Saturday, May 09, 2009

Why We Play Games

The original version of this appeared on GameCareerGuide. (Diagram missing for now...)

Why We Play Games

At some point designers should know why people like to play games. Yet if anyone truly knew this, he or she would become rich as a consultant.

No one can exactly describe why people like to play games, though many have tried. If an author can spend 80 pages just trying to define what a game is (Rules of Play), how likely are we to define why games are enjoyable? Entire books have been written about this subject -- in this article, I summarize the less philosophical reasons people have suggested, and add some from my own experience.

Game designers make their best judgments about why people like to play, and then design accordingly. Yet there are many examples of software entertainment that surprise most experts. Why is The Sims so enjoyable for so many people, or Katamari Damacy? In the end, a simple answer to this question is “What matters is what happens when a large and diverse set of people play test your game.”

No matter what you think about enjoyment of games, no matter whether you enjoy your game, the play test reflects the reaction of a wide variety of players. If enough of them like it, you probably have something worthwhile. If not enough of them like it, you need to change it.

Unfortunately, in the video game world it costs so much time and money to get to the point of playing the game that we really need all the help we can get while doing the preliminary design. A practical discussion of why people enjoy playing games is therefore a worthwhile endeavor.

Notice I haven’t used the word “fun” -- that’s because many people who enjoy playing games would not call them fun. Take chess as an example. It can be interesting, even fascinating, but many chess players do not describe it as fun.

“Fun” usually comes from external factors, from the attitudes of the people you play with and the environment, not from the game itself. People can laugh and shout and have a good time when playing an epic board game, even though most wouldn’t describe the game itself as fun.

There are certainly games meant to be “funny,” but not every gamer enjoys playing a funny game. Some think they’re silly and boring.

What is Enjoyable?

Some authors have made lists of the kinds of enjoyment people can have while playing games. Such lists are useful to remind us of the details of enjoyable gaming.

The most well known is from Marc LeBlanc (source

Sensation Game as sense-pleasure

Fantasy Game as make-believe

Narrative Game as unfolding story

Challenge Game as obstacle course

Fellowship Game as social framework

Discovery Game as uncharted territory

Expression Game as soap box

Submission Game as mindless pastime

At Origins Game Fair 2008, Ian Schreiber (co-author of Challenges for Game Designers) gave his version of kinds of fun (enjoyment):

• exploration

• social experience

• collection (collecting things)

• physical sensation

• puzzle solving

• advancement

• competition

Ask a group of game players to list ways that people enjoy games, and many of the above will come up in one form or another.

Raph Koster (Theory of Fun in Games) has brought to our attention research by Mihaly Csikszentmikalyi into “optimal experience.” The Chicago-based Czech researcher applies his ideas to life as a whole, in a series of books, but we can apply them to games. Csikszentmikalyi is interested in “the positive aspects of human experience -- joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life I call flow” (Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), p. xi).

For game purposes it amounts to this: People have an optimal experience when they are challenged, but not challenged too much. In other words, if something is too easy, it becomes boring. If it’s too hard, it becomes frustrating and causes anxiety. The ideal game experience, then, is to challenge the player at whatever ability level he has reached, that is, keep increasing the challenges as the player becomes a better player. This keeps players “in the flow” (see the diagram).

Video games can be particularly good at managing the level of challenge, either through adaptive programming, via the difficulty setting, or through increasingly difficult levels in games that use levels. In non-electronic games, the level of challenge tends to change because your opponents tend to become better players just as you do, or you find better players to play against. In a non-electronic role-playing game such as Dungeons & Dragons, the referee (Dungeon Master) manages the challenge. Novice characters don’t meet fire giants but often encounter orcs, while very powerful characters may occasionally go up against an ancient and terrible dragon, but orcs aren’t worth bothering with. This is in some sense artificial, but it makes the game more enjoyable.

Enjoyable to Some, Yet Not to Others

While these schemes and categories are all useful ways to think about games, I think game enjoyment often involves spectra of factors, with some people at one end, others at the other end, and the majority somewhere in the middle. Many of these spectra overlap, or are different views of what may be a more fundamental factor.

