I just finished a book my good friend Chris Whiteside loaned me that I quite enjoyed. It’s about why games are compelling experiences (for those who find them so) written by a couple psychologists. I think that’s what they are. Anyway, it’s written for the general public and does a really fantastic job of explaining what can seem bewildering and scary to outsiders. The core premise they are working with is that games can fulfill three basic psychological needs really well. Those are competence, autonomy and relatedness. They break down how certain genres of games are especially good at scratching one or more of those itches. I’ll summarize what those needs are real quick.
Competence is something that all humans find satisfaction in attaining. Anything from prowess in sports, mastering scholastic endeavors, learning to art well, or even being awesome at manipulating people. It’s pretty clear how games can fulfill this desire to be great at something. And not only that, but compacts the process down to a pure, distilled form. One that doesn’t require years of practice and mastery. You can learn to be a total badass that can take down an army by the time you’re out of a typical action game tutorial. You can be the greatest quarterback in NFL history after a couple days of playing John Madden Football. You can conquer the world in a game like Civilization in hours. (depending on the difficulty setting) To do those things in real life would take much longer, and realistically would be impossible for pretty much everyone. However, your brain will still pump those chemicals that tell you how great you are when you accomplish these things virtually. (For those who are able to buy into the game world.)
Autonomy is the feeling that you get when you have free reign to choose your destiny. Games have a lot of constraints. We don’t have the technology to make a holodeck where you can literally do anything. But what compelling games DO provide are interesting decisions. Game luminary Sid Meier said “A game is a series of interesting choices.” And as the player, you ought to be autonomous enough to feel like you are driving your experience foreword. That’s one of the reasons I find cutscenes in videogames unappealing. They show “you” saying and doing things that “I”, the player, wouldn't say or do. That being said, different kinds of games appeal more or less to this need for autonomy. And like all needs, some people have more need for this one than others.
Relatedness is just the fact that we are social animals. We literally go insane without relatedness. Games can deliver relatedness in a variety of ways. There’s all the multiplayer modes like cooperative play, competitive, and online games. And there’s the many communities of people who like games that exist outside of the game, but that still inform one’s enjoyment of them. Then there’s the virtual relatedness that one feels when interacting with characters in a game world. You can raise virtual puppies and feel real emotions about them. You can save villagers that, if realized well, you actually feel good about saving. Videogames often provide built-in fan clubs where you are the hero to a social group. Again, here is a shortcut that real life seldom provides. Your brain still gives you the feelings that real life relatedness requires much longer to achieve.
This model of needs satisfaction is the lens through which the book offers analysis on the phenomenon of video games, and it’s a really compelling one to me. They use it to examine things like violence in games, how immersion works, games in non-entertainment contexts, and game overuse, (the term addiction is rejected for a couple reasons they explain) and the social ramifications of it.
A couple items that I found particularly interesting were the violence, overuse, and public policy bits. They did a study where they had groups of people play several versions of a game. They wanted to see if the graphic violence was an important element to their enjoyment. So one group would play the over-the-top-blood-everywhere version. One group would play a medium version, and one would play a version of the game where you weren't killing anyone, but mechanically achieved the same results. Instead of shooting your opponents head off, you tagged them and they floated up into the air and back to their base. It turns out there was no significant difference in participant's rating of their enjoyment of the game. If this is a real phenomenon it raises the question: WHY are we developers making our games gorier and gorier? We KNOW that doing so limits the market for our games, so why do we double down on the the graphic violence if it buys us nothing? The author’s have a couple of answers to this. First, is that the graphic gore is not JUST graphic gore. It actually serves a mechanical purpose. And that is feedback. A game simply does not feel right if there is not immediate and obvious feedback that you have done an action. Sound, visual, and now haptic feedback are all used in this endeavor. And it’s natural to use the context of the game to flavor these kinds of feedback. If you’re playing a WWII game, and you shoot a Nazi with a bazooka and they blow up into rainbow confetti, the mechanical aspect is preserved, but the thematic aspect is ruined.
