Gamers have spent countless hours saving princesses, dodging bullets, and dismembering Grecian monsters. What drives us to keep coming back to these experiences? Researchers around the world have spent decades measuring the effects games have on our society: how they encourage or discourage violence, inspire creativity, or nurture laziness. However, people rarely ask why we play games in the first place. What drives us to collect coins, snipe aliens, or scale the walls of ancient tombs until three in the morning?

Psychologists and sociologists are only now beginning to understand why the human ability to play is so powerful. But unlocking the mystery behind this desire may do more than help us understand our obsession – it could reshape and improve society in powerful ways.

Three invisible needs
Gamers often throw around the term “escapism” when talking about their hobby, but this is a hollow explanation for what actually motivates us to play games. In fact, the word “escape” contains some negative implications – suggesting that those who play games feel a need to break free from the mundane slavery of their reality. We enjoy retreats to other realities – ones more fantastical than our own – but we aren’t always driven to play games because we are trying to escape our lives. The real motivations for play are far more complex, and games fulfill several real-world human needs in a number of positive ways. 

After earning his Ph.D. in clinical and social psychology from the University of Rochester, Scott Rigby helped found Immersyve, a research company designed to examine some of these basic human needs and discover what makes video games so appealing. After collecting several years’ worth of behavioral data and conducting numerous in-house studies from companies like Sony, Activision, and Warner Bros. Interactive, Rigby feels Immersyve has nailed down a few key motivations behind our addiction to fun. 

“We all have basic psychological needs,” explains Rigby, who detailed gaming’s intrinsic allure in his book Glued to Games: How Videogames Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound. “These needs operate all the time – when we’re at work, or when we’re engaging in a softball league, or on weekends while we are -playing a video game. These needs are always operating. Games perfectly target several of these needs.”

According to Rigby, Immersyve’s complex needs-satisfaction metrics narrow down to three basic categories. The first of these needs is a need for competence – that is a desire to seek out control or to feel mastery over a situation. People like to feel successful, and we like to feel like we’re growing and progressing in our knowledge and accomplishments. This need plays out in real life when people decide to switch careers or go back to school because their current job isn’t rewarding or challenging enough. It’s also easy to see how video games make us feel more accomplished. Every time we level up in Final Fantasy or defeat a challenging boss in God of War, games are fulfilling our desire to feel competent. 

Our second psychological need is autonomy: the desire to feel independent or have a certain amount of control over our actions. This need pervades nearly every facet of our culture. The drive toward autonomy is why people instinctively dislike being manipulated; it’s why imprisonment is a punishment, and why we feel an innate urge to rebel against slavery. This need explains why game series that offer players a wealth of free choices – such as The Elder Scrolls or Grand Theft Auto – are so popular. 

“The terrible twos are a great example of the need for autonomy,” Rigby says. “It’s not terrible for the kid. It’s terrible for the parent who has to listen to their kid say ‘No’ all the time. What is that kid doing? The kid is showing their autonomy. They want to be in control of their destiny, and they’re verbally flexing that muscle for the first time.”

The final psychological human need is relatedness. We like to feel like we matter to others, and we like to feel like we are making a significant contribution to society. In a 2003 study, the University of Massachusetts Medical School discovered that people with altruistic tendencies generally have higher levels of mental health and less overall life stress.

It’s easy to see how gamers can fulfill this need for relatedness by playing games with friends online, but oddly enough, Immersyve’s studies have found that this need for relatedness can be met even if gamers are interacting with people who are not real. “The way that games are written, this need can generally be met when players are talking to an in-game character,” Rigby says. “That’s why a lot of quests are often structured around helping a particular NPC find an item or collect a treasure.”

Over the centuries we’ve gravitated towards experiences that make us feel more competent, more autonomous, and more related because these experiences make us feel good and keep us mentally healthy. These needs can be fulfilled in any number of ways: through work, school, friends, sports, and hobbies. However, sociologists are beginning to understand that video games are one of the most seductive of all of these activities because they fulfill our psychological needs more efficiently than almost any other activity. 

Games are work
Imagine this: A man sits down at a desk and pulls up a database of numbers. He looks through the database and compares a list of numbers from one column to a list from another column. He takes a certain number from one cell and reallocates it somewhere else. He clicks a few buttons, waits a few seconds, and then repeats the process. Then he does it again and again. This man could be performing spreadsheet accounting work, or he could be crafting in World of Warcraft. 

At their most basic levels, work and play look a lot alike. The difference between the two is that games couch this kind of work in a fiction that makes them enjoyable. A game’s narrative makes our choices feel significant enough that we buy into the game emotionally, and the feedback system encourages us to keep working.

People often view games as the opposite of work, but some sociologists believe games are an idealized form of work. “Most people find work rewarding; we have built-in emotional reward centers that encourage us to complete tasks,” says Andrew Przybylski, Ph.D., a lecturer at the University of Essex whose papers have appeared in journals like Psychological Science.

This built-in desire to feel accomplished is what so often pushes sports stars to come back to the game after retirement. People don’t like to be idle. Work meets our three invisible needs in some of the same ways that games do. Games are just more efficient satisfiers. 

“The connection to how hard we work is often mismatched with the feedback we get from the real world,” Przybylski says. “Sometimes we think we really knocked it out of the park, and really you just phoned it in. Other times you might have burned the midnight oil, but no one seems to give a crap. One of the things that’s really powerful about video games is the level of connection between how hard you work and the feedback you receive for your behavior.”

Games are more consistent at rewarding us for the choices we make, and they also provide a diversity of choice that the real world doesn’t provide. Gamers can go places and enter into situations that are closed off to them in real life. Games are immediately rewarding, providing instant feedback when we do something right, and telling us how well we perform every step along the way. These highly tuned feedback systems are the key to turning video games into an indispensable tool for bettering our future.