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Much like the games we play, most humans' days are filled with routine -- a repetition of memorized patterns designed to produce a desired outcome. We are creatures of habit. We thrive under predictable circumstances with reliable results. If we were to list out the activities that we complete over the course of a week, a month, or even a year, most of us would find that our daily lives are about as complicated as the Konami code.
What will probably flash before our eyes on our deathbeds.
Our lives, if we are honest with ourselves, are as prescribed as a rail shooter. But videogames are no different. Every game, when you break it down into its sub-atomic components, is merely the repetition of patterns and problem-solving exercises with visual cues or narrative progression as a reward. With games, the scope of possibility is even smaller. Not in terms of setting or character or plot, but due to the fact that the experience is crafted for us, rather than by us.
My thoughts have recently been drifting back to a question I thought was already explored in its fullness. Why do we as gamers, who pride ourselves on creative thought and joyful expression, come home from a self-imposed playlist of tasks on repeat only to engage in an activity which demands even more pattern memorization, routine, and repetition?
I used to be satisfied with my answer to that question. Most of the research, surveys, and discussion on the topic boil our motives down to one or more of three main reasons for indulging in our favorite digital daydreams:
3. Social Interaction
Intellectually, those three categories seem to cover all the bases. Up until recently, if you were to ask me why I played games, I would have robotically rattled off those three reasons. If I was feeling saucy, I would have embellished with perhaps a dash of "improving hand-eye coordination" and/or a teaspoon of "problem-solving exercises keeps the mind limber." While those reasons satisfy the logical mind when I share them, there's always this little bothersome feeling that I haven't quite captured all of my true motivations for playing.
Why do we play videogames? SCIENCE!
Entertainment (read as: fun), while an excellent reason to play games, can be achieved through a multitude of options. We have movies, music, books, television, art, theatre, dance, and many other well established means for amusing ourselves (read as: sex). There's nothing unique that videogames provide in that category.
Social interaction is another reason with great merit, but again, there are even more options for us to engage in social interaction then there are in entertainment. The rebuttal that immediately pops up in my mind is that videogames provide a safe haven for those who wish to engage in social interaction without the pressure and anxiety of face-to-face interaction. But that doesn't really hold water. The Internet has been providing that in chat rooms and forums for years now. Again, there's nothing specific to games that make them the logical conclusion for fulfilling this need.
So, that leaves us with escapism.
"But walkyourpath, doesn't your argument for entertainment apply in the escapism category as well? Aren't all those other forms of entertainment you listed just as capable of providing a release from our everyday lives as videogames?"
Yes, and no.
In life, you can do all the right things and still not succeed. The routines that we adhere to so slavishly don't always equate to the outcomes we assume will follow.
You can do your job better than anyone else, and the cousin of the boss can swoop in and get the promotion you worked your ass off for. You can be charming, witty, cool, good-looking, well-to-do, and say all the right things -- you still might not get the guy or gal your heart yearns for.
It is true that if you persevere and constantly strive to improve yourself that the odds are in your favor, but life provides no guarantees.
"I want him in the games until he dies playing."
This is where videogames alone are qualified to provide us with an escape. Yes, most books and movies, etc, are geared to provide us with the happy ending we want to see. But we don't get to participate in that process. In videogames, we are assured that performing the right actions will provide us with the desired result.
If we memorize the right patterns and execute the controls with the appropriate timing, then Mega Man will always defeat Dr. Wily. If we execute our attacks and defense with the proper strategy and our reflexes don't fail us, then Bang Shishigami will always drop Iron Tager. If we spend hours grinding goblins and kobolds and orcs, our abilities will always grow until we are able to defeat any enemy. XP is measurable, reliable, and comforting. It makes us feel good knowing that our efforts will provide a predictable result.
I spent an embarrassing number of hours in my adolescence attempting to move objects with the sheer force of my mind and spirit. As far as you all know, I never succeeded. But if I pop in Psi-Ops or The Force Unleashed, just executing the right patterns and button combinations allow me to accomplish that feat. Every time.
This is why we play games. It reaffirms our belief in the laws of cause and effect. It is security. It is control. More than any other medium, it is the one true escape -- actively participating in life's progression as we feel it should be, and not how it often is.