Why Do We Play Games? Part 1: Introduction

The chances are that if you’re reading this blog, you regard games as something more than just a teenage hobby. Most of us will have played video games to varying degrees as we grew up, and the number of gamers is growing ever larger thanks to the recent foray into the casual gaming market by companies like Nintendo, Apple and Facebook. For many people, their exposure to gaming will begin and end with the odd bout of Angry Birds while waiting for a train, but for an awful lot of people, myself included, gaming develops into a lifelong obsession.

So why do we play games? And in particular, how and why does something that many people regard as a meaningless hobby engender so much passion, anger and devotion in so many people?

It’s a question I often ask myself, and it’s something I’ve tried in vain to explain to many people along the way. Often when I tell someone I’m a gamer they’ll regard me with the same sort of suspicion they might reserve for a creepy old man in a toy shop; perhaps their own gaming experience began and ended with the 16-bit consoles, and they find it hard to understand why someone my age would still be occupied with something they regard as ‘childish’. But of course, gaming has moved on in unrecognisible ways since those early days: it’s like comparing the slapstick silent comedies of the 1920s with Citizen Kane from 20 years later – the two bear little resemblance to each other. The sheer breadth and complexity of modern gaming experiences is truly staggering, offering everything from casual platformers to genuinely disturbing and moving masterpieces.

Is this art?

It’s misleading to compare video games and films of course – the two are entirely different mediums that really have little resemblance to each other – and I’m certainly not saying that games developers have “produced a Citizen Kane“, although I have absolutely no idea what the gaming equivalent of that would be anyway. In fact, I’m not even going to get started on the “are video games art?” question, which seems like an utterly pointless exercise. The film critic Roger Ebert famously claimed that video games can never be art, which prompted an enormous backlash from gamers, but people have been asking “is X art?” for centuries and just tying themselves up in knots trying to find the answer. A famous example is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain – a signed urinal – which caused uproar at the time and led to lots of hand-wringing over what constitutes art. Of course, the simple answer is that some things are art to some people but not to others, and the same thing could be said about video games (and indeed, not all video games could be considered as art). I will say one thing to Mr Ebert though: it’s advisable to actually play a video game before you dismiss the entire medium. Can you imagine if he was an art critic who dismissed film as “not art” without having seen a single film? This is a point he willingly conceded in a later post after receiving over 4,500 comments responding to his intended slight against gaming, although he amusingly admits he has “no desire to spend 20 to 40 hours (or less) playing a video game”.

Is playing video games less worthwhile than watching football?

Putting the art question to one side, I suppose the point of this is that an awful lot of people feel very strongly about video games. But why? What makes people like me happily spend “20 to 40 hours (or less) playing a video game” when other people, like Ebert, see the whole medium as little more than a waste of time? And what makes playing video games a “waste of time”? Perhaps if I’d told the person I met in paragraph 3 that I was into watching soap operas or football matches, they might nod in recognition rather than narrow their eyes in suspicion and glance around for someone else to talk to. But what makes playing video games a “waste of time” and watching football a worthwhile pursuit? Gaming can easily match the excitement and drama of watching football, not to mention the huge community following, but with the added bonus of complicated narratives and open-ended interactivity.

Attitudes are changing, albeit slowly. Nowadays I’m more inclined to shout about my passion for gaming rather than sheepishly admit to it like a dirty secret. And more and more often the people I meet will react to the news that I’m a gamer with an excited monologue about how they’ve just finished the latest Zelda game or a fond anecdote about the time they stayed up all night playing Plants Vs. Zombies. Gaming is misunderstood by many at the same time as being incredibly important for an ever-growing community, so now seems like as good a time as any to analyse why games mean so much.

Over the next few weeks I’ll attempt to dissect gaming down into its component parts in an attempt to work out exactly why they inspire such passion and devotion, and I’d be grateful for your own perspectives along the way.