Why Do You Play Video Games?

Finding the right balance between connection and fun.

Think back to your earliest memories of playing video games. Which moments stick out to you? There are two in particular for me. Sharing one computer with my brother as we took turns leveling up our characters in Diablo II. I remember being frustrated when I found out he had made it to Act III before me because I was having trouble beating the big boss at the end of Act II. I remember watching my brother play and just taking in the jungle setting of Kurast. I remember cackling when he had to face a swarm of fetishes for the first time and marveling when it was revealed that Act IV would involve following Diablo through a portal into hell.

My second memory involves local area network (LAN) parties with my family. We would spend hours playing both Starcraft and Warcraft, strategizing how to beat computer opponents. We would always be trying a combination of different maps and races and tactics to survive and dominate. After every game, we’d meet up and rehash the battle, looking at what we did well and what we could’ve done better. There was no larger story involved, no grand plot. It just involved playing these games for fun, and even more precisely, connection. Games were one of the ways my family has bonded over the years. While the basic mechanics of the games never changed, every memory of playing together is unique and immensely valuable.

These memories have stayed with me today and have done a lot to inform my opinion of video games, which I prefer and which ones I don’t. They have helped me keep an open mind and not judge video games solely based on content or mechanics. What I have been most interested in lately, though, is why people play video games. What makes them choose one video game over another. I’m not talking about personal taste here either. Some people just like vampires, and others don’t. Some people like top-down RTS games, and others like games like turn-based strategy games. Some people like Overwatch. Other people like Fortnite.

I’m talking more broadly here. I want to focus on why gamers sit down to play video games in the first place, and not any one video game specifically, but video games in general. Out of all the myriad games and all the myriad circumstances and contexts and types of gamers, I’ve zeroed in on one reason that drives this impulse, highlighting the immense power and value video games have in the context of humanity.

Video games provide us with the one of the things humans crave most: connection.

All the great video games we know and love foster intimate connections either within ourselves or between ourselves and others. When a story is emotional or memorable, the characters and their journey are connecting with you. They are resonating with you. Conversely, when you and your friends score a win in Apex Legends or Call of Duty, that’s the game fostering connection between friends, who are often hundreds of miles away from each other. If I had my way, the sole metric that all video games would be judged on is how well they do at fostering connection. Good games do this well. Bad games don’t.

As more and more people discover gaming for the first time, and video games continue to be catapulted even further into the mainstream, it’s worth taking a look at how we value games, why people play, and why some games succeed and some don’t. In our current landscape, it all starts with how we define fun.

A game‘s fun score is a flawed metric.

Fun is too wrapped up in personal preference. It’s not as broad or bold a metric as connection, and thus has its limits. Whether a game is fun can both differ from game to game and also from person to person. It’s also highly subjective to a game designer’s views as well as a gamer’s views. Basing games around what’s fun is making a glorified dice roll, hoping that your definition of fun lines up with whoever happens to pick up your game and give it a shot.

And sadly, great games can live and die on this metric. There are many examples of games that get panned by both gamers and sometimes even critics because the game doesn’t quite meet an often arbitrary definition of fun. Describing a game as fun is often irrelevant and many times inefficient. Great games don’t have to be fun, and many bad games are a lot of fun.

This is why describing The Last of Us as fun doesn’t feel right. It’s why people keep grinding ranked play in Call of Duty or Apex Legends, despite constantly getting mowed down by better players. It’s why people will play Candy Crush for hours on end.

None of this is fun.

Does it foster connection, though? I would say absolutely.

Do we learn something about ourselves and our world as we go on a harrowing journey with Joel and Elle? Unquestionably.

Are we able to bond with our friends and even randoms as we laugh at our epic fails and revel in the occasional win in Call of Duty? Of course.

Are we satisfied to have achieved one or two more levels in Candy Crush while waiting in line? Definitely.

My point is that while fun is certainly a factor in designing a game, fun is not why people choose to play a game. Fun is the difference between people choosing Overwatch over Apex Legends. Why people sat down in the first place and chose to play a Battle Royale is all about connection.

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