Why Do We Play the Games We Play?
How big is your pile of shame? You know, the games you mean to play, but just don't have time for? You'll play them eventually, of course. Just, after you finish this other pile...
One game I recently finished was Batman: Arkham Knight, but I have trouble explaining why, of all the games on my pile of shame, this was the game that took priority.
It made me wonder about the motivations players have in deciding to play one game instead of another. Why do we play the games we play?
People are complicated, and we do things for good reasons, weird reasons, and sometimes no reason at all. In an era defined by a glut of content (and a lack of time to enjoy it), understanding the player's impulse to play one title over another might open a door to understanding player behavior in general.
With that in mind, I wrote up a list of possible motivations that might move players to decide which game to select from their pile of shame (or their shelf - whatever).
So here they are, 12 reasons why we play the games we play. Some motivations are social, some personal, and some are just weird. Enjoy!
1) Because I'm a fan
brand loyalty, self-identification, cultural association, that sort of thing
I guess i just like Batman... So I HAVE to play this, right? I NEED to prove my Batman bona fides...
We players like things. We're fans of things, and of course when games come out that have lots of things we like, we want to play those games! That's being a fan.
Fan culture is the lifeblood of the games industry, and fans don't act alone. Fans are part of something, a culture, a genre, a brand. It's more than an interest, it's cultural capital of a kind. One's association with particular brands affects our identities and our social relationships. Fandom helps us carve out a place for ourselves within the larger scheme of popular culture.
Fan culture is based on self-identify, social pressure, and incredibly effective branding. Playing a game "because you're a fan" maintains or progresses that self-identity within a larger social sphere. Got to establish that fan cred, after all.
Maybe we're fans of a game genre, a specific kind of play, or whatever is available on our chosen console. Most often, usually we're fans of a franchise.
As for me, many years ago, I saw a cartoon called Batman: The Animated Series, and it was the best cartoon I'd ever seen. Fast forward past many, many movies and a few games, and I played a game called Batman: Arkham Asylum, and for the first time I felt like Batman... in a game! And it had the same voices as the cartoon!
At that moment, I became loyal to the Rocksteady brand of Batman games. I was going to buy them, I was going to play them, and I would not stop until I got every Riddler trophy. I became loyal to this particular brand of Batman, and took on the mantle (or cowl?) of a loyal player who will reach 100% completion of the game on Hard-level difficulty every time - and any cultural capital that might come with that (which isn't much).
So , of course I'll play Arkham Knight, right? What kind of fan would I be if I didn't play the final entry in the series? At this point, I feel motivation on an individual level - to play the game with the thing I like, and also on a social level - to maintain my self-identification and credibility as a Batman fan by playing the game.
But was that the real reason I went back to playing Batman in March of 2017? Not really. More on that later.
2) Because it's the new hotness
following trends, social capital, staying in the loop, plain ol' curiousity and novelty, etc.
Never seen THAT before! Better check it out... if only so I'll know what everyone is talking about...
Every once in a while, something comes along that feels completely new. Take Horizon: Zero Dawn, the first what is likely to be a new series. Ever since that teaser from E3 2015, the game's unique take on open world adventure piqued my interest and the interest of many others. I could have been a fan of the developer (Guerrilla Games of Killzone fame), but my main motivation for playing was a basic curiosity about that big new thing.
Much like fandom, there is a social element at work here. There are some games where it feels like everyone is playing them, and there may even be a little social pressure to stay in the know by playing the game, too. You've got to play the game so you can talk about it with your friends without spoiling the whole thing!
And don't forget, when it comes to novelty, there's a time limit. To play a game when it's still new and unspoiled is to be part of an event when it's still vital. Soon enough, reviews will come in, judgments will be made, and a general consensus will settle over the title of how good it was, what it's faults were, etc. With the mystery gone, the novelty factor wears off and the social pressure ebbs. In the case of Horizon, it was only a few days before Zelda: Breath of the Wild came out and immediately the new hotness. That was quick!
On an individual level, I'm motivated to play a new, different game like Horizon by curiosity and novelty, while on a social level I want to play it to maintain status in the game player culture and be part of the event while it's still the hot new thing.
