I’ve often talked about how games are emotional experiences in my past blogs but I’ve never really written about it exclusively so today I want to talk about and examine that in depth. Why do we play, and why is it important that we do?
More than fun:
Most people, when asked why they play a certain game, would respond something along the lines of “because it’s fun”. There is something deeper than that though going on whenever we play games and so fun is a somewhat poor word to describe the experience in depth. The truth is play, whether it’s swinging on a swing set or giving yourself a headache over the rules for Advanced Squad Leader is a highly emotional experience. For the most part that experience is a one of emotional enjoyment, if playing elicited a negative response we wouldn’t be doing it after all. That emotional enjoyment can be a personal one or a social one. Play also allows us to access and improve our creativity, motor skills, problem-solving skills, and social skills depending on the type of play. It can also elicit feelings of competition, anger, or unfairness. As we can see there is so much more than simply “fun” going on behind scenes. Indeed play is an integral part of being human and an important part of mental health. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy after all. Then next thing you know you’ll be chopping down bathroom doors and we don’t want that.
Different types of enjoyment:
It’s important to note that as individuals what brings us enjoyment will differ from person to person. However, the types of play we get emotional enjoyment from can be defined by somewhat broad groups. Below are some of these groups.
-Exploration taps into the joy of discovery or finding something new. For many people, there isn’t anything greater than this. Seeing what’s in that cave, or checking out some ancient ruins. Of course, an important part of this type of enjoyment is that the discovery is worth the effort. There’s a fine balance between it wasn’t worth it and the discovery being too easy to find.
-Skill-based enjoyment is my preferred term for those who enjoy playing on some competitive level. I have found the majority of competitive players are less concerned about winning and more concerned with improving their skill. Anecdotally I find no joy in playing a game designed towards this type of emotional output against someone I can beat with ease. It is the act of winning well rather than the act of winning itself that elicits the joy. In fact, this type of enjoyment can be had with or without other people to play with. A great example of this would be games like Dark Souls, where the point of the game is to master the gameplay and overcome difficult challenges.
-Social enjoyment is perhaps the number one type of enjoyment people experience when playing games. Humans are highly social and sharing our joy generally increases that joy on a personal level. It is why games with somewhat thin gameplay can still be highly enjoyable. When people play a game like Cards Against Humanity, for example, they aren’t playing to win or master the game as the mechanics simply don’t allow for that type of gameplay. Instead, they are experiencing humorous moments with their friends. Things like skill mastery, winning and losing take a back seat to shared experiences.
-Story based enjoyment is certainly a thing, and story as a gameplay mechanic is nothing new. Even before we had walking simulators there were text-based adventures. While these games often also combined exploration, certainly more than some walking simulators do, the story that unfolded was just as important as the discoveries to be had. It’s a bit like reading a good book but having some input into what the output will be. In fact, one of the earliest iterations of a game that brings story based enjoyment would be the Lone Wolf book series, in those books you read passages but then made choices which often had widely different consequences.
This list is not meant to be exhaustive and most play actually combines several types of enjoyment, for example, most roleplaying games combine exploration and storytelling. The important thing to know is that there’s so much more than the ubiquitous “fun” going on when we play games.
Designed for experiences:
From a designer standpoint, it is important to understand the types of experiences people have when they play games. When someone plays a game they aren’t experiencing the mechanics, they are experiencing how that game makes them feel. Is it giving them emotional joy or has it created a negative experience? In fact, players will often believe games that are mechanically very different but give a similar emotional experience, share more mechanical similarities than they really do. So a designers job is to try and create the correct experience for their target audience, they do this through observed playtesting and then adjusting the mechanics. So really whether a designer knows it or not they are creating experiences and the mechanisms of the game are merely a means towards that end.
The power of negative experiences:
Much of our memories have emotions attached to them and negative emotions elicit a stronger memory than positive ones. Interestingly enough a person can have a great experience and at the end of that experience, something unpleasant could ruin the whole thing. An example would be going on a vacation for five days and having a great time the first four days but the last day is just terrible, so you remember the entire vacation as a negative experience. This sort of thing can also happen when we play games, a strong negative experience can cause us to declare a game as objectively terrible, despite the fact that as players we are not really equipped to judge a games design in any objective sense. Even designers can have great difficulty stepping away from their own emotional experiences when attempting to analyze a game’s design. Beyond that these strong negative emotions can cause us to not want to try new things, an example would be my own unwillingness to try games with worker placement mechanics. My remembered experiences with worker placement games are usually those of sheer boredom, due to this I simply assume any future game I play with that mechanic will cause me to be bored as well. There’s a good chance that this may not be true, but because like most people I highly value my time to have some social enjoyment with my friends I am averse to taking the risk of a wasted afternoon.
While a player may not need to have as an in-depth understanding of why we play games and what we get out of it as a designer should, it is important to have some understanding in my opinion. Knowing that when you play a game you are doing it because it brings you emotional enjoyment will help you empathize with people who enjoy things you may not. Going back to the example of my distaste for the past worker placement games I’ve played, I can still understand why other people play those games. They are having “fun”, while it may not be my fun as the right inputs aren’t there for me, the right inputs are there for them. And that sort of mutual respect and understanding makes us all better players and friends. At the end of the day lets just let each other have our own emotional enjoyment.