Why Do We Play Games?

Intro: Why Game?

I've been asking myself a question for the past few weeks, why do I play video games for a hobby? Is it because I am of a generation when video games started to break into the cultural zeitgeist with Mario and Sonic or were it something else that lead me to play games?

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Maybe a combination of both?

Who hasn't felt a tinge of regret after spending a beautiful Saturday afternoon shut away from the world with the blinds down playing games? Who hasn't wished they spent a little bit more time reading or maybe checking out that movie that everyone is talking about at the moment?

I know it's not an easy question to answer, when I asked this question to NeoGAF in research for this I did get some quick answers like "it's fun" or "escapism" but a lot of the two hundred plus replies I got were long and detailed and while I can sum why I play games in one word, there is something deeply fascinating to explore if you wish to dig a little deeper.

Part One: My Own Personal History With Games

Blessed are the geeks, for they shall inherit the Earth - Matthew 5:13

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I was born in the early eighties and cannot remember a time when we didn't have a computer or gaming console in the house I grew up in. My dad had bought a Telesport SD 050C (just rolls off the tongue) back in the late 70's which was basically a Pong knock off console. By the time I was born he had purchased an Atari VCS, the one that looked like it was made of wood. I do have a few flickering memories of the Atari. Just random images of games. I'm not actually sure if I was the one playing them or just watching my Dad and my older brother playing it.

The first video game moment I truly remember is visiting our neighbour's house and watching my friends older brothers play Barbarian on the C64. The bright colours and the sound effects had my complete attention. The game is a one on one fight to the death. You can play against the computer or against each other.

When my brother and I got home we begged our parents to get us a C64. My dad then went down and had a go at the C64 and I guess he must have liked it as when he came back he convinced my mother that buying one would be good for the kids as "it would be able to help them with their homework" I still have no idea how the C64 was meant to do this, but once the system entered the house all knowledge of the homework argument quickly faded and disappeared.

At the stage of my life gaming was something you did with other people. Either my brother and I would play together, either two player games, or if it was a single player game like Last Ninja 2, as soon as you died then pass over the joystick till he died.

I remember playing and finishing games like Double Dragon, Thing Bounces Back, Turrican, Bionic Commando, Platoon, Vendetta, Last Ninja 2 and Rambo First Blood Part 2 as a group of four plus friends all sitting on a couch and simply passing the joystick to the next person when your turn was over.

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Then one day my dad came home and told us he had bought a Nintendo game for the Atari, which had since relaunched as the Atari 2600. It was Donkey Kong. It was my first ever experience of hearing the name Mario (not that common a name in Ireland in the 80's) let alone the word Nintendo.

I heard from someone in the school yard that Nintendo was it's own gaming device as was better than Atari, I don't remember the reason why it was better but only that he kept telling everyone that it was cooler to have a Nintendo then an Atari.

I was seven years old at the time and was about to make my first communion, which was a huge deal growing up in Catholic Ireland. But I also knew, due to my brother making his the year before that the first communion was like a second birthday as you got cards and the cards would contain money from family members and I have a lot of aunts and uncles on my mother's side (my dad was an only child). My brother got £60 for his, which to us back then was a nearly a king's ransom. I think my brother spent his on an Irish soccer jersey as Ireland had recently qualified for the European Championship for the first time ever.

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I, on the other hand, had my sights set on loftier dreams. I knew what I wanted to do with my communion money, long before I ever held it in my hand. I wanted to buy a Nintendo. I was in Limerick with my mom and asked if I could go to the toy shop to "look around." At the very back of Smyth's Toy Store in Limerick was the game section. I was like a child in wonderland, all these games that I never heard of, and console I didn't even know existed. I asked the person behind the counter how much a Nintendo was and I was told £90 and it came with two games, which would turn out to be Mario and Duck Hunt.

I remember thinking that £90 was way more than I would ever get for my communion and if I didn't get enough then how could I ever get a Nintendo. Sure there may have been a war raging in the Persian Gulf at the time, but this was a real world crisis, well, to my tiny world.

A small sliver of light did lie in the distance. My birthday is in November and if I didn't spend my communion money right away (as was the style at the time) I could join it with my birthday money and then hopefully, even maybe, have just about enough to get a Nintendo just after my birthday.

The communion came, I got £60. When asked what I was going to spend it on I would just say "I haven't decided yet". Had to play it cool and keep those cards close to my chest, for if my parents found out what my master plan was they might say no and all my well laid plans would be ruined.

