Why do we play video games?
What seems like a simple question that affords a simple answer - because video games are fun - gets progressively more intricate the deeper we investigate what exactly causes said fun. After all, because it’s fun is the most generic answer one can give to justify any behavioral engagement. In essence, it’s just another way of saying because I want to. This makes it not very satisfying of an explanation. No, we can do better. We can ask why they are fun.
Digging just beyond the surface of the matter, we find that fun things are fun for a reason. Most of the time, this reason is evolution: The behavioral manifestations of keeping our body alive and propagating it through reiteration are intrinsically likable. Not because we have to like them, but because the entities that considered eating and sex a boring way to pass the day have long left the game. The rules of surviving simply weren’t ingrained into their biology.
Now, since the things we enjoy owe their rewarding properties to our evolutionary attunement to them, sating physiological urges are categorically fun ways to occupy yourself - as everyone knows who spent a day fucking, eating, sleeping and playing video...Hey. Wait a minute. Playing video games isn’t a physiological urge. It’s just a form of entertainment, like watching a movie or listening to music is. Why should they be fun? I mean, we don’t depend on them to survive. Right?
Not so fast. Without some sort of cognitive engagement, our psyche atrophies. With psyche being the catch-all term we invented to describe the part of our physiology whose workings we understand the least - our minds - getting certain psychological needs satisfied is not any less of an urgent affair. In fact, cognitive engagement is vital for our health, and if we do not experience it, we’re constantly on the lookout for something that might provide it.
One might assume this to be a problem of the past - never before has it been so easy to get by with doing only the most minuscule and repetitive stuff in order to get most of your basic needs satisfied. But while modernity makes it easy to entertain yourself, it also facilitates boredom: Much of humanity finds itself collectively on the highest level of the Maslowian hierarchy of needs and merely trying to survive doesn’t cut it anymore when it comes to our desire to have a supply of psychologically rewarding challenges. Put another way: Due to our luxurious lifestyles, we made a habit of asking for the meaning of life - a question that would never come to mind to a starving person. (Obviously, the answer is finding something to eat.) And while a significant amount of your day is still spent with trying not to die, the ease with which this happens leaves a lot of self-actualization to be defined by us.
All of that is to say: Psychological engagement stopped being byproduct of trying to obtain the most basic things, and thus, the itch for meaning doesn’t get scratched so effortlessly anymore. Which is quite a luxurious problem to have. Yet a problem, nonetheless.
So that’s it? We like playing video games because we have nothing more important to do?
No. That’s a trope I don’t want to reinstate - that is far too easy. Moreover, it doesn’t really fit the observation you think about it a little longer:
Modern life is still riddled with problems whose attempt of solving could fill each of our lives days, arguably improving our chances for survival and procreation in the process. If we need psychological engagement, why not choose to do things that we're sure have a productive outcome? Most of the efforts people put into video games don’t translate into the outside world in a manner that could be regarded as evolutionary beneficial. But making money does. Learning about the world does. Working does. So why the hell play video games instead?
It certainly can’t be because your generic 9 to 5 is more exhausting: Manual labor is a critically endangered species in the first world, which makes most of today’s available occupation knowledge work anyway. No physical movement required applies across the spectrum of solely cognitively demanding activities. Most importantly, people do have aspirations, and they are, unsurprisingly, mostly in line with what evolution tells us would make our genes more successful: They want to get promotions at work; they want to be fitter; they want to experience social validation. Yet apparently, none of these things manage to be as motivating for most people as video games are.
Sure, it’s true that these ambition of a first-world citizen might not carry the same amount of selection pressure like the satisfaction of our base values does - like food and physical safety. But considering that both, studying for an exam and playing video games, are opportunities to be psychologically engaged, one would think that the former can more efficiently rift upon our goal-seeking engine. After all, that’s why it exists in the first place: To improve our evolutionary fitness. Actively improving one's education should deliver on that promises better. Yet it can’t. The reason I'm so confident in this analysis is simple: We routinely procrastinate through playing video games, and we know it. Which is so very, very weird, because it means being willfully engaged in something that is cognitive demanding, with all the awareness that your efforts won’t get you any closer to what you’d consider desirable.
