It is not always the same reasons that beckon us to sit at our desktops until sunrise, or endure the cramped back and sweaty legs symptomatic of a night’s binge of laptop gaming. Many of us do not give much thought as to why we game. Nonetheless, we all game for reasons.
I recently left League of Legends for Minecraft. This may seem like an odd statement—why leave a game that is free to play? Nonetheless, I believe I have truly left LoL. The only reason I play the game is for pure escapist pleasure and, while I feel such escapism to be important, I am tired of having washed-up pro-wannabes harass me because I did not play the game the way they want me to. My reason for playing is no longer sufficient to outweigh the negatives associated with that gaming experience. For the time being, this has me playing the rather odd choice of Minecraft.
All of this has got me thinking, why do I play what I do? Why do any of us? For the time being, I have come up with Six Types of Gamers. This list is not meant to be concrete. The reasons we game are fluid; sometimes we game for different reasons, and often there is a blend of reasons informing our gaming.
Feel free to let me know which one you think you are, or to let me know if you can think of a type I have missed.
The Mental Gymnast
My wife is a non-gamer who recently became mildly addicted to online Scrabble. This was shocking to me, not so much because she is a non-gamer, but because she has always hated Scrabble. Yet, when this addiction persisted past the one week mark, I had to ask why she likes to play so much.
Now, my wife is a thoughtful, college-educated woman. That said, she currently spends much of her time with a four-year old as her primary source of conversation. As engaging as our son’s conversation is, she has recently longed for a little more intellectual stimulus—some mental stretching. In the last month she signed up to start a new degree, but in addition to this she finds Scrabble to be the perfect mental diversion. It forces her to think in ways that her days do not normally demand of her. It provides challenge and stimulation, but does not make major demands of her time.
Many of us game for this sort of challenge, and I suspect it is a primary motivation of gamers who enjoy puzzles games from classic Tetris to the latest version of Bejeweled. This element is also one of the aspects that makes The Legend of Zelda series stand out from other action/role playing games—for Zelda is as much a classic puzzler as it is an action/adventure title.
This is one of the biggest boons to video games with the advent of modern technology. When I was playing Faxanadu on the NES back in the 80’s there was no such thing as social gaming—unless you found a bunch of friends who liked to sit and watch you. Social gaming is what has made Facebook games like Farmville so successful, and it also the secret to the Wii’s success—there has never before been a system with so many terrible games that nonetheless make great party diversions.
Social gaming has brought in a whole new crop of lite gamers, but it has also made its way into hardcore gaming. Today, no MMO can exist without considerable social support—I have seldom come across an MMO player who does not list guild-play among his or her favourite gaming experiences.
The Socialite games for community. For whatever reason, they find that gaming provides a level of social interaction that cannot be found elsewhere. After all, how often does everyday life provide the opportunity to explore distant lands and slay dragons with your friends?
The aesthete plays for the sensual experience. These are the graphics junkies and music lovers. They often have difficulty going back and playing the games of old because they always want to experience the latest and most impressive graphics experience. This gamer cannot fully enjoy playing with the visuals turned down and he must have the latest graphics card, the best surround sound, and 3D visuals. This gamer is generally more concerned with the biggest, most real explosion than with the story or challenge of a game.
There’s a reason I have beaten The Legend of Zelda a Link to the Past and Final Fantasy VI fifteen times each—okay, maybe not quite fifteen times. Yes, these games are standouts among their generation—FFVI has often been suggested as the best of the series—but do I really go back to that version of Square-Enix’ juggernaut because playing there for the fifteenth time is more entertaining than visiting a new fantasy world in a new game? Nope. It’s the nostalgia. The Super Nintendo came out during a golden era of my own childhood, and it feels good to relive those times by occasionally replaying a game I enjoyed during that era.
The Seeker of Meaning
As much as I enjoy the other motivations for gaming, this is the one that made me a gamer for life. Every one of my most meaningful gaming experiences was one in which the game I played managed to reach past mere sensual experience or escapism and touch me on an imaginative level.
These are the games I write about on a weekly basis. The games that draw us in, make us care, and ultimately manage shape the way we see the world. Not only do I love playing these games, I intellectually want to play these games because I know they enrich my life.
After an escapist gaming binge I often feel guilty about all of the time I have wasted; I never feel that way about these types of games—like reading a good classic novel, watching a great play, or viewing a meaningful film, I know these games to be elevating my cultural sensibilities and shaping my imagination. These are the games that I love to interact with on an art-criticism level—I find myself sifting through the meanings presented to see which I want to shape me and which I had better discard. They force me to be critical even as they provide me with the pleasure of having my imagination stirred.
A classic complaint levelled by non-gamers is that games are little more than a vehicle for escapism. There is certainly an element of truth to these allegations. Many are the days when I come home from a difficult day at work, or when I have had an upsetting encounter with a colleague, or simply when I have felt conquered by my circumstances, and I have found a blissful escape in a few rounds of StarCraft II, League of Legends, or a few hours of blissfully mindless grinding in World of Warcraft.
Escapism often gets a bad rap. Don’t get me wrong, there is a reason that the 25-year-old-who-still-lives-in-his-mom’s-basment-to-play-games has become a pervasive (and often accurate) stereotype of gamers. Escape is not without its pitfalls. But escape is also a much-needed diversion. Some people fix cars or hit the gym, some people drink too much or self-medicate. In the grand scheme of things, gaming provides a relatively healthy, cheap opportunity to escape. This escape even has potential to be largely positive—after all, there is a reason people play games to exercise their minds and imaginations, there is a reason I have often suggested games to be a worthy source of art criticism.
While all games provide the potential for escape, perhaps those that do it best are those that immerse us to the exclusion of all else. When I’m in the middle of a League of Legends game, everything else disappears. I cannot carry on a conversation, and I can certainly not think about all of the things that are bothering me.
Again, these are not air-tight categories. My receny switch to Minecraft was motivated by my desire to have my mind stretched (Mental Gymnast), to game socially (Socialite), to enjoy retro graphics (Nostalgia), and to create and design (Seeker of Meaning). Similarly, when I played through Heart of the Swarm in one day back in March it was not just for one of these reasons. I was enjoying the mental gymnastics that the challenge of some levels provided, I was allowing the story to touch my imagination, and I was revelling in the aesthetic experience provided by the wonderfully rendered CG cut scenes. Ultimately, however, I am a gamer for two main reasons: 1) sometimes I need a stress relief valve, and gaming provides me with the perfect level of escapism to achieve this; 2) I am always looking for meaningful imaginative experiences and gaming provides these—my greatest disappointment in Heart of the Swarm was that it only satisfied this level of gaming desire in a few isolated moments, and not as a whole game.
When it comes to gaming, I am an Escapist, and a Seeker of Meaning. What type of gamer are you?