Why We Play Video Games

jmaltz@pnosker.com January 3, 2011 0

I was browsing the One A Day blog (which you all should be reading regardless of your opinions on video games) and stumbled upon LJ Vicker’s post about why she hates video games.  Although I respect her opinion and can recognize that it is a relatively widely held one, I can’t help but take issue with assertion that “you don’t actually get much of anything out of it”.  I couldn’t disagree more; I believe that the fact that people DO get something out of video games is the reason why they are so wildly popular.


For one, people will invest time in games because they allow you to conquer a challenge.  So, while puzzle fans try to finish the Sunday crossword and runners like to see if they can finish a marathon, I personally prefer to see if I can beat Gears Of War solo on insane. Although I didn't get anything tangible out of this victory, I still see it as warranting the same type of pride you get after finishing a particularly hard sudoku (although maybe not of the same magnitude).  Whenever a developer puts together a game, especially a challenging one, they are issuing the gamer a challenge that requires a certain level of competency with a controller.  Sure, it isn't the same as your friend trying to beat you in 1-on-1 basketball, but if you doubt that developers aim to challenge gamers go pick up Super Meat Boy

What ensues is a sort of competition between the player and the game, with the former constantly attempting to outwit and defeat the latter.  Eventually, after a period of time, innumerable curses, and even the occasional tears, the gamer wins in this competition, thereby accomplishing his or her goal of completing the challenge set forth.  Like so many goal oriented activities, the value of the goal is something determined entirely by the individual pursuing it.  So, even though non-gamers may not be able to understand why I’m incredibly proud my accomplishments in the Gears of War series, the fact remains that it took a truckload of persistence and patience to achieve them, and for that I AM proud of them.

This sense of accomplishment is only part of the reason that people continue to come back to video games, the other reason is that they allow you to take an active part in an epic story.  Imagine the last book or movie that you really enjoyed; do you remember how it sucked you into the narrative and kept your attention until the very last moments?  To gamers, the most recent video game they played is exactly the same, with one critical difference: they are the main character.  As such, when well written, games have the potential to emotionally involve the player in the same ways that movies or books do.  What’s more, because they are interactive, video games empower players to take an active role in saving the world/unraveling the mystery/whatever.  Thus, when the story completes, it was not Harry Potter or Robert Langdon (sorry for the lame references, I don’t read much fiction) who was responsible for saving the world; it was you, John Doe sitting on his average couch in the center of his average apartment in an average city.   This sense of importance is something that you don’t normally get in the real world and it is one of the reasons that people are occasionally willing to sacrifice real world connections for the sake of playing video games.  Or, if you don't believe me on this one, check out Jane Mcgonigal talk about it in her excellent TED Talk.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I completely agree with Ms. Vickers that gamers shouldn’t be sequestering themselves in a room all day to kill orcs.  However, I think that we need to break down this societal idea that playing video games is some sort of wasted time that provides nothing to gamers.  I don’t necessarily believe that people who believe games are worthless will ever be swayed to my side.  However, at the very least, I hope that non-gamers can come to understand that we aren’t just picking up a controller to waste away our lives.

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