I know, I know, nowadays there are many ways a person can have a career through playing them - but I think you'll get the idea: Most of the time, there’s no real world pay-off to playing games - but there is to studying, cleaning your home, increasing your circle of relationships, thinking about what you want from life. It's not me who's saying that - it's probably your conscience as well. If not, good for you, but then consider this: Even the people who find themselves on the lowest rank of the societal ladder, with many problems in need of solving (some of them crucial to be able to survive at all), lots of them forgo to do these things in order to play video games instead. They sometimes even die of exhaustion because video games can be so endearing - which, of course, instantly nullifies the “nothing better to do” hypothesis.
We even realize this schism within ourselves: Most of us wish we would feel a comparable a sense of enjoyment in “useful” things like cleaning our rooms, or making our beds. We instinctively know that having the same kind of enthusiasm for productive activities would get us closer towards our actual goals: Money, prestige, guitar playing skills, an attractive body. Just ask yourself how great would it be if studying would be as fun as playing "Tetris". I’d wager: Very great. As a messy workaround to approximate this Utopian vision, many people go as far as manipulating their brain chemistry in order to force themselves into a kind of motivational state that makes them feel better to do these things. It just needs a look at the western world’s intimate affair with stimulants - like coffee and cigarettes - all capable of forcing yourself into a more psychologically engaged state.
With all of this in mind, I think it’s fair to say that we can’t put our love for video games on a lack of things to do. And what we for sure can’t do is put a lack of appeal of these goals in terms of their evolutionary weight: Writing that fucking thesis will improve your evolutionary fitness more than playing World of Warcraft all day - but that doesn’t mean you’ll rather do it.
Thus, a more precise question crystallizes: In order to play video games, we have to forgo some other activity we could have engaged in instead. How come that we don’t want to choose the one with the higher pay-off? Why do we default to doing the things that give us an advantage in a video game, but not in the game of life? Why are video games more fun that other things?
The Game Design of Life
To recap: From an evolutionary perspective, one would assume we would rather work, study or create than playing video games - maximizing reproductive potential, as evolutionary psychologists would say. Winning the game of life, by motivating yourself with these goals. However, while we’re able to make the subjective distinction between the ones with a well regarded pay off and the ones with no pay off at all, our motivation to pursue either of them apparently doesn’t correspond in the way one would expect. So why is that?
The most concise answer I was able to come up with is this: When it comes to our behavior, the goal doesn’t matter as much as our experience of approaching it. This idea has lots of implications, one of which is that life itself has no goals, because it doesn’t need any in order to be effective. But if there are no goals, how could you become motivated to do anything at all?
To shine some light on this conundrum, let’s take a look at a dumbed-down version of our brains, the original “neural network”. It is, after all, what artificial intelligence tries to imitate. And what are these programs capable of doing? Mastering a game without knowing its goal.
An AI is placed in the virtual world 1-1, aka the first level of the game “Super Mario Bros.”. Learning to play the game, only some of its iterations survive. To be exact, those whose perception is calibrated in a way that makes it approach the things that let it complete the level and avoid the things that makes it die. Consequently, it looks like it has a goal - that is, completing the level. Yet, this is just a byproduct of it acting according to a set of values, or behavioral principles. Its “goal” of survival is just an emerging property of valuing certain sensory inputs over others, all of which are arranged in a hierarchical structured that is acquired due to selection pressure across time. This creates the illusion that it tries to get into the next level. Just like any living thing, including us, appears as if it has the goals of procreation and survival.
Here’s a little thought experiment to consider how these mechanics translates into the realm of human behavior:
Imagine playing blindfolded Tetris, with all your sensory organs deprived of their function. They are replaced by a nice kind of tingling between your eyes when you're acting good, that is according to a set of values that lets you complete the game. For example: The closer you put the “I” block at the right position at the right angle into the cavity, the more the tingling increases. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) You don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing beyond one reason: It feels good. Your instincts tell you which buttons to press, and thus you get into the next level (read: generation). Meanwhile, for an outside observer (or yourself after opening your eyes), it looks like you’re exhibiting goal-directed behavior.
Sure, we don’t have this kind of extra-sensory perception. But we see things, smell things, touch things, hear things and taste things instead. Ultimately, though, that’s just a pragmatic workaround to get around the issue of lacking said ability. We sense things and the input of our perception conjures up to a decision in our minds - the one we make will be the one that feels best.
