The Psychology Behind Why We Game

Have you ever been in the middle of a game, whether it be the Last of Us, Chrono Trigger, or Surgeon Simulator 2013, and just stopped to think, “Why the hell do I find doing nothing but driving trains around all day or shooting at other players nonstop for hours while they make derogatory comments about my mother so damn fun?” Well, despite the fact that many people recognize video games simply as a form of entertainment, these hour-long sessions where we spend our time earning imaginary achievement points and completing (what those who believe they are spending their time more wisely by watching endless hours of television may refer to as) “realistically meaningless quests”, are actually capable of drawing our attention and desire because of much more psychological reasons.

The Ability to “Try Out” Different Roles

Research conducted by the University of Essex has found that some people find video games so enjoyable because it allows them to “try on different hats.” By giving gamers the opportunity to adopt different identities (different genders, villains, and heroes), games make us feel better about how we see ourselves, making us feel more positive. Dr Andy Przybylski explains,

The attraction to playing videogames and what makes them fun is that it gives people the chance to think about a role they would ideally like to take and then get a chance to play that role…When somebody wants to feel they are more outgoing and then plays with this personality it makes them feel better in themselves when they play…

In The Sims, for example, when we are not trapping our Sims in inescapable fortresses of doom, we are often creating and treating our Sims as reflections of ourselves or the people we may consciously (or unconsciously)  wish we could be. But, then again, just because in a game I may enjoy dressing like the Burger King King (Sneak King) and “sneaking” (it’s more like tip-toeing furiously) “inconspicuously” (because there’s nothing conspicuous about a grown man walking tip-toeing furiously in full royal regalia) around neighborhoods and lumber mills delivering fast food meals to unsuspecting “victims” (c’mon, I wouldn’t mind being a victim to a free Whopper), that does not necessarily mean that is it a reflection of my innermost ambitions.

Wait a second, I can deliver coffee from porta-potties?!? On second thought, sign me up!

Learning to Play Reinforces Self-Efficacy 

For those of you even vaguely familiar with the games such as Dwarf Fortress or EVE, you undoubtedly know that one does not simply “start playing” either game.  Not only are these games immensely skill based, they are known for their high positions among the ranks of the games with the steepest learning curves. After you have come to master these types of games, they no are longer simply games, they are a way of life.

However, reaching this level of expertise demands practice, time (lots and lots of time)and determination; “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  As you are learning a game, you are progressing; you see yourself earning points and learning skills and abilities that once looked impossible to accomplish. This progression reinforces your self-confidence and your perceptions of accomplishment; video games give to us in visually and socially rewarding forms the “fruits of our labor.” (Gee, 2007)

That overflowing sense of relief  and achievement after we finally conquered what once seemed like an unbeatable boss or level is what makes us keep coming back for more.

Not all these games are guaranteed to still be popular…

The Want for Control

While this applies more to strategy, open-world, sandbox, and role-playing games such as Fallout, Sid Meier’s Civilization, and World of Warcraft, the concept of influential decision making has become an important aspect of many modern games as many gamers today feel as if they lack leadership or choice at the workplace or home. Giving someone power, or even the illusion of choice, over their fate and future in a game (or almost anywhere really) compels them to feel more decisive and  empowered and thus more likely to return to such environments that grant them with such importance and esteem. (Gee, 2007)

Escaping Stress

One of the most relatable reasons people play game is because they act as a release from the nerve-wrecking and anxiety-inducing society many of us find ourselves living in today. When I play Bioshock or Tomb Raider, I don’t want to be worrying about paying my credit card bills on time or studying for that one major exam I always seem to have on Friday that is apparently worth fifty percent of my grade and that I have been studying my ass-off for the last two weeks…All I want to think about is the beautiful and prolific world before me, a world beyond the realms of possibilities of our own reality; where impossible is simply a word created by the ordinary but embraced by the extraordinary.

In addition to alleviating stress, games also make us feel better by alleviating our mood and psychological burdens. In a study conducted by East Carolina University which measured the psychological effects of games on 134 participants, the study found that subjects who played casual games such as Peggle averaged a 66% reduction in psychological tension, a 63% reduction in anger, 45% reduction in depression, and 61% reduction in fatigue. Peggle is probably one of the healthiest gaming addictions you can have!*

Who knew playing with balls could be so good for your health?

In the end, some people game for the power, some to forget; some game for the feelings, others to fill silhouettes.  No matter what we play or when in our lives that we play it, there will always be psychological reasons to why we play. And the versatility of video games to each of our individual needs and desires is what makes a game truly worth playing; if there is not something whether superficially or subconsciously that makes a game so enticing and likable, then I probably won’t be picking it up again any time soon.

*I am not a doctor. The only medical training I have ever received is from Surgeon Simulator 2013 and I am pretty sure you wouldn’t particularly enjoy waking up to the ticking of my wrist-watch that I may or may not have accidentally dropped into your abdominal cavity.

Melissa Avila

A gamer since the day she became deranged by the power of stomping her first goomba, Melissa was born and raised in a quiet suburban neighborhood in Miami, Florida and currently lives with her mini bear dog Ginger, whom she has periodic jam sessions with on the keyboard. Melissa enjoys long walks through the wasteland and has an unhealthy addiction to tic-tacs (in addition to her love of parentheses [and, unfortunately, also brackets]).

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