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Flow, Learning, and Motivation in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Greetings Filamentarians! We’re excited to share something special with you today. In this blog, guest author, Ed.M. and Harvard graduate Dave Kim investigates “Breath of the Wild” and its impact on gaming culture. Read on to explore this popular commercial game’s unique approach to competence, autonomy, and relatedness through the lens of Self-Determination Theory, game-based learning scholar James Paul Gee, and more. 

Breath of the Wild and the little g game

When “The Legend of Zelda; Breath of the Wild” (BotW) was released in 2017 as a Nintendo Switch launch title, it was widely considered a revelation in gaming. BotW was an open world game–a departure from the tried-and-true linear approach in most of Zelda’s 35-year history, 

Figure 1. Screenshot of opening of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

While there has been a spate of open world games over the last decade that have received high praise (The Witcher 3, God of War, Red Dead Redemption 1/2, Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto V, Ghost of Tsushima), BotW has distanced itself in its ability to: 

1) quickly acclimate the users of many ages, backgrounds, and experience levels to the game and its rules; 

2) motivate the user to continue to play and; 

3) entice many players to spend far more time searching for, discovering, and accomplishing things far outside of the main story line due primarily to the support for emergent gameplay integrated into the game.

One way to understand how BotW achieved the aforementioned is to look at the motivational aspects of the game through the lens of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which will provide an understanding of human motivation and the three psychological needs that foster this motivation.

SDT is a predominant motivational theory that posits that humans have the innate needs for 1) competence, 2) autonomy and; 3) relatedness. When these three criteria are present in a learning environment such as a video game, this can “yield enhanced self-motivation and mental health” in the learner (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Figure 2. Self-determination is driven by competence, autonomy, and relatedness. (Benefield, 2021)

These three psychological needs together promote self-determination within individuals. Satisfying these needs within play can be a robust predictor of motivation and well-being across individuals and varied game contents and narratives (Przybylski, Rigby, & Ryan, 2010). We can see how BotW can satisfy these basic psychological needs.

Competence in BotW

Competence is the feeling of effectiveness in achieving desired outcomes, which is influenced by factors such as receiving feedback or rewards (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and are interwoven within games to motivate players in achieving higher levels of various skills like problem solving, reaction time, and creativity. Where most previous Zelda games give the player a feeling of competence by showing their amassed collection of rupees, hearts, weapons, and other items on-screen (Bucher, 2016), BotW strives to remove the bias of familiarity with Zelda properties and gaming platformers in general to achieve competence more readily.

BotW achieves this in a completely different way. Competence is based on what the player has accomplished, be it killing an enemy, completing a side quest, searching for and finding a hard-to-locate Korok seed, or inadvertently stumbling into a new technique. Competence was traditionally difficult for new gamers and players new to the Zelda franchise, as there was a very linear approach to previous games and players familiar with the franchise and the game mechanics simply knew the same game mechanics and bottlenecks that forced players through the one way to move on.

Figure 3. Screenshot of BotW gameplay. Example of solving a puzzle in Divine Beast Vah Naboris using various metal weapons, shields, armor chained together instead of using large metal objects in the environment. This ability for multiple solutions encourages Competence.

Autonomy in BotW

Autonomy is the ability for the individual to initiate their own actions and have psychological freedom when engaging in experiences. It can be supported through choice, acknowledgement of feelings, and opportunities for self-direction (Ryan & Deci, 2000). By enabling players to advance through challenges and levels, have choices over goals and strategies within the game context, and experience varied opportunities for action, players achieve a greater feeling of autonomy which enriches their motivation. 

Traditionally, Zelda games had limited autonomy. While you were allowed to roam around the world as you wished for the most part, there were many areas that were off-limits without a specific item or skill, and most puzzles and challenges had a single solution that you had to discover or figure out. BotW achieves autonomy by allowing the player to go just about anywhere they can see. There were multiple ways to achieve any goal, and there were often unexpected rewards in choosing non-traditional solutions, encouraging the player to choose their own paths and solutions.

Relatedness in BotW

The last of the three psychological innate needs is relatedness, or the need to feel belonging and connectedness with others by developing interpersonal relationships (Ryan & Deci, 2000). This is where Zelda games are traditionally the weakest. Unlike co-operative (co-op) games like Mario Party or player-vs-player (PvP) games like Fortnite, Zelda games are single-player only games, like so many of Nintendo’s most popular franchises (Super Mario, Metroid). This is what Gee calls the little g game, which is the game itself. 

