The Pull to Play- Why We Love Video Games
Picture painting time. Me in real life: 5’2” (wearing shoes), voice akin to a young Michael in his Jackson 5 days, disposition comparable to that of a zealous Christmas elf. Me in World of Warcraft: Demon Hunter (havoc specialization), penchant for melee combat, badass.
This is by no means the only reason I play World of Warcraft, but if I had to guess, I’d assume that this is why most people do (and other games like it). You can be anyone you want, any way you want. You can choose to align yourself with the Horde when you know damn well your conscience would never allow you to stray from Alliance in real life. You get to try on a different pair of pants for a while, “live” a different “life” for a bit, and then go back to your regularly scheduled programming after you press exit.
Greg Perreault exemplified this situation in an article he penned for The Huffington Post1:
“When I played The Last of Us, I realized I didn’t have to kill those doctors. But I did, like many others who played the game. In real life, if I were to imagine myself in the midst of a zombie apocalypse — which is perhaps most like a university during finals week — I’m not sure I would have killed the doctors. But I was part of telling the story and I believe Joel would have killed them. Games also give us the ability to take risks that seem real without real world consequences. Part of the appeal of first-person shooters is that players can shoot a rocket at a building and witness the results, without actually ending up in prison.”
There’s also of course the fact that we as consumers love a good story. In the same Huffington Post article, Perreault also spoke of Bioshock Infinite, a “violent first-person shooter game” with an “an incredible moving and emotionally driven story.” He also makes the important point that “Video games have democratized the nature of storytelling, which allows players to take part in the stories being told. And when the story is interactive, more complex tales can be told.”
I noted that this was an important point because when you think about it, video games start as a blank canvas. There are no rules or restrictions. There’s a YouTube video titled “The Death and Return of Superman”2 where director/producer/comic book writer/ actor Max Landis (hilariously) walks us through the story of Superman’s “death” in the comic book series. He ends the video with this little nugget of wisdom:
“There’s something my dad made up which is he told me when I was little and I was frustrated about rules in movies, he said “How do you kill a vampire?” and I was like “Stake through the heart, garlic, no sunlight,” and my dad was like “No. Kill a vampire however the f*** you want because vampires don’t f***ing exist! You can make up rules for any kind of thing you want!”
And for video games, this is true. Zombie outbreak? Sure! Alternate dimensions? Fair game! There is no obligation for a storyline to be physically feasible for it to be absolutely compelling, and the easier it is to lose ourselves down the rabbit hole of any particular game, the more enjoyable we find it.
Scott Rigby, University of Rochester graduate and holder of a clinical and social psychology Ph.D. dug a little deeper into our escapist motivations in an article for Teach Thought3. Rigby is so intrigued by the relationship between a human’s basic needs and video game appeal that he helped found Immersyve, a research company designed to examine said relationship. With years’ worth of behavioral data collected from the likes of companies such as Sony, ActiVision, and Warner Bros., Rigby has pegged three basic, invisible, psychological needs that we as humans have, and that video games fulfill: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
Competence, he says, “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.”
Autonomy he describes as “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.”
Lastly there’s relatedness, which refers to how we like to feel that we matter to others, and that we’re making a significant contribution to society. Of that, he says:
“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.”
On a non-scientific level, my own addition to the list of why we play video games would simply be: they’re fun. Why do we watch YouTube videos of cats playing keyboards, or huskies that can say “I love you”? The bare bones of video games are that they’re entertaining; arguably even more so in a group context. So while it’s comforting to know that there is scientific reasoning behind why we like gaming so much, isn’t it enough that we like it just because we like it? That natural enjoyment is the driving force behind Mega Cat Studios and all they hope to accomplish. As individuals that feel those same joys for gaming, what better offer could be made from them than your old favorites in a format where you can relish in them all over again? Joy for the simple sake of joy- that’s a theory both my demon-hunter alter ego and I can get behind!
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