Here’s a list of some of the factors (certainly not definitive) that I’ll discuss:

role-fulfillment vs. emergence (story dominant vs. rules dominant)

story/narrative vs. what happens next/emerging circumstances

classical vs. romantic

long-term planning vs. reaction/adaptation to changing circumstances

socializing vs. competition

entertainment vs. challenge

fantasy/relaxation vs. urge to excel (“gaming mastery”)

the journey vs. the destination

Role-Fulfillment vs. Emergence (Story Dominant vs. Rules Dominant)

Many people have suggested that video games are dream fulfillment: What is the player’s dream that the game designer wants to help them experience or fulfill? Yet in many games the dream, if it is there at all, is quite obscure. What is the dream fulfillment in playing chess or checkers, or any other abstract game, such as Tetris? Is there anything personal (other than a desire for immortality?) in controlling a nation for a thousand years, as in History of the World, Age of Empires, or Civilization?

Certainly many video games put the player into a position the individual is unlikely to experience in the real world, or which they wouldn’t want to experience because it’s much too dangerous. Living out fantasy is an obvious part of shooters and action games, for example.

This kind of game can also be called “story-dominant.” If there’s a dream to be fulfilled, it likely involves a story, and the game is an expression of that story, however simple (just as dreams can be simple or complex).

The other end of this spectrum is the “rules-dominant” game, which includes many traditional games such as chess and go. Gameplay emerges out of the rules, not from following a story (hence, it is sometimes called “emergent” gaming). The game has a set of rules, and the course of the game emerges from the rules in a great variety of ways, depending on the players. Board games and card games tend to be rules-dominant, while many of popular video game genres -- and role-playing games of all types -- tend to be more story-dominant.

We might further say that the rules-dominant games are often for more than two sides, whereas the role-dominant ones tend to have just two sides, the player(s) and the computer (or referee, in Dungeons & Dragons and similar games).

Video games, especially the AAA variety, are much more exercises in role-assumption than non-electronic games. The player is enabled to do something he'd like to imagine he could do, but he can feel as if he's really doing it in modern AAA games. The feeling of verisimilitude must be there. On the other hand, "casual" video games tend to be more rules-dominant, like board games and card games.

Sid Meier recently described what amounts to an "emergent" view of games:

"It's important that the player has the fun in the game," [Meier] said, noting that there is a temptation for the designer to steer the gameplay too much. "It's definitely our philosophy to keep the game designer in the background and let the story emerge from players' decisions."

The next question discusses other aspects of these two contrasting approaches.

Story vs. Emerging Circumstances

Some game players like to follow a story, while others hate to be led around by the nose. Yet they’re talking about the same experience. This is usually expressed in the contrast of “linear” games with “sandbox” games.

It is much easier to produce a powerful story through linearity (as in a book or movie), so the strongest (in terms of story, at any rate) of the story-dominant games are linear.

Sandbox games have greater replay value than linear games (other things being equal) because there is only one or a few stories in the latter. Of course, if the linear game is very long, will people miss a lack of replayability?

Sandbox video games such as Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed are a return to the older video game style, where specific narrative (linearity) is less important or non-existent.

The role-assumption game isn't necessarily strongly linear or story-dominant. The ancestor of many video games, Dungeons & Dragons (paper version), can be played either way. The dungeon master can conceive a story and set up an adventure so that players are forced to follow through the story (linear method). Or he can set up an appropriately challenging situation, not trying to predict how the players will approach it and not trying to lead them from a particular point to another, and see what happens (sandbox method). In this case the players make their own story. And each group confronted with the same adventure will contrive a different story. It’s easier to do the sandbox in a paper game than in a video game, because a good human referee is more capable than a computer of adjusting the game as it is played.

I always hated storytelling D&D as a player, because it meant the referee forced me to do things I didn’t want to do. But other people much prefer the story-driven style. Of course, there is story in the emergent style, and there is strategy and tactics in the story style. I’m talking about what’s dominant.

What seems to be certain, however, is that many players lean strongly to one side or the other, and don’t like games of the other type most of the time.

Classical vs. Romantic

Two basic game playing styles exist among those who are interested in winning a game (not all players are, of course). Harkening back to the well-known 19th century distinction in music, painting, and other arts, I call the two basic styles the classical and the romantic.

The perfect classical player tries to know each game inside-out. He wants to learn the best counter to every move an opponent (or the computer) might make. He takes nothing for granted, paying attention to details that probably won’t matter but which in certain cases could be important. The classical player does not avoid taking chances, but carefully calculates the consequences of his risks. He dislikes unnecessary risks. He prefers a slow but steady certain win to a quick but only probable win. He tries not to be overcautious, however, for fear of becoming predictable. He tries to maximize his minimum gain each turn -- as the perfect player of mathematical game theory is expected to do -- rather than make moves and attacks that could gain a lot but which might leave him worse off than when he started.

