Why Do We Play Video Games?

Kids gaming

Playing video games is the best hobby there is. Sure, that’s my opinion, but I’m certainly not alone. Video games have grown from humble beginnings to become the most profitable of all entertainment ventures. That’s not bad for something that used to be considered a kid’s toy or a novelty demo. But why do so many of us play them? What is it about video games that makes me believe that playing them is the best hobby of all?

The most obvious thing that separates video games from all other forms of entertainment is that video games are interactive. They absorb you into their worlds, and make you think and care about their characters and stories in a way that goes beyond anything that other hobbies can do. We see the graphics, hear the music and sound effects, and marvel at the voice acting, level design, and little details that bring each setting to life. Then we pick up our controllers and play, engaging with them with a tangibility that cements us in our seats.

Most of these details were lacking at the inception of games. The graphics were more like a geometry lesson for children, the sound effects consisted of R2-D2 voice recordings, and the fact that it functioned was the biggest little detail the game could boast. Yet, we played them. The interactivity gave us control, and we let our imaginations fill in the many blanks that were present with each experience. It wasn’t a polished story in those early games that kept us playing for hours, either. After all, we were the authors of our adventures in the game. It was fun to move those objects around the screen, doing our bidding, and there had never been anything quite like it before.

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Of course, games had to progress in order for them to become the phenomenon they are today. Although there were several factors leading to the video game crash of 1983, one of them was certainly a stagnant progression in the game design. Graphics were getting slightly better, yet the games played just like the novelties we were told they were. Game developers needed to inject some wizardry into their projects, and they did that beyond expectations. Instead of geometric sprites, we were playing as genuine characters that had real goals outside of the high score board. We engaged with stories that put less stress on our imaginations, giving us enough rope to comfortably descend into their maddening tales. Game developers introduced evolving genres, technology, graphics, sound, and level design, and we excitedly hopped aboard for the ride. In doing so, we began to examine what games really meant to each of us.

Mario

As we look back at how far gaming has come, we find the parallel in our own lives. Each of us came from humble beginnings, regardless of wealth, status, or any other factor. We needed to learn to speak, walk, and function, very much in step with the genesis of gaming. For those of us that are “seasoned” enough, this parallel is almost exacting. We grew up, and so did games. Examining this history of video games and its impact on our subconcious is important and interesting since video games are akin to a friend growing up alongside each of us, regardless of age, as they continue to evolve and flourish. This subconcious presence is a catalyst that keeps us interested in video games on a general level, but what keeps us coming back to play them with so many other options for entertainment vying for our attention?

There are a number of answers that are specific to each of us, but there are some surefire reasons that each of us play video games. The combination of these factors can amount to some interesting kaleidoscopes for us, but each reason is significant in its own right. We play games to get away from things. We play them to join up with friends and engage socially together. We play them to relieve stress. We play them for the sense of accomplishment they instill in us. We play them for the competition, perhaps earning a living in the process. We play them to be engrossed in their stories and entranced by their worlds. Most importantly of all, however, we play them for the fun they bring us, which correlates with all other factors.

Witcher

Being a fun and interactive form of entertainment, we often get lost in video games to escape the complexities of everyday life. Life is tough, and while games can be challenging, they are always on our terms. We are in control, amidst a world that often is not. We get to save the day. We get to ruin the day. We get to name a chicken and put a hat on its head, just because we can. The worlds in video games exist on the foundation of a set of rules that is unwavering. Even if the worlds switch, contort, and twist into something else, they are still guided by a rule set that we understand, and escaping into them helps us bring some virtual sanity into our otherwise twisted and contorted day. At some point we must embrace the real world again, of course, but it helps to know that we can escape back into our video gaming worlds if our next day demolishes us again, or even if it doesn’t.

While getting away from it all is something each of us needs from time to time, it can get lonely saving the world by ourselves. As such, we have each other for company in games. Video games started as a multiplayer experience. Tennis for Two, Spacewar!, and Pong all brought players together for a battle between themselves. Most of the earliest games on offer, like Combat, Outlaw, and Armor Ambush found gamers taking it inside with each other. Soon after, cooperative games like Gauntlet, Ikari Warriors, and Xenophobe teamed us up against the odds and forced us to play nicely with each other. Video games slowly became the new king of social entertainment, supplanting all others such as poker nights and board games. There are so many worlds to save, or conquer, and the integration of the internet in video games ensures that a social engagement can always be found from the comfort of our homes.

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Of course, we don’t always want to play with others, nor do we need to dive into virtual worlds to escape reality for a spell. Sometimes, we just want to brutally eliminate every moving pixel in the room, and with video games, we need not accept another substitute. When the stresses of life are weighing us down, we can turn to video games to release them all there. Video game designers know these benefits full well, and we have no shortage of terrible and horrible virtual baddies to rain our righteous thunder down upon. We don’t go to these games to immerse ourselves into their splendor. No, we go to these games to lay waste to every single thing that stands in our way, including our stresses. After such a session, we begin to resemble gentle, loving people again. Sometimes.

