Why We Game

game character collage

From an early age, most of us are drawn to video games, almost inherently. Whether it’s because of the smorgasbord of colors, the cacophony of music and sounds, or purely the interactive nature of the medium, the fact remains; we love to game. And chances are, if you’re reading this, video games are more than just a passing interest for you.

So let’s dig a little deeper. Apart from the more obvious reasons, such as enjoyment and escapism, what are the distinct, individual reasons we choose to play video games? And what keeps us coming back? Everyone has their own ideas and explanations, but it’s likely we share similar conclusions.

In video games, we are able to take on roles we can’t in the real world. Games allow us to fantasize in ways more concrete than books and movies. They provide us a freedom nothing else can. When we play games, we are afforded opportunities and abilities absent in our own lives. And it’s absolutely liberating.

Clearly, to praise video games takes nothing away from more traditional art forms. However, games are engaging, and in ways far exceeding other mediums. They’re expressive, moving, competitive, challenging, strategic, engrossing and just plain fun.

We play games to explore fresh new worlds, to ponder the lore of storied lands, to meet exciting people and eccentric personalities, to traverse magnificent landscapes, to take in captivating stories and to experience thrilling tales of adventure. We play games to do things reality won’t allow.

characters

And it’s not necessarily that we’re dissatisfied with our own lives — although I’m sure that’s the case for some — but it’s more that we want to spend time living in the imaginative worlds that thousands of game developers have painstakingly labored to create.

When I would read anything by J.R.R. Tolkien, specifically The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I had this image in my mind of what life would be like in Middle-earth. My concept of life in this medieval fantasy world was further fostered by Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of Tolkien’s literary work. I loved the music, the sights, the sounds, the people, the architecture, the landscapes — just everything. It all made me wish I could explore a world like that — so full of promise, adventure and mystique — all on my own.

And with The Elder Scrolls series, I can. I can climb a mountain — forging my way through snow and ice, crawling up craggy cliffs — so that I may stand at its peak and gaze out at the majestic terrain around me. I can have a drink in the lively neighborhood tavern while listening to joyous music. I can visit sleepy hamlets. I can explore treacherous caves and abandoned (or not-so-abandoned) castles. I can slay colossal dragons and battle warlock ghosts. In The Elder Scrolls, I can be the neighborhood hero and the savior of the world, just like the hobbits, elves, dwarves and men I read about.

But we don’t always imagine a life of grandeur and unparalleled excitement. Sometimes we want to live a life of simplicity; peaceful and relatively relaxed.

skyrim-mountains

In Animal Crossing, the fun is in carrying out the simple, seemingly mundane tasks in life. There are no enemies. There is no conflict. You’re not killing anyone, and no one is trying to kill you.

In Animal Crossing, the closest thing to violence is bopping your neighbor on the head with your bug-catching net. It’s a much-needed reprieve from the carnage-fraught, exceedingly grotesque games many of us play on a regular basis. Here, you live a quiet, peaceful life. But that doesn’t mean boring. These games — and in the case of one possible neighbor, a stuffed teddy bear named Stitches — are bursting at the seams with personality and charm (‘charm’ is the manly way of saying ‘cute,’ by the way).

The beauty of this series is in how it does away with all the inconvenient and ugly parts of life. Your only real job is to enjoy yourself. Go fishing, catch bugs, collect rare dinosaur fossils, visit the museum, play games and make friends. The game plays in real time, which means most of your neighbors will have gone to bed come nightfall. When you’re done for the day, you, too, go to bed. And the next day, you get up and do it all over again. It’s an escapist’s dream. Because, even those of us who live fairly comfortable lives have things we wish we didn’t have to face.

In need of some bells (the in-game currency)? Just sell the fruit that came from the trees you planted. You don’t have to work a minimum-wage job you hate. In fact, you don’t even actually have to pay back the loan on your house, although you can’t expand if you don’t. You also don’t have to worry about your neighbors judging you by your looks, because your neighbors are animals, and animals don’t care. On Saturday nights, the local musician — a guitar-playing beagle named K.K. Slider — will perform at the café.

Your life in Animal Crossing is impossibly idyllic, and in many ways, a reflection of what we might wish our real lives were like.

animal crossing pic

But sometimes we want a game that takes place in a world not dissimilar from our own, or even one that replicates it, because it allows us the daydream of living a different life, or a different career, even if only for a couple of hours.

Grand Theft Auto, a game whose very name is that of a felony crime in most states, is centered around giving the player the fantasy of living the life of a murdering, thieving criminal, who spends most of the game causing as much chaos as possible while running from, and also attempting to kill, the police. That’s a very rudimentary summation of what takes place in the game, but it’s a fitting description. It’s a series I have never had any interest in, but I do understand its appeal.

Most people would never, in their worst nightmares, consider murdering hundreds of people at a time. But in a game such as GTA — where people are made of polygons, there are zero real-life consequences, and you are given absolute freedom to do whatever you want — most players view it as an integral part of the experience.

We also play games based in reality to live out our childhood dreams. I could fruitlessly ponder on the reasons why many gamers hold a certain amount of disdain for sports titles, but regardless of their logic, sports games allow for just as much fantasizing as any other genre.

Like most boys in the United States, I grew up playing baseball. And also like most boys, I had aspirations of becoming a Major League Baseball player, even if those aspirations were short-lived. I couldn’t tell you with any amount of certainty or accuracy, but also like most boys, I was just sort of an okay player. To my memory, I never even hit a home run.

I played outfield, mostly, along with all the other kids who didn’t have the skills to play an infield position. That is, until I was moved to first base, mostly because I was the only left-handed (throwing) player on the team. I loved playing first base. I was never bored (unlike in the outfield), mostly because the majority of putouts involved me.

mlb 13 the show review pic

But after six years of playing Little League Baseball, kindergarten through fifth grade, I knew my playing days were behind me. Unfortunately, once you get to middle school, you actually have to be good to make a team. My passion for baseball never died, however, and 15 years later, I still love my Atlanta Braves.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t still daydream about what it would be like playing baseball for a living. And unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to get enough people together to play even a single pickup game on the weekend. Everyone’s busy, and hardly ever available at the same time. It’s just not practical.

My PlayStation 3, and my copy of MLB: The Show, however, are always ready to play. Not only can I play as my favorite team, but I can control the roster, the lineup, the ballpark, the time of day, the uniforms, the opponent and even the difficulty.

I can go even further, by creating myself in the game. I can choose what I look like, the way I prefer to wear my uniform, my position, my batting stance, my skills and value as a player, whether I throw with my right hand or left, and if I’m a left-handed, right-handed or switch hitter. When I input my name, the announcers will say it throughout the broadcast. I can let a random team select me, or I can choose the organization I want to start out in, and work my way up through the minors, eventually making my major league debut for my favorite team.

With the power of a video game, I can live out my childhood dream of being the All-Star first baseman for the World Champion Atlanta Braves. I can be the one who hit the game-winning home run, with one on and two out, in the bottom of the 9th inning, of Game 7 of the World Series.

With the power of a video game, I can do what genetics, the lack of talent, the reality of consequence, the actuality of possibilities, and life in the real world won’t let me.

This is why we game.

* * * * *

“A reader gamer lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads plays games lives only one.”

— George R.R. Martin MEANL3R (reddit user)

The famous “Michael” PlayStation commercial does a good job of making this point.

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