Some people call this the “minimax” style of play. I am not sure that “minimaxer” and “classical” mean quite the same thing in game contexts, but they are close. Certainly, the minimaxers are usually going to be classical types.

A cliché among football fans is that the best teams win by making fewer mistakes, letting the other team beat itself. So it is with the classical gamer, who concentrates on eliminating errors rather than discovering brilliant coups.

The romantic, on the other hand, looks for the decisive blow that will cripple his enemy, psychologically if not physically on the playing field. He wishes to convince his opponent of the inevitability of defeat; in some cases a player with a still tenable position will resign the game to his romantic opponent when he has been beaten psychologically. The romantic is willing to take a risk in order to disrupt enemy plans and throw the game into a line of play his opponent is unfamiliar with. He looks for opportunities for a big gain, rather than maximizing his minimum gain. He loves the brilliant coup, despite the risks.

Chess lends itself to classical play, poker to romantic play. But each one can be played with the opposite style.

Because so many video games let you save your position and experiment with different strategies, the romantic style may be more common among video gamers.

(Much of this section is excerpted from the much longer article “The Classical and Romantic Game Playing Styles,” originally published in Dragon Magazine #65, September 1982. A recent version is online .)

Long-Term Planning vs. Adaptation to Changing Circumstances

Some people like to plan well ahead, to consider the options and choose a best course for each. Others like to react to circumstances as they occur, to adapt. Chess and checkers encourage long-term planning. Monopoly, thanks to the random move mechanic and more than two players, is more adaptive. Having more than two players introduces additional uncertainty to any game; uncertainty is at the heart of the adaptive style. Poker involves adaptation in each hand, but in the long run, the best players may be able to plan their bluffs (and non-bluffs) so as to take advantage of the characteristics and personalities of the other players. Card driven war games put an emphasis on adaptation: you can only do what your current hand allows you to do, you never know what cards you’ll get, and you don’t know what cards your opponent holds.

In general, perfect information games encourage planning, while as uncertainty increases, adaptation becomes more important than planning. For a variety of reasons, adaptation is probably the more common preference among video gamers.

Socializing vs. Competition

Party gamers are the epitome of the socializers. Many Euro-style board gamers and casual video gamers are of this type, to the point that they refuse to attack someone even when playing in a competitive game. They play games to enjoy being with and interacting with other people of similar interest, and have little interest in dominating or beating someone. I don’t think we need to discuss the competitive gamer much. We all know people whose main gaming objective is to win, to outdo everyone else.

The availability of a social experience is important. Non-electronic board games and card games are generally social experiences; electronic games are becoming more social (MMOs, Wii), but are still predominantly solitary, a player alone with his own thoughts and dreams.

Non-electronic RPGs are often social, as the games are usually cooperative rather than competitive.

Entertainment vs. Challenge

Traditional thinking about games sees them as competitions or challenges, where players play against one another. Dungeons & Dragons changed that, as players played against “the bad guys” with the Dungeon Master as neutral referee. It is a cooperative game, though there is still an unending series of challenges.

Some video games have gone further by leaving competition entirely out of it and reducing challenges. Games have become entertainments, not competitions. (Of course, many family games were played as entertainments even though they were ostensibly competitions.) Many people pay their 60 bucks (or 20 bucks, or 5 bucks) and want to be entertained, not challenged. Yet there are still competitive players and highly competitive games. Spore is reportedly "too easy" for hardcore players, yet challenging enough for the much larger market of more casual players. Evidently it is an entertainment rather than a challenging, competitive game.

In a sense, any game can be played as an entertainment or as a competition, but design will make some much more suitable as one than the other. Insofar as people often "don't want to think" when playing games, many video games substitute "physical challenges" (such as jumping in platformers, or shooting accurately) for mental challenges. The physical challenges can easily be modified to entertain or to challenge, as the player wishes.

Playing against people online tends to be challenging. Playing against people in person tends to be entertainment, perhaps because we’re more likely to know the other people involved.

Some writers on this topic speculate that socializing and entertainment tend to be more important to female players, whereas challenge and competition are more important to males.

Relaxation vs. Mastery

A variation of the above is to play a game as fantasy fulfillment, or to play the game to fulfill the urge to excel, to demonstrate gaming mastery. The latter helps the player feel important, capable, powerful, hence its great attraction to teenagers. A game can often provide both, if only through different difficulty levels.

Unfortunately, the urge for gaming mastery, when taken to extremes, results in players willing to cheat or behave in unsocial ways that can ruin everyone else's enjoyment.

