So, why do people play video games anyway? Of course there are lots of reasons, but understanding them helps when you’re beginning to design games. In reading “Video Games and Computer Holding Power”, a chapter from “The Second Self” by Sherry Turkle, a few cases come up which illustrate a couple of motivations. Keep in mind that the book is about 25 years old by now, so the games they are studying are Asteroids, Space Invaders, and similar. Most of those games focused on “hard fun”, but they still seem to be representative of many games today.
Games are systems which react to the actions of the player. The player gives the game certain input, and the game responds to it by behaving in a certain way. As the player figures out how the actions and reactions relate to each other, they are able to control the game state, to make it do what they want it to. For example, when you play Super Mario Bros. you learn where to jump and how to move to beat the enemies and get to the end of the level quickly. In Tetris you learn to place blocks so that you can destroy them well and get a high score. As players master a game, they start to feel control over it. The player feels control over the game’s micro-world much more than they would normally feel in real life.
Fun games can take advantage of this by leading the player to learn how they work, while continuously providing new obstacles to overcome. This way the player is always increasing their mastery of the system, while never running out of things to learn.
Deep concentration, or Flow
Sherry also describes an altered state of mind involving deep concentration. Though the chapter never actually uses the word, this altered state matches very well with Csíkszentmihályi’s notion of “flow.” There’s a good deal to read on flow (notably Csíkszentmihályi’s own “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, which is a very interesting book), but the gist of it is that the entirety of your self is focused towards one activity, and everything else is pushed out of your mind. In this state, outside worries disappear, you lose self consciousness, and the flow of time moves at an unusual pace. Strangely, the state of flow can also make your mind feel “free”, as it’s not limited by its normal thought processes.
To begin this state of flow, the activity needs to be hard enough that it’s not too easy, but not so hard that it becomes frustrating. Video games have a unique advantage in this since, as they are backed by a computer, they can adapt to the player to offer them the ideal level of difficulty. In fact, many of the games mentioned, such as Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Asteroids, are written to get harder and harder forever, so that in theory there’s no end to the challenge (actually, Pac-Man wasn’t quite infinite, there was a bug on the 256th level where the entire right side of the screen had corrupted graphics, making it pretty unplayable).
Since games usually give you a measure of how well you played, they make it easy to track your improvement. “The games require total concentration [...] at the same time as they provide a stage for excellence.” The combination of the two can be really addictive!