Why do we play games? And is there any real value in playing?
(Keep in mind that I'm examining this under the assumption that circumstances are normal. At this time, I'm not interested in accounting for serious issues like addiction or escapism.)
It's fun to play games. Obviously, right? From a quick session of Angry Birds on our phone to an all-night marathon of Diablo or Civilization, video games entertain us. It's what they were created to do. Gaming is a hobby, a distraction, and it keeps us busy and engaged when otherwise we'd be bored.
|How can we be bored when we have |
virtual livestock to entertain us?
At face value, there's really nothing to be gained by playing solely for entertainment. You sit down, play for a little while because you've got nothing else to do at the time, have some fun, then move on. Your day's no better or worse than it was before; you haven't changed as a person or anything crazy like that. And that's fine. Some people aren't looking for anything other than a few minutes of mental stimulation.
But there's more to it than that, at least potentially. Why do we find gaming fun? Because there's something more valuable in playing than just simple stimulation. The entertainment factor draws us in, but also leads us to deeper, more meaningful reasons for our gaming. In that sense, it's like a gateway. Not everyone chooses to go through, but many do.
Few things come more naturally to humans than competition. We fight each other over property, wealth, partners... everything, basically. Why are professional sports so popular? Why are the Olympics such a big deal? Monetary reasons aside, it's because we, as a species, love competing. We're driven to pit ourselves against one another, sometimes in a friendly manner, sometimes not so much. We don't even have to be involved firsthand as long as it's something (such as a team or brand name) we endorse and support. Look to World of Warcraft's Alliance versus Horde dynamic for an example of that. In such a case, we compete vicariously. And in the same vein of sport, just as much as we feel compelled to spar, we thrive and excel when we work together; when there's a common goal or identity to bond over.
Multiplayer gaming is a natural extension of that. Some games and genres of games are built entirely around facing off against other players: first person shooters like the Call of Duty and Halo franchises, real time strategy game series like Starcraft and Command and Conquer, and fighters like Tekken and Marvel vs. Capcom. Even some MMORPGs, like the original Guild Wars, make human-against-human play. Riot's League of Legends is testament to the appeal of this player-versus-player design-- immensely popular, it dwarfs even World of Warcraft's impressive playerbase of somewhere over 10 million players with 32 million of its own active users.
|Yes. I died.|
It's also worth mentioning the rise of eSports and the increasing magnitude and elaborateness of World Series/Superbowl-esque events like the Battle.net World Championship and the League of Legends World Championship (allegedly besting some ESPN baseball game broadcasts in viewership). We want to see events like these and play games like these because they resonate with something inside of us. They touch on the intrinsic human need for competition. And the interesting thing about multiplayer gaming is that it allows us to satisfy such instincts in a relatively safe manner. Or, for some of us, to compete at all when we otherwise wouldn't be able or willing to do so.
Granted, not everyone is driven wholly (or even partially) by competition. But in the same way that multiplayer gaming allows us to compete, it also provides us with the opportunity to cooperate. Just as we have the tendency to wrestle against one another, we also have the remarkable capacity to work together. PvP-heavy games usually involve teams of 2, 3, 5, 10, 15 or more players clashing against other equally-sized teams. In order to succeed or "win", coordination and teamwork is an absolute necessity-- often frustratingly so. Playing as one functional unit is more important than a single individual's performance. And even in many non-PvP games, players often have to group up and join efforts in order to overcome in-game challenges. Raiding in World of Warcraft and Rift is an instance of this. Just as competition can be rewarding, so can cooperation be fulfilling. Again, multiplayer gaming is an outlet for this.
Is there value in this exercise of competition and/or cooperation through gaming? Certainly. Undoubtedly. As I've suggested, I'm sure there's some kind of psychological or sociological significance related to human instinct, need, and drive and multiplayer gaming. This aspect of gaming stands on its own, and as such, deserves its own separate discussion (one that I'll hopefully be able to explore in the future). Unfortunately, I don't think that discussion adds anything of importance to the current one, so I'll be moving on.
Many players play because they have to, because they want to, pun intended, keep themselves in game shape. Particularly in the case of PvPers or competitive players, regular playing is required in order to maintain a certain level of skill or competence. As with any performance-based occupation, more time spent practicing almost always equates to improved performance. Players who want to be at or near the top-- even players who just want to be considered "good", or at least "not bad"-- have to play with frequency in order to keep themselves sharp and able. I know I'm making it sound like playing video games requires some kind of intense, brutal training regimen (though for many top-tier players, it does), but the bottom line is you're not going to be able to jump into a match or a game and top the scoreboards if you haven't played in a while.
|More like CantaPRO, right?|
Some games are actually designed around this concept of routine play sessions. Guild Wars 2, Rift, and World of Warcraft all have systems of daily and weekly lockouts and rewards in place. Particularly in WoW, gear acquisition is based on a weekly cap of currency used to purchase top-end equipment, as well as a cap on the number of opportunities to obtain such equipment from downing a raid boss (once per week per kill). If you don't hit these caps, you're not punished outright, but you do lose out on resources that you can't really get back or catch up on, relative to players who meet the cap every week. Again, particularly in World of Warcraft, since gear is so closely tied to performance (and by association, social rank in some situations), in a sense, you have to play in order to play. You're gimping yourself if you're not maxing out your Valor and/or Conquest points and clearing (at least some) raid encounters every week. In Guild Wars 2, Rift, and to an extent, even League of Legends (with its daily win bonuses), you're turning down free experience, money, and loot if you're not playing every day. It may not be an absolute necessity, but in terms of efficiency, it's pretty persuasive.
|"Please... no more."|
Do we get anything beneficial out of playing because we have to? No, unless you happen to be a professional. There's certainly some value in dedication and working (playing?) hard to reach a certain goal in-game, but it's more of a perk or a bonus than a reason. If it is the sole reason you're gaming, your energy is probably better spent on something that will produce more-tangible results. Ultimately, playing out of obligation, as you'll often hear, makes the game feel like a second job and generally burns players out.
No, the interesting thing here is the investment we have in some of these games, the existence of an anchor in a virtual, online reality that keeps us coming back to it because there are consequences if we don't. Do these consequences affect us in our offline reality? Again, unless you're a pro gamer, not at all. So then why do we keep coming back?
Because there's something even deeper that we get from playing games. Not everyone pursues it-- some are content playing for the reasons listed above-- but, like the amazing dramatist that I am, I'll wait until next week to get into that and instead leave you with a cliffhanger: emotional response.