Why do we play games?
25th Nov 2012 | 17:30
Xbox World talks to leading developers, journalists and gamers to find out the real reasons why they play games, from neuro-science to uplifting triumphs over the odds.
Randy Pitchford - President, Gearbox Software
I play games because my brain makes me feel good when it gets dopamine and serotonin, and I create that when I accomplish things. What's interesting is that I can play a game and know exactly how it manipulates my brain, and I feel good about that. It's like I'm hacking my own brain to make my brain feel things I want it to feel.
As a child, I tended towards RPGs, text adventures. I liked Pac-Man and Donkey Kong and other kinds of action games, and even some simulation games - flight sims on the PC and Wing Commander. But when Wolfenstein 3D happened... Here was a game that at its foundation was a reaction time skill test.
Yet there's something about the perspective, the pace and the fact that I'm navigating a maze. Wolfenstein was the first time I really respected and cared about both action games and the immersiveness of that perspective. I started learning about computer graphics in my own programming and changing my focus as a computer hobbyist.
Yosuke Hayashi - Studio head, Team Ninja
One summer holiday my younger brother and I went down to our cousin's place to play NES. I remember that I was so intrigued and into games that I couldn't get away from the TV. I was so glued to it that when my parents said, "It's time to go back home now," we didn't move.
So they said, "All right, we'll get you the NES, and any game you want - we just have to go home now." That promise led my parents to buying me a NES and Super Mario Bros. I remember falling in love with that game. I think that was the moment that shaped my future.
During a lot of turning points in my life, games have been there for me. I remember doing my entrance exam for university and writing a whole essay on Policenauts - Hideo Kojima's game. I got a really good score actually, and that got me into university.
Yuji Korekado - Producer, Kojima Productions
During my childhood, there was a time when I had to gather things to play with, just to make use of my time. Even before gaming came into my life I was creating rules with the objects I found to make games. As soon as electronics came into play I realised I enjoyed the rules and the gaming aspect of electronics, too.
I'm 100% confident that I love games the most and play them more than anybody in our studio. So, nothing has changed since I was smaller. I still love games, and that will never change.
Mark Lamia - Studio head, Treyarch
Our medium is unique. It doesn't matter what's going on in life; when I sit down to play a game, it's almost meditative. There are very few things in this world that I am able to completely focus on. I don't feel the same way about anything as when I'm peeling the plastic off a new game.
I'm just like: 'where am I going to go? Where is this going to take me?' There's going to be a whole other world that I'm going to play in. It's the most immersive form of entertainment.
David Vonderhaar - Game design director, Treyarch
When I started playing games, I had an Intellivision which was my first console. It was just my brother and me and my father - we were by ourselves, and the Intellivision was really this thing that my brother and I had to keep ourselves out of trouble while our dad was working. I really feel like I played games so I could hang with my brother. I wouldn't play single-player games because I just didn't give a shit.
We used to play this baseball game that was pretty badass, we also played Tron: Deadly Discs - that was a sweet game. There was a world-building game called Utopia that was really cool; you had to plant crops and a hurricane would come and wipe them out. Those were good days. I didn't know I was going to be a game designer, that came later, but it all makes perfect sense now.
I love multiplayer. We could have nothing in common; I might go to church and you might not believe in God, whatever, but when we go and play that game together we have something to talk about. If you're slightly nerdy, awkward or shy, then you had this place where you were all on this even field. That's something that's really powerful to me, the social and competitive aspect of multiplayer, and the connection you can give to people.
I've made some great friends playing videogames online. I don't get to play with my brother much now; he's a very busy family man with four kids. I was talking the other day about having a go in some one-on-ones... I haven't thought about that in a long time. Bringing up some memories, man. Working some stuff out.
Tim Willits - Creative Director, Id
For me it was always about Doom. I downloaded the shareware version back in early '94. I was in that first room of E1, M1. I was walking around and firing my gun but I hadn't worked out that the wall at the end of the hallway was a door. I opened that door and the whole world opened up.
I knew then that this was what I had to do - that I had to make games. And the fact that I could mod Doom maps; I felt that there was an infinite amount of things I could do. Then I got lucky enough to work at Id, and now I've been there for 18 years. It's exciting to work on something - and I know it's just a game - which affects the lives of people globally.
