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  • Why We Play

    - Lewis Pulsipher

  • Long-Term Planning vs. Adapting 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.


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