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Why do we love to play games?

Does gaming go deeper than a simple pastime?

It’s common knowledge that we all love to play games, whether it be video games on the latest consoles, board games with friends and family or even verbal games and sports. But why exactly is that? Why do people want to spend so much of their free time on play? In this article we’ll take a deep dive into the reasons for our gaming habits.

Defining “Play”

To begin we must first identify what exactly it means to “play”. Johan Huizinga defines it as the following in “Homo Ludens”:

"Summing up the formal characteristic of play, we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside 'ordinary' life as being 'not serious' but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings that tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress the difference from the common world by disguise or other means."

Huizinga also referred to something he called “The magic circle”, which is essentially a defined space either physical or imagined wherein prospective players agree to engage in the activity of play and agree to rules of the game, a physical example of this could be a sports field. Despite being just grass much like any other field, people who walk onto it enter the “magic circle” and are agreeing to perform specific actions according to the agreed terms.

Types of Play

With a definition of play in a broad sense established, it is time to dig a little deeper and identify the different types of play. The National Institute of Play recognizes 7 patterns of play in infants and young children, they are as follows:

Attunement play - this is the act of creating a connection.

Body play - experimenting with the body and its capabilities

Object play - using and interacting with tools and objects

Social play - building connections with groups, experimenting with social behaviours

Imaginative or pretend play - inventing scenarios/worlds and acting them out

Storytelling play - verbalising and communicating, testing language

Creative play - aiming to transcend what is already known and understood, experimentation


When we examine video games, we may apply these patterns to both adults and teenagers. For instance, acquiring new equipment allows us to engage in both object play—in which we are given fresh tools with which to approach and interact with a challenge—and creative play—in which we test out various combinations of classes and equipment in search of fresh or improved ways to play.

Play as a form self exposition

As we play games, we are faced with decisions and opportunities that are beyond the scope of our daily activities and environment. For instance, when was the last time you actually faced a life-or-death situation? In a video game, we as players experience an amplified behavioural feedback loop. We make a decision, that decision has an almost immediate effect to our benefit or detriment and we receive that feedback as either a character death or a reward. It is through these tests and appraisals that we discover new information about our “real” selves. Humans crave feedback, afterall, it’s how we function. In order to construct meaning, our brains constantly adapt to our five sensory inputs. For instance, we know an object will fall if we throw it because we understand the concept of gravity. However, if there was less gravity, our brains would adjust to the change and we would toss the object to make up for this new knowledge. If no one ever touched a fire, we wouldn't know that it burns us, and if no one ever got burned, we wouldn't understand the negative effects of getting burned. Video games allow us to test our own assumptions ferociously, which produces an addictive sense of causality. When this information is shared and processed by a social group it becomes a meta, i.e. what is the best weapon for beating that specific boss?

Why do we play games?

There have been numerous studies into the reasons for playing games. Many were initially witch-hunts to prove that gaming was a waste of time or bad for you, however as time has passed, more objective research has been done.

Nick Yee discovered three motivational factors as to why we enjoy playing video games, they are as follows:

Achievement - This consists of the desire to advance in the game, the fascination with the game's rules and system, and the desire to compete with other players.

Socialising - The social element is the want to interact with others, the desire to converse with and assist other players, and the desire to work as a team.

Creativity - The third element of immersion is the creation and customization of a character to participate in the game's original plot and the desire to escape reality.

This couples itself with Self-Determination Theory, which states that people are motivated to grow and change by three innate (and universal) psychological needs:

Autonomy - Individuals must feel in charge of their own actions and objectives. People's feelings of self-determination are greatly aided by their sense of being able to take immediate action that will lead to genuine change.

Competence - People must learn new skills and master various tasks. People are more inclined to take actions that will forward their goals when they believe they possess the necessary talents for success.

Connection or relatedness - People need to feel a sense of connection to and relatedness to other people in order to feel a sense of belonging.

The mental state of flow, which is employed to explain why people love playing games, satisfies the demand for competence. When a game pushes the player just enough to keep things fresh and compel them to keep playing, but not so much that it gets tedious or so little that it becomes uninteresting, flow is achieved. We have control over games, and we play them voluntarily, thus autonomy is satisfied. Our ability to connect and compete with others in a way and universe that is different from real life, in turn, fulfils our sense of relatedness.

In conclusion, playing games inspires us as humans to develop and change in novel and fascinating ways that are frequently beyond our ken. As social animals, it allows us to interact as a part of something bigger than ourselves while also providing a safe space for us to fail and learn from our mistakes.


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