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A lot of people like to play video games, and there is a mind-boggling variety of video games to play. You can play sports games, or games about shooting things (those things could be demons, or bad people, or other players), or games about space travel, or games about going on an adventure. And that barely scratches the surface of that variety.
With this variety of the types of video games there are comes a variety of people who play those video games. As much as we might want to categorize everyone under a single umbrella of “those who play games,” that umbrella term is only useful when we are just talking about that group specifically. But when we talk about video games, especially if we’re going to dig a bit deeper into the subject of what games are and why people play them, we need to start pulling apart that group.
The basic fact of the matter is that when we ask people why they play video games, the answer is going to be different from person to person. And the reason why they play games is also going to determine how many games they play, how often, and what kind. And so when we talk about the appeal of video games, we need to talk about that appeal from the perspective of that variety.
Usually this discussion is more a problem at a lower level – how everyday people talk to one another and talk about games – rather than a loss among books and articles on the subject. Occasionally books by particular authors on the appeal of video games are written from that singular perspective. But generally from the point of professional writing and criticism that variety of players is recognized.
So I wanted to try to compile a kind of list and explanation of the various reasons why people play video games. In creating this list, I do not propose that it will be exhaustive. I will try to gather as many different reasons for playing as I can, but the problem with thinking about these issues from a singular perspective is that it is easier to miss things: some of these reasons don’t appeal to me personally, and so do not spring to mind as readily as the reasons I play video games. The items on the list are also not mutually exclusive. Any individual player can enjoy a video game for multiple reasons. Or enjoy different games for different reasons.
And in creating this list I wanted to try to explain why understanding and communicating this variety of motivations for playing video games is important. Because it can often feel like there’s no point in diving into why people play video games. People enjoy them, and that should be enough, right? But this communication is important for how we talk to each other and how we talk to others who don’t play video games.
In establishing each category, I will try to speak broadly. While each category has subtle shades within it, for our purposes it isn’t necessary to capture all of those shades, so much as to get the broad strokes. However, in providing further detail about each category, you hopefully will be able to see some of these shades.
Video games are analogous to movies and books and plays. Not only insofar as they are often a leisure activity for people. But also because they are commonly used as a method to tell stories. And a lot of players want to experience that story.
The desire for narratives in video games is no different than the desire to experience a story in these other contexts. People often like stories – especially good stories – and the medium through which those stories are told does not matter much. Video games are admittedly prohibitive compared to books and movies, because they demand that the player progress in order to continue the story. But setting aside that difference, the fact that people like stories will be appealing to some players.
But in talking about video games and stories, we should not ignore the ways in which video game stories can be unique. Books rely on using narration and dialogue to help a reader create a mental image of what is going on. That reliance can be limiting in some senses, but also allows for an author to experiment in ways that are specific to the use of the written word. Movies are able to include sights and sounds that bypass the need for the viewer’s imagination. This not only allows films to overcome limitations that books might have, but also allows them to experiment in different ways using those sights and sounds in unique ways.
Likewise, video games are like movies in that they include sights and sounds and don’t have to rely on a player’s imagination. But they also contain the unique element of interaction. And that interaction can itself be used to tell stories in a unique manner, and also to tell stories that might not be possible through books or movies.
And so one element of the appeal of narratives in video games may not simply be the existence of a story on its own. It may be the appeal to seeing how stories are told through the unique element of interaction. That is, I don’t just want to be told a good story. I want to be told a story that could only be told through a video game.
The interaction of a video game is also valuable on its own terms. The very premise that you can be watching a screen and by pressing a button or moving a stick cause what is happening on the screen to change can have an appeal. Whether we want to attribute that appeal to the spectacle, or to a feeling of control, what is important is that gameplay on its own is a source of enjoyment for players.
The ways in which gameplay may be important can differ from player to player. Some may enjoy gameplay merely for its own sake. Some may enjoy it on a more technical level, coming up with strategies for how to play effectively. Some may enjoy it as a test of their own ability. But in all cases, the mere feeling of being able to interact with something can hold an appeal for a player.
The amount and type of gameplay differs from game to game, and what kinds of games any given player will enjoy will differ as well. Even if every player enjoyed video games because of the gameplay, that on its own would not be sufficient to help explain what about the gameplay is appealing. We’d need to dig even deeper to further explain that appeal. However, that is not necessary for our present purpose. As long as we grasp the intuition that sometimes people play because the interaction offers an experience that cannot be given through other means, we can understand an appeal of video games.
A large number of games offer an opportunity for players to face off against each other, pitting their skills and experiences against one another in some form of contest. It may be a duel between two players, it may be a match between teams. It might be the entire point of the game, or it might only be a potential component that the player can ignore entirely. How the contest is implemented for the player is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that some players will flock to those contests.
