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Escaping Death: Why We Play Games
by Alice Rendell on 04/04/13 09:18:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


We all have our own reasons for playing games, but if I were to ask a room full of people I can safely assume that there would be many common answers. Relaxation, fun and the sense of achievement would probably be key reasons for most people, along with competing with people, and taking your mind off of things. These are all fair and justified reasons, and ones I can relate to as a gamer myself. However, why does competing with people or achieving things in a virtual world feel so damn good? What is the cognitive emotion behind these kinds of experiences?


Notice Me

Most species are sensitive to their own mortality and spend a great deal of time either escaping or postponing death. Most animals have built in primitive drives such as ‘fear’ which tells them to flee when a predator is near, or ‘hunger’ that tells them they need to eat to sustain life. Even the basic Darwinian ethos of procreating to carry on our DNA (and in a way ourselves) is wired into every species on the planet. However, where humans excel is that in addition to this we also have the privilege of being aware of our own existence, which results in this drive to make a mark upon the world before we take that inevitable plunge into the great beyond.

Many cultures completely revolve around this notion of the ‘self’ and our society has been set up to honour and notice the individual. This is why we strive to be the best in our respective fields, or apply to reality TV shows like X-Factor, so we become “someone” and therefore leave our mark on the world. Unfortunately only a small percentage of the population will leave enough of a mark to be remembered hundreds of years from now, and for the average joe (ie: most of us), there are limited opportunities to prove their self existence. This is where games come in. Games provide people with that much needed self-affirmation of actions being “noticed” and that our existence has some meaning on the world...even if it is just a virtual one.    


Most of our drives are based around postponing the inevitable and “Escaping Death”.

I Exist

From the very first arcade games proof of existence has been core in the gaming world. Leaderboards existed to be able to prove that you were there and achieved what you said you did, which in turn reaffirms the self. We have come a long way since the time of arcades and games now revolve around constant reinforcement of actions and awareness of presence. Achievements are a regular addition to most games and sharing stories on social networking sites remind us once again that we are here and have done something which is now "written in stone". Game communication is laced with self-affirming feedback such as “Great”, “Well done!” “You achieved this” and “You have done that”. Many social games on Facebook include customizable avatars and areas where you cannot only see an in-context progression of what you have achieved in game, but also a visual representation of how you have changed the (virtual) world. It is constant affirmation of your existence and presence and that not only your existence in the world matters, but that it has been "set-in-stone" to be remembered for all time. The perfect formula for affirmation of the self.   

Since the time of arcade games players have always wanted to prove they were there.


One of the other important things about self affirmation is being able to see yourself in the eyes of others. Most of how we perceive ourselves is made up from the perception of those around us. We base our opinion of ourselves by the attention of others, whether it’s our attractiveness; “People tell me I’m beautiful, therefore I must be attractive”, our intelligence; “I received a good grade in school, therefore I must be clever”, or our personality; “People laugh at my jokes, therefore I must be funny”. This type of self-reflection needs to work well in games, not only through basic feedback from the game itself, but also from peers and friends. Games are powerful when it comes to reflection, with many different ways of providing feedback of actions to the player such as animations, scores and encouraging words, but at the back of your brain you always know that it is a computer telling you these things, which therefore loses some of its reinforcement. To really make it stick you need a friend or peer to tell you the same thing. This is the difference between hearing “You are an amazing person” from a computer, or from a real person. With the many tools available to use now such as online forums and social networking sites (which are the epitome of self-reflection) games can offer players exactly what they need. Post, tweet, update, whatever, players can first self affirm themselves in the game then prove their existence where people can reflect back to them how “real” it is. This is an incredibly important factor in modern games and you can see that most really successful games are ones with huge communities behind them that enhance connections with real people. This is really important.   

Confirmation of the self is ultimately constructed by the reflection from others, whether in games, or in real life.


