With time, video gaming has become an integral part of global culture, reaching across the globe as a popular and much hyped entertainment medium. However, while we regularly indulge in this medium, we don’t know the reasons why. What compels people to play video games? Is it just because video games are fun, or is it all part of something greater? In this essay, I will delve deep into the human psyche and the global culture, to answer the titular question: WHY DO YOU PLAY VIDEO GAMES?
Since the inception of the arcade with Computer Space in 1971 to the modern day console war between the Xbox One and the Playstation 4, video games have become an increasingly integral part of society and culture. Moreover, video gaming has ascended to the global culture, and this new entertainment medium is connecting people across the world in a manner not unlike social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. However, while people can generally agree that video games elicit happiness and positive emotion, few people know why, or could explain, what drives people to play video games, and such questions concerning motivation have been left largely unanswered. Similarly, trying to respond to questions like “Why do people play video games?” with responses such as “Because they are fun” is a gross oversimplification of the issue’s depth. Simply put, there is no one way to describe why people play video games; rather, the answer lies within a multidimensional interpretation of human psychological needs and motivations, and how the connectedness of today’s global culture spurns these needs on.
Before I delve into how people’s psychological needs are satisfied by video games, I would prefer that you think about the first couple of games that come to your mind: they could be, for example, first-person shooters such as Call of Duty, platformers like Mario, freelance games like Minecraft, or Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMO’s for short) like World of Warcraft. Now that you’ve spent a minute thinking about these things, think about the people who play them, and think about what may motivate them to pick up a controller or tap on a keyboard, and indulge in these seemingly trivial activities. What compels these players to delve into video gaming? What are they getting out of their experiences? How does spending inordinate amounts of time playing these games bring out powerful waves of joy and elation?
The first approach to these topics can be fleshed out with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a motivational model designed by psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1950’s to explain the complex topic of motivation (Hockenbury 333). Maslow held the conviction that people are motivated to satisfy their needs in a hierarchal manner; physiological needs, such as food and shelter, come at the very base of the pyramid model, and form the foundational needs for survival. However, the higher levels of this diagram become increasingly abstract and geared towards mental satisfaction, starting with safety needs, continuing on with belongingness and esteem, and being capped off with self-actualization. While this does not mean that video games are necessary to satisfy these needs, they can be introduced as an alternative form of satisfaction: as stated by designer Jane McGonigal, “…in today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs…” (Perreault).
To address the topic of happiness, one basic assumption can be made; humans exist to please themselves, one way or another. Some people find joy in watching a good movie, some people take pride in their work, and others still live for sociability. Within the realm of video games and gamers, each and every person searches for their niche—whatever makes each of them satisfied or happy. One prime example of this fact exists within my grandmother, Doreen, who has been playing Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo since it came out in the mid-80’s. She has yet to beat Mario in the near-30 years of experience she’s had; by comparison, I beat the game when I was ten years old. This got me thinking—if she can’t beat the game, why does she keep on going through the same 8 worlds over and over and over again? Does this bring her joy? I found after directly asking her this question that she has been playing the Nintendo since my mother (and more importantly, my gamer uncle Keith) was a child, and she played Mario with her kids whenever she had an opportunity, and now that my mother and her siblings are grown up and have children of their own, Grandma plays Mario because it reminds her of the “good old days”. My grandmother falls into place with other gamers who have motives that aren’t exactly clear upon direct observation, but this does not make her a case study: many people play games for the feelings of nostalgia and good memories.
Another psychological model can be introduced to explain how video games bring about happiness—the Self-Determination Theory (SDT). Postulated by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in the mid-80’s, the theory provides another explanation for human motivation, and that humans are actively seeking out three kinds of psychological satisfaction: Competence, Autonomy and Relatedness (Hockenbury 335). Competence denotes the need to master challenging tasks, and reach a level of expertise: Autonomy is the need to be free and independent, and having the ability to make decisions that make a difference to themselves and the world around them: and finally, Relatedness marks the need to feel attached to others, and express feelings of belonging and intimacy.
Now, think about the video gamers from before. How do players of different games satisfy certain needs defined by the SDT by playing what they choose? Take for example the platformers—the Mario, Zelda and Donkey Kong players. These games are largely single-player experiences, and challenge the player’s ability to adapt to certain situations that test reaction time and problem solving. As such, platformers generally satisfy players seeking Competence, as progression through these games is slow at first, but speeds up greatly as the player becomes better at the game. Next, think about the Minecraft and Skyrim players, and what attracts them. They play in a world that is very open and unstructured, allowing for a person to make huge and lasting changes, or make something they can claim as their own, and this satisfies the need of Autonomy; as echoed by Arkane director Harvey Smith, autonomy sums up “wanting the freedom to express myself and be able to be who I am…” (Xbox World 360). Finally, think of the MMO players and first-person shooters; the World of Warcraft-ers and Call of Duty players. They play within large communities of other like-minded gamers, often with goals that align with one another, and this common grounding found within these genres creates a miniature social network of players seeking the approval, guidance, and admiration of other people. This is the avenue down which one can find Relatedness, as people acquire a sense of belonging when they play these games with hosts of other people along for the ride with them.
Gamers as individuals may fall into the three categories of the SDT, or may use games to satisfy the needs they have in Maslow’s hierarchy, but what do these things say about how global culture spurns video gaming? Before video games were present in most every country in the world, only a select few nations (namely the U.S. and Japan) had access to this medium, or had companies willing to create works for it. This fact is easily recognizable in the late 80’s, when the Nintendo Entertainment System was practically the only gaming system talked about besides arcades. There was little competition to contend with the NES, but at the same time, the NES was the only thing to speak of. However, as the years have gone by, the world has seen a growth in competition against Nintendo, with other companies like Sony and Microsoft throwing various Xboxes and Playstations into the mix; their input expands the market for video games, especially now that the Internet is a factor. Thanks to the Internet, as well as social networking, the nations of the world as a whole have grown increasingly interconnected, and the connection’s effects on video gaming has been that the civilized world, rather than a few select countries, now know about and have access to the entertainment medium. Additionally, the availability of game reviews on the Internet create a “word on the street” phenomenon on a global scale, and it makes video gaming harder and harder to NOT be heard about by the masses.
To conclude, the massive advances in human psychology and world technology have created this environment in which video gaming can thrive: a form of entertainment people all across the world can now enjoy and share. Video games likely would not have been able to reach the masses this quickly had the medium been conceived at an earlier point in time; the progression from the video game to the Internet to the social network maps out the domino effect that has created the environment for the games. And while the world may continue to change as technology continues to evolve, the basic principles revolving around our reason(s) to play games and have fun with them will persist, as an unshakable testament to human motivation.
Xbox World 360. “Why Do We Play Games?” Computer and Video Games (CVG). Future PLC, 25 Nov. 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2014. <http://www.computerandvideogames.com/380323/features/why-do-we-play-games/>.
Perreault, Greg. “Why Do We Love Video Games?” Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 10 Feb. 2014. Web. 30 Oct. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-perreault/why-do-we-love-video-game_b_4740425.html>.
Hockenbury, Don and Sandra. “Motivation and Emotion.” Psychology. 6th ed. New York City: Worth, 2012. 333-335. Print.