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Why?

by Jonathan Metts - April 17, 2001, 10:22 pm PDT

Jonathan Metts takes an in-depth look at that burning, mysterious question: Why do we play videogames?

It's funny, but despite the huge investment of time and money, I'm not really sure why I play videogames. Is it for fun? Well I do have fun playing most games, but I'm not sure if that's the reason or just a fortunate side-effect. Is it an escape from reality? Hmmm...now that seems more likely. Is there something more primitive going on, a need to be presented with goals and then achieve them, even if the goals are just collecting mushrooms and stars? Possibly, but it seems odd that games are so complex when they should ideally be designed to satisfy such a simple condition, under that theory.

I think it's probably a mixture of all those things, and maybe some other stuff that we just haven't realized yet. You certainly can't deny the fun aspect. The vast majority of games are designed specifically with fun in mind, save for a few questionable ones like horror games and educational games, but you could even argue for those titles depending on your definition of fun. In fact, that's a major problem in game design today: just what the hell IS fun? Some people thought the extensive collecting in Donkey Kong 64 was wonderfully fun; others found it to be incredibly tedious and boring. "Fun" isn't a subjective concept as much as it's a vague one. Does it factor in longevity? In that case, Pokemon Snap wasn't very much fun, because I beat it in just a few hours. Excitebike 64 would be extremely fun because of its create-a-track mode and its randomly generated desert race. What about fun concentration? If my overall enjoyment is the same for Final Fantasy IX and Conker's Bad Fur Day, does that mean that BFD is the more fun game, because my enjoyment for it was packed into a much shorter span of time? What about fun variety? Tetris is considered by many people to be one of the greatest games ever designed, but it's basically the same thing over and over again. And while we're at it, do people love (and get addicted to) Tetris because it's fun? There seems to be something more pychological to "Tetraddiction" beyond our desire to have fun. More on that later.

What about the "other reality" explanation? Certainly, some games seem tailored to create such an effect...adventure games like Zelda, sports games like Tony Hawk where you can do things that you'd never be able to do in real life. Some online games like Phantasy Star Online and Everquest seem especially good at creating an alternate reality; some people take weeks-long vacations in those worlds. So it seems pretty safe to say that an escape from normal reality is one reason that some people play games. However, I don't think that's why all people play games, and I'm not sure that it alone is reason enough to play a game. What if a particular game creates an extremely accurate and immersive other reality, but is simply not fun? A lot of people thought Shenmue was that way. What if a game is incredibly fun but doesn't present much of an alternate reality? Tetris fits this description perfectly. So creating a believable reality isn't a requirement for all good games, but some people seem to like it in their games, to various degrees.

Finally, you just can't deny that games seem to dig deep into the human psyche and tap into that pleasure center thingy. The most obvious examples are puzzle games like Tetris (There it is again...hard not to keep mentioning one of the greatest games of all time!) and mission-based games like Donkey Kong 64. Tetris jumps straight into your brain, and more often than not stays there for days at a time. Ever play a game so much that you still see the pieces moving around at night when you shut your eyes? That's powerful stuff. DK64 is a dubious game for sure, but a perfect fit in the psychological category. I can't tell you how many people I talked to and read about that developed a really weird bond with the game. They didn't really find it fun at all (a lot of us didn't, for that matter), but they were extremely motivated to keep going, to collect every last item, to beat every level, to get 201% or whatever ridiculous completion rating you can achieve. Not to keep throwing trash at DK64, but it could even be surmised that Rare threw as many small tasks in the game as possible in order to lengthen it, often at the expense of fun. What's interesting is that the approach really did work with some players. It seems that in some people, the "task/reward" system can even overpower the fun-factor, which tradition and gaming culture tell us is the most important aspect of any game. Modern game design in general is very much geared towards the task/reward philosophy. "Here's something to do. Hey, you did it! Congrats, and here's a little something. Now on to the next challenge!" It's harder to see in some games than others, but you'd be hard pressed to find an exception in this day and age. In contrast, many old-school games had only one big task and one big reward. For instance, the task in Pac-Man is to collect the dots. The reward is simple enough: points. (You might argue that the right to keep playing is another reward, but truthfully, people did that whether they accomplished the task or not...it was just a matter of whether it cost you another quarter.) So, as games have evolved over the years, the number and complexity of tasks has increased, but the basic system is still in place. I guess that's the way we like it; we're still buying games, more than ever before actually. So here is another essential element to the gaming experience, but it's still not the end-all, supreme quality that can stand on its own.

Looking at all this stuff, I've come to think that most people play games for a combination of these three major reasons. Perhaps one person leans more toward an immersive experience, and another wants something really really fun and to hell with task/reward systems and realistic environments, but almost everyone needs a little bit of each to enjoy a game. And if you look at the most popular and acclaimed games over the years, most of them do a really good job of combining these three attributes. All the Zelda games, the Mario games, most of the Final Fantasy games, Tony Hawk, Wave Race, Chrono Trigger, Metroid, Sonic, Castlevania...it's a recurring characteristic. They take the reasons you play games, incorporate them cleverly, and what do you know, that makes you want to play those games! Then there's Tetris, but hell, it's in a category all its own. So, I've taken the mysterious motivations behind something you do daily and dissected them and tried to explain them, and in the process I'm sure some of you are upset at my explanations, and probably more than a few of you think I'm just crazy. Maybe that's why I write stuff like this...ho, I guess that's a whole other editorial. ;-D

If you have a comment, suggestion, anything you'd like to say about this article, please let me know.

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