Since this is a fairly long entry, I’d like to preface it by saying that this post grew out of my own musings on the question “So, self, why do you like to play video games so much?”. With that question in mind, I’d love to not only hear your opinions on my argument, but I’d especially like to have readers post your own early memories and speculations as to why you game. Sure, I understand that SMB was awesome–we all felt that way–but so were a lot of things. I also loved fire-engines when I was a kid, but I’ve sort of gotten over that infatuation. Games, not so much. So, think about it as you read through my post–what really got you into gaming, and what sustains your interest today? Please feel free to ramble on in the comments below–get psychoanalytic, nostalgic, or whatever–and I’ll do my best to reply. I love this topic!
With no further ado, For Love of the Puzzle:
Do you ever stop and wonder why you are driven to play video games? Take a moment and consider your own reasons—do you really understand why you spend hours of free time blasting zombies, rotating strange shapes into orderly columns, or leveling-up your absurdly-muscled dragon-fighting avatar? Yes–I know video games are cool. I’m just wondering if we might find any interesting answers by taking a closer look at some of the reasons we love gaming so much. Given the amount of money, time and effort we spend on it, I think it’s an issue worth raising.
#1 The Great Escape
The simplest and most obvious reason to play video games probably relates to our human desire for fantasy, relaxation, escape. Movies, books, sports, art . . . all of these entertainments let us shed our skin for a moment and escape the stress (or boredom) of everyday life. Television, texts, and the internet provide access to a wider scope of human life and expand our knowledge on all kinds of subjects, but none of these media allow the user to become an active, involved participant the way video games can. Video games may be a relatively new form of art, but are also one of the most intimate.
So it makes sense that video games fit into the mental niche formerly served by travelogue documentaries or the silver screen–at the touch of a button, you can play an entire tour as a professional golf pro, or gun down enemy agents as an international super spy. Games offer a necessary outlet for our wild imaginations by allowing us to experience the impossible, since our mundane lives will never include chances, for instance, to skydive into a volcano, survive a mutant apocalypse, or go treasure-hunting in ancient ruins. Many fantastic game worlds are entirely beyond our real-world reach—nobody, no matter how rich or successful, will ever vacation in Hyrule or get nose-to-nose with Bullet Bill. Thus, games serve up dreams and fantasies that are unrealizable in the dreary, workaday universe.
So, sure, big surprise–games give us a taste of inaccessible worlds in the same way that films about climbing Mount Everest let us “experience” something unattainable, or a Pixar cartoon explores the stuff of our dreams. These forays into parallel universes probably appeal to our animal instincts to explore and decipher our surroundings. If our love for games is any indication, we apparently don’t mind if the visited worlds happen to be fantastic fictional constructs, or even abstract places of pure puzzle and logic. It seems odd to realize, but many of us even prefer it.
And yet . . . this human need for escapist fantasy doesn’t seem to explain all (or even most?) of the reasons we play video games. For those who grew up on Atari (or earlier), recall how rudimentary those first titles really were. Blocks represented people, blocks represented vehicles, blocks represented dangers to avoid and treasures to collect. Hell, the box art was a billion times cooler than the game inside the package! In spite of this, thousands of human hours were spent gobbling dots in a maze or bouncing a (square) ball against a wall of monochrome bricks. Were these games fun and addictive because we were “expanding our horizons” or learning new information about the world around us? Though modern games combine superior graphics and Hollywood-level production (and therefore show whole new worlds in unprecedented detail), I’m not entirely sure that killing robots in Berzerk or jumping barrels in Donkey Kong really fulfilled some higher purpose or a primal drive for knowledge. There must be more to it. Therefore, we should next consider
#2: The Imaginarium of the human mind
Looking at it from a different angle, nearly all video games require us to use our imaginations, or at least our creative intellect. Could this somehow explain our love for games? For adults, it can be easy to forget the pure, simple rewards of creative imagination. But while the rest of us slave away as cogs in our cubicles, the world’s musicians, painters, and authors plug away at their inventive pursuits. They must be getting something out of it, or at least, there must be some shared human impulse that leads us to dream and build worlds of our own devising. Are gamers scratching the creative itch by applying our imaginations to these deep, entrancing puzzle-worlds?