Tore Blystad - Game Director, IO
I've always played games. I got a C64 when I was about eight. I was drawing and making music, and on the Amiga later there was this demo scene where people were making different parts, like the music and programming, and putting it together. In Scandinavia that was really big.
These days, for IO in particular, movies are a big inspiration. Kane & Lynch and Freedom Fighters wouldn't exist without the movies we've loved. It's a very visual medium and a space where you can tell very unique stories. I love that part of it.
Warren Spector - Studio head, Junction Point
OK, I'm older than the average gamer, so I didn't grow up with videogames; I grew up with chess, monopoly, checkers, and card games. There were no games to play as a kid so I discovered hobby board games, I discovered Dungeons & Dragons and... let's cut to the chase. In 1978 I was sitting around playing D&D with half a dozen friends - my game master was a guy called Bruce Stirling who's the father of cyberpunk science fiction, and we were playing with some guys who had been writing for DC Comics.
We were playing this game and telling a story together. It was unlike any experience I'd ever had. It wasn't reading a story, it wasn't being told a story, it wasn't watching a story, it was us telling a story and having an experience that no one else on the planet had ever had. And nothing was cooler than that, OK?
I eventually got my chance to make games. I started out doing role-playing stuff for Steve Jackson games and TSR. Then I started playing computer games on an Atari 2600 and on a NES, and on an Atari 400, and then on my Apple II - and I loved those games. I loved them.
But none of those games captured that feeling I had in 1978 when it was my friends and I telling our story. So I've spent the last 23 years trying to recreate the feeling I had in 1978 playing Dungeons & Dragons, just trying to say, '"Hey, it's not about how creative and clever I am, it's about how creative and clever you are."
When I started at Origin, 23 years ago, we used to look around at each other and say, 'Why isn't everybody making games like this?' Why are they doing these stupid puzzle games? And these stupid games where to unlock the blue door you have to kill the blue monster to get the blue key? Why aren't they doing games that let the players tell their own stories?"
Any game that doesn't give you the opportunity to play your story, you should stop playing. I mean that. That's what games do that movies can't, that TV can't, that books can't... And any game that does that we need to support.
Harvey Smith - Co-creative director, Arkane
Games let you explore a space in a very empowered way. If you ever weren't empowered... maybe as a child you were controlled or afraid because traumatic things had happened... games provided a little window into a world in which you were very powerful and you could freely explore and express yourself, violate laws and rules, and encounter powerful monsters and overcome them. You move on and you're not afraid of them again.
I've always thought there was something tied up in all of that; that's the motivator for me playing games - wanting the freedom to express myself and be able to be who I am, which I can do as an adult now, but I couldn't do so much as a child. That's why I like things like Far Cry 2. That whole thing of being in a scary alien environment, it leads you to want to face scary monsters in difficult situations and achieve mastery over them. I think that, for me, is why I'm drawn to the types of games I'm drawn to.
Rob Jones - Gameplay director, NBA 2K
I've been playing games since I was 14. I started on C64 but when I got to college some guys had consoles. We had our own Intellivision basketball league. What really got me, though, was the competitiveness and interaction between me and that guy I'm playing against. Madden always played a huge part, and that's where I started my career. I went to EA and worked on Madden for five years, but basketball was my first love.
I've always said that when we reach a point where I think we're mimicking the sport, that's when I go and do something else. When I started on 2K we were really far from what playing basketball in real life felt like. We're still not as close as I'd like to be. I know people say it's the best simulation, but it's still not quite the experience you have on court. Trying to mimic that is what drives me every day.
Andy Hartup - XBW Associate Editor
There's no great mystery to why I play games. Having read all your stories on our XBW Facebook page, I can safely say that my relationship with games is very much the same as yours. I play to beat stress, create lives in worlds I can only dream of, and entertain myself and friends.
For me it all started with a game called Harrier Attack on my Amstrad CPC-464. It was on cassette and took six minutes to load. Puts today's load times into perspective. Harrier Attack lead to games like Dizzy on Amiga, which then lead to Sonic on Sega Megadrive and Sensible Soccer on PC.