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By the time my birthday came around in November I got £50. So I was over the moon with excitement and joy and running around the house as if I had drunk too much lemonade. I asked if I could go to the Smyths toy store on Saturday. We went on a rainy Saturday and went to the games counter with my mom and asked if they had any Nintendo left. They said yes and I said I wanted one. My mom was someone puzzled, how could I afford this with my birthday money. That's when I played my trump card and pulled a small brown envelope that I had "borrowed" from my dad's work suitcase, and pulled out the three £20 notes. The console was mine.

When we got back to the car with it, I sat in the back seat and held it on my lap. My mom played her trump card when he leant back and said, "You're not allowed to play with that until Christmas." Christmas may have only been three weeks away, but to me, it was a near eternity.

Christmas came and I was allowed to open and play with my new NES. I was the coolest kid in the class when I went back to school in January. Suddenly kids who wouldn't normally give me the time of day wanted to hang out, and always at my house, never at theirs.

From there I lifelong obsession was born with games, and I thought that games would never get better than Super Mario 3, how could they? We heard that someone new had opened in out small Irish village, an arcade? And that there some game called Street Fighter 2 that everyone was raving about.

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The arcade was about a ninety-second walk from my back gate. So every Saturday morning my we would always make sure to be up early and be at the arcade at about 9:30 am as it opened at 10 am and we wanted to be first in line to play Street Fighter 2.

After that came the SNES and then the Nintendo 64. I was twelve and was about to go to secondary school. This is where gaming took on a whole new life for me. To cut a long story short I was bullied at school. Verbally first, then by the time I was fifteen, and my older brother had graduated, it had become physical bullying.

The summer before I had bought a Playstation, purely to play Tekken 3, Resident Evil 2 and Metal Gear Solid. So when things got rough at school I would go home and put on my headphones and get lost in games. It was the perfect escape, worlds where I was in control of things. Worlds when I would ignore everything around me and just get lost. My parents didn't think anything of it, as I was always playing games growing up and they just figured that it was just me being weird old me.

When I was in college and the whole Web 2.0 scene came on to the scene. I had just gotten broadband internet and my first ever laptop. No longer would I have to share my computer with everyone else in the house. This is when a whole new world of gaming opened up to me. I started to visit websites like Gamespot, IGN and 1UP to get all my gaming news and reviews. I joined 1UP and started to blog there until the site was closed. But during that time the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 launched and the world of online gaming came knocking at my door. Because of sites like 1UP, I was making new friends and we would play games together. I found out that I wasn't the only one, there were other people out there who went through similar shared experiences with games growing up. From people who grew up in California to people who grew up in Japan. We all had this shared experience of gaming. We would be able to talk about retro games from the NES and SNES era without having to provide context. We all knew it because we were all there.

So that where I am now. Sitting at my desk, which has both a gaming PC and a PS4 Pro sitting on it. Gaming is still a major part of my life. I still play games online with people who I consider friends but have yet to meet in person. I chat about games with some of the people at work, and with the advent of smartphones, gamers are more connected community than ever before.

Will I still be playing games in twenty years time?

I think I will be.

Part 2: The Gaming Community

A few days I sent the following message to a number of friends who either play games or work in the games industry. I also posted the same message to NeoGAF.

I'm currently in the process of writing a blog post about gaming culture and I started to wonder what draws people to gaming as a hobby over movies and music for example.

I would love to know why you picked gaming or how you started gaming and what keeps you interested in it?

Any thoughts at all will be helpful and appreciated.

Over the next 24 hours, I was inundated with tweets, private messages and message board posts. Some people gave me the simple reply that they found gaming to be fun and it was something from their childhood that always stayed with them.

A large number express how they saw gaming as a form escapism or if they are an introvert it's a good way to "hang out" with friends. So I want to do is share with you some of the more interesting responses that I got. I will provide links to the original posts or tweets where possible.

What I hope to show is that while my story above is my own. I do think that there are common points of reference to why a large group of people like something or like doing something.

Horseticuffs

That's a terrific question. More complicated than I thought it would be. Why, indeed?

From the moment I can first remember seeing a video game (A Pac-Man cocktail table at a local bakery where either my mom or my dad bought me a giant chocolate chip cookie, if my memory is to be believed) I've been totally obsessed. Every spare moment of my life has been spent either playing them, reading about them, listening to people talk about them, talking about them myself, or watching videos about them.

I dearly love horror media. Movies, television, books, music, etc... but if I'm alone I'll fall asleep after a while of doing all these things because I push myself to wake up at like 3am and get like 4-6 hours a night of sleep so I can work 50+ hours a week most weeks and still play video games and make gaming videos for my Youtube channel. I drive myself to exhaustion because I DESPERATELY NEED to make time in my very busy life for gaming or else none of the rest of this bullshit is worth it.