But come on, the AI doesn’t feel things. Obviously, it moves in a certain direction for no other apparent reason other than because its programmed to. But joke's on us - whom you could say the same thing about. Consider this: If the AI was conscious, it needed the ability to differentiate between good and bad in order to survive - otherwise, it had no reason to behave in a certain manner. At the very least, there has to be a binary value system at the very least - good and bad, approach and avoidance - letting it know it how to behave. So, in its case, it’s ones and zeros telling it how to act - in our case, it’s neurons firing. Which actually isn’t that different, besides one being biological and the other one silicon-based.
A hint of vestigial self-awareness is even evident in our language: Being motivated is Latin for “being moved by something”. We are literally moved by perceiving values - which subsequently creates a sense of anticipation or wanting in us. And we can’t help (and wouldn’t want to) but act on. It’s the only guidance we have for knowing that we should continue what we’re doing. It is the driving force of life, as it makes life do the things that keep it from vanishing. Motivation is literally what you want. It is the meaning of life, sine it’s the only thing sustaining it.
Naturally, for motivation to come around, there needs to be an environment that necessitates the emergence of these emotions. To see why, imagine putting the AI in an empty level. No enemies, no power-ups, no obstacles. Nothing would be in its way. But the lack of things to react to would simultaneously rob it of a reason to do anything at all. No reason to move - no motivation - no sense of meaning.
(Neurophysiologist Rodolfo Lliná even postulates that a brain is only useful for a creature that has to move in order to survive. “That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement.” which adds to the idea that the AI applies low level thinking. It means any plan or idea you have that motivates you moves your thoughts in the direction of actualizing it.)
So, without the opportunity to put perceptions in categories of good and bad, a positive motivational response couldn’t be justified. And since motivation is what we naturally crave - as it got our genes further down the generations - its absence is really painful. Which is why everyone keeps asking for the meaning of life once they’ve got nothing to do.
Ultimately, we need a value structure and a framework within which we can pursue them in order to feel meaning. Without something to react to, the system that makes us motivated had simply no job. Suddenly, we’re at the mercy of the brutal reality of existential fears that awaits us whenever nothing interesting occupies our minds - also known as boredom.
Thankfully, we have a way to deal with this, as is evident in humanity’s great creative feats in times of an overabundance of resources. But in the severe cases when we don’t, we might even consider suicide - which Albert Camus expressed with his philosophical statement that “[it’s the] one really serious problem to contemplate in life”. If there’s no antidote to the existential dread that awaits you in the absence of any meaningful activity, suicide can become the most attractive option - as it is still tainted with trying to make things better. You still need to be motivated to kill yourself - probably the best example to show that evolution doesn’t care what your goal is.
Any Dream Will Do
With us humans being the fond explainers of reality that we are, the concept of universal life goals logically emerge from our intuitive understanding and observation of these deeply ingrained values - what is good and should be sought out, and what is bad and ought to be avoided. So while we share a common idea of an optimal progression - increasing your rank in the social hierarchy, for example - none of us needs to articulate or even be aware of the values that caused it. In order for it to become our objective, we just need to feel good when doing the things that will get us there. But the question remains: How the hell do video games help us accomplish that?
In other words: If the AI’s got a kind of firmware in their virtual brain that makes it behave according to the principles that allow for completion of Super Mario Bros. - why should the same thing work for us humans? How is it possible that a child immediately gets immersed when you put it in front of it with a controller? Why should stomping Goombas be motivating?
In “The Happiness Hypothesis”, Jonathan Haidt laid out part of the answer:
When Harry Harlow took his students to the zoo, they were surprised to find that apes and monkeys would solve problems just for the fun of it. Behaviorism had no way to explain such unreinforced behavior. In 1959, the Harvard psychologist Robert White concluded, after surveying research in behaviorism and psychoanalysis, that both theories had missed what Harlow had noticed: the overwhelming evidence that people and many other mammals have a basic drive to make things happen.”
“Psychologists have referred to this basic need as a need for competence, industry, or mastery. [Robert] White called it the “effectance motive,” which he defined as the need or drive to develop competence through interacting with and controlling one’s environment. Effectance is almost as basic a need as food and water, yet it is not a deficit need, like hunger, that is satisfied and then disappears for a few hours. Rather, White said, effectance is a constant presence in our lives: Dealing with the environment means carrying on a continuing transaction which gradually changes one’s relation to the environment. Because there is no consummatory climax, satisfaction has to be seen as lying in a considerable series of transactions, in a trend of behavior rather than a goal that is achieved.
