It was halfway through clearing a ruin during Fallout: New Vegas when a little voice in my head asked “why are you doing this?” At the time I just dismissed it as the sort of pseudo-existential question that have been plaguing me since the last three PhD rejections I’ve received. But it’s 7pm (at time of writing), I’m a day behind deadline, and the initial idea I had for an article ended up being totally boring so let’s go with this instead.
Video games are more than mere violence, just like Renaissance art is more than just boobs
There is, without a doubt, a lot of violence in videogames. Why is this the case, though? There might be some part of our human psyche that brings a certain proclivity towards violence. We are one of the few species that hunts for fun, alongside cats and killer whales. Killing something in spectacular fashion is in some way gratifying, as evidenced by Bulletstorm, Mortal Kombat, Doom, Happy Room… see where I’m going with this? There have been more than a few scientific papers linking violence to our brain’s reward system that’s also responsible for making us enjoy sex and food. So until somebody invents underwear that connects to your PlayStation and a version of Cooking Mama that conjures food in your house à la Willy Wonka’s TV set, we can only stimulate our pleasure centre with death and explosions.
Then again, games are more than mere violence, just like Renaissance art is more than just boobs. Bioshock Infinite and Fallout: New Vegas both have violence that could be considered excessive, but their storylines add plenty to make it more than empty spectacle. Humans as a species can’t get enough of good stories, for a variety of reasons; to empathise with a character, to understand a situation, to ponder an ethical quandary, or to just have a good laugh.
Then you have games where there is minimal violence as well as no story. Games like Prison Architect and Civilization V present us with a world to (metaphorically) conquer, tapping into our desire to create while overcoming minor challenges along the way. Puzzle games like Tetris and Sokobond as well as platformers like the Mario and Rayman series further distil this to a strict series of challenges, relying on our in-built desire to finish a distinct set of challenges – something known as the completion principle. This principle applies to games where the central theme is exploration, although in No Man’s Sky this can be a bit difficult as there’s like 15 gajillion planets or something.
Ultimately, there is no real answer to why we play games, because the reasons are unique to us, and us alone
As I wrote this article I mentioned it to my friend, and she said “don’t we play games because they are fun?” And admittedly, that is a pretty simple answer to said question. But don’t you sometimes wonder why you find something “fun”? Is it the challenge, the spectacle, the outcome? Ultimately, there is no real answer to why we play games, because the reasons are unique to us, and us alone.
Also, the “because games are fun” answer wouldn’t fill up a 500-word slot so I had to come up with something else.