Some people just don't see the point of excelling in a video game. What does it matter? A player's attitude can change over time, likely moving more toward relaxation as the player becomes older and encounters more real-world challenges and responsibilities. Mastering a game simply becomes less important.

The Journey vs. The Destination

Older generations want to enjoy the entire game they are playing, even when their main objective is to win. Young people seem to be more interested in the destination, “beating the game,” than in the journey. Obviously, it’s necessary that a game have a sufficient level of challenge that the “destination” player feels he’s accomplished something.

This can also be seen as “what happens” versus “what is the end.” Some people play games (and read novels, and watch movies) to find out what happens next. Others are only interested in the final result. They might skip ahead in a novel and just read the end, or skip ahead in a game (often with "cheats") and just play the end.

I once listened to a young man who had written two books about generational differences say that his generation (gen Y or millennials) were quite happy to get a cheat code, go to the last stage of a game, “win” the game, and be satisfied. “I beat the game, didn’t I?” I, a baby boomer, was astounded. “Why play if you’re going to cheat?” He smiled as he said, “We’re just gathering the fruits of our research.” I shook my head. To this day I cannot understand this emotionally, but I understand intellectually that many game players feel this way -- that the destination is all that matters. And a game designer must be aware of it.

The following is another observation of this phenomenon:

“The fact that there's no ending [100 levels repeat randomly], however, points out a very important difference between Atari's view on video games and the current perception. Atari saw Gauntlet as a process, a game that was played for its own sake and not to reach completion. The adventurers continue forever until their life drains out, their quest ultimately hopeless.

... in games of Gauntlet I've had with other people in the past few years … their interest tends to survive only until the point where they learn there is no ending. Times have certainly changed."

Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games, by John Harris,

I’d speculate from my experience with game design students that, for whatever reasons, females tend to be more interested in the journey, males more interested in the destination.

We might speculate also that MMOs with level caps (which is typical because it’s hard to design a MMO without a level cap) suit the destination folks, because there is a destination: that maximum level. Similarly, RPGs such as Final Fantasy are attractive to destination people because there is an end to the story. In older RPGs, both the original non-electronic ones and some of the older video games, the game is open-ended. There is no particular destination.

I find it instructive that the latest version of non-electronic Dungeons & Dragons (fourth edition, June 2008) has a definite end. Characters retire, one way or another, when they reach 30th level, and that level is practically reachable, as opposed to a tightly run first edition game where no human character ever got to a maximum level (and certainly not 30th!).

I’ll end with a couple of additional observations.


Dream-fulfillment is close to escapism. Like it or not, many games have a strong escapist element, and it seems strongest where dream-fulfillment is strongest. It is especially important to non-adults. Consider, say, a favorite adolescent male pastime, shooter games:

The player can be the star, “da man,” which is generally unlike the player’s real life

Players can experience thrills (even death) without risk of being hurt

There’s always a way to succeed -- trial and error can work, because it doesn’t matter if you get killed

Competition is not only permissible, but encouraged

There’s a structure to everything; most of the uncertainty of real life is not there

Young people control what happens, and attitudes can be confrontational, edgy.

For a frustrated teenage male who's been told too often what he can and cannot do, this can be a kind of nirvana. Game designers must be aware of the escapist elements of gaming, even if they’re designing a serious game that has few or none of these particular characteristics.


Game players have different kinds of personalities, just as the population at large. A fairly common taxonomy divides people into 16 personalities, as reflected in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator ( and in the writing of David Keirsey and others (e.g., the book Please Understand Me). These are often derived from the work of Carl Jung, and even back to the Greek idea of the “four temperaments”. (A good practical Jung Typology test of personality type is at

The major point to recognize is that different personalities have different preferences, different ways of collecting information, different ways of reacting to challenges. These personalities are established in childhood and do not change. For example, some people feel better before they make a decision than after, so they tend to gather more information and delay decision-making. Others feel better after they’ve made a decision, so they react to decision-making quite differently. The former may learn to make timely decisions, but to a considerable extent it is against their nature. Similarly, some people rely heavily on logic, others on intuition. Such differences are going to strongly affect their tastes in games, or even whether they play games at all. Keirsey suggested that certain occupations tend to attract certain personality types, and we can wonder if game playing attracts only some of the 16 types.

The major point for inexperienced designers to take from this is you are not like your audience, and you need to decide which kinds of preferences and which ideas about enjoyment your games will target. No game can begin to cover all the bases because there are so many different reasons to like to play games.

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