Oddly, the games I spent most time playing in my youth were Duke Nukem (I loved messing with the level editor, creating maps for mates to try out) and Civilization. Myself and a friend (who currently works in game development) used to spend days taking it in turns to manage a single civilisation from tiny, primitive tribe to world-smashing, space exploring superpower.
Those last two games, for me, nail the main reasons I still play. Editing levels in Duke Nukem highlights the creative freedom (and pure fun) gaming brings me. That creative potential has, in no small part, influenced my choice of career. And Civilization? It was the perfect game for building and nurturing something epic (which is now championed by RPGs like Skyrim), and importantly, it was all about sharing my love for games with, er, the people I love.
Daniel Dawkins - Editor-in-Chief, XBW
The least virtuous reason why I started to play videogames, and still do, is to escape reality. Nowadays, I play to distract my brain from the ageing dog shuffling around our dirty kitchen, bills, work or any of the things that come with an (relatively) adult life, deadening my senses with satisfying-yet-meaningless, feedback loops. I just tap away at Football Manager on my iPad, ideally while 'watching' TV, for the ultimate, multi- tasking, busywork escape.
As a kid, it'd be to escape the unspoken tensions of our family. Chiefly, it'd be to escape my schizophrenic grandmother who'd sit in the lounge all day shouting about Hitler, pointing at the TV or staring at you. In contrast, playing the utterly baffling Captain Blood on Spectrum 48k made a lot more sense.
Of course, there are more admirable reasons. I'm torn between playing videogames for their sheer sensory and magpie-like-thrill - ooh, shiny - or, whisper it, their philosophical depth. In my mind, to truly love videogames you need to be someone willing to challenge reality: a creative spirit who dares to imagine better, or different.
The world, frankly, is a confusing, unfair and often dispiriting place without rules or reason - everything a good videogame is not. So while in one sense videogames are a retreat, they also represent a longing for a fairer world - a universe with rules, clear feedback and rewards. The best videogames are pure meritocracy. Being a player in UK society currently, by contrast, is like taking part in a really shit videogame where a tiny minority control all the best guns and spawn points, yet pretend we're all capable of topping the leader board.
Games are the most dynamic medium, with potential for immersion - and meaning - way beyond movies, films or books. In over 25 years of playing games, some moments burn as brightly as the day they occurred. The first time I saw Commando on a friend's C64. Watching Dragon's Lair in a dirty seaside arcade. Cooing at Karnov on Spectrum 48k's full colour graphics.
Firing up my MegaDrive and hearing sound through the TV speakers. Hearing Nights' spine tingling final song with the haunting kid's voices and heartbreaking lyrics. MGS3's ladder climb. Uncharted 3's plane scene. All moments indistinguishable from magic, that challenged my notion of the possible, or touched me to my core.
20 years from now? Who knows, but it's a thrilling wait. For all the cynicism around tired AAA, play-it-safe, sequels, games are still more fun than just about anything else. As George Bernard Shaw said, "We don't stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing." I'm older, and want to play, but to recapture those childhood feelings of wonder and awe, games need to grow up, too.
Alex Dale - Writer, XBW
I play games because I find TV and movies too passive. I find the universes and characters fascinating but I yearn to interact with them in some way - to make my mark on that world. Books allow me to shape a world visually, music allows me to attribute meaning through personal experience, but cinema is always a fixed narrative.
Games are, for me, the perfect storm of auteurship and player control. It doesn't matter if it's Defender or Metal Gear Solid 3 - as long as the developers have given me a cohesive and consistent world to exist in and mechanics that are in the first instance accessible and fun but deep enough for me to learn to exploit through experience and experimentation, then I will take their vision and I will play and play and play. And I will tell stories - of perseverance, redemption and heroic failure - that the original auteur could hardly have dreamed of.
Andy Kelly - Writer, XBW
I play games to escape life. That sounds mental, yes, but it's true. I am fully aware of the outside world. I often go there to buy bread or drink pints of beer, but sometimes I need a break . I don't play games for the challenge. I don't care about being good - I'm all about story and immersion, and being transported to another place.
I like slow games where nothing much happens. Wandering around the wilds of Skyrim, or exploring the streets of Detroit in Deus Ex. When I play games, I use headphones. Then I flip off the lights and it's like being in a sort of gaming womb. I no longer care about the real world; just what's casting a flickering glow on my face.
