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Why We Play: How Our Desire For Games Shapes Our World

by Ben Reeves on Nov 20, 2020 at 10:30 AM

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

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

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.

Students of the game

Students of the game

It’s difficult to predict exactly how our society will unlock the power of games in the coming decades, but video games have already influenced the fields of science, education, and business. An examination of how these disciplines have profited from gaming concepts could give us a glimpse of our future. 

We’ve exploited one of gaming’s most useful applications for centuries. Chess was used in the Middle Ages to teach war strategies to noblemen. In the ‘70s, computer games like Oregon Trail did a better job of getting kids excited about American history than most history professors. Today, hundreds of web portals like offer teachers a reservoir of tools to help educate students. Games are an indispensable learning tool, but we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of their teaching potential. 

“Almost all educational games suck,” says Iowa State University professor Douglas A. Gentile, who has spent his career researching how video games affect children. “They don’t put nearly the same level of attention and resources into them as something like Halo. 

I’d be surprised if they get 1/100th the resources Halo does. So much of the public debate about games has been sidetracked by tragedy. We wring our hands about the cause of violence in society, and there really is no one cause. Our ability to move forward with intelligent approaches to studying and discussing games really keeps getting sidetracked by media violence.”

Many modern – even violent – games might be better teaching tools than we realize. The Assassin’s Creed series allows gamers to explore classic locales sprinkled with real historical details. Rocksmith teaches people how to play guitar, and The Typing of the Dead improves horror fans’ typing skills. The upcoming indie title Code Hero even hopes to teach young programmers how to design games. 

“I think games can provide a framework for understanding contemporary issues such as governmental budgets and spending,” Przybylski says. “I’d bet SimCity veterans have a less distorted views of current city/state/federal expenditures compared to the general public.”

Building blocks of a better world

Building blocks of a better world

While games help us learn about yesterday, they could also be used as a building block for making a better tomorrow. Several businesses have already taken the “sticky” qualities that make video games engaging and applied them to traditionally mundane tasks. 

Gamification is a buzzword often tossed around the conference tables of Fortune 500 companies. The concept promotes the idea of rewarding virtual currency to consumers who complete simple tasks. Foursquare users are familiar with the concept of gamification and its slow drip of new badges and awards. However, gamified services don’t meet our invisible needs on the same level as mainstream video games. Instead of razzle-dazzling customers with extrinsic baubles and badges, in the near future, businesses may fine-tune their feedback systems in a way that tickles our psychological needs. Someday, filing accounting spreadsheets could be more like playing World of Warcraft. But games are already helping people get better at their jobs in a lot of practical ways. 

“There are a number of great studies showing that first-person shooters increase our visual perception and help gamers pick information off of a screen quickly, which is the kind of skill that an air traffic controller needs, for example,” Gentile says. “A couple other studies with microscopic surgeons show that surgeons who have played games in the past are better at advanced surgical skills – that gaming is, in fact, a better predictor than how many years of training they’ve had or how many surgeries they’ve performed.”

Aside from the physical benefits of gaming, video games excel at setting clear goals and showing a player’s progression towards those goals. This approach already radiates across the social networking scene where progress bars litter sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Spotify. Other businesses have developed feedback mechanisms that allow customers to track their progress towards improved social, financial, and physical health. Unique puzzle games like Foldit and EteRNA encourage problem solvers to fold the structure of selected macromolecules in different ways, which will help further scientific learning and possibly cure diseases. 

The playful nature of video games lowers the barrier of entry for people to get behind new social causes. For example, the simple online quiz game Freerice has encouraged gamers to collect more than 90 billion grains of rice for the World Food Programme. Much like Twitter allows its users to interact with celebrities and businesses unlike any other medium in history, future game-like services and tools could encourage new kinds of social team building, allowing users to voice their opinions and affect societal change in myriad new ways.

No one believes that every facet of our lives would improve if it adhered to the rules of video games. Life can’t be all fun and games, and sometimes effort is needed to produce results. Some work is just work. However, most industries and human endeavors may prosper if they do a better job meeting the psychological needs of their audience. No form of human expression understands needs satisfaction better than video games.

When used correctly, video games hold the potential to show us the world through a different set of lenses – to craft experiences that engage our mind both cognitively and socially, and ultimately make us feel like an active participant in shaping our destiny. Do we need a better reason to play games?

[This article originally appeared in issue 235 of Game Informer Magazine]