Why Games Are Compelling

Many people I know haven’t played a game since they left puberty, their days of playing Uno, Checkers, and Monopoly in the past. They find it surprising that I have two to four game nights every week, and probably would play games five or six nights every week if I could. What about it is so compelling, for me?

  • Strategy — I’ve played so many games that I have some prepared strategies for a variety of game situations, but I always love a game that requires completely new ones, thus encouraging me to learn.
  • Systems — I want to look into the sub-world of a game and see a clever system, one that plays out differently each game.
  • Competition — I want to pit my wits against others, and I want to win half the time. Win too much, and I’m not challenged. Win too little, and I’m frustrated.
  • Dramatic — in the beginning, the winner is unknown, and it could by anyone. Once the winner is known, the game is done. In many books and movies, you know the protagonist will overcome, but in a game you don’t know. I enjoy the surprise and excitement of real drama.
  • Socializing — Games give a proscribed way to interact with people and a focus for the players, and that can be part of connecting to each other. This is particularly true for team games, where several players are working toward a common goal.
  • Decisions — I’m decisive, and I enjoy lots of interesting and hard decisions.
  • Productivity — I know that playing a game is rarely productive, but it feels productive. It’s like how a movie makes you feel connected to the characters and actors in it, and although you aren’t actually connected to them, the feeling is real and is pleasurable.
  • Competence — It’s important to me to prove my competence. In fact, it’s a problem sometimes, because in a turn-based game, I have a strong desire to help other players. Helping them is another chance to prove my competence, be social, and see the system play out well. I need to constantly remind myself that helping to much disrespects their competence, their decisions, and their productivity.
  • Variety — A good game will have lots of replayability, a new experience every time. But there are so many good games now that one can jump from game to game and find completely different tactics and systems and worlds.
  • Stimulating — My brain must like difficult decisions, because it seems to release dopamine when I have them. And the mental exercise makes my brain work better in other arenas.

Games press all these buttons for me. There are certainly other activities that I enjoy in life, and other activities that are compelling, but a good game hits so many. And since I started playing games as a kid, the number of great games has exploded. It’s a lucky time to be alive and be a game player.