There you have it. The same feature that allowed us to get so far into the game in the first place - our powerful neocortical abilities - offers us a way to be engaged in almost everything we chose. Instead of the narrow range of domain specific value structures, we can be motivated by the sense of progress per se. Whenever we play a game, we don’t value getting into the next level; we value improvement - which coincides with getting into the next level of any game. Exploring your environment, figuring out how things work, mastering an obstacle course - we feel good when doing those things. This allows us to get motivated for the most abstract of things, making us extremely adaptive in creating and exploiting these frameworks. Which just gotta be one of the reasons for the species’ success. That’s what’s got us going in math, chemistry, physics, economics, storytelling - and any other product of culture, really. Obviously, we’re not the only animal who does that - but the only one for whom thinking alone suffices.
What we actually desire is interacting with our environment in a way that allows for the emergence of meaningful sensations. It’s not about a goal per se, but you increasingly mastering what goes on around you. As such, an almost infinite array of things can serve as a device that motivates you. How it’s actually motivation that makes our lives fulfilling is easily illustrated by thinking about what happens whenever people achieve one of their life goals: They aren’t satisfied for the rest of their lives once they did it. Instead, they search for something new, because the lack of aspiration makes it impossible to get the sense of motivation we call meaning. It’s like when you’re hungry and hyped to eat, but sad when it’s over - not because there’s nothing to eat anymore, but because you just can’t give into the desire anymore.
It’s the fact that we are capable of enormous abstraction combined with the natural addiction to motivation that makes us explore, invent, innovate and master. No matter the goal, if the framework within which you pursue has all the necessary vectors, it will suffice in making you motivated. Set yourself any task and try to get better - you will find the sense of progress itself enjoyable.
Incidentally, it's this indiscriminate goal seeking system that video games use to their advantage: Within these virtual worlds, we can fully indulge in our propensity to engage in activities that exaggerate the triggers for the behavioral principles of human motivation.
Slowly but surely it should become clear why we’re so willingly invest our time in video games. It’s rather stereotypical for our species, as we did the same thing we always do: Creating a hyper-palatable version of a naturally rewarding activity, decoupled from the actual reason evolution kept it as a feature. Let’s use junk-food and our perception of taste as an analogy for video games and the reactance motive - the desire to be psychologically engaged.
Junk food is engineered to max out our capacity for feeling pleasure when eating. The way this is achieved is by finding the perfect ratio of the compounds responsible for said pleasure - salt, sugar, fat and mouth-feel. Broccoli has all of these elements as well - yet it’s not refined and concentrated enough for any sane person to prefer it over a Snickers bar (if we disregard the feelings from evaluating caloric content and health repercussions for the decision). Similarly, a good video game consists of a very efficient way of stimulating our basic psychological needs, by making the intrinsic value of psychological engagement ultra-palatable. The purpose they serve is to give the player a psychological experience that feels as meaningful as possible, to a degree that more traditional offerings can’t compete. Which immediately throws up the question: If it’s salt, sugar and fat that decides how tasty food is - what are the elements deciding how meaningful an activity feels?
Psychologist came up with a theory. It's a bit messy, to be sure, but satisfices at generally separating the different dimensions of pleasure games are able to stimulate. It’s called the theory of self-determination, or SDT (Beware pesky autocorrect when using this acronym). It postulates three pillars that influence our enjoyment of a game - or any activity, for that matter: We like to solve problems, we like to feel in control, and we can very much appreciate to do all of this in a social context - the corresponding principles are called competence, autonomy and relatedness.
“For when all combine in every way to make everything easier, there remains only one possible danger, namely, that the ease becomes altogether too great; then there is only one want left, though it is not yet a felt want, when people will want difficulty.” - Søren Kierkegaard
Competence is the ability to do something successfully or efficiently.
How do you know that you’re competent? If you see the results you desired. That is by definition what success means. Yet, knowing that you did well isn’t necessarily fun. Most of us are competent enough to make their beds, but want to avoid it because, duh, it’s boring. That’s why we like to point out its futility: We’re gonna disarray it later anyway - the perfect rationalization for not doing something you don’t want to do.