Michael Gapper - Features Editor, XBW
I don't have a reason to love games and I don't think I need one. Egyptians were playing Senet in 3500 BC for the same reason we're playing games today - for fun, competition, escape, for mental exercise, for therapy even. It's only human to love games, video or not; the weird ones are the people who decide to stop playing.
David Green, XBW Reader
Luckily, I was born in 1983 so I've grown up at the same time as gaming. I was always aware of it and mainly played Atari STE, and before that Spectrum, until I was a teenager. In those days you'd only really be playing games if it was winter or raining as I'd mostly be outside playing football with friends.
Gaming then, with a few exceptions like Megalomania or Civilization, was a very solo and private affair and I've kind of carried that through to today. I play, and enjoy, multiplayer but look at it as a bonus to the single player experience.
I first got into console gaming in a big way when the N64 was released. I had a pretty intense and serious operation and was out of school from April to the following October, and was pretty much alone for the duration. In many ways, my N64 became my best friend and allowed me to have adventures and escape my room in a way I couldn't physically. I've had a love for Nintendo since and recently my girlfriend's nephew, aged six, has started playing an N64 and he loves it as much as I did.
My first real job was working at Gamestation in 2000 and I was with them up until GAME's takeover. I was a store manager so the whole of my adult life has been very much immersed in gaming. I still play now, maybe even more than ever. It's maily for the thill and escapism and adventure, but also because I think a truly good game transcends other mediums − like the written word, music or film − and delivers something unique that only interactive entertainment can. Your own adventure. Your own story. Your own world.
Plus, the younger me that only had his N64 for company (and ex-XBW editor, Tim Weaver's old N64 magazine!) would never forgive me if I stopped playing now. Basically, I owe it to myself to keep playing.
Brian Baker, XBW Reader
I dont like working, paying taxes, dealing with the general public, being poor. Hate it all. But then I fire up the Xbox and now I'm a one man walking tank, saving the universe! I'm the first human Spectre, kicking/tapping ass across the galaxy! I'm a crime lord beating people with a massive pink dildo! I'm an undercover cop that knows kung fu!
Emily Ranson, XBW Reader
In games you can be who you want to be. No judgement. No problems. I started gaming when I was younger and had a PS1. I'd sit there and play Tomb Raider with my dad, and I loved this new reality. The game that really got me where I am today though is Mass Effect. It was the first game I'd ever played on an Xbox and I loved every minute of it.
Lewis Davies, XBW Reader
With video games I've won the NBA and the NFL. I've been a legend in the WWE. I've helped Liverpool win the league. I've saved the world many times. And that's the beauty of videogames - you can be anyone or anything. It's the best form of entertainment around.
Ned Newberry, XBW Reader
When I was a child I loved playing with my toys, creating adventures for them in my mind and for me games are an extension of that. You can watch a movie and enjoy the story, but playing a game lets you participate in that story. It's not just adventure games either: when I play FIFA instead of yelling at Gervinho when he misses a sitter I can make it for him.
Edward Lewis, XBW Reader
I think that things like the Final Fantasy series helped to shape my imagination. For example, when Final Fantasy VII came out I started to write fan fiction. I was inspired by the story. Today I'm a writer by trade, and the hard work that goes in to the production of games still inspires me to keep plugging away at what I do.
Matt Reynolds, XBW Reader
I'd had my heart set on a SNES but one go on Sonic convinced me that Sega was for me. I remember my excitement that year. Just before Christmas, I was coming down the stairs just as my dad came through the front door with shopping bags, and poking out the top of one was a Mega Drive box. I pretended I didn't see!
Andy Monahan, XBW Reader
My dad bought one of those ZX80's that you had to build yourself. We then upgraded to a ZX81 with a 16K RAM pack! I spent most of my time typing in programs from Your Sinclair (and doing a lot of squinting). Next up was a C64 courtesy of my Gran. This is when I really got into games. Now I'm in my 40s I'm a little more fussy about what I play.
Robin Dimond, XBW Reader
I started playing games as a social thing - but when tough times came along, growing up, they gave me somewhere to be other than reality and helped me get through it by giving me something to feel good about. Saving the world repeatedly is bound to have an impact on one's self esteem eventually. Now I play partially for escapism and partially for inspiration.