But THAT raises the question as to why so many games are set in the context of violent conflict to begin with. They have an answer for that as well, and it again, goes back to their needs satisfaction model. And I’ll add that there’s a technical issue at play as well. As to the needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness; physical conflict provides a really great context for meeting them. The technical part comes in to constrain the other ways a video game might seek to meet these needs. Basically it comes down to the fact that videogames are simulated experiences that are riddled with limitations. For example, one could imagine a game (such as on the Holodeck) where you experience competence, autonomy and relatedness by rallying a group of neighbors to clean up an old dilapidated local park. You have to use all sorts of tactics to form a group, organize meetings, convince the right people who are the opinion-shapers of the neighborhood, etc. You have to submit permit forms to the local governance to allow the work to proceed. You have to talk to the hardware store about donating tools. You could make that game. And it would suck. Why? Because AI is TERRIBLE. We can’t even get our AI to move a character from point A to B in a convincingly natural way consistently. Our ‘conversations’ are just branching dialog trees. We are just so SO much better at making stuff blow up then we are at making humans relate and relatable. Not because we game developers don’t care about relatable humans. In fact, we spend a LOT of time and energy on doing our best. It’s just that our best isn’t very good right now.
All of this gets to the heart of a big issue in how non-gamers perceive gamers. When they see a gamer virtually hire a hooker, have sex with her (giving him more health), then running her over with his car to get his money back, what they are seeing are the THEMES. The visual wrapper that is over the mechanics. At that layer of experience, yeah, that’s super gross, and who the hell would enjoy a game where you can do that?! Some gamers really do focus on the themes as well (and the ones who like that particular theme in a serious way certainly are icky people), but for the most part, we are driven by the mechanics underneath. To most gamers, that “prostitute” is not really a representation of a living human being filled with all the value and magic that all humans possess. “She” is a powerup. No different than Pac-Man’s Power Pellet. This is what that study I mentioned above proves. You can swap the wrapper on a set of mechanics and there’s almost no change to a gamer’s enjoyment. More proof is the fact that 90% of the mobile market is re-skinning the couple of successful formulas out there. (Are you matching three fruit, candy, crystals, etc.? Does it matter?)
A fascinating theme running throughout the book deals with the idea that if a gamer is so compelled by the needs that games provide, does this mean that those needs are not being met in the real world? My friend James Portnow seems to think so. Check out these heart-wrenching videos about the roots of game overuse.
This makes me want to be more conscious of my own gaming experience. I’m wondering what it can tell me about the needs I feel are unfulfilled in my life, and how games may be artificially filling them. Like most things (Killing prostitutes is not one of them) moderation seems to be the key. It seems to me that finding a particular game that scratches an itch is a great time to get introspective and think about what psychological need that game is filling. The stronger you feel compelled to spend time with it, the more I would consider this. If you’re satisfying your needs for competence in a game, does that mean you have less motivation to pursue competence in a real world pursuit? Does the false autonomy in games leave one treading water in a dead end job because they don’t have the sharp satisfaction driving them to better their position in life? And most scary of all, does the virtual relationships that games provide keep people from forming real ones?
Like I said, this needs-satisfaction model is one among many lenses. And I’m not saying that every time you find yourself up till 4 in the morning with a game you need to see a psychiatrist, or that your life is completely out of balance. I just think it’s interesting enough to take some time to stop and think about from time to time.
Finally, I’m going to end with an extended quote from the book concerning public policy.
“It’s understandable that policy makers are feeling a responsibility to address videogames, given all the controversies and questions surrounding gaming. Addressing public concerns is, after all, what they do for a living. And there can be no doubt that many constituents are calling on politicians and other rule makers for immediate action. We are neither strong opponents nor proponents of specific regulations, but we hope that whatever policies emerge, they will ultimately be informed by the psychological, behavioral, and health-related facts of gaming, rather than fears or hyperbole. Our research suggests that optimal policy decisions on games cannot be made by focusing only on the themes and content, such as the level of violence in games (the current hot topic in the regulatory debate.) Games’ interactive nature creates complex experiences that are highly relevant to their psychological impact above and beyond the images, sounds, and stories that games present.”