Although this a philosophical analysis of why people play there are some very real things that can be done in games to help satisfy and connect with players. 1. Notice every action a player accomplishes in game, not just the big meaningful ones. This is one of the reason social games on Facebook have been so popular because every minor action is praised (sometimes overly so) and noticed. 2. Show the progress of the player so his impact on the game is not forgotten. This may sound like an obvious one, but it can sometimes get forgotten. This can be anything from seeing previously completed levels, a customizable area in which to build upon, or simply an experience level to feel proud of. 3. Use social networking, online leaderboards and fan websites to build communities. Players need to be recognised by real people for the achievements they make in-game, as you can only truly feel proud of an accomplishment in context to other people. Although these are simple conclusions to a fairly complex analysis of why people play I think it is important to know the basic drives of people in general to reach a real understanding of why people play the games they play.


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Randen Dunlap
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I believe there are several more intrinsic and extrinsic behavioral motivators at play here other than our recognition of our own mortality, but it certainly appears to be a factor as well. Nice post.

Christian Nutt
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I find the overpraising in social games incredibly patronizing. Surely I'm not the only one?

Maria Jayne
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I feel that way about achievements in most games. "Well done, you did what you were supposed to do" have an achievement.

Eric Geer
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Those trophies on PS3 games kill me--still which there was an option to turn them off. Congrats you finished the chapter! It might as well say, Congrats you took a dump! It was going to happen no matter's not like I did anything special.

Michael Pianta
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Totally agree. The worst ones are the ones right at the beginning of the game. "Completed Tutorial", "Killed first slime," etc. There is no conceivable player who doesn't "achieve" this. When achievements are implemented like that it's pointless and distracting.

Christian Nutt
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The ones in social games (at least that I've seen, can't blanket statement the whole form) tend to be worse. It's like the way people who don't respect children's intelligence speak to children. "You clicked on the star -- great job!" "You've harvested your first resource: way to go!"

John Flush
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After reading this I'm trying to find out how it relates to me at all. I'm very a-social when it comes to games. Leaderboards, online, sharing achievements, etc all disinterest me greatly. The more games connect me to sharing what I'm playing, what achievements I have unlocked, etc the more I try to avoid them or make sure I never set them up to connect in such a way. Every time I turn on my xbox I'm embarrassed by my annoying dancing avatar that points or dances when I select it, so I don't really want to see myself in the game at all - Games that have heavy use of Mii's / Avatars annoy me for that reason.

For me I think I play because I can be someone other than myself actually. Games that don't have a story and such I play because they make me think or interest me in some application I can't explore in the real world.

I will admit though that I like to get online and talk about them though, so it gives me something in common with other people. But a game doesn't need to facilitate such interaction at all - I would talk to anyone about my SNES games if anyone was still interested.

Maria Jayne
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I mostly play games for escapism, I don't want people to recognize me, I want people to associate my character with my actions within the game.

I'm not on Facebook or Twitter, I don't migrate friends between games and I'm not driven by achieving something before anyone else.

However, like you, I do enjoy discussing views on the games I play, thoughts about the stories or the mechanics. Reflecting on my experiences or the experiences of others.

I equate it to having score boards in games, I care where I am relative to the majority of others, but I have no real competitive drive to be the best among my peers or even just among my friends.

Jeremy Reaban
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I dunno. I personally got into video games because they were fun (remember that?) and because I am introverted.

These days though, you're right - rather than designed to be fun, games are designed to be skinner boxes, as well as puff up your "virtual ego". Which is probably why I'm gaming less and less these days.

Though I might add, there is a huge part of the gaming industry that often gets completely overlooked. Casual downloadable games, like you find at Big Fish Games. They are completely without social features, leaderboards and multiplayer, and yet are extremely popular.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I lump many of the themes in the OP into what I call "Prestige". I try to reinforce this in my designs and use "prestige-based" monetization models to sell them. The skinner box type monetization models in use now, especially on FB, are anti-prestigious. Pro-prestige designs, if carefully crafted, can create positive feedback loops. When it is done poorly, as it seems you are lamenting, it leads to negative feedback loops.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Jason Hawreliak
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Great article. I love game criticism that looks at the bigger issues. I also think it's no coincidence that games always seem to be couched in terms of life and death. I think representations of death - visual, procedural, ludic, and so on - tap into some deep seated psychological drives, as you say, and so the ability to continually resurrect or respawn from game death may be psychologically satisfying.

