Why We Play Games: The Mystery Behind Our Desire to Play Games

Games date back to the ancient human past. Man has always played games. It’s one of the oldest forms of human social interaction. Historically, we have used games for entertainment but also to practice various skills. For example, chess** was used in the Middle Ages to teach noblemen how to use various war strategies.  Another ancient game with a serious purpose, was Kalaha. People practiced their ability to think ahead and see patterns – something that was an important skill when hunting.

The human ability to play is very powerful. The reason we are so attracted to games; get spellbound, yes, even obsessed by playing games, is a few of our basic psychological needs are largely satisfied when we play games.

Some say people play games because they want to escape reality; that is use gaming for escapism. It is true that we like discovering and departing to other realities – especially those that are much more exciting than our own. But. Apparently, this is not the main reason we play games.

At least not if you should believe Scott Rigby, Ph.D. in clinical and social psychology from the University of Rochester. He means that games “fulfill several real-world human needs in a number of positive ways”.
Rigby has pinned down a few key motivations behind our addiction to gaming. Those basic psychological needs, are always at play, always working.

Games perfectly target many of these human desires:

1. Humans like to feel successful and competent. We are searching for control and like to master our fate. We need to feel accomplished. This need plays out in real life (when we don’t feel satisfied we change jobs for example) – and in games. When we level up, games fulfil our yearning to feel capable.

2. We like to feel autonomous. We hate being manipulated. On the contrary, we prefer to have a certain degree of control over our actions. To permit us to feel independent and give us freedom, many games offer a huge amount of free choices.

3. To us humans, it is important to feel that we matter to other people. We like kinship. No man likes to be idle and in general we want to contribute; to society and so on. Game quests are not seldom structured around helping or collecting a treasure and the like.

Why do we like to feel competent, independent and related to others? Apparently, it makes us feel good. It keeps us sane.

We can fulfill these basic needs -presented above – in various ways (hobbies, work, sports, friends). According to some sociologists though, (video) games are “one of the most seductive of all of these activities because they fulfill our psychological needs more efficiently than almost any other activity.” ***

What if – which a lot of people are already trying to figure out – we managed to make work tasks more like games – so that we could create societary benefits and made good deeds when having fun?

More on this topic

Jane McGonigal’s TED talk Gaming Can Make a Better World
Tom Chatfield, 7 ways games reward our brain

Celemi Blog 

Serious fun: Using Games in Business 

Gamification – What it is and What it does 

*/In the 18th century, combat simulations were used for warfare instruction (Starr, 1994 in Kleiboer, 1997, p. 198) In order to instruct its officers more effectively, the Prussian army introduced Kriegsspiel (War Games). In addition, maps, tabletops, sandbanks and model armies provided simulation and gaming tools for military strategizing and tactical development. Most probably, the game of chess was originally developed to provide a simulated training experience for senior military commanders (Beckker, 1976 in Kleiboer, 1997, p. 198.)/

**/The exact origin of chess is unclear, but most historians believe it started in India, Persia or China sometime before 600 A.D. The modern game of chess started around year 1500 in southern Europe./