Never one to shy away from big philosophical issues, I thought I’d just grit my teeth and tackle this one head-on. Rather than discuss specific games in detail, judging the merits of one over another, I just thought I’d ask, “Why do we play video games?”
Firstly I should at least apologise to you all. Asking such a question obviously could spoil the gaming experience for some of you. I suppose its almost in the same ballpark as asking a “what’s the meaning of life?” question. Do we really care or do we just like the experience? So is it better not to question and just keep our heads down and get on with it? Why question the experience? I play games, so I’ll just enjoy them. Questioning why we play might well spoil the whole experience for us. So with that thought as a warning, read on at your own risk!
I suppose my question is more a sideways look at what games and gaming mean to us. Are the games we play and enjoy just reflections of our personalities, or do they offer us the opportunity to experience things that our personalities would normally deny us in reality? Are they about losing ourselves in fantasy, temporarily allowing us to shed the shackles of our daily lives? Or are they just stimuli that bring us enjoyment and pleasure, nothing more complex? Are they all of these things?
This is not an easy question to answer, I feel, even for those gamers who stick to certain game genres. Take the FPS-preferred gamer. I certainly don’t think it can be argued that all of them have violent personality tendencies. For some it might be more about the chance to test their reflexes, for others it’s the fantasy of using weapons and seeing their effects, and for others it’s the satisfaction of fighting for a cause or righting a wrong. Indeed, many FPS gamers might well exhibit strong tribal tendencies, choosing and promoting factions or groups. Just as in real life, we are social beings, and many games reflect this aspect of human existence. FPS games promote the basic group identity me/us-versus-you/them scenario. Just look at the popularity of the online deathmatch. Many players simply forgo the single-player aspect of games and jump straight into the multiplayer action.
While some see video games as the devil’s tools, we should not forget that the basic principle here is “play.” From a psychological perspective, the need for play is a primary component of human development. Place a child in a room with no toys and he will still play. From an early age we have imagination; a child uses his hand as a gun when his toy gets confiscated. Imagination can encourage creativity, cognitive development, and bring fun (of course, in this day and age we are not supposed to be having fun, it would seem). Games encourage our imagination, harness it, stretch it and unleash it.
Humans have played games during their entire history. In the past, playing was somewhat limited by space, opponent availability and materials. Not so with the video game; we have all these aspects with minimal space requirements. Of course, the added strength of the video games of today is that virtually any type of gameplay can be emulated, including the physical interaction and experience. So video games today have replaced the myriad of games that have existed in the past, and they fulfill a variety of psychological needs – escapism, dominance, mastery, self-improvement, catharsis, education, creativity, exercise, sociability. They also bring fun, and fun promotes happiness. Happiness generally makes us more responsive and positive to others around us.
One other big draw of the video game is that it lets us experience novel situations/events with minimal risk. Fighting demonic enemies, playing lead guitar with the Beatles, building intricate cities and taking part in sports events suddenly become available to us in a virtual sense, opportunities that we might not have in our busy, financially restricted real lives. We are curious creatures by our very nature, so wondering how things work, or what happens to A if I do X, lends itself seamlessly to video gaming. Just as we as a species seem preoccupied with death, how it is experienced and what if anything happens to us afterwards, video games offer us a platform to experiment with our innate drive for “experience.” Most gamers know what they are doing isn’t real or that realistic, but it’s the best thing they have at the moment to experience things that would otherwise be beyond their reach. Take me for instance. Though ever the optimist, I doubt very much that I am going to get the opportunity to wear some nifty-looking armor, lug around a big sword and get the satisfaction that I used my wit and intelligence to save the world as I know it. That doesn’t stop me thinking, “What would that feel like?”. It also doesn’t stop me thinking I’d never really be able to do any of that in a million years. That doesn’t stop it being fun for me. The world we live in is a busy, stress-induced place full of demands and roles. What’s the problem with taking a little time out to slay a virtual dragon or two? Gaming promotes play, and play by its very definition is something that is fun, generally positive and promotes self-development. Just be sure that you occasionally check back into the real world.
Now where did I leave that big sword?