As you may or may not know, other than being obsessed with fairy tales, I also write middle grade fiction geared toward boys. And what do middle grade boys like? One highly popular pastime among this age group is video games. Why are video games so popular? Just what is their appeal? In an attempt to answer this question, I turned to my good friend, Mike, who is a middle-aged middle grade boy, also obsessed with playing video games. Here’s what he thinks . . .
Why are video games so addicting?
This is a question I ask myself more and more, especially after pouring around 60 hours into Dark Souls. It is the most punishingly difficult video game created in the last 10 years for my money and yet I can’t stop playing it. I think there is something in human nature that loves to overcome a challenge or obstacle, be it climbing a high mountain, winning at sports, finishing a marathon, solving a difficult math/physics/programming problem, or even beating a particularly difficult video game. Of all of these, video games are the easiest, which is what makes them so seductive. You don’t have to be in good shape, you don’t have to have a lot of education, you don’t have to worry about time constraints/weather, you don’t even have to get off your couch. You get the rush without near as much effort.
With video games, you get an immediate feeling of achievement at finishing a challenge. People who may not be competitive or like playing sports can still feel the rush of getting to the bottom of a dungeon and killing the fearsome monster at the end. Video games are like a movie where you are the star and everything in the game universe revolves around you. This can be a nice change from most of life where unless you are very rich or a celebrity, life does not revolve around you.
I think this feeling of achievement is at the heart of why video games are so popular, the triumphant feeling you get when you win feels great and the barrier to entry is very low. Everyone has a TV already and per hour, video games are one of the absolute cheapest forms of entertainment available. You can buy a $300 console and a few older $20 games and be set for dozens of hours whereas a ticket to a 90 minute movie costs around $10.
This feeling of achievement is being seized on by video game companies, similar to how the makers of video gambling and slot machines do a lot of research on how graphics, colors, game sounds and even the sound of tokens plinking in the slot are all carefully designed to trigger a good mood in the player. Mobile games especially capitalize on this as none of them are terribly difficult, but just play Angry Birds to see the bright colors and big bouncing numbers when you rack up points to see examples of this. In the last 5 years, a metagame of sorts has been created by video game manufacturers where video game achievements are tracked along a persistent profile so you can have a record of all the video game feats you have accomplished and compare them with friends.
This achievement system has led to a fascinating phenomenon with some people playing games they don’t even like if they have easy achievements in order to obtain and consequently boost their online profile. Is the gameplay really secondary to the plink-plink-plink of achievements? With some people, the answer surprisingly is yes.
So let’s finally get back to the opening question, why are video games so addicting? There are several reasons and it will vary per person, but the big ones are: the plink-plink-plink effect of constant positive reinforcement, the thrill of overcoming a challenge, and the escapist factor where you can play as an ultra-powerful warrior/soldier/wizard/adventurer/race car driver and star in a movie tailored to you. Real life loses to fantasy life almost every time.
. . . Thank you, Mike. When I asked what his favorite video game of all time was, he told me Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, released in 1985. I can have him go more into that one later. In the meantime, do you have a favorite video game? What is it and why do you like it? Please tell me by clicking the comment cloud at the top of this post!