I'm a well-rounded man, I like to think. I am a loving father (My kids and I have been gaming together since they were literally old enough to figure out how. We make and watch gaming videos together. We talk about gaming a LOT). A loving boyfriend (We're homebodies and I have my gaming PC right next to the living room TV so she can watch her True Crime stuff while I record gameplay for my channel). I enjoy going for nature hikes by myself every chance I get (I have a phone LOADED with offline Youtube gaming vids and gaming podcasts and a battery case for my phone so I can go for miles and miles and still be connected to gaming).

I say all this because, in one way or another, it all comes back to gaming. Most of my greatest memories involve gaming with my loved ones. That first Christmas playing Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt with my brother and dad until 3am. Playing Left for Dead with my kids when they were probably way too young to do it, in good conscience. Staying up until midnight and playing Super Mario World at launch with my kids in the freezing cold. Playing Bad Dudes all day long during 5th Grade field trip day to the roller rink. Playing TMNT The Arcade Game that first time was like falling in love for the first time. Spending a few months in my early thirties making games just for my own fun. Gaming is the undercurrent that everything connects to and flows into and, without it in my life, I wouldn't be me. It's an essential part of my internal life, and you want to know why.

Upon examination, I don't know. I could say all the reasons in this thread and they'd all be right, but it feels like short-changing the situation. For whatever reason, I can not tell you. Not that gaming is unfathomable to me. It sounds trite, but I have no other answer.

Why game? Why anything? The sun will devour our planet eventually, and there won't even be any evidence we ever even existed. Follow your bliss, because what else is there? So I can achieve peak insufferably.

I'll leave you with a quote from the poet and writer Charles Bukowski;

"Find what you love and let it kill you.

Let it drain you of your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness.

Let it kill you and let it devour your remains.

For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover."

Taliban Stan

I got into games when I was like 5 years old so it wasn't really about escapism, but my life as a kid was very ideal for video games to be my main form of entertainment.

I grew up with my mom. She's had a computer in the house since the 1980s. She worked from home and would spend hours on the computer. She also journals (she has tens of thousands of pages, 50 pounds of floppies, endless CD's, etc). We are not a household adverse to staring at screens for extremely long periods of time for work and pleasure. That's kinda our thing.

She also worked for schools where she constantly was doing plays and musicals or choir performances. Very often I needed to be within eyesight but not at all disruptive to her making costumes or transposing a song. Video games were perfect for that. Especially when I had a Genesis for forever and it had a headphone jack. That was like perfect. And she taught lessons at our house and if parents bought their kids too early or picked them up to late, it was on me to entertain them in a non-rowdy boys jumping all over a room type of way. Games are perfect for that.

Add to that the highly single player nature of video games (I don't think games with no single player even existed) vs non-video games and this was the ideal hobby that was like perfectly suited to my lifestyle, personality, and what my household needed.

EatChildren

I'm not drawn to gaming over music and movies. It's just one of many creative hobbies I am interested in.

On a surface level what draws me to gaming is the same as any other creative medium; my interest in human expression and experience through abstract means. Art is a language, its goal to evoke emotional resonance, to make people feel something no matter what that is and how, in ways that may not seem intentional or clear. I want to be moved and swept away by songs and stories, imagery and words, and in the case of games interactive experiences. Emotional resonance can be everything from a deeply personal journal, or a communal experience. A single player minimalist story or drunken Mario Kart. I am drawn to the arts for the way art makes me feel, the thoughts I'll explore, and my interest in analyzing how it made me feel the way it did and why.

For video games specially, I prefer to categorise them into the umbrella of "interactive art". What fascinates me personally about interactive works is the aforementioned exploration of emotional resonance in creative work, but specifically in this medium how our personal involvement in a piece of work can make us feel certain things. Rather than simply be a passenger or observer to strictly linear, controlled events, we ourselves become a factor in the work itself. No matter how linear or scripted a game is, its progression and experience literally cannot existence without our direct involvement in some way. We are a piece of that creative work. We are a piece of that art. More than observer, we are an influence in how the work is emotionally resonating with us.