Playing a high-profile game on release allows players to take part in a communal event, and to be part of the most relevant game-related conversations of the moment.
It also just kind of looks cool.
3) Because I've heard good things AKA Because my friends won't shut up about it...
social pressure and probably some genuine curiosity too
Dude, you HAVE to play _______! Why haven't you played __________?
Sometimes, you need a little push to start a game, and sometimes it's totally worth it. To be honest, the rabid fan-base of the Zelda franchise was a little off-putting to me. The pressure I felt to play these games was like someone recommending I watch The Wire - so strong it made me NOT want to play it. I had never finished a Zelda game in my life, and was perfectly happy to wait and buy my own Switch to play the game at... some future date.
But then, of course was the fan reaction. I'd never seen so many posts and shares regarding a game. Critics I pay attention to were not just fawning over a solid open world adventure, but possibly the best open world game EVER MADE. Okay, now I HAVE to play it.
Social pressure is a strong factor in encouraging players to start a game, or at least play it sooner rather than later.
It's not as if I didn't want to play Breath of the Wild, I just realized that I needed to play it right away. A little social pressure convinced me to borrow a friend's Switch and play for as long... as he let's me use his Switch.
4) Because I need my fix...
Short-term rewards within a reasonable time frame.
Just one victory... Okay, one more victory after this...
This one doesn't so much apply to me personally as much as some people I know. Sometimes, playing a game isn't so much about exploring a world, experiencing a story, or playing a game that has an ending. Sometimes, you just need that fix!
MOBAs like League of Legends, or any game that features time-limited multiplayer competition, is the type of game I most often hear about when someone talks about playing a game to scratch an itch, or get a quick victory, or you know... get their fix.
Although these games are fairly addictive, I'm not really talking about addiction here. What I mean by "getting a fix" is type of experience that a player who has very little time, energy or brain bandwidth to invest in playing games. This type of player may want a game experience that is simple, predictable, and time-boxed as the best way to get quick rush of victory and a feeling of accomplishment - to get their gaming fix.
Games that present a predictable path toward accomplishment present a strong motivation to keep going back to "get that fix."
This "fix" could just as easily come from discovering a planet in No Man's Sky (if you're still playing that) as much as a victory in League of Legends or a Call of Duty match. Any game that presents a predictable path toward a feeling of accomplishment could apply.
5) Because it seems like a thing that I'd like...
Genre loyalty, gameplay similarity, and genuine curiosity
3rd-person fantasy RPG, you say? I get to ride a horse, you say? I'm in.
Sometimes, you're just curious. I played The Witcher 3 not because it was the hot new thing, or because of peer pressure. I just kind of wanted to play it. Why? Because open world action RPGs are my jam. Nuff said!
I guess you could call this genre loyalty. I like games in a similar category, I had a hankering to "go to there" so I played The Witcher 3. Sure enough, playing this game puts my brain in a similar state as Skyrim or Dragon Age. Very different games, to be sure, but I'm "in it," and I like that.
Genre loyalty helps a player predict the nature of a gameplay experience, and makes for an easier decision in trying a new game.
I will totally finish this game... eventually. Just as soon as I finish Zelda.
6) Because I have a few minutes to kill AKA because I'm addicted...
Filling time, getting a quick boost of Dopamine...
I admit it. I can't stop..
Mobile games have a special place in considering the "What makes us play the games we play?" question. The impulse to play a mobile game can often be just as much about Skinner Box-style training as much as anything else. Mobile games are designed to be habit-forming, the goal is not just to get players to play, but to play every day.
This gives rise to features that encourage players to leave, but only so they can come back later for a reward. When a player reliably returns to a mobile game, it's called retention, and it's absolutely crucial to any game with a free-to-play business model. The goal is to make playing the game a part of the player's daily life, and to ensure that every return to the game is a positive experience. This leads to the player forming a habit of thinking "I should get back to this game," whenever they have a spare moment.
There's also the matter of getting a quick rush of Dopamine every time the player gets a reward - that is also a great way to form habits...