Until the advent of NES, games often demanded more from the player’s imagination than the game could itself deliver. It might be inconceivable to younger gamers, but I spent hundreds of childhood hours playing text-only PC adventure games using hand-drawn maps, high level reasoning . . and imagination . . . to interpret and solve minimalist word-based puzzles. Zork, Wishbringer, and the infamous Leather Goddesses of Phobos—these games were insanely difficult, featuring complex word-based riddles in alternate, upside-down universes. The rewards were personal, moving experiences in which the player explored a detailed world without the luxuries of flashy polygons or colored sprites, and often felt more like interactive books than anything resembling our modern conception of “gaming”.
The extreme difficulty of many early games (text based or otherwise) required a player to apply intuition, experimentation, and constant suspension of disbelief in order to progress, much less succeed. As computers came to offer rudimentary graphics alongside the text (think Oregon Trail or Lemonade Stand), we learned to play games in multiple dimensions, yet we still needed a good deal of creative sense to fully ‘experience’ a game. Think about how difficult it was simply to “understand” a video game when they first arrived on the scene–what, for instance, is one “doing” in Pong? And though Centipede may have appealed as a test of skill, the average citizen of the 1980’s didn’t have preceding context for blasting a lightning-quick garden pest among pixelated day-glo mushrooms. The fragmentary and symbolic nature of early gaming needed a player to fill in the missing details, to envision context and to interpret clues based on unfamiliar scenarios. In short, you needed to bring your brain to the game. And we were glad to do it.
So, given that the first video games often required as much cognitive investment as they offered, what, exactly, would we then say we were “getting” out of those games, and what might they tell us about the continuing appeal of gaming? It almost seems as though the fun came out of–and still comes from–what we put into the game. Yet this basic idea–that a mass-market entertainment might demand a lot of user input–this is the complete opposite of passive television viewership (our era’s dominant medium, at least until lately). Even great literature, capable of inspiring self-reflection and still the best format for conveying new ideas or complex truths–even the best books don’t allow the reader to take control of the action, to seek new outcomes or unusual solutions using their own intuition or beliefs. In short, games invoked user imagination in a way no other medium has ever accommodated. Early, simplistic video games might be best able to demonstrate some integral truth as to “why” we game—it seems that we humans love the experience of putting our minds to work in a creative, self-guided fashion. I’m led to wonder, are imagination and creativity a reward in themselves, or are these impulses merely servants to some evolutionary impulse? And since not all gamers enjoy all of the same types of games, could our preferences reveal something about our own personality traits or mental aptitudes? Fun stuff to ponder, but perhaps best saved for another day.
Having safely concluded that we love games because they let us escape into new worlds, and also because humans possess some fundamental creative drive, I still can’t accept that these are the only—or even the main–reasons that we love games. When I press myself, searching for that one single, unifying factor that keeps me up all night playing Goldeneye 007, or led me to deposit whole paychecks into the arcade version of Mortal Kombat II, I’ve got to conclude that my own 20+ year addiction to electronic gaming is sustained by something quite different than a simple desire for entertainment or distraction. When I get right down to it–when I strip away my mindless love for turtle-stomping and blasting virtual soldiers into pixelated smithereens–I have to conclude that what I love best–and the only real reason I continue to play–are the PUZZLES that lie at the heart of all great games.
#3 For The Love of The PUZZLE
Not all games are created equally, and we all know that some titles demand more imagination, intuition, or unique solutions than others. For instance, imagine the difference we’d see between a neurological MRI of someone playing Tetris (a game requiring lightning reflexes but a relatively small amount of creativity) and that of a player solving complex problems in World of Goo (a game that requires a great deal of problem-solving and imaginative thought). Both games are highly challenging and pose puzzles to be solved, though one of them allows far more room for a player’s own creativity to shape and direct the game’s progress. But rather than concerning ourselves with hierarchy, I think we can spot enough basic similarities between all video games to arrive back at that single point they share in common–that universal factor of the PUZZLE, the thing that keeps our brains up all night, the drive that causes us to buy more games than we have time to play, that frustrating mental itch that we’ve just GOT to scratch again, and again, and yet again.