Instead, competency becomes pleasurable if it is challenged. When your skills get tested in a way that’s neither too boring nor too hard. Just difficult enough that you want to keep going, stretching and thus expanding your abilities - like a gymnasts tendons. When you’re sufficiently skilled in order to compete, but not enough as to be sure of your success, an activity becomes fun. When you're good enough as to be able to get an endearing mixture of positive and negative feedback, the motivation to improve ensues. The important implication is this: The joy that comes from being competent is entirely dependent on the degree that feedback is apparent to you. In other words, pleasure necessitates awareness of progress.
That is something we all know intuitively: Think about how the quality of video games can be sensed by the elegance with which it lets you know your doing things right. It does so by constantly keeping a balance between challenge and accomplishment. Games like Pac-Man hold up to this day, because their magic stems from the structure with which they are build: They feel intrinsically rewarding, because an intricate system of feedback tells the player about his ability to move forward.
When it comes to most activities in life, progress is often invisible or takes a long time to appear - not very motivating. To take some practical examples: Many people wish they could play an instrument, but are easily discouraged because their efforts don’t become visible to them until a very long time of boring grinding has passed. They know how much fun it would be to improvise a solo or jam in a band. Yet these things alone don’t suffice to make them go through the hard parts necessary to get there. Contrast this to Guitar Hero™: It took the beloved aspiration of playing guitar and subtracted the parts that make mastering it a monotonous endeavor.
Compared to learning guitar, Guitar Hero offers a kind of feedback that elegantly syncs with your learning progress. It unapologetically calls you out for any missteps, yet doesn’t forget to signal your every achievement along the way - topping off, you’re displayed with a point system the quantizes your abilities - in itself posing a challenge that yearns to be surpassed. Yes, the vision of you playing a solo in front of an enormous pool of admirers might motivate you. However: That vision alone still won’t easily compensate for the discouragement that you’ll face when improving at snail-pace - which inevitably is going to happen. George Leonard elaborates this in his book mastery:
Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it. The curve above is necessarily idealized. In the actual learning experience, progress is less regular; the upward spurts vary; the plateaus have their own dips and rises along the way. But the general progression is almost always the same. To take the master’s journey, you have to practice diligently, striving to hone your skills, to attain new levels of competence. But while doing so—and this is the inexorable fact of the journey—you also have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.
He illustrates this effect in a graphic:
This is what awaits us if we try to improve upon most traditional skills. Lots of grinding, followed by a breakthrough in ability and a subsequent setback to a higher level than the one we found ourselves on originally. It’s at this point that people give up and do something that better fulfills their competence needs. Say, for instance, playing Guitar Hero.
Even if an activity is relatively easy to learn - once you squeezed out most of your potential, getting the rest out becomes a proposition of very low return on investment. The further you go, the harder it becomes to get feedback again. That’s kinda sad, because people like getting better - it’s rewarding. What they don’t like is having to wait for any sign of improvement to show up. And thank god, they don’t have to do that anymore: Because video games exist. They are the antithesis to this effect. Their learning curve is much more linear, due to a conscious effort by their developers to make it so.
This is also what allows for the existence of virtual analogs to every boring activity you can think of. Games that imitate real life activites on a superficial level, while being infinitely more engaging on the psychological front. Taking life and improving upon its comparatively underdeveloped feedback system is the whole stick of The Sims, after all. I mean, think about it: It’s a life simulator. Isn’t that the thing we want to get away from?
Or take a look at this gardening game, shamelessly rifting upon our meaning seeking engine.
One might think that the more engaging nature of these things is due to their lower difficulty level. Are video games fun because they are less difficult than life? No. Not at all.
While it’s true that the fun in competency comes and goes with the difficulty level, video games keep it at the same level. The better the video game, the more consistent it stays. The only thing that should change is your high-score. If you’ve never played Super Mario Bros. in your life, the first level will be as difficult for you as the last for somebody who reached the ending for the first time. There’s always a new twist on a by that point old mechanic, stronger enemies and new ways to test your skills, all culminating in a satisfying finale.
Thus, the core of a well designed game is always centered around getting the player into the flow zone. If you’re not familiar with this concept of psychology (unlikely as it may be), it’s a term coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It describes the emergence of meaning when doing something that is just at the right level of cognitive engagement: Easy enough to not get frightened by it, difficult enough to get driven forward by the belief we can achieve it. Once mastery is reached - which often happens at the ending screen - you’ll get bored of it, grabbing something new from the shelf.
