I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the reasons why people play video games. I’m trying to understand as deeply as possible what makes games different from other forms of entertainment. Even more so, to understand a bit more about myself by understanding what it is that compels me to even pick up a controller or a keyboard, and why video games became a life long love, rather than just a childhood past time meant to be grown out of.
Although I enjoyed many different activities as a kid, like road-hockey, baseball, Lego, Saturday morning cartoons, building forts, etc. With the exception of periodically playing sports, the only thing I did as a child and still do today as a grown ass adult, is play video games.
So, why do we play video games?
I think for a lot of people the first answer that comes to mind is that it’s a way of temporarily escaping reality. Video games no matter what genre, seem to have a way of taking our minds to another place. Even something as simple as asteroids, can demand so much of our attention that nothing else seems important while we are in the “gamer state”. Even the simplest games have a way of fully engaging 3 out of our 5 senses through sight, sound, and touch. They demand our constant attention and readiness to react, interpret and solve. It’s no wonder why so many people use the medium as a means of escapement from the everyday world. But how different is this reason from other media like books, movies, music or television?
Perhaps the main aspect that separates video games from the rest is that games are interactive. But, aren’t most modern websites interactive? If a desire to escape reality through an interactive experience was the only reason we played video games, why wouldn’t we all just surf the web for all of our entertainment needs?
There’s more than one reason why we game.
Of course there are many reasons why we all gravitate towards a controller and “game”. Whether it’s for fun, stress relief, excitement, or to be captivated by a character arc, thrilled by mind blowing visuals, challenged by puzzles or dexterity, the relaxation of mindlessly clicking on slots, or the adrenaline rush one gets in the final seconds of a deathmatch in Halo and the top 3 players are tied. What ever the case may be, we all have our go-to reasons when asked the question.
Back when I was “E For Everyone” I would say the reason I played video games in the first place, was because of the sense of agency.
In sociology and philosophy, agency, according to the Wikipedia page, “is the capacity for human beings to make choices”(Wikipedia, 2013). It goes beyond just being interactive, but having a sense of responsibility for ones own actions. Video games gives this sense of agency to us in a bite sized snack. It allows us to experience very quick doses of cause and affect. They teach us that every failure can be thought of as progress. Video games presents us with a safe space to fail, and to overcome obstacles with out fear of dire consequences. They provide us a nurturing environment of growth and possibilities waiting to be explored, and skills to be mastered. Video games grant us a space to be the commander in a world that seems to give us less and less say in the outcomes of our lives.
I think many of us, especially when we’re young children lack agency in our lives, being forced to go to school, getting dragged along for your parents errands, etc. As a kid, everything seems to be decided for you, and even as we grow to become adults, I think many of us have this feeling of autonomy in our daily lives, that doesn’t give a great sense of agency.
Maybe this is what drives all of us gamers, to video games in the first place. Whether it’s collecting a bonus on Slotomania, capturing a flag for the win, or speed running Mario Bros 3 on one life, all of these experiences quench our thirst for just a little control, even if that control is arbitrary.
Are the rest of the experiences secondary?
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I’ve figured out the “source” for our desire to play video games, or that the other reasons don’t contribute to our intrinsic desires and motivations. I’m also not the first to conclude that agency is a fundamental aspect for all games. Just google “why do we play video games” and you’ll see many blogs, articles, and videos that suggest a similar idea, if worded differently.
I do want to leave you with some insight, to help encourage you to think beyond the standard reasons for playing games. Understanding this core aspect will help us as a community to imagine games that don’t fall under the traditional genres and escape from the pigeon holes. Gaming can have so many more important applications in our society, and creating a discussion like this around them, can help us as designers, developers, and players to push gaming forward into the next realm.
That’s all for today,
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Wikipedia (2013). Agency: Philosophy. Retrieved From