For me, the game that got me to think "I have a few minutes, I should play this game!" was Shop Heroes. Shop Heroes is a wonderfully addictive crafting game that I literally had to force myself to stop playing. I also just had fun when I played it (what FTP developers call engagement). You should totally check it out.
Games with strong retention and engagement features, especially on mobile devices, can create a strong impulse in a player reliably return to the game.
Actually, I have a few minutes to kill... I should play some more Shop Heroes. I think my helmets are done.
7) Because I'll be punished if I DON'T play...
Maximizing efficiency or avoiding penalties
I'm back to finish the photoshoot and I still look fabulous
Mobile games don't always encourage retention with rewards. Sometimes, it's a matter of maximizing efficiency or avoiding punishment. In Nicki Minaj: The Empire (a game I worked on) the player spends Energy on Projects. Projects are photoshoots, appearances, performances or anything that will get a hot young celebrity more Fans.
The better a player does in a Project, the more Fans that player will gain as a result. Working on a Project costs Energy, which runs out quickly. Fortunately, Energy regenerates over time. Unfortunately, Projects are timed. A player who wants to maximize efficiency will regularly return to the game whenever their Energy is full. This creates a clear incentive to keep returning to the game (retention!). This impulse to maximize efficiency is key to many successful mobile games (Shop Heroes is no exception). If you forget to keep logging in, you'll waste valuable time.
But wait, that's not all. If I forget to keep logging in and work on the Project, I can end the Project with a low rating. A low rating on a Project could actually cost me precious Fans! A design such as this actually punishes players for NOT coming back to the game. I guess that's one way to do it...
Games that require regular retention to maximize efficiency, or punish the player for not returning to the game, create a strong incentive for players to keep coming back.
Ideally, you don't punish players for not returning to your game fast enough. That's just mean. I kind of wish the Nicki game hadn't done that.
8) Because it's my happy place...
Escapism, nostalgia, role-play, immersion
I want to go to there.
I have this friend that just will NOT stop playing Final Fantasy XIV. I can't say why exactly, but he's had a tough year. I think that the game is an escape for him, a place where he has some control, some power, when the 'real' world takes so much of our control away.
Sometimes, we just need an escape. Previous generations might have read books or went outside or something. My generation? We play video games! For me, games like Skyrim, Fallout 3, and Mass Effect 2 were games that provided me a "happy place" to escape to when life just wasn't easy.
Another similar motivation is nostalgia. My roommate currently has access to almost every game in existence, and he chooses to play Everquest. Not "new" Everquest, mind you, but a vintage version of Everquest kept alive by a fan server. Why? Because he can walk around and see familiar sights for the first time in a decade. Those spaces mean something to him. Games mean things, you guys.
It's not always a matter of shutting out the real world or reliving one's younger days. Immersion is a fun experience in itself. Games often present fantastic worlds that players want to visit no matter their life situation. If playing a game makes a player happy, then it's their "happy place."
The desire for escapism, nostalgia, or an immersive experience can be powerful motivations to pick up a game and inhabit another world for a while.
In the words of Liz Lemon, "I want to go to there."
9) Because my friends are playing...
Peer pressure, shared experiences, quality time with one's fellow nerds
We're all playing. Like right now. You play now.
Some of the reasons listed above for choosing to play a game involved social pressure - to represent fandom, to keep up with the latest trends, or to get your friends to quit badgering you. This particular reason here is ALL about social motivation, or pressure, depending on your perspective.
Multiplayer games with robust populations have great retention. It's where our friends live, and that keeps us coming back.
One of my roommates plays Overwatch every night. Every. Night. Why? Because his friends are playing, and he has more fun when he plays the game with his friends. Simple! Would he play Overwatch even if none of his friends were online? Maybe, I think it's also a "fix" for him (see reason #4).
Multiplayer shooters, MOBAs, MMOs, and numerous mobile games all utilize social motivation to keep players coming back. It's easily one of the most (if not THE most) powerful reasons why people choose to play one game over another.
Social motivation (or pressure) is one of the primary reasons players choose to play a game.
