Have you ever thought about why you play games? What is it that drives us to spend thousands on consoles, board games, DLC, subscriptions, or collectors edition items? Throughout time games have always held a large part of our society. The Aztec’s had their deadly ball game, the Romans had gladiators, the Greeks had the Olympics, and we have games. Why do we love games so much? I believe that the reason we love games is because of the very description of what a game is. A controlled place for us to play. This description changes drastically over time but I believe our quest for play can be summed up by three common traits; interactivity, reward, and uncertainty. Individually, these three values are not classifications of what games are but when combined can be what most consider the essence of a game. Gamers have spent an countless amount of hours making decisions, becoming heroes, and solving puzzles and the both the video game and board game industry continue to grow at a staggering rate. Why do we keep coming back to games as a means of entertainment? If we take a look at the three values that I listed early we can see why we game.
It can be easily argued that interactivity is not a key element to what makes a game. Cooking is interactive, cleaning is interactive, even watching TV can be interactive and yet these are things we do not consider games. There are even “non-interactive” or “zero-player” games that require no user interaction at all. 4 Minutes and 33 seconds by Kloonigames is a game where there is no user interaction. The premise is simple.. you will win the game if you’re the only one playing the game at the moment in the world. The game checks over the internet if there are other people playing it at the moment and will kill the game if someone else is playing it. You have to play the game for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. You can win or fail in the game, but there is no user input or interactivity of any kind. The white progress bar generates over a black screen over the time period and if you “win” you are rewarded with a check mark. Since this does not have any user interaction, how can it be a game? If you take a look at the other two values that a game must have, it fulfills both reward and uncertainty (which I will discuss soon). When playing a game, we consciously make decisions that reflect into the games actions. This is what I mean by interactivity. We are making choices from dialogue trees. We aim, we jump, we hack, we slash, and we teabag. It is only human to interact in this way and this sense of “play” is what feeds our appetite as humans for interaction.
Reward is subjective. What I might consider an extremely rewarding experience might not mean the same to you but regardless the instance of reward is something important to the gaming. However, like interactivity, there are many activities that have rewards that aren’t games and even games that have no reward. Conway’s Game of Life is one of those games. Created in 1970 by British mathematician John Horton Conway. Life is a cell automaton that only requires the users initial inputs to run the game. The game runs off of a grid of square “cells”, which can be in one of two possible states, alive or dead. The cells interact with their neighbors, which are horizontally, vertically, or diagonally adjacent. The following transitions occur: Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies. Any live cell with two or three live neighbors lives. Any live cell with more than three live neighbors dies. Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbors become a live cell. Even though there are examples of games that have no intrinsic reward, I believe that reward is probably the greatest factor between the three values, and is where most gamers find their attraction to video games. Rewards come in a multitude of styles whether it is gold coins, XP, or KDR, the reward of playing keeps most players going. Designers have even figured out a way to communicate negative results into a positive reward. Think about Call of Duty multiplayer, when you die you see the person who killed you. You have to sit and watch as that camping, no good, vulgarity that you encounter in a game shoots you and gets rewarded. They become stronger as you lie in a puddle of your own filth dying until you respawn to seek hunt them down. This is something that is designed to keep you going. After all you can’t let them get away with that can you? Also, the reward of friendship and community is another external effect that games can bring. Many people have forged strong relationships, proposals have been made, and babies have been born all around the community and culture of gaming.
This last point is the glue that brings the other two points together. Uncertainty in gaming is the backbone of the experience. Uncertainty can be found in many different areas. Outcome, interactions, results, rewards, narrative, and competition are all affected by uncertainty. In his book Uncertainty in Games (Playful thinking), Greg Costikyan talks about the affect of uncertainty in video games in relation to uncertainty in our everyday lives. You do not want to be uncertain about where your groceries will be coming from, when your bills will be paid, or the future of your relationships but in games why even bother continuing if you already know the outcome? The reason we are attracted to games in whatever medium is the uncertainty we experience can be experienced in a controlled medium. Many factors of games are influenced by uncertainty. Skill can be challenged and strategies questioned but uncertainty still looms. The simplest example of uncertainty comes in the form of an old game, Heads or Tails. Sure there are mathematical calculations and probabilities that can be factored into the game but there is no controllable factor, no xp boost, nothing that can be done to affect the outcome of the game. Casinos take advantage of our attraction to uncertainty as their primary income. Craps, poker, slot machines, etc all have one thing in common; uncertainty. This uncertainty is spun into a more inviting word however; let’s call it chance. In craps there is only so much strategy that can be put into the game. The rest comes from the roll of the die, the luck from the lovely ladies, and the prayers that are prayed as they toss across the table. Chance rules all casino games and we build cities around chance… That must make uncertainty fairly important.
So how do all three of these tie a game together? Well it is simple. We interact with games in hopes of challenging uncertainty for the reward that it brings. For me the reason I game is the experience and the love of gaming. I love a great story, something that speaks to me in a way that only an interactive medium would. I also love the community and the friendships that can be made around games. So why do you game? For the friendship? For the prestige? Or to defile others with your sweet #360n0scopez… No matter why you game, thank you. Thank you for making gaming a staple in our culture.