In the process of our feral abolishment of all those unfortunate enough to cross our paths, we find ourselves accomplishing something. It is not impactful on the actual world, but it is meaningful to us. Video games can absorb us in, and our virtual accomplishments there feel tangible and worthwhile to us. Naysayers can declare such achievements a waste of time, but much like a good book, show, or song, pieces of the entertainment remain with us and get us thinking about much larger aspects of life. In this way, video games can be a catalyst to much greater things, and a better world, if we guard the good that we discover and discard the bad. Video games often mimic reality, even when they are at their most fantastical. Accomplishments and successes in them often teach us valuable lessons that we might otherwise have never considered. Even so, the progressions, loot, and ultimate success found in completing a game give us a high that cannot be duplicated elsewhere, and has us coming back for more.

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As our quest for accomplishments unfolds in video games, so does our skill. The more we play games, the better we get at them. Since so many of us are playing the games, it is fun and rewarding to watch others play them with an incredible amount of acquired skill. We understand the rules of our favorite games, and we love to compete in them. Inevitably, video game leagues formed, and companies found ways to profit off of our displays of skill. Video game players began to “go pro”, playing our beloved hobby for a paycheck and a living. The novices watch the pros with anticipation, studying their play to mimic their tactics. Not many of us choose to, or are good enough, to play games as part of a professional league of play, but even watching, writing, and talking about such competition engages us with a form of entertainment that we can understand on an intimate level. These are the very games that we play ourselves, after all, and watching the very best play them incentivizes us to play them ever more.

After watching the stories unfold throughout the myriad gaming competitions, we might settle down for a more nuanced and structured story. Though video games lacked the ability to tell incredible stories when they were first created, it wasn’t long before we saw some semblance of storytelling breaking through as its own genre. Text-based adventures injected a level of interactivity that was once reserved for “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. While those found some success, games quickly added graphics and gameplay to them, and we were soon playing books in video game form. Most games featured a story of some sort as a means of equating the action with some sort of relevance, but it was the Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPGs) that really showcased a video game’s ability to tell a fine story. As technology bettered, we found ourselves engrossed in masterpieces of story telling, like The Last of Us, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Divinity: Original Sin 2. Much like a great novel, we can understand and relate with the characters, and we play these games as much for the story, if not more so, than the game play itself.

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Of course, it is the game play that ties it all together. Without game play, there is no game. While interactive novels, such as the early text-based adventures, can be excellent, are they really video games? That’s a topic certainly worthy of debate, but not necessary for the understanding of the main reason we love to play games. Video games are fun. That’s the secret recipe. If anyone should doubt this, just look at the negative points for any poorly-reviewed game. Whether critics point to unresponsive controls, terrible level design, or disjointed game play, they are all pointing to the game’s fun factor. A game can survive, and even thrive, with some wonky sound design or an uninteresting story. In games like Path of Exile, Rocket League, or even Mega Man, do we care what the story is? I couldn’t care less about the story in Monster Hunter: World, Forza Horizon 4, or Diablo III, yet they get played so often by me because they are fun to me. The earliest games, in fact, existed as pure, distilled fun. The story was the game play, and that is the heart of every game we ever play. If the game play is not fun, a game is really going to struggle to get people to play it. Regardless of all other reasons we play video games, it is the game play that centralizes all of it. If a game is fun, we will play it.

Why do we play video games? They are fun, sure, but so are many other things in life. So, what brings us back to video games? It really is the amalgamation of it all. Video games are an escape, a community, and a respite. They provide a sense of accomplishment and a venue to engage us and make us consider and think about all around us. There are many careers to be forged around video games, and there are intimate moments we cannot find elsewhere. We can interact with the worlds, and ourselves in them, in a way that no other medium can match. Video games teach us to be resourceful, open minded, inquisitive, strategic, and thoughtful. They make us better readers. They make us better team players. They make us better people, if we learn their lessons of virtue while playing together. They help us to escape life’s challenges, and to confront them. Considering everything, there is one conclusion: we play games because they are fun, and so much more than that.

By Patrick Shields

I love the outdoors as well as the indoors, and when I'm not gaming, writing, or being musical, you can find me outside, climbing trees and getting lost off the road less traveled. It is a known fact that I've been blessed with the greatest kids in the world and an incredible wife who is an awesome nurse and my superhero. I've played games on nearly every system ever made and regularly go back to the classic games that helped raise this fine fellow. When asked which system or computer I prefer, there's only one answer: yes.

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