I am deeply fascinated with the way in which interactive works can emotional resonate with us based on our involvement with that creativity. I love the idea that a work can make us resonate strongly, no matter the emotion, not through telling or showing us events but making us a direct part of them. Interactive works, thus games, involve us in experiences and can connect with us in very unique and specific ways that other mediums usually don't. It's not a better/worse argument, so much as this unique facet of interactive works that appeals to me. It's why I'm also attracted to storytelling in video games that defies conventions drawn from other mediums and attempts to make us feel or experience something through our involvement. To make someone feel surprised, afraid, melancholic, upset, enraged, or whatever else, to characters and events, without falling back exclusively on the artistic methods of storytelling of film and literature. To make someone connect with a character and feel a range of emotions purely through interactivity is an amazingly interesting topic of interactive work, and utterly unique to the medium.

Additionally, interactive works are at the forefront of technology and what that technology can mean for artists and rendition of worlds and ideas that other mediums cannot express the same way. The idea of creating wild and imaginative dreamscape, maybe based on believable standards and at times deliberately abandoning them for the surreal and abstract; video games have the potential to formulate these, construct and express, and make them totally interactive and experienced as an entity with these worlds and imaginations instead of simply observing them. And thus I am also fascinated by the potential for what can be created and how we interact with these imaginative dreamscapes and worlds.

Battlechili1

I hate real life. Video games allow me to escape real life temporarily and be a part of a world that's more interesting and exciting than the one I'm currently in. You get the chance to experience an exciting adventure and do things you never could in real life. You get to be someone totally different and do totally different things. You can also be a totally different person. Basically, it's a wonderful tool of escapism.

Beyond this, I like being told interesting stories. Games give me those stories but allow me to interact with them more directly than if I were watching a TV series or reading a book. Additionally, I like being challenged but knowing that I can overcome said challenges through effort and perseverance, and video games allow me to get that feeling of accomplishment that comes from completing a difficult challenge.

As for why I started gaming in the first place, it's because my parents bought me a small TV, a Nintendo 64, and the game "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time" on my fourth birthday and having played that I loved it and have been into video games since.

Darklor01

When I was very young, in the early 80's, my brother had a birthday party in an arcade. This was before Chuck-E-Cheese or chains like that. This was a true, quarter munching, old fashioned arcade.

I looked up to my older brother, who was only four years older, in many ways. He liked playing Contra, Paperboy and other games in the arcade, so I did to hang out with him. I was instantly hooked. When the Nintendo Entertainment System was released in '84, my parents got it for us from a Crazy Eddie along with Rob the robot which came with Gyromite, Duck Hunt, and Super Mario Brothers. Now the future addiction was at home. Played it for hours. Later, I would find older games for systems like Atari 2600 & 7800 and love them too.

Eventually, my parents started fighting at home. A lot. Gaming became an escape. I'd lock myself in my room so I couldn't hear them argue day and night. This continued through the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Years. Gaming would take me out of this reality and into countless others where I could control destiny.

I got into PC gaming because a friend of mine had gotten a Pentium computer in the 90's and we played Doom, Quake, and other games on that. Online gaming over 56k became a thing and competition was fun. Then of course, broadband, and everything that led us to where we are with current PCs and consoles. I also enjoyed learning how to upgrade and then build PCs. Not a common thing back then. Building the newest rig with a Voodoo card and playing EverQuest, Quake III, and other future games online for hours became an expensive competitive hobby.

By my 30s, gaming was so ingrained in my person, I will never be able to leave it. I continue to game now because I love the stories, the competition, and controlling my destiny on various adventures. Many of the same reasons I fell in love with it in the first place.

Mary Kish

Dylan Cuthbert

I started to learn to program because games weren't easily available and there were magazines with program listings to type in. Programming is a form of creation and creativity because it makes things out of nothing and that feeling of unlimited power hooked me in. Games are fun, why would you want to program stuff that isn't fun?

Part 3: Is There a Reason Why?

I have spent the last three weeks working on this post. I find that while there is loads of studies and information about what we play and who plays it or how it affects us. There is little to no information about why we play.

Yes, there are great articles from Venture Beat and USGamer, they are still mostly from the personal perspective, like Part 1 of this blog.

Maybe this question can never truly have a definitive answer. Everyone is different and therefore everyone gives a different answer. I think because games are fun to play and been seen as a form of escapism are always going to be the two most common answer, but even they are oversimplifications to a far deeper answer that unique and personal to every person who plays a game. No matter the culture or geographical location people are creating shared experiences through games.

So now the question is open to you Dear Reader, why do you play games?

Acknowledgements

Thanks to everyone from both the GiantBomb Community and NeoGAF for their feedback and support while doing this piece.

Special thanks to following people Nanaka Miyazawa, Dylan Cuthbert, Sam Kennedy, Mary Kish, Darren Gladstone, Louise Blain, Jen Simpkins, Josh McKenna, Liam. Thanks for all your support throughout the years.

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