The rush of competition is certainly not unique to video games. Sports are a well-known arena for people to compete against one another. And to a large extent, the competition that takes place within video games holds the same basic appeal. When a player is skilled at a game, competition is appealing for a few reasons. On the one hand, it is a way of showing off that skill. On the other hand, it is a way of improving that skill. Not only do you get a sort of “audience” in the form of other players to showcase your abilities, but if other players are more skilled, you can use that as a learning opportunity to improve yourself.
And of course, we should not ignore the appeal of winning in general. Contests in video games, since they tend to be fairly short, can provide players with a continual rush of enjoyment when they are victorious. And that rush can be more valuable than a victory over the enemies within the game, since it demands a more intensive use of a player’s skill.
While we’re on the subject of multiplayer, a lot of players like to play large online games, the most well known of which are referred to as MMO games (short for Massively Multiplayer Online). MMOs place players within a single world together and have them explore and complete quests within that world roughly simultaneously. Players can join and leave as they see fit, because the world itself does not change. Players can then choose to explore on their own, or play together, although generally the games are built around some of the content requiring multiple players. MMOs are not the only kind of online games available, but they are the most prevalent.
Online games in general that offer this form of cooperation can be appealing for many reasons. Often they can be appealing as games for the reasons all other games are appealing: story, gameplay, and so on. But when the games include cooperation, there is also an added value: the ability to meet other players, work with them, and make friends.
Socializing hopefully does not need further elaboration. The ability to share something we enjoy with someone else, either something they haven’t experienced before or something that they also enjoy, is something that adds to our enjoyment. And so either playing a game with friends, or making friends in a game to play with, are both valuable experiences for a player.
Socialization can take place within any video game that allows multiplayer. Sitting on a couch with a friend and competing in a game is certainly a form of socialization as well. But I highlight online games because they expand that socialization to a significant degree. Because not only can these games help us to make friends, but they can also fulfill other social needs. The ability to form social groups, for example, such as through a group to conduct a raid, can give us not just people to play with, but a role to fulfill and the feeling that we are being relied on by others, which can be stressful but also fulfilling. And so players can sometimes play or enjoy a game not for the game itself, but because they are sharing an experience with friends.
Sometimes people just want a way to get away from their lives. That can mean getting away from something specific, or getting away from life more generally. In either case, video games offer an escape from reality.
Often when we talk about escapism, we mean the ability to pretend we are in a different realm entirely. Science fiction and fantasy are the most common themes around escapism in this sense, as they both are universes that operate through different rules than in our daily lives, and allow us to live out possibilities that would not be available to us. The choices we are given within video games that we are not given within our real lives can help us to stop feeling oppressed by reality for just a small span of time, before we have to return to it.
But it’s just as important that the desire to escape can involve mere relaxation. Things in our day-to-day routines can cause stress, and video games can help us to relieve that stress by helping us to focus on other things. In this sense, we are still avoiding reality in a way, but it does not require the same amazing universe, so much as something that helps us to get our minds off of whatever is stressing us out.
Of course, no part of this escapism is unique to video games. There are plenty of other activities that can offer these same escapes to individuals, and often in much the same capacity. Our focus here is not to identify the ways that video games appeal to people that are unique to video games, but to identify as many ways that they are appealing as we can.
Sometimes we might play games – or specific games – because of some personal connection either to gaming generally or to a game particularly. Those kinds of connections can be sentimental, or based on our individual interests.
For example, some people might enjoy playing sports games specifically because they enjoy playing or watching those sports. Such a player might be uninterested in playing other games, and might focus exclusively on that one type of game and ignore everything else, because the basis of that person’s connection to video games is their interest, rather than the appeal of video games more broadly.
Similarly, someone might play video games because of memories playing with family members as a child. That person could then see gaming as a way of connecting to the past more broadly, or see the appeal of the specific games they played as a connection. And in turn, such an individual might only be interested in the specific games that invoke those memories, and not care about other games, because that personal connection is lacking.
Almost all games offer a challenge to some extent. Usually it is multiple challenges, and the difficulty of those challenges will differ from game to game. So perhaps exploring and finding resources in a video game might pose a danger, and overcoming that danger at each moment does not feel particularly rewarding. But upon achieving some kind of goal, a player can feel a sense of satisfaction at their accomplishment.
The feeling of achievement is certainly useful for getting players to continue with games. But just as much as games can be designed to entice players through that achievement, players can also seek out that sense of achievement. Players may seek greater challenges and more intense video games to help satisfy the desire of prevailing over the game itself.
And so one way that video games can appeal to players is through the challenge it offers. By testing players in terms of their skill, their mental ability, or through whatever the game demands, the player can try, fail, learn, and try again, and ultimately succeed. And that success – whether upon completing a puzzle, or beating a boss, or making progress, or beating the game – gives that rush of enjoyment that keeps the player interested in the experience of both the particular game they’re playing, but also the overall process of playing video games.
