From Pacman to Fortnite, gaming has been part of our lives for a long time. But what is it about gaming that motivates us to play? There is countless research out there concerning the negative effects of gaming, why you shouldn’t game. But what about the positives? Nick Yee, a scientist, conducted research into why people game and he came up with 3 overarching components - achievement, social aspects and immersion.
This achievement component is about our need to be successful. We like to feel we’re growing and progressing in our accomplishments. Games reward those who manage to succeed, by opening up the next level, for example, or providing you with a reward like a ‘loot box’ (a consumable virtual item where gamers receive a random selection of items, like game-changing equipment or customization of a player’s character). The more we play a game, the more likely we are to master a situation, be rewarded and continue on our journey towards success. Games help to fulfill our human need for competence.
The idea of rewards makes gaming more exciting, especially when these rewards aren’t always predictable. Random rewards are deemed the most powerful, and are said to be one of the reasons for Fortnite's success. It’s the anticipation that you may or may not get a reward. If you don’t get the reward, the near miss effect comes into play. It’s not failing, it’s almost succeeding. This ‘almost’ success makes you want to continue playing - you’re so close that you start thinking maybe the next reward will be the one that will help you advance to the next level. It’s a similar idea in gambling; a player gets a near miss of an almost winning spin when using a slot machine (they needed three lucky 7s, and they get two lucky 7s and a lemon). Instead of giving up, they take this as a sign they should keep spinning. Slot machines work based on the principles of randomness too, nothing about them is predictable, making them one of the most popular casino games.
Near misses are said to be as motivating as actual wins and while this encourages gamers to continue playing, it can potentially have a negative impact. The highly addictive nature of the near miss effect can increase the chances of players becoming hooked on gaming. By designing games that are challenging enough that success feels just out of reach, but not so tricky that players want to give up, fuels gamers to keep coming back for more. Failure to control this desire in a responsible manner could lead to video game addiction.
The social component of gaming plays a significant role in motivating us to play. Interacting with others, whether they’re friends online or a character in the game, fulfills our need for relatedness, the feeling of making a contribution to something. If you’ve done well, gained recognition or made connections with other players, you’re likely to want to carry on. This is especially true when it comes to multiplayer and online games. When you’re in a group or team with others it provides mutual and shared enjoyment, a feeling of kinship when you’ve gone into battle together. In effect, common cause can create bonds that go beyond the plug being pulled.
When people play together, the competition provides the perfect platform to prove you’re better than others. It’s a human desire to want to be the best, and gaming allows you the opportunity to satisfy this. But being the best also works in other ways to increase the social encounter. It gives you the chance to help other players. Working out the glitches or unlocking a secret are important aspects to ‘beating the game’. Those who can pull off these moves have instant credibility, increasingly so if they can share their new found knowledge.
The immersion component is another key player. In the gaming world, you can be a warrior, a hero, you can save the lives of countless characters, fight off five hundred enemies. It gives you an option to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life and embody someone or something else, where there are no constraints. You can enter situations that are closed off in real life and take risks you wouldn’t normally take. Although the risk might get you ‘killed’, one minute later you can start a new game and try again.
When you’re immersed in a game, you become more dedicated to the cause and are more motivated to continue to play. In certain games you can create and customize a character, making the immersion component that much stronger. You feel an infinity with the character - in essence it is you - and you become totally immersed in their narrative, history and feelings. You have the power to shape their/your own destiny.
In conclusion, perhaps it could be argued that social connections, immersion and our need for success can be fulfilled in everyday life, through aspects such as work or sport. However, games understand and tap into these psychological needs too, often in a more efficient and instant way.
The use of games solely for personal psychological fulfilment and entertainment purposes is beginning to shift as the world begins to recognise the potential power gaming has to reshape and improve society. There is an increasing interest in elements of gaming being used for other purposes (gamification), like helping to change the landscape for healthcare, education and businesses.
While there are certainly negative effects, gaming, when used correctly and responsibly, offers us a rewarding cognitive and social experience. If it can also help to improve society, why wouldn’t people game?