There is also the concept of the big G Game, the social context in which the game is situated and the various types of interactions that occur around the game (Gee, 2008). Very little Big G relatedness is derived from socializing with non-player characters (NPCs) is a motivating aspect of BotW as it helps support the other needs of competence and autonomy. It is required to talk to NPCs at some point, which can be demotivating when you are forced to slog through a long narrative or watch a short montage for a simple clue or item. The required part is front loaded in the introduction to the game as a disguised tutorial. Throughout most of the rest of the game, relatedness is entirely optional, but the game completely supports this in order to retain player motivation, and embracing relatedness gives the player more knowledge and skills. 

Given that BotW is a single-player game, the relatedness in making Zelda a big G game experience manifests through speedruns, Reddit discussion boards, Discord channels, Twitch streams, and YouTube channels. They would predominantly share speedruns and creative ways to solve puzzles. While these were engaging, it was often spectator-only, as the skills needed to accomplish any of these tricks in speedrunning were out-of-reach for the casual gamer.

Start video at 8:05

Tears of the Kingdom and Gee’s ‘Big G’ Game

The follow-up to BotW was The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (TotK), which launched in May 2023. Reception to this game was predominantly positive. Some critics ranked it higher than BotW, stating that it made BotW feel like an early version of this game. Conversely, a few ranked it lower, viewing it as a “cheap sequel” or even a “glorified DLC” to BotW with nothing significantly new.

The map included BotW, but expanded to include Sky Islands and The Depths, but most of the global game mechanics were the same. What changed the most in mechanics were the special powers (Runes) gained during early gameplay, like Cryonis (ability to create frozen platforms), Statis (ability to freeze time), and Magnesis (ability to manipulate magnetic objects). These were all replaced with new abilities like Fuse (ability to combine equipment with materials), Ascend (ability to travel up to and through ceilings and surfaces above the player), Recall (ability to reverse time and movement of a particular object) and Ultrahand (ability to pick up an object, manipulate it, and attach it to other objects). 

These new tools gave players more agency, by allowing them to do things in ways that made sense to them. There are plenty of videos and clips now of players solving puzzles and shrines creatively using the new skills like Recall and Ultrahand to manipulate the environment to get to the end without doing what the game intended for you to do.

Unfortunately, as a result of these changes, Competence and Autonomy were dampened a bit with the introduction of these new abilities. However, the introduction of Ultrahand significantly increased Relatedness. Ultrahand creations have littered social media with crazy creations, akin to The Incredible Machine or Kerbal’s Space Program.

Figure 4. Screenshot of Kerbal Space Program gameplay. Example of building and launching “a ridiculous rocket.”

Figure 5. Screenshot of The Incredible Machine gameplay. Example of building and solving a complex level

Players created funny, clever, bombastic, and downright ridiculous machines to accomplish tasks, destroy enemies, and solve puzzles. Why walk when you can attach a rocket to your shield, or build a simple flying machine, or a giant dog? Why attack a horde of moblins alone when you can build a mega flamethrower flying dreadnaught?

Figure 6. Screenshot of TotK gameplay. Example of building a flying machine made of various Zonaite devices and in-game objects.

Figure 7. Screenshot of TotK gameplay. Example of building a dog-like vehicle made of various Zonaite devices and in-game objects.

Most importantly, these creations were part of the normal game and only required procuring certain materials and having patience to build the devices, not developing beyond-human skills and timing. So what became a spectator sport became an interactive, many-to-many engagement opportunity. 

Zelda has finally become a Big G Game.

For a deeper analysis of BotW uses of emergent gaming and equifinality through the lenses of SDT, Bartle’s Taxonomy, and Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory, please see the full paper on Medium or Google Docs.

That concludes this blog-sized investigation into “Breath of the Wild” by special guest author Dave Kim. Be sure to check out the full paper, linked above, for more. We’re thrilled to bring you unique insights on video games and learning, and extend a huge thanks to Dave for sharing his expertise! You can connect with him on X, Instagram, and LinkedIn

Stay tuned for more exciting explorations at the intersection of gaming and education – follow us on X and Facebook for daily articles on game-based learning. If you’re looking to partner with an educational game developer to bring your game-based learning project to life, we’re here to help. With 18 years of industry experience, we’ll work together to create the specialized, bespoke educational experience you need. Contact us for a free consultation! 

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