(In this series, I plan on writing a series of short posts about what I believe to be the basic features and motivations of videogames. Why do we play? Why are we looked down upon by many for playing? I’m going to try from the ground up to describe my theories of the basics of gaming. I look forward to hearing your reactions and discussing these topics further.)
When you play a game and enjoy it, you are allowing yourself to be fooled. You let the game hook itself into those basic parts of what makes you human. Games are pattern-recognition porn, pretty/shiny pictures, and reward addiction mechanisms.
Games draw you in with interesting metaphors. For the typical gamer market (18-30 year-old males), this usually involves war in some form. The metaphor drags you into a set of game mechanics that the tool-maker/tool-user in you inherently finds appealing. You quickly feel your way around this new world through whatever interface available to you much the way a newborn feels out the confines of his new body and the world around her. This innocent, real consequance-free learning is rarely afforded to adults and older children, so you immediately immerse yourself in the opportunity to indulge in pretense and leave real-world cares at the door.
Games work well when they allow you to fully buy into a self-contained system that seems meaningless on the outside. Most play in children is mimicry of the future roles they'll take on as adults. The pretense of play dissolves as the child grows older and actually has to engage in the behaviors they've been play-acting. Likewise, adults view playing most games, be they video or otherwise, as childish activities--playacting for behaviors that appear, on the surface, to be useless.
But we live in a world of useless. Most gamers live in a world of relative luxury where survival is nigh guaranteed. Entertainment, instead of being a marginal aspect of life, has graduated to a state of constant presence. Even when at work, many people spend much of their time seeking or reading about entertainment on the internet. Instead of watching television, reading, looking at pictures of your friend’s cat farm on facebook or otherwise “uselessly” passing your time, you play games instead. The interactive medium allows you to do so many interesting things that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise, so why not engage with it?
In order to keep the player hooked into a closed system of pretense, games use the feedback loops of tool development and learning. Games are tricks—they hijack parts of your brain that commonly were applied for other survival-related purposes but now sit underused most of the time.
Next: Pattern recognition porn.