Would you play Destiny if none of your friends were playing? Would you?
10) Because I want to play something as I listen to podcasts...
Relaxation, desire for mild distraction
Got to do something as I catch up on Pod Save America, amiright?
I listen to quite a few podcasts, and I have absolutely no time to get through them all during the week. My solution has been to spend a few hours ever Saturday or Sunday catching up on the week's latest episodes all in a row. What do I do as I listen? I play video games, of course!
I've found that there's a certain type of game that works best for this. Something that keeps my attention but doesn't distract from my listening. I want something visual, with engaging gameplay and infrequent dialogue that let's me pause the podcast if I need to.
Fallout 4 is a perfect fit for this. I can explore, build, kill things and grind all while listening to random podcasts about the history of the French Revolution (or something). It's great! Any open world game is a good fit, and I don't think I'm alone in this pattern. It may be a weird reason to choose a game, but lately it's one of my favorite ways to play games (and get through my podcast backlog).
It's almost like I reach a mild meditative state or something.
Games that provide a mild distraction as the player does/listens to other things can be a nice way to relax .
It's also a great way to get through a boring game. I don't think I'd have finished Tom Clancy's: The Division otherwise.
11) Because I'm making a game just like this...
Research, competitive analysis, trying to get a job
Any fun is incidental (okay, it's still fun).
Okay, so this one only applies to those who work in games, but it's still relevant. I find myself playing a lot of games for research. I could be applying for a new position, or analyzing competitors while developing a new concept. No matter the reason, I always learn a lot.
Playing a game for research is a little different from playing just for pleasure. You need to be more analytical, to take notes, and to do everything you can to get beyond the surface and really find out what makes a game tick.
I've also found that research gets me to play games I'd have never picked up on my own (Kim Kardashian: Hollywood comes to mind), and I ALWAYS learn something. Recently, it was Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes - which I'd technically already played, but this time it was for work!
Playing a game for research is a great way to experience new games and expand one's design skills through analysis.
Making games is tough, but it has its perks.
12) Because it's personal...
Compulsion, being stubborn, weird self-goals, hopelessly obsessive completionism
I like this game but I can't wait for it to be over.
We've made it to the end and come full circle. I noted earlier in this post that while I am a genuine Batman fan and really do like the gameplay of Batman: Arkham Knight, I wasn't playing the game because I'm a fan. The real reason has to do with compulsion, and weird goals I set in my life.
A few years ago, I was jobless. This happens in the industry (too often). I was in a head space of needing to get a new gig, and didn't really allow myself to 'enjoy' things as I usually would. I certainly wouldn't let myself just sit and play a game when I could be working to further my career.
As a result, I went for a few months without really playing any games for pleasure (I did play a few games because of reason #11, though).
It wasn't a great time, but nothing lasts forever. After a few trials and tribulations I did eventually get a new job, and Batman: Arkham Knight was the first game I played just for the pure pleasure of it. I still remember hooking up my PS4 to the TV in my temporary corporate-housing apartment. It was glorious!
Batman: Arkham Knight became more than a game for me, it was a symbol of my newfound security and freedom. But it didn't really last. I got busy with my new job, and sort of fell off the game for a while.
Then, as happens, I lost THAT job, too (I was the first of many - the studio was shut down soon after). I found myself in the same spot I had been a few years prior. I stopped playing games, and put my focus on finding the next gig.
But nothing lasts forever. More trials, more tribulations, and new opportunity eventually came. What was the first game I played after getting my new(er) job? Can you guess? I think you know.
This time, I was determined to finish the Batman: Arkham Knight, and that's exactly what I did. Completing the game meant more to me than just finishing off the series - I was finishing a whole chapter in my life.
Sometimes we play games for personal reasons. Games can become more than entertainment, they can become symbols. This adds meaning to our play that transcends the intentions of developers or publishers.
It's also just that I'm a hopelessly-obsessive completionist - but that's a different post.
So where we are. Twelve motivations that guide us to play the games we play, but we've only scratched the surface. I have a feeling I'll be coming back to this one in future posts!