaction as a whole or separately. Although some recent theoretical developments suggested that need satisfaction and dissatisfaction may have different effects on outcome variables [7
], to the best of our knowledge, no studies have examined their potentially distinct effects on flourishing, being the understudied indicator of eudaimonic well-being in the existing literature.
In light of the above, and drawing from previous SDT research on IGD and well-being, we suggested that both IGD and flourishing can be examined in an SDT framework. Particularly, we studied how psychological need satisfaction and dissatisfaction predict IGD and flourishing. As a popular recreational activity, the major function of online gaming is personal entertainment and enjoyment cross-culturally [12
]. However, when online gaming becomes excessive and pathological, the damage is likely to be catastrophic. Longitudinal evidence has consistently found problematic Internet use, including gaming, a prospective risk factor of ill-being (e.g., depression, anxiety, and social phobia) among youth [38
]. Further research is warranted to examine the effect of Internet-related disorders on well-being, particularly the eudaimonic one.
Therefore, in the context of SDT, we examined (1) under what psychological need condition/s online gaming would develop into IGD and diminish/facilitate flourishing, and (2) how IGD would predict flourishing under such condition/s. In other words, the present study would contribute to our knowledge of how different psychological need conditions are related to the development of IGD. By incorporating the impact of need satisfaction and dissatisfaction for autonomy, competence, and relatedness in explaining IGD, it would further enhance our understanding of their relationships. In addition, through exploring flourishing, an indicator for eudaimonic well-being, it is expected to provide a more comprehensive understanding of different factors in predicting eudaimonic well-being.
Owing to the increasing penetration of broadband Internet and mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets, in daily lives, IGD has become a worsening issue around the globe and China is no exception. Games designed with immersive or interactive features can be extremely engaging and require so much time and effort that they affect gamers’ daily routines [47
]. Thus, the strong correlations between IGD and real-life problems found in previous studies warrant our attention [49
]. Setting the cut-off of 4/5 for the nine-item DSM-5 diagnostic criteria [45
], we estimated the prevalence of probable IGD to be 7.5% in our Chinese young adult sample. Although the present study did not adopt probability sampling, the prevalence of IGD is similar to other studies in the country. A systematic review found that the prevalence of problematic online gaming ranged from 3.5% to 17.0% [51
]. Therefore, while it is important to implement intervention programs to rectify IGD behaviors, it is also imperative to protect young adults from developing IGD through prevention strategies.
A previous study has examined the effects of the three basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness on problematic video game playing among Chinese young adults [5
]. With more evidence surfacing that need dissatisfaction may be related to higher vulnerability for ill-being and psychopathology [25
], the present study has incorporated the impact of need satisfaction and dissatisfaction for autonomy, competence, and relatedness in explaining IGD and flourishing as an indicator for eudaimonic well-being. The correlation results were generally in line with our hypotheses that psychological need dissatisfaction was positively correlated with IGD. On the other hand, the satisfaction of autonomy, competence, and relatedness needs was insignificantly or mildly related to IGD. When individuals’ psychological needs were dissatisfied, they would have a higher probability of using gaming as an escape from reality or some relief from a bad mood. In fact, these two reasons were found to be driving IGD among Chinese gamers [13
Our hypotheses regarding psychological needs and flourishing were also largely supported by the correlational results, and flourishing was positively correlated to need satisfaction and negatively related to need dissatisfaction. Our results showed that once the basic psychological needs were satisfied, they would promote optimal human functioning. On the contrary, the dissatisfaction of psychological needs might hinder the actualization of one’s self and consequently undermine eudaimonic well-being.
Consistent with our prediction, flourishing was found to be negatively related to IGD. Continued and problematic online game playing would not only result in psychological distress [39
] and lower sense of purpose in life [52
], but also lead to an adverse effect on daily functioning [53
]. In succession, it would affect eudaimonic well-being [55
Based on the mediation analysis, only relatedness dissatisfaction was found to predict IGD significantly in our sample. An individual’s need for relatedness is suggested to be the most salient factor in explaining problematic gaming in Chinese young adults [5
]. In many studies, individuals with need dissatisfaction for relatedness were reported to feel disconnected from their peers, and the feeling of isolation and loneliness was a risk factor for developing Internet-related addictions in Chinese emerging adults [5
] who engaged in online activities like massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) as a source for new peer groups and social connection. Relatedness dissatisfaction gave rise to the feeling of loneliness and exerted a direct effect on developing symptoms related to IGD. Interpersonal connection is important for social animals like humans and serves as a protective factor for us. Although the underlying psychological mechanism/s between relatedness dissatisfaction and problematic game playing is yet to be determined, some research has suggested that teenagers and young adults, who are at the stage of establishing intimate relationships, may feel isolated if they fail and resort to playing online games [5
]. Furthermore, some studies have found that relatedness dissatisfaction increased trait anger [59
], and aggression was positively related to IGD [60
]. A previous study has shown that higher levels of aggression would lead to goal-directed behaviors [61
], as evidenced by gamers attempting to accomplish various goals in online games. Even though the process underlying relatedness dissatisfaction and problematic game playing remained unresolved, the effect of relatedness dissatisfaction on developing IGD and in turn lowering flourishing should not be neglected. Intervention programs are therefore recommended to increase social involvement of individuals and encourage participation in various activities. These initiatives may help to promote genuine relatedness with the community while reducing dissatisfaction [62