Why do we play games? Part I

Why do we play games? It’s a question so simple, so obvious that I wouldn’t be surprised if 80% of the game design population never tried to answer this. Answering this question will not be the holy grail of game design, but I’m sure it would help the designer on some big decisions, like what’s missing or better yet, what needs to be cut. Of course there’s going to be a conflict between what the player wants to play and what the designer wants to design. There’s also the concept of target audience that I’ll not poke here, not even with a 7 foot stick. All this aspects come into play when designing a game, but this is not the point of the question. The question is there waiting to be answered; what do we do with that answer is a whole other subject.

So, without further ado, here’s the list of reasons that I’ll be expanding upon in the next couple of months:

  • Rewards.
  • Escapism.
  • Interest / Intrigue.
  • Experimentation.
  • Challenge.
  • Investment.
  • Social aspect.
  • Time killing.
  • Fun.


The whole rewards topic is deeper than what I’ve covered with the previous post, but I need to explore the other reasons further before returning to this again.

So, continuing with the list, we arrive to the concept of escapism. Some people play games because they can escape from reality, forgetting about their real life problems and just be sucked in into the happenings on the screen. Some games try to enhance this by toning down levels of abstraction, such as the GUI. Seeing characters with bars over their heads is not as inmersive as seeing them change their posture according to how beaten down they are. A recent great example would be the way Alone in the Dark shows the inventory: The main character opens his jacket to reveal a lot of inside pockets with the items he has. I can’t recall any game that showed were all the items you are supposedly carrying are. I don’t wanna know where mario and luigi keep all the coins they keep collecting.
Frankly I think that a way of aproaching inmersiveness is trying to keep the player on his toes. The player is so focused on the actions that he forgets everything else around him. You know when you are at the movies and you are only focused on the film? In those moments you don’t think about all the people around you, until that is, someone gets a call from the cellphone or yells or throws food at the screen. A game is exactly like that, but the distractions take the form of awkward controls and sometimes awkward GUI. For example when you look down to the joystick to remind yourself where is that damm button, or when you can’t find an option on the menu.
So, in short, the inmersiveness is enhanced for greater effect when the gameplay is intuitive and the player can get used to it in a matter of minutes/seconds. The rest depends on the game design and genre.

Interest and intrigue is next up on the list, and I’ll be writting about that topic in the next part.


2 thoughts on “Why do we play games? Part I

  1. You can’t really keep a player “on his toes” all the time though. That will only fatigue him/her and they will “zoom out” of the game for a “break”. The developer commentaries for the Half-Life 2 episodes talk a lot about interspersing gun fights or other twitch based hazards with calmer puzzle sections.

  2. Diego Doumecq

    Exactly. You can’t pressure the player constantly, especially in games that are not suppossed to be played in short bursts such as guitar hero or rockband.

    But I have to say that building a cohesive story complemented with appropiate mechanics, enviroment and gameplay has a far greater impact on inmersiveness than the amount of GUI on the screen.
    We can handle abstraction, but he have a much harder time believing in the game’s world when we start questioning it’s limits. Why can’t I carry more than 2 potions to battles? Why can’t I run? Why can’t I shoot upwards? Why can’t I save outside of savepoints?

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