Too often, we conceive of games as a finished product, a closed circuit that only needs us—the rat in the maze—to run through gates toward the inevitable cheese of closing credits. Even when you’re using creative tactics to fend off human opponents in COD, you’re still bound by a set of parameters established by a team of programmers. You’re investing yourself into a closed circuit, applying creativity to a problem that has been bug-tested and solved a thousand times before. People who dislike video games tend to see it exactly this way–what’s the point of playing a video game, especially when the ending is a foregone conclusion? Who cares what the final scene of Metal Gear will reveal? What possible value could one get out of slamming opponents in Smash Brothers or collecting every single spaceship piece in Pikmin? Lately, those who would defend gaming as an intellectual pursuit received a boon in the form of popular crowdsource/creative-style games like Minecraft, Warioware D.I.Y., Little Big Planet, Blast Works, etc. It’s still probably fair to say that the majority of games still rely on a closed-box format with defined objectives and fairly straightforward rules, but at least games that focus on user-generated content are something we can point to as a sort of explanation to the outside world. They’ll never truly understand the thrill of questing in a winning guild or being able to brag about a record ghost time in Mariokart, but we’re making at least some progress.
All great games, I propose, have puzzles at their core and as their main attraction, even if their structures are made of rigid limits, of rules set in programming code that demand obedience. For some of us, we derive a sense of intelligence, of self-worth by untangling these clever, artificial webs. For others, we simply love to challenge ourselves and push our brains into new, unexpected spaces. Though the puzzles may be self-imposed, the success of solution is nevertheless a reward we love to seek. Like bodybuilders who work toward bench-press goals for no other reason than to see if their bodies can do it, we value the process as much as the payoff. Our minds wind through virtual mazes, seeking the way to the surface, hunting for meaning in chaotic, alien landscapes. We’ve trained ourselves to love it, or perhaps we’re simply born this way.
Like I was saying above, some games are more “closed circuit” than others. Some games mimic the linear flow of television (this is why I got bored with Phoenix Wright fairly quickly) while others rely on a small set of proscribed rules that shift in relation to each other and result in a wide variety of challenges. Often, the best games combine opportunities for creative problem-solving with sandbox-style freedom (I’m currently playing Super Mario Galaxy 2 which perfectly illustrates what I’m trying to say). But through all of these games runs that single thread of puzzle-solving in some form or another. Gamers are addicted to the posed question, to the enigmatic riddle, to the unexpected challenge. The puzzle is a confrontation of our own limits and a repeated opportunity to prove our worth. The more puzzles we solve, the more often we get a chance to show the world what we’re made of. Lisa Simpson is honest about it–she needs the validation of an A+ more than anything else in the world–so why wouldn’t this be true for the rest of us? The grade is the goal–but puzzle-solving is more than a means to an end. Games are the beloved knots we untangle, pleasurable in process and in payoff. They just happen to be disguised as cartoonish platformers and bullet-hell shooters.
Me, personally–I love that video games let me develop my mind and exercise my overactive imagination toward some specific end. I’m one of those people that proudly flaunts and cultivates my nerdy personality, not least because nerds are truly the ones who will inherit the earth. But in the end, I’m inevitably drawn back to that compulsion to challenge myself, to seek out new ways to interface with and ‘solve’ the world around me–in short, to face down each and every PUZZLE I can lay my hands on.
I still remember much of my early childhood through scenes of the games I would play with my family. It was the early 1980s, and video games had yet to arrive in my home. I can see myself at the kitchen table playing Clue and Scrabble with my grandparents, or sitting on the living-room floor playing the ‘Pac-Man Math‘ card game with my dad. I was already hooked on puzzles, and didn’t even know it. Fast forward 30-odd years . . . I’ve finally started to realize how much my life has benefited from my love of the puzzle. I’ve succeeded in academia, in employment, at all manner of creative and intellectual pursuits. It’s been a part of my makeup for so long that I tend to forget where it all started. But I’ve always been a puzzle solver, and I’m really glad that I’ve had video games to make it all a lot more entertaining.
Thanks for reading.
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