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The big question: why do you play?

Everywhere in the game journalism/game writing/game coverage world, you’ll hear all about WHAT people are playing. Heck, “what we’ve been playing” is the first (and often the longest) segment of our podcast, and much of what we write about on these pages consists of the particulars of what, when, who with and sometimes even how we play games. What about why?

Over on, writer Kate Cox conducted a sort of semi-scientific study on the reasons WHY gamers play. It’s a fabulous story, and well worth your time, especially for all of the thoughtful comments she collected from folks on their own reasons. The breakdown was fascinating:

“A full 50% of answers fell into the category I rounded up and called “Goals / Accomplishment / Success.” I decided that the urges to solve problems, accomplish goals, complete quests or missions, or to understand systems were all similar enough to group together.”

Yes, I can dig that.

“Following from real-world impossibilities and the desire for problems with actual solutions, a full third (34%) of the answers also specifically called out gaming for escapism, for relaxation, or as a coping technique.”

Finally, players who are really into storytelling and role-playing (in the traditional sense of actually playing a role, not playing the style of game we all love to acronym-ize into RPG) should find familiar ground in the third major category:

“Narrative gaming, though, is clearly where it’s at. Over 40% of the answers cited stories and storytelling, and of those a high number specifically referenced what makes games different from other media.”

These (obviously cross-pollinated) responses do touch on the “4 keys of fun” theory that’s written about in Game Design Workshop, one of the books I like to use when I’m teaching game design courses.

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According to Nicole Larazzo (who wrote the passage in question), posits that there is “hard fun” – think challenge and mastery. “Easy Fun” is enjoying exploration, escapism, goofing around, simply enjoying the possibility space. This is what’s going on when you decide you’d like to find out what happens when you drive off a cliff.

“Serious Fun” consists of playing with a “purpose”, exercising creativity, exploration, building skills, etc. And finally, “people fun” rounds the four, with social interaction and teamwork (or griefing, as the case may be).

Obviously, everyone has their own preferences across all of these kinds of fun – or kinds of experiences, if you’d rather not use the F word here. In Cox’s survey, every respondent had answers that crossed boundaries from serious to hard to easy to social – in fact, plenty of games encompass elements of all four. It all comes down to your own preferred belnd.

We’ve chatted a bit about the games that shaped us as gamers in a previous episode of Jumping the Shark, but I don’t recall ever really hitting this question at the core. I know that I personally play games primarily for escapist entertainment, artistic inspiration, and the ability to really “go” places that don’t exist in real life. For me, game experiences that really transport me to another world have always been my favorites.

Kate Cox’s reasons resonate with me as well – she professed a love of games that make her feel “clever” for figuring things out (I’m big on this as well), and she’s partial to being able to explore and feel like a badass. Her explanation of how awesome she feels when she plays as Shepard in Mass Effect 2 is a good explanation of precisely why I played the ever-loving crap out of that game.

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Enough about me. I want to open up the floor and ask why you – yes, you – play games.

Danielle Riendeau

What I do for work: spend my days as the ACLU design/code/video ninja, write about games, make (tiny) games, teach digital media at Northeastern University. What I do for fun: all of the above, plus lots of running, fitness fun, filmmaking, outdoor exploration, world travel, sci-fi everything.

9 thoughts to “The big question: why do you play?”

  1. Me, I play mostly to escape, experience a good story and world and hopefully have an impact on it (I love me some Mass Effect for this), and also solve those systems (puzzle games, platformers). It also amuses me that one of the people who commented specifically on how they played games for the story experience used the handle Galatea. Methinks somebody enjoys their interactive fiction.

  2. Looking at my recently played games list probably answers the question for me:
    Frozen Synapse – I like pitting my wits against friends, good old fashioned competitiveness.
    Jamestown/Super Meat Boy – tough games that rely equally on learning a given route and honing your reactions to survive it. So frustrating but oh so very satisfying when you finally succeed.
    City of Heroes/Rift – A big dollop of social gaming mixed in with the pleasure of planning out the progression of a character. The exploration helps as well – if there’s no-one else online, I’m happy to go mountaineering to see where I can get to.
    Dungeons of Dredmor – again the pleasure of planning out a new build and then seeing how well it stands up to the dangers of the dungeons.

    I think distilling all of that down, I like problem solving – planning a solution, testing it against the game world, honing it over time. Ideally while chatting to my friends.

  3. I started to write up a response and came to the same solution: I play different games for different reasons. Trying to name every reason seems cumbersome until I break apart the different games and list that way.

    Escapism, competition, storytelling, conquest/victory/problem solving, irritating people from time to time, or doing something ridiculous.

  4. I enjoy playing for every type of fun at different times. Does that make me the perfect gamer? Probably. Probably.

  5. I tend to play games out of a love of learning systems, and a desire to see different ones in action. When pressed, I’ll admit that there’s also a fetishism for verisimilitude in there, which combines with the latter to give me a fondness of games like Hegemony Gold and Crusader Kings far beyond their merit. A supply system that causes my professional army to starve to death in the northern Balkans? The existence of genetic variables that keeps you awake at night with fear of inheriting your uncle’s madness? Sign me up!

    So yeah, I’m like a mountain climber looking for the biggest Chick Parabola out there.

  6. If you rate one hundred women on their looks and then graph it you’ll find that the bulk of the women are around the middle of the chart, with it tapering off to either side as you get a few that deviate from the norm, either for better or worse. The resulting arc is known as The Chick Parabola[1]


    [1] New Scientist, June 2008, Smith & Harton. “Increasing palatability through the liberal sprinkling of footnotes”.

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