Guest post: Video games - why are we so in their thrall?
Author and dedicated gamer Dan Hobart explores his relationship with video games - and ruminates on whether sometimes, you can invest too much
Author and gamer
Posted on: Tue 14-Jul-15 14:18:36
(8 comments )
Ask someone why they play videogames, and the obvious answer blurts out: "for fun". But what do they mean by fun? And is it really fun at all?
As a 34-year-old English male, I've been playing since the early 90s. Since then, the games industry has surpassed both movies and music in total revenue. I've seen it mature and flourish, while in some ways failing to do so myself.
I've also had time to analyse the games and attempt to work out why I play them – and why so many young people are in their thrall today. In doing so, I've identified the ways in which they motivated and rewarded me, as well how sometimes they undermined, mocked, humiliated and failed me.
One of the biggest attractions of games is the sense of wonder they provoke. As infants, this sense is insatiable; a clump of dirt is awe-inspiring. Yet as we acclimatise to the world around us and grow older and more cynical, our immediate environment fails to impress. What games do is continue stoking the furnace of wonder well into adulthood. As the grip of the 9-5 slog takes hold, the fantasy world of games is even more compelling – and perhaps necessary.
Our world is, after all, frustratingly disempowering. At every age, we can become desperately fatigued by our lack of agency – be it as a toddler unable to escape their highchair, a teenager locked out of some clique, or a young adult stuck at the bottom of the career ladder. Games give you back this agency, not only over your own fate, but also over that of the world around you. They do this most obviously by sticking a gun in your hand, but they also grant the power to create structures, cities and entire civilisations. The power to drive cars you can't afford, at speeds you're not allowed. The power to enforce the law or break it. And increasingly, the power to make narrative-affecting choices in ways that make films seem prescribed and empty by comparison.
Our world is frustratingly disempowering. Games give you back your agency, not only over your own fate, but also over that of the world around you.
Crucially, games empower the player progressively – meaning you're often much stronger and more versatile at the end than you were at the beginning. That's a satisfying journey to undertake, and a welcome contrast to the agonisingly slow progress of real life. Games also engender social connectivity, uniting players together against groups of other players, and against the machinations of artificial intelligence. We used to play together on a couch, but nowadays 'friends' may be scattered across the world, communicating through headsets and coordinating their movements against challenges much more formidable and open-ended than a typical single-player experience.
At their most positive, multiplayer games inspire immense camaraderie and joy at the shared attainment of a communal goal, be it overcoming a strong enemy team, destroying a powerful story-driven opponent, or completing a grand Minecraft structure. This feeling of fulfilment is the primary currency on which gaming operates. Shooting someone in Call of Duty, acquiring loot in Destiny, building something in Minecraft, wiping out a line of four in Tetris – pursuing something and then attaining it feels good.
I'm no neuroscientist, but the basic answer to this is that it's a result of dopamine, a neurochemical responsible for motivation. That 'good' feeling you get when completing a challenge creates a reward circuit in our brain that motivates us to keep pursuing those goals. Some challenges take seconds, others take months. All the while, the dopamine drip-feed inspires us to keep going. I can experience more fulfilment in ten minutes of gaming that I can in an entire day of work or school.
Games don't just give away their rewards, however. You have to fight for them. Some of us get annoyed pursuing those goals, and some of us get outright furious. Some, after hours of sustained failure, may fall into a pit of genuine despair. There are many mechanisms by which games either deliberately or accidentally provoke players to apoplexy. It takes a strong will to just walk away when a game is telling you "here, just beat this boss, win this match, run this gauntlet". You know that overcoming the challenge will feel great.
The problem here, however, is that those challenges are ultimately pointless and the fulfilment is migratory. Immediately the question becomes: where will my next hit of attainment come from? The next achievement. The next game. The next quest. The next level. Video games provoke players into vicious cycles of failure and attainment. Winning feels great, so you want to continue. Conversely, losing goads you into trying again.
So when people talk about gaming addiction, what they're really referring to is addiction to wonder, power, progression and accomplishment – which is eminently understandable. Upgrading yourself is addictive. Who on earth wants to ever stop getting better? Who wants to stop being amazed? Who wants to stop achieving?
And all the while, if you're not careful, life may be passing you by. It's true that videogames can provide a sense of achievement that may be lacking in life. But for some, it's more true that they achieve very little in life because they invest too much of themselves playing videogames.
Dan is the author of One Life Left: the fun (and folly) of videogames, available here.
By Dan Hobart
I see the 'addictive' qualities of games no different to the addictive qualities of books. When you finish a chapter and must read the next immediately with a sense of urgency... those two things are no different.
I play video games for fun but you could replace the word fun with curiosity which is probably more accurate.
I am curious how many zombies I can shoot, what puzzle awaits in the next level, what kind of world I can explore, what is going to happen next in the story.I want to escape reality and play in the World Cup, be a superhero ... I love how the possibilities are endless and when I think I've seen it all, I discover another gem.
I don't see this as an issue about games - more an issue of people not regulating themselves properly.
The technology of games over the last 20 years is staggering. Absolutely staggering. The games I play (mostly WoW but many other also) tap into areas of my brain that my daily life doesn't. It's both relaxing an stimulating.
But I know when to shut the laptop and get out for some fresh air! I know people who don't though, and it causes massive stresses on their loved ones. But the same could be said for drinking, gambling, drugs, etc.
You need to read Reality is Broken, Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change a The World by Jane McGonigal for a much more positive view of gaming.
It's just another form of entertainment to me - no-one I know is in their thrall any more than tv, social media or reading books. There's a lot to be said for casual gaming in terms of stress reduction. If Tetris has been shown to reduce post traumatic stress, why not playing Gummy Drop in terms of switching off after work?
Like anything, doing too much of it may cause problems.
My gaming heritage was based on Nintendo- Game and Watch, NES.. All the way through to GameCube (and I had a baby)
These days our house has a PlayStation because my kids have fallen for the stereotype that Nintendo is for babies but having played Mario Kart - they want a WiiU for Christmas because mum is right and Nintendo first party games are awesome.
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