Have you come across Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death, Escape from Evil, etc.) or Terror Management Theory? They're very much concerned with how we use cultural forms to cope with mortality. I'm guessing you have given the article, but thought I'd point them out just in case you haven't. Anyway, great article once again!

Daniel Bishop
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I believe a large element is that lack of control in life- most people spend their day being told what to do constantly at school or at work, and have a sense that they are not as in control of their life as they would like to be.

Video games can fill that gap by giving a feeling of control in a virtual environment. At least I think that is a large reason I play, which I suppose can be under the umbrella of escapism.

Federico Perez
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I agree.
This article slightly touches positive reinforcement systems being built inside a game.
But there is also the Tim Schafer's paradigm about videogames being a "power fulfilling fantasy", thus providing a virtual empowerment in a reality which is somewhat opressing.

As the previous posts mentioned, there are games that put more effort into the positive reinforcement than the actual gameplay, thus reinforcing something which wasn't a real challenge. This is mostly done because the reward/challenge system is a feature added from the standard triple-A checklist, to slap on the back of the box.

Games which positively reinforces players may provide short term satisfaction for some; however, for the game to become a real motivator, or to empower them, it should raise a question, it should have the player experience something and make him/her feel something, hopefully making the player learn about him/herself.
Only then, can it be said that such game has some value to the person.
Otherwise, after the play-session, what have you gained?
But that's just me.

Michael O'Hair
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I'd like to posit another reason people play games, the inverse of Reflection and a part of it: Projection. Projection of the player into a game, resulting in a player's self-reflection, which may alter the player's perception of the outside world. Not so much taking one's "mind off of things", but to think of things from different angles.

Game experiences present a chance for players to place themselves in alien and unfamiliar environments, where by their wit and skill they can conquer obstacles presented in those worlds or achieve other objectives. They enter games with a certain level of competence that allows them to excel in that environment or fail with no real consequence. Upon failure, the player must become more familiar with the rules of the game and the behaviors of the other pieces or players. And by learning, the player is able to progress further in the game and continue to discover, compete, achieve, and/or socialize. To do this the player may project their own identity into the player character in the game, with every challenge thinking "what can I do to beat this?" rather than "what can bald space marine do to beat this?" Through the virtual self, the player learns and refines their play until success can be achieved or the game becomes too tedious to tolerate.

The things players learn within games are not isolated with the game, but carried by the player for as long as they can remember them. Those lessons can serve to change or refine the player's perspective of other games and, possibly most importantly, the real world. For example, when a player experiences the joy of discovery and achievement in a game that sensation can motivate the player to seek further discovery and achievement, if they are inclined, in other pursuits. Games have the potential not only to kill time and provide brief entertainment for players, providing Pavlovian stimuli that makes the player feel special, but also enrich the player's life beyond the game or expand the player's view of the real world. Play a war-themed game, learn a little about causes and effects war. Play a business simulation, learn a little about entrepreneurship and finance. Play a puzzle game, learn a little about lateral and creative thinking. By playing, the player learns, and by learning, the player is able to continue playing.

Games are an transient things. The hardware to play them may not always exist, or will become exceedingly rare. The online leaderboard will eventually disappear. The player's initials on the high score table will be reset when the arcade cabinet is turned off, or vanish when 10 or so others achieve higher scores. The save file containing the epic adventure spanning dozens of hours may one day become corrupted or erased. But the lessons, ideas, and experiences derived from games remain in the consciousness of the player; an "affirmation" of the self that was changed while playing the game, but might not have existed before playing the game. It is for this reason that players look back on their own "golden age" of game-playing with nostalgia, seeking to replicate past experiences and sensations; and, I think, why the same sensations triggered by new discoveries cannot be replicated merely by re-playing old games and new games styled similarly to old games (all the cool kids call it the "retro" aesthetic, you know, pixels and square waves and all that).

Games have the power to change players.

But modern games have a difficult time doing that when they lead players by the nose from one waypoint to the next, forcing them to assume the role of bald space marine barbarian #256. Too little room for discovery or learning, just the reptile-brain mechanics of "kill enemy, avoid dying".

Luis Guimaraes
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Completely agreed. That's exactly why and how I myself play games too.