Why We Play Games

There exists some ephemeral quality that separates gamers from the rest of humanity, some thing that makes us, us and them, not us. I've never been able to quite put my finger on it, but it is inescapably there. Today, in hopes of moving closer to that essential quality of gamerosity, we examine part of what makes us tick. In particular, we take a look at what draws different types of gamers to the hobby. Every gamer plays for different reasons, but there are common threads that tie the experience together.

Many gamers are motivated by the challenge a game can present. Success in a game may be governed by any of a wide variety of abilities. A First Person Shooter requires twitch reflexes, a steady hand and the ability to remain calm under pressure. A word puzzle game may require an extensive vocabulary and the ability to rethink the uses of old words, but no measure of speed. A sports simulation might well require an in-depth knowledge of the topic, in addition to arcade skill, but is unlikely to have terribly much concern for linguistic acumen.

The common thread is that all of the games challenge some subset of a player's abilities. This challenge can be a powerful motivator. The Challenge Motivated gamer is drawn to a game that tests their skills, preferably one that tests them to their limits. The gamer may also be motivated by the natural improvement that comes from working at peak. They are driven then, not only to excel, but to improve. Challenge Motivated Gamers thrive whenever a game pushes their skill set of choice, but may be disinterested in games that fall too far away from the target.

Competition & Creativity

Competition is a close cousin of challenge. Many gamers are driven by the need to prove they are the best, to be pitted against their fellows and come out on top. Competition minded gamers range from those looking for a challenge in a fair fight to the sort of win-at-all cost leet speaking infants that give us all a bad name. Competition can be easy to take too far. There is nothing inherently wrong with being driven by competition. To some extent, competition is merely challenge taken to the extreme. It is only when it leads to mistreating your fellow player that it begins to become less a motivation and more an unfortunate personality quirk. Competition Motivated players thrive on those games where they are pitted against one another with the outcome dictated by skill at playing the game. They will often wane in those environments that either require cooperation, such as many MMORPGs, or in games where skill plays a much smaller role, such as in less sophisticated card or dice games.

Perhaps less common than the first two motivators, creativity is nonetheless an important driving force in the gamer psyche. Though at first gaming doesn't seem like a particularly creative act, what with its formalized rules and structured systems, there is much more room for self expression than one might think. Some games play to this directly through unique presentations or artistic themes. Music games and many of the Sim titles are basically just expressive outlets that happen to be governed by a computerized system of rules. Other creatives find their outlet in multiplayer gaming. The modern MMORPG sports equipment and decorative combinations numbering well into the millions. The Creatively Motivated gamer takes pleasure in designing how their character looks as well as changing how they interact with their environment. Creatively Motivated gamers thrive when outlets are available. Anything involving a high degree of expression, decoration, or a large abstract component draws them. They wilt in gaming environments governed purely by numbers, and in those where presentation is extremely homogeneous.


Though we sometimes don't like to admit it, escapism is a motivation that lives in the heart of every gamer. By design, a game creates an inherently different world. Even games which have as one of their primary goals simulation of some aspect of the real world recast the player into some role they find more exciting than their own. Escaping into the role of adventurer, pilot, quarterback or even zookeeper provides motivation for nearly every gamer. Escapism Motivated gamers seek out games where the environment is rich, comprehensive, real. They thrive in worlds where suspension of disbelief is high, where they can lose themselves in the depth and complexity available to them. They gravitate toward role playing and simulation, environments where the world is rich and believable. They tend to avoid abstract games where the underlying reality is difficult to believe or understand. It is a strange sort of paradox that MMORPGS, with their incredibly deep histories and expansive worlds, are not as attractive to Escapism Motivated gamers as pure RPGs. This effect arises from the multiplayer aspect. Players talking in a public channel about out of game topics or, worse, about the mechanical and numerical aspects of the game world may well ruin the escapists experience and cause them to seek the company of non player characters or others who share their motivation.

Much has been made of the downside of escapism. A gamer who spends too much time in a world not their own can begin to lose touch. This sort of disassociation with reality can, and has, lead to all sorts of problems with work, school and personal relations. This does not mean, however, that escapism is itself an unhealthy thing. It is a basic part of the human experience. The reason we vacation, watch moves, enjoy sporting events or go camping is inherently escapist. As people, we are often unsatisfied with out lot in life. It's natural to seek out activities that allow us to experience something outside of our day to day. Gaming is no different. However, as gamers, we are an oft misunderstood community. We owe it to ourselves and to the world at large both to fight with information, by spreading the positive realities of gaming and gamer culture, and to fight internally against obsession. No matter how good a substitute for the real world a game may seem it is, in the end, only a pastime. Leave it once in a while.


Social interaction is a subject on which we gamers take a fair bit of static from our non-gaming peers. Sometimes this is because they mistake differing priorities for introversion. Wanting to talk about the relative merits of the Western Plaguelands against Winterspring as a post 55 grinding location isn't really any different from wanting to talk about the strength of the Bill's secondary, its just that one of them is relevant to a somewhat narrow audience (give it time.) Sometimes, however, the criticism is merited. We tend to be somewhat socially awkward folk, in part because the hobbies in which we invest a sizeable amount of our time have rigid rules governing most interactions, making them poor training for the free wheeling reality of human discourse. For some gamers, the Social Interaction found in the gaming experience is a primary motivator.

Social activity in gaming occurs on many levels. At a very low level, gaming can be a reinforcer for existing social groups. Think of a group of friends getting together to play a board game or some Half Life. The social activity found in modern online games can be much broader in scope. MMORPGs, to which discussion of the current state of gaming always seems to gravitate, are essentially groups of people that already share some primary common link. The friendships formed through online cooperation and friendly competition can be one of the biggest draws of such games. Anyone who has ever stayed up later than they should because their guild needed them or because someone asked them to has experienced this. These online relationships are no less real, no less significant than their offline analogues. They are, however, different.

The interaction that takes place within a game is structured and often, online gamers see only part of one another. It is difficult for a group formed around a particular activity to bond as deeply as a group of friends that exists solely for the purpose of supporting one another. To avoid turning to diatribe on not forgetting your real loved ones we'll stop following that chain of thought. The important thing is that some game players are purely Socially Motivated. Such individuals thrive online, where other players can be met and interacted with. For these people, the heavier the social component of the game, the better. Interestingly, many games with a high degree of social complexity also have a large amount of the mathematical complexity that may drive away socially motivated gamers. In pure form, this type of gamer is seeking an experience that blurs the line between games and chat environment.

Five Motivators

Challenge. Competition. Creation. Escape. Socialization. Five different motivators, all of which combine to make up the motivation of a particular gamer. We could add more, certainly, but these will do for now. So where do we go with this? I'm having to physically restrain myself from drawing a pentagonal map and plotting individual gamers on the five motivational axes. While it would look neat and might be an interesting topic for an esoteric role-playing text, it wouldn't get us anywhere.

A more useful tack, perhaps, is to think about what motivates us individually. Knowing yourself and what drives you can help you figure out what sort of games you should be playing and, more importantly, which will never give you anything but frustration. Understanding the motivations of others can give us insight that will better help us relate. Many arguments over what to do in online games arise because the different party members are motivated differently. A Creative and a Challenger aren't likely to crave the same activities from a night of dungeon delving. Nor are an Escapist and a Competitive going to even speak the same way about a game. For one, a game may be a world waiting for his immersion. For the other, a game is a matrix of numbers waiting to be solved and conquered. We all have a little of each in us and if we can understand what drives us we can both better interact with one another and increase the joy we find in gaming.