Call it meaning, purpose, flow, it’s all the same: A psychological institution that makes intuitive sense from your surroundings and you manipulating it, giving you feelings of progress and accomplishment in the face of a challenge. It is the pleasure that comes from having a goal and achieving it, all in short succession - glueing your attention to whatever activity it is that’s able to incite these emotions in you. If the game manages to balance just right on the fine line between boredom and frustration - no matter how far you're into it - the ceiling of competence can never be reached. Just like the motivation it provides you with.
For what it’s worth, this makes the hardest part in designing it not getting the player hooked, but doing so quickly. Which is why it’s more often the simple games that pull off this trick: The goal is easily understood and your ability to play it is immediately projected on the screen. Games like Tetris, Flappy bird and the aforementioned Pac-Man are reduced to these core principles and thus owe their popularity to having mastered them. With the rules as simple as possible, everyone can play them and understand how well he or she is doing. The key ingredient to getting better.
This video about the game design in level 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. does a great job at examining the game design techniques that were used to make the exploration and mastering process as intuitive as possible. It is crafted to make the player understand the rules of the game as fast as possible, equipping him or her with the tools necessary to act on the desire to become more competent.
With many modern video games having a skill ceiling high in the air, the logical consequences are reflected in the real world: People can play the same game for thousands of hours. Meanwhile, no one rewatches a movie or read a book over and over again and accidentally reaches the same scale of invested time. Sure, in theory, a good movie couldn’t be too long - you’ll always want to continue watching. But most of them end sooner or later. Video games however, end, once there’s nothing left to do. Something the producers try to avoid - with every passing year, more successfully so.
Autonomy - “subject to its own laws" - is one of the core pillars the engaging nature of video games rests on. It means having the freedom to act according to your values - the ability to decide according to your own will - without being coerced to do so. As such, it is less about doing what you want to do, but having the ability to decide so. Even if we all wanted the same thing - which we kinda do - the unspoken disclaimer that we are allowed to differ in our values consists of a psychological need in its own right. Satisfaction of which these virtual structures offer plenty.
That being said, freedom is worthless if you don’t know what to do with it. It’s not synonymous with autonomy. Instead, autonomy is freedom combined with a preference for a certain choice that this freedom allows - it’s creating your own fate. If you don’t care for any of the options available to you, but still make a choice, it’s not an autonomous one. It’s an irrelevant one.
This makes the feeling of competency combined with the freedom to choose more than the sum of their parts: They allow for powerful autonomy-triggers by making us able to pursue the things we want in a self-governed fashion. In other words: They make your actions relevant by leveraging the appeal of making a choice through giving it emotional weight.
A further advantage of video games over other kinds of media becomes apparent: When it comes to the goal of any work of fiction, the art behind it is creating a character that is universal enough to resonate with most people’s inner avatar without being generic. We feel emotionally invested if we can understand why they act the way they do, thus allowing us to see ourselves in it. Then, we become interested in how their decisions pan out for them. As such, stories told with books and movies necessitate their protagonist to have a certain personality. Unlike video games, they have to work with somewhat universal archetypes in the process. Or at least, that is the safest route to take.
Video games, on the other hand, don’t depend on casting such a broad net in an attempt to be universally endearing: Their blank slate character insert an element of agency back into the experience, allowing you to become the protagonist. Adding too much personality might even be to the detriment of the pleasurable illusion that it’s you who is the hero. Why else would link still not speak a word? You become the avatar bearing the consequences for your decisions. By adding an element of accountability into it, they tell you on a logical as well as instinctual level: Your actions matter. Therefore, not only does your virtual character bear the consequences - your real one does as well. Which makes for a much more emotional experience and allows for a sense of autonomy that’s often amiss in real life. This makes the need for autonomy one of the core pillars the engaging nature of video games rests upon. In fact, control is the defining characteristic of the medium. You can’t play a game without a controller.
With this in mind, you could go so far as to allege an inherent intellectual inferiority to less-interactive, more passive forms of media. After all, books and movies don’t give you the opportunity for control, and a gaming elitist might infer lack of complex thinking and perspective taking on part of the author. You are dictated the experience you’re going to have. And even though it might be a good one, your individuality will likely prevent it from being the best one you could have.
