What do games do?

I had an interesting conversation yesterday which challenged me to really think about why I love games, beyond “they’re a lot of fun!” It lead me to take a step back away from myself and seriously analyze what I do and what I feel when I play games (video or otherwise) and I felt that it lead to some interesting ideas and I wanted to share them with you.

It should be noted that everything here is, in some form or another, something I already knew about games and things I already applied to my designing/developing; the thing is I didn’t know I knew it yet (yay self discovery!). It should also be noted that these design goals and play experiences may not be the ultimate truth for all; I like to think that we all experience games differently and uniquely. Here’s some ideas about how I experience them:

1 – Games can provide an escape

This is the first thing that came to mind when I was posed the question “what do you use games for?” and I think that this is true for many. Games provide an opportunity to remove oneself from the stresses (or boredoms even) of everyday life and step into a whole new situation for a little while; a situation with its own goals, values, characters, and outcomes. This is particularly apparent in video gaming. In design and game reviews we see words like immersive or enveloping a lot. This means to describe the player’s total and deep mental involvement in the experience that is gameplay.

And this idea of an immersive play experience isn’t limited to video games. Any game can be immersive. I remember over Christmas my family was gathered around the dining room table playing Munchkin Adventure Time. During the game we were entirely engulfed in what we were playing; gleefully participating in the unfolding emergent story that was our dungeon adventure (time). For awhile, we escaped into the dungeons of Ooo and cooperatively, and sometime un-cooperatively, made our way to Level 10.

I think it’s fair to say that most game designers strive to create an immersive experience for their players. I know I do.

This idea that one can escape through game and play lead me to my second thought:

2 – A game can provide an opportunity to be somebody else, or be the person you really want to be

RPGs are the best example of this idea. In many RPGs the very first thing a player does is create their character; their representation of themselves in this new world. Through these representatives players move through these worlds interacting with NPCs, environments, enemies, and even other player’s representatives. This provides us with the unique opportunity to become someone else.

Have you ever wanted to be a medieval military general? Here’s a strategy game. Ever wanted to be the ruler of a civilization? Here’s a Sid Meier game! Want to be an astronaut? You can totally do that. Gangster? Thug? Bank Robber? You can be all these things. Not only can we escape into other worlds, we can become other people in those worlds.

But we can also be ourselves. Or better yet, the person we want to be. When I am playing an RPG I often find that I am imposing my own personality and values onto my in-game representative. When presented with a dialogue option I frequently say to myself “I would never say or do that kind of thing!” Or, I will perform grandiose actions based on my own personality.

(This next paragraph may contain a light spoiler, but I’ll try to be as general as possible)

There is a particular moment that comes to mind when I was playing Bethesda’s pos-apocalyptic romp Fallout 3. I had just escaped the Vault and made my way into a nearby town. While chilling at the local tavern, trying to grasp this wasted world around me, I talked to a well dressed gentleman who offered me a large sum of money to do a very bad thing. Here, I was provided the chance to be myself, another person, or something I wanted to be. And I wanted do be a strong altruistic “chaotic good” hero; values I wish to see in myself in the real world. So I shot the well dressed gentleman dead. In the face; so he couldn’t harm anyone ever again. And honestly, it felt good to be good.

I should really clarify that I don’t actually want to shoot people in the face, and if I ever found myself in a similar situation in real life I would probably call the police. The point here isn’t that I want to be a violent person, but I want to be a good person.

My next point kind of stems from the whole shooting people in the face bit:

3 – Games let us make decisions that are, in general, inconsequential

If I shoot a bad guy in the face in a game, nothing is really going to happen to me in real life. That choice was generally inconsequential. That isn’t to say that the choice didn’t have any consequence; there were in-game events that happened. Generally speaking I was presented with a hypothetical situation, which stimulated my mind and value systems, and I made a hypothetical decision. The difference between games and thought-experiments is that in games we get to take “hypothetical actions.” More than just making a decision in our minds, we take action with our game controller (or keyboard or play a card etc) which can lead to visual and audible responses, and “hypothetical consequences” which lead to whole new hypotheticals! And at the end of the day, nobody really got shot in the face.

The best part of these hypotheticals is the fact that these sort of things probably won’t ever happen in my real life, which brings me to my last point

4 – Games put us in situations of our choosing that we generally won’t experience in real life

“Games are a series of interesting decisions” – Sid Meier (Creator of the Civilization series)

I know, I know. There is a lot of contention and debate about this quote (or misquote as some would say). Rather than get into the quote itself (I could probably write a whole post about it) I would actually like to paraphrase it a bit and say:

“Games are a series of interesting [experiences]” – Adam Carriere (Creator of this blog you’re reading)

I’m probably never going to experience the opportunity to fight a dragon with my loud voice, design and fly a space rocket, thwart an alien invasion, or command the elements as a geomancer in real life. But I can certainly experience these things as a player. And that’s awesome.

That’s why I love games.


Why do you love games? Feel free to share your thoughts here in the comments or over on Twitter (@adamthegameguy)!

Thanks for reading! Please note: I did my best to link my game references to their official webpages, but other than Adventure Time Munchkin they should all be available through Steam for you to enjoy (and experience)!


2 thoughts on “What do games do?

  1. I completely resonate with the idea that video (and other) games offer an avenue of escape from everyday stresses and ruts. I think the thing I get most out of the opportunity to “be” someone else is the ability to be agile and physically adept in challenging environments while in this mundane sphere I am uncoordinated (apart from the requisite hand/eye facility) and clumsy. I love the setting and achieving measurable goals (levels or rewards) – the chance to persevere and succeed – to win! We all need a bit of that from time to time.


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