In the wake of the country's post-election hangover, Jeremy gave us an interesting assignment for today: Write an article about a game that takes you to a happy place. That sounded like a lot of fun, but when I started to think about what that game would be, I drew a blank. Then it struck me. I don't really play games to make myself happy. Sure, they can cheer me up, but I don't necessarily associate my gaming activities with happiness per se.
That got me thinking about what drives my video gaming obsession, and as I mulled over the topic, my chugging train of thought led me to ponder the subject in broader terms. Why do people play video games? I think the answer is a subtle and nuanced one; a combination of motivations that's unique to each individual.
However, for the sake of discussion, and in an attempt to write something interesting for today, I thought I'd try to boil those motivations down to their individual elements: A series of baseline emotional incentives that compel us to indulge in our favorite pastime. Perhaps some of these will resonate with you?
I think many would simply cite the sheer entertainment that playing video games can offer. They’re fun! Positioning games as a purely hedonistic pursuit can make them sound somewhat trite, but I think that there are a myriad gamers out there who treat gaming as just that: A simple, pleasurable activity that helps pass the time. There doesn't necessarily have to be an emotional connection to the game – it's played purely for amusement.
Dovetailing with entertainment is gaming as a cure for boredom. They both sound very similar, but I think they’re subtly different motivators: The former is essentially a pursuit, while the latter is a form of escape. I think there are many gamers who are very happy and contented with their lives, and simply game for fun – but there are also people who, for a variety of reasons, find themselves bored with their lot, and use gaming to stave off those feelings.
Building on that is video gaming as escapism. Again, that sounds very similar to boredom, but I think that while gaming can indeed be an escape from boredom, escapism itself encompasses a wide variety of reasons why someone might want to pick up a controller and sink themselves deeply into the latest video game. Taking it to a fundamental level, escapist gaming is motivated by a desire for distraction: A way to occupy your mind so that you temporarily forget about your everyday life – for whatever reason that might be.
Gaming as a stress reliever is another form of escapism, but I think it's a strong enough reason to stand on its own as a gaming incentive. For some, that means finding an outlet through physical and mental aggression – perhaps a fast-action PvP shooter, or a highly demanding AI challenge where you can pour your negative energy into defeating tough opponents. Others might take a completely opposite approach, playing something calm and relaxing to help soothe their nerves.
It feels strange to say it, and I'm sure that there are some out there who would disagree with me, but another good reason to play video games is because they can be therapeutic. Studies have shown that gaming can help individuals move on from negative thoughts and behavior patterns. Whether that's something like PTSD or a phobia, video games can provide relief in a positive way.
Some people play games as an outlet for their creativity. That might take the form of building something in Minecraft, decking out a house in an MMO, or pulling off remarkable feats and gameplay endeavors, but whatever it is, it's all driven by the player's desire to express themselves through a video game.
I think there are two very similar, but subtly different social reasons to play video games. For some, gaming is a way to meet people and make friends – something that they might find difficult to do in real life for a variety of reasons. Others use gaming as a social function, meeting their friends online to talk while playing, or specifically grouping together to solve challenges, like completing raids together, or playing as a team in a multiplayer game.
Along with entertainment, I think one of the most common reasons to play video games is for the interesting and exciting challenges that they can present. Whether that's pushing your reflexes and dexterity to their limits, tests of observational and mental acuity, challenges to the intellect, or indeed a combination of all three, video games can be incredibly stimulating to play. Challenge can make a game entertaining – but I believe they're two very separate things.
Wrapping things up, and taking us back to the top of this article, some gamers play video games because they want an emotional experience. The original subject of this article was supposed to be about games that make you happy – which is a very good reason to play them – but they can do so much more than that. They can make you feel good about yourself when you complete a particularly tough challenge, or when you help others and get a positive response. Games can be a roller coaster ride that infuriates and frustrates, but also delights and surprises. Particularly well-designed games can even feature stories that make you feel sad, empathize with a character, or challenge your perceptions. An emotional involvement with a game can be a strong draw, and a very rewarding part of its experience.
So what drives you to play games? Is there a reason that I've missed?
Me? I invest a large amount of time into games for a number of reasons that tend to change depending on my mood. Most of the time, I'm a hardcore escapist who loves a challenge. I generally look for games that are tough and uncompromising and take up as much of my mental bandwidth as possible. That's why I play a lot of highly kinetic PvP shooters. The sheer pace of the action combined with the need to concentrate 100% gives me a perfect escape from reality: I have no time to think about anything else. However, what I live for are those very rare games that play with my emotions in subtle and complex ways. Red Dead Redemption, Shadow of the Colossus, Firewatch, Gone Home, and Journey immediately spring to mind as examples of games that sucked me deeply into their worlds and did just that. To me, that's gaming at its best – and the perfect reason to play them.