What do I mean by this? That the best book can’t exist for everyone, but the best video game could. Not because they’re intrinsically better, but because they don’t depend on an authors foresight about what decision you’d find most endearing. Interactivity is necessary, because the author of any given medium can’t look into us deep enough. Which is what the ultimate work of art would have to accomplish - think a book, written just for you.
In “Everything Bad is Good for You”, author Steven Johnson expands on the idea of video games being the inherently superior medium by urging the reader to imagine a world where books were invented after them, and how an immediate cultural backlash would ensue once children would collectively start consuming literature:
“Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying—which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements—books are simply a barren string of words on the page. Only a small portion of the brain devoted to processing written language is activated during reading, while games engage the full range of the sensory and motor cortices.
Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. These new “libraries” that have arisen in recent years to facilitate reading activities are a frightening sight: dozens of young children, normally so vivacious and socially interactive, sitting alone in cubicles, reading silently, oblivious to their peers.
But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any fashion—you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. For those of us raised on interactive narratives, this property may seem astonishing. Why would anyone want to embark on an adventure utterly choreographed by another person? But today’s generation embarks on such adventures millions of times a day. This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they’re powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it’s a submissive one. The book readers of the younger generation are learning to “follow the plot” instead of learning to lead.”
When it comes to the social aspect, video games bring stuff to the table more old-fashioned activities can’t. At least not in terms of efficacy and convenience. So how do they do it?
In order to use the rewarding properties of social connection to its full potential, it’s paramount that there is a shared framework within which the interaction takes place. Like having a common goal to strive for, either in cooperation or competition. Video games accomplish this masterfully: They take place in an abstract realm, where everyone agrees upon the rules through virtue of wanting to participate. All of your friends are acting in the same domain of competence, sharing the same objective. Even if you play against each other, the real thrill comes from the fusion of objectives, celebrating the usefulness of cooperation or the thrill of being directly able to out-compete another human being in a qualitatively measurable way.
Video games also have the power to instantly alleviate the sense of loneliness. Not only through the obvious way of joining a server with other people, but in a meta-sense as well: Every game has its own community, with experiences to share that go beyond the virtual confines in which the action takes place. People can tune in easily. There are no requirements except the ones that everyone already has - a computer. It’s as non-discriminating as it gets. Watching a movie together can be a very enticing activity for a similar reason: Every viewer goes through similar emotions. But in a video game, you not only go through the experience together - you create it. Shared memories will bind you together long after the “Game Over” appeared on the screen.
Moreover, there are very few of the usual risks associated with participating in a social activity. There is no danger that the people you meet there won’t like the same stuff you do. You suddenly don’t run the risk anymore of feeling like an outsider because you can’t take part in the conversation - the game is the only conversation going on. By virtue of stating the goal, it brings you on the same wavelength - a precondition for any dialog to emerge. On top of that, all of your inadequacies are safe from being on public display once you’re acting through an avatar. All the while, you can retain part of your individuality and interests through customizing your virtual appearance.
That’s not to speak condescending of real life social gatherings - but much of what they do can be done easier in video games, with a similar effect. Sure, you can always decide to meet up and play basketball together. That is to say, if you find enough people who are on a similar skill level as you, willing to undergo physical exhaustion and live somewhere in your area. Then you also need a place to play. Oh, and that’s not to forget that these people have to prefer basketball over a virtual social activity. Whereas in a video games, there’s probably less of a skill gap, no physical movement required, few dependencies on environmental factors and infinite space. Last but not least, there’s less social friction stemming from having to interact with the person as a whole - if you don’t like someone, just block’em.
Playing alone has a lot of value in that regard as well: Other people are faced with the same challenge, and coming out above them solidifies your place in the hierarchy - as seen in the never-ending quest for the top of the leader-board. Of course, with the enormous popularity of modern online games, playing alone is always a choice and never a necessity. But even without any social online network, the relatedness need can be satisfied: While multi-player games can capitalize on our social drive, single-player games became clever enough to achieve a similar effect. Becaus it doesn’t really matter if the character you interact with is played by a human or not - if it reacts in a way that takes the individuality of your behavior into account, a sense of relatedness is just as likely to emerge.