Some people like to think, and derive joy from that process. Puzzling over particular questions and coming up with possible answers, whether it is alone or with others, can be a rewarding experience. Hence why philosophy exists. And for the curious person, pretty much anything can be a source for thinking. All it takes is the drive to ask questions.
And so for some players, games can offer these kinds of questions in plenty of different ways. They can, through their choices and narratives, offer questions to the player about big issues like morality or human nature or politics or plenty of other topics. But even that barely scratches the surface of the appeal.
For plenty of players, the interesting questions can come from stepping back and thinking about the games themselves. Things can start small: I liked this game, but why do I like it? What is good about it? What would I change? Would those changes actually improve the game? But as we keep asking those questions, we can be led to bigger and bigger questions about games more generally. About what makes games good or bad. About how certain systems ought to work. About how a game’s mechanics fit together.
Hence why I refer to this appeal as “dissection.” Because examination does not simply lie in being posed a question, but in opening up the game itself to investigate how and why it works. Or sometimes, how and why it doesn’t work. Even as a player, learning about these processes and figuring out what is going on is possible – albeit limited – and can open all sorts of interesting avenues for inquiry. Even a bad game can be useful, not because it is fun on its own, but because it can allow us to step back and engage in the process of figuring out why the game is bad.
Why Does this Matter?
So why should we care about this? Of course, we can identify where we each fall within these categories. Perhaps we like the challenge and socialization. Or maybe we like stories, competition, and thinking about games. But even then, at the end of the day, is it really that important for us to know where we fit here? Couldn’t we all just say we find video games fun, and leave it at that?
But that’s not quite enough. Although it’s accurate that we all play video games because they are “fun,” the very fact that we understand “fun” in such different ways requires us to think more carefully about how we talk about our enjoyment. Because we don’t just use the term “fun” to describe why we like video games in general, or why we like particular games. We also use it to describe why we dislike different games. And so a game we don’t like is “not fun.” Which might seem right, until you run into the fact that other people do like the game, and thus call it “fun.” Which – unless there is a way of diffusing the tension – means that an argument is likely to start.
So thinking about why we play games not just in the context of why you play games, but why other people play games, is important for a couple reasons.
One thing it helps us do is talk to people who don’t play games at all. Imagine explaining to a friend or family member the appeal of video games. They simply don’t get it, and think they’re a waste of time. Or that they are just mindless traps that rot your brain. And if you stop to think about why they think this way, you can hopefully understand their position: to them, it’s nothing more than a series of lights on the screen.
And trying to explain video games by saying they’re “fun” doesn’t really help in any way. That merely reinforces the “lights on the screen” idea that the other person has. Because the idea, essentially, is that they don’t understand what is supposed to be fun about it. They might even believe that you shouldn’t find these games fun.
But being able to explain the appeal of video games in more complex terms, and especially by connecting the appeal to why people enjoy other things – such as books and movies – can help to explain the appeal. Your objective, of course, is not to get them to enjoy video games. Perhaps you would like that, and you can try if you so choose. But the idea is being able to communicate with that other person in terms you can both actually understand.
The other thing it helps us do, though, is talk to other people who like games. Because sometimes we can look at games that we dislike and wonder “how could people like this?” Perhaps, for instance, you don’t like competitive multiplayer games. And so you look at people who exclusively play those games, and think to yourself what could be wrong with those people. After all, those games aren’t fun. If they were fun, you would play them. But there’s nothing fun about just replaying the same game over and over again.
But that conclusion is an example of the underlying problem of how we talk about these things. It’s not enough to just say that we like games because they’re “fun.” It would be no different than saying that we like a particular food because it’s “tasty.” Sure, it’s accurate, but it ignores that some people don’t like the particular flavors, and so explaining your like in those terms basically doesn’t make sense.
What happens is that we’re using the same words, but not speaking the same language. A word like “fun” basically becomes a noise that we all utter that has no real meaning because the meaning is different for every single individual.
But if we can explain our love of games in more exact terms, we can explain to ourselves and to others what “fun” means to us. And we can better understand what “fun” means to others. And while we won’t necessarily change our understandings of fun – I probably won’t like competitive games, and perhaps you won’t like dissecting games – we each can at least see what the other likes and why we enjoy the particular games that we play.
“Why do you play video games?” is a question that is easy to answer, but hard to answer well. Because the question often demands more information than we think to give. The question often comes in the context of someone not understanding the appeal of video games in general, and explaining that appeal is much harder than it might seem.
However, by trying to step back and think about what we really like about video games – not just the fun or the fact that we enjoy them, but what we find fun and enjoyable – and why other people like video games, we can start to overcome this problem. Which means that we can communicate with other people, those who play games and those who don’t play games, and about the things we love.