I’ve always liked video games. I’m not exactly sure when I started playing them or what my first video game experience was, but video games have always played some sort of prominent role in my life.
Over the 25 years I’ve lived thus far, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on gaming software and hardware, played hundreds of hours across hundreds of titles, and earned the ire of dozens of fellow gamers by committing the sin of never finishing renowned games like Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Portal.
But, as I participated in what’s become ritualistic gaming behaviour for me by renewing my subscription to World of Warcraft for the umpteenth time and spitting on my girlfriend’s Ocarina N64 cartridge, I was struck by a question: Why do people like video games — and by extension — why do I like them?
Honestly, it’s a tough question to answer. But I also figured it’d be somewhat enjoyable to take a stab at answering it.
The Allure of Digital Battle Arenas
I think it’s safe to say that the most popular form of video-gaming right now is multiplayer gaming. For evidence of multiplayer gaming’s cultural dominance, one can look towards the titanic success of games like Fortnite and League of Legends. Both titles revolve around the seemingly inexhaustible allure of striking down your opponents in digital arenas again, and again, and again.
The strange aspect of games like Fortnite and League of Legends is that, despite offering dynamic experiences, both games take place in static environments (barring any game updates, of course). To my knowledge, Fortnite players battle it out within one giant-sized map with randomized loot spawns. In a similar vein, League of Legends players wage war across a handful of preset arenas. So, by the time you’ve done hundreds of laps through Fortnite’s game world or Summoner’s Rift in League of Legends, you’ve pretty much seen it all, right?
Well, no. Despite being built on static foundations, the allure of these competitive multiplayer titles lies in the dynamic variable of player interaction. Even 1000+ hours in, you never know who’s lurking around the next corner, what montage-worthy moment you’ll pull off, or when you’ll smash your latest keyboard in frustration. In theory, the emphasis on Player vs. Player combat keeps every game fresh, and every kill exciting.
I’m not a psychologist, but the proposition of acting out an unlimited number of battle scenarios in today’s multiplayer games sounds like grade-A fodder for the human brain. It’s no wonder these games are played so pervasively: they provide us with a safe, low-risk digital outlet for quenching our carnal desire for competition and dominance. Our ancestors would be thrilled — after they pardoned us for the lack of real-world bloodshed and mastered the art of headshots for themselves, that is.
The Joy of Explicable Gaming Experiences in an Inexplicable World
For a bunch of monkey-brained mammals, human beings really seem to like rules. We love them so much that we’ve made them the foundational element of an entire medium — video games. Most would argue that the best video games are cohesive experiences driven by expertly-designed game mechanics that mesh well with one another. And, in essence, game mechanics are sub-systems of rules that govern what a game allows and doesn’t allow.
Many gamers experience an exhilarating rush upon mastering the platforming of Super Mario Bros or finally defeating an ass-slapping boss in a Dark Souls game. This surge of excitement is the result of analyzing a game’s rules and acting within them to achieve success. Without clearly defined rules, a game is nothing more than a garbled, frustrating, nonsensical mess. Super Mario Bros wouldn’t be as much fun if Mario could randomly get cancer and die. Similarly, Dark Souls would be a lot more aggravating if activating campfires had a chance to spontaneously ignite your character into flames.
But, in contrast to the explicable digital worlds of video games, life on planet earth is largely a chaotic, inexplicable experience. There are some answers to common questions, but even science is dubious of itself. We have systems of law and order, but you’re never guaranteed complete safety or just treatment. You could get a college degree to further your intellectual development, but you’re never guaranteed to get a job upon graduating. At any point, a passing asteroid could shatter our planet into a million pieces, and — well, hopefully, you get the point.
Keeping this in mind, I’d wager that people like video games because they offer a pleasant and rewarding refuge from the inexplicable nature of everyday life. In well-designed games, everything has a place, and every facet of the gameplay has significance and weight. Game developers spend millions of dollars so that they can proudly proclaim that, in their game world, “your actions and choices matter.”
In real life, you could help out an older woman and be rewarded with nothing more than the nose-tingling warmth of a fart wafting out of her blouse. Which brings me to my next segment…
Built-in Metrics of Success and Progression
Achievement feels good — and if you ask me, it plays a crucial role in why people like video games. Researchers seem to agree. In this paper, the authors stated: “…there are some [studies] demonstrating that dopamine is released and that brain reward centres are activated during video-game playing.”
Real life can be stimulating enough to activate the same reward responses that video games do. But if that’s true, why do some of us turn to video games to get our dopamine fix versus real-life alternatives?
There are many explanations, but I think one significant factor is the evolution of numerical progress systems. Decades ago, in the arcade era, games like Pac-Man and Tetris only had a few metrics of success: high scores and levels cleared. If you got the high score on a Pac-Man arcade cabinet, you knew you were hot shit. But after inputting your three-letter calling card of choice (ASS, always ASS), that was it. Aside from the urge to beat your own score, those arcade cabinets didn’t lure you back in with further numerical temptations.
Fast-forward to now, and today’s games are jam-packed with dozens of progression systems that reward continued play. In a complex game like World of Warcraft, players can track their in-game journey through hundreds of ancillary systems, including achievement points, equipment item levels, character stats, and beyond. Even modern incarnations of arcade favourites like Pac-Man and Tetris have been beefed up with additional collectibles and challenges to complete.
But in real life, tangible metrics of progression aren’t so common. Unless you gamify your life with apps like Habitica, it can be difficult to gauge your continued self-evolution. Some facets of life achievement — like annual income or weight gain/loss — can be expressed through numbers, but attempting to capture your emotional or career growth the same way is arbitrary and unfitting.
And sure, nominal numerical increases don’t cause every gamer’s brain to fire off on all cylinders. But I think it’s pretty clear that numerable progression has a certain power over many of us. The drive to attain one more level or one more upgrade often becomes one more reason to stay up another hour playing video games.
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