I began playing video games in elementary school and have been drawn to strategy games. Since then I have given some thought to why I play those games and why others prefer Mass Effect 3 or League of Legends.
In 2009, Robert Ashley, a freelance writer and musician started an internet radio show that brought a fresh perspective to video game journalism. His podcast, A Life Well Wasted, was designed for “video games and the people who love them.” His ability to interview gamers and designers and share the gaming experience from an eloquent point of view is what made the experimental project so meaningful. From the journalistic interviews to the self-composed interludes, nothing before has ever been created to scratch that itch of high-quality gaming journalism.
In one podcast, Robert Ashley asks attendees of a game developer conference why they play video games. By the end of the podcast, the question hadn’t been answered, but a variety of perspectives emerged on how people use games to escape, have fun or fight boredom. One of Robert Ashley’s interviewees responded by saying that “video games don’t contribute to your life,” but I would argue games fill needs in our lives that we cannot acquire elsewhere. There are millions of gamers and the variety of games out there has grown to hundreds of genres and subgenres. There isn’t only one reason we play games because our reasons for playing games vary drastically.
People tend to gravitate toward a few experiences that contribute to our lives in a meaningful way. Being drawn into a game is important to our enjoyment, but there isn’t just one type of immersive experience that attracts everyone. The reasons I find myself coming back to play games is likely to be completely different than others. From what I can tell, there are three reasons people find themselves immersed in games: competition, interaction and storytelling.
Repeating a task over and over might seem mind-numbing, but there is also a sense of accomplishment in competing against others. In the way that professional athletes competes to win titles and trophies, gaming is another medium for proving you can compete with the best. Competition-focused players tend to play the same game (and often level or scenario) repetitively to prove that their knowledge and reflexes are unmatched.
StarCraft II is a perfect example of a community based around people who pride themselves on competitive gaming. When Korea launched their StarCraft channel featuring invite-only StarCraft tournaments, a new level of game competition was born. StarCraft has led the way for games like DOTA 2 and League of Legends to follow suit, offering millions in prizes to competitive players through tournament play and sponsorships.
These communities have created a sense of accomplishment that many of these people would not be getting elsewhere. The people who play games competitively would likely not be able to compete in other ways in life, but still feel driven to prove they are good at something and often find a sense of community and social understanding with like-minded individuals.
Social and Community Interaction
In the same way people find community with other competitive players, gaming communities allow people to feel closer to others by playing games. MMOs like World of Warcraft come to mind because much of what makes that game fun is building relationships with the other people that spend thousands of hours online to face challenges together. MMOs encourage socializing with strangers through guilds and other tribe-like mechanics and as a result people form real world relationships that they would not have made otherwise. There are also games that allow people to find new ways of interacting with friends.
Games like Farmville and Sim City Social encourage you to invite your friends to your game. This mechanic partially benefits the company by increasing the number of active users that are playing the game, but the reason these games are popular is because companies like Zynga know that a game is more rewarding when it is shared with friends.
In a way that other aspects of our lives do not fulfill our social experiences, games offer us new ways to experience creativity socially. Pictionary allows us to express ourselves through drawing pictures, Charades shows off our acting skills, and roleplaying games offer players the chance to build a storytelling adventure with a party. While we could all have these experiences in various settings, we often do not have the opportunity to interact on deeper levels with our friends the way games allow.
There is a group of gamers who seek out video games that let them tell compelling, original stories. Whether through character backgrounds, world setting, or an intriguing evil to fight, these players find satisfaction from an immersive experience. These games are on par with the experience a book or a movie would normally deliver. Social and competitive aspects are secondary compared to how the story develops from tutorial to final boss. The Walking Dead game is one of the best examples of a game that tailors itself toward storytellers. The Walking Dead strips out all of the data, leveling up and competitive aspects games normally possess to make the experience about the story of making tough choices.
In the same way that storytellers are attracted to different games, they also play games differently. The way I play Civilization V is completely different than my sister. I play to compete in a strategic battle completely skipping optional steps like naming cities. My sister on the other hand makes Civilization V into a narrative, creating elaborate histories for each unit and city based on the circumstances.
Many storytellers are attracted to open world games like The Sims, which allows them to define success without direction on constraining win conditions. Like playing with Barbies and GI Joes, my sisters and I would sit huddled around the computer creating narratives for our sims based on the relationships between the eclectic characters who found themselves living together. Conflict manifested itself through love triangles, mysterious deaths, burglary and unexpected children. This conflict and hyperbolic storytelling fills a need in our lives for drama and creativity that we crave.