Great single-player experiences with NPCs (such as in Oblivion) succeed with players partly because they provide thoughtful contingent reactions that successfully yield relatedness satisfactions. When the dialogue with an NPC meaningfully changes, when they react with happiness, anger, or sadness based on the player's individual choices, players feel they have a meaningful impact. In other words, they matter. As the artificial intelligence of NPCs continues to improve-potentially simulating more precisely the variety and emotional dynamics of our molecular world social interactions-games and their digital actors will have a growing opportunity to satisfy relatedness needs in ways not previously possible through other forms of linear storytelling.
As an integral part of the modern, highly addictive gaming experience, the multiplayer experience is perhaps the most interesting one from a larger, societal perspective. The sense of unity generated by playing together is not any different from the one at times of war or playing a team sport - and probably would demand one of these things to manifest its rewarding properties. We crave the dissolvement of the limiting bounds between oneself and another human being - when each others participation actually matters - and video games let this tribalism can gain full traction without real consequences.
This begs the question if video games reduce violence through their ability to catalyze a very archaic set of instincts into something relatively benign: Not because it is a drive we are predestined to live out, but because it’s appeal is likely to hook us once we get into such situations. Good thing that we are offered virtual versions of them: The appeal of being engaged in a heroic narrative could lead to activities that are a lot more dangerous, and probably would be if the drive is only strong enough and no virtual outlet available.
There you have it. Video games give us a sense of meaning - and they do a better job than many of the other things we willfully engage in. They are inevitably going to compete with everything else we do - since we choose what we do by how well it is able to motivate us. We might say we do something (like working) in order to obtain something else (like money) - but a more precise formulation would be that the vision of obtaining that something creates an anticipation that feels too good not to act on.
Video games thus put in a strong bid for themselves: They are masterfully engineered vehicles to deliver on the desire to act on our wants. They access the imaginative power of our developed neocortex and superimpose a value structure onto it, with opportunities abound for experiencing the pleasurable sense of motivation. With the purpose of work becoming ever so unnecessary - especially as the automatic source of meaning it used to be - games have an easy time at winning the competition for our attention. Just like most people default to eating junk food when it’s available.
That doesn’t mean we’re deprived of meaning. You don’t need to be hungry in order to want to indulge in a Snickers bar. Instead, appetite suffices, which tasty-looking foods are not unknown to incite by themselves. And video games? Well, they look like fun. And suddenly, you crave fun. Moreover, everything starts tasting sufficiently good once your starving - we just developed a kind of snobby disregard for anything under a certain level of gustatory pleasure. So, it’s not that people would stop playing games per se if the engineering miracles that brought them into the realm of audio-visual glory ceased to exist. People would occupy their minds with other stuff.
Consider that up to 91 percent of American children play video games. Not having access to them doesn’t mean without them they wouldn’t play - they would revert back to using a stone or piece of wood (Or maybe even a Hula Hoop?) to entertain themselves. They default to playing video games because they’re the most efficient way for stimulating their circuits for cognitive engagement. Adults might do something more complex instead - and did so when video games were still in their simplistic infancy. Today, this obviously isn’t the case anymore - and so they are just as likely to play. This is also mirrored in the way the medium gained acceptance across the last few decades: It's entertainment value became so undeniable, that it's not an activity reserved for the socially less integrated anymore.
See, there’s this study where participants had to sit in a white room for 6 to 11 minutes, left alone with only their thoughts. All they had at their disposal to entertain themselves was a button that would administer an electric shock to them when pressed. What did they do? They pressed it, because boredom is painful. When I read about this phenomenon, I immediately had to think about my time working as a cashier in a fast-food restaurant: One of my colleagues told me how you could give yourself a small electric shock when touching the pagers and the cash registers at the same time. As the study predicted, this was a popular way to spend the time when nothing was going on. Just like the electro shock pen I had in school, which was passed around like a joint, injecting life back into its users.
Ultimately, video games take out the boring parts of life, and the ones that don’t won’t sell. They co-evolved in the realm of the psyche and must thus conform to the principles of their host. The result resembles an improved version life more and more with each new generation. The increasing size of open world maps, photorealism, online connectivity, VR - all of which points to us developing a game that will be indistinguishable from the best life you’ll want to life. Which throws up the question.
How can you know you’re not playing it already?
Because it’s too fucking frustrating.