On a recent Saturday, I woke up at 11 a.m. and promptly went to plop myself in front of the TV, vowing that would be the day I would finally beat Witcher 3.
As I got off my couch at 5:30 in the afternoon to eat “breakfast,” I realized I had played for six hours and the end was still nowhere in sight. I mowed the lawn to ensure I would at least accomplish one thing that day, ingested some much-needed real world food and conversation, and at 7:30 promptly got back to my goal. At 11:30 p.m., I finished the game and triumphantly raised my fists above my head. I had spent 10 hours in one day playing a video game just for that one brief moment of exhilaration.
People who don’t play video games often wonder what makes them so engaging to others. What do video games provide that we want so badly we’ll spend hours accomplishing tasks in a virtual world that usually doesn’t affect the real one? The truth is, we are all looking for meaning. And often—in ways that can be healthy and unhealthy—we can try to find this meaning in video games. I think there are at least four reasons.
1. Video Games Give Us Control Over Decisions That Matter
An increasingly common trait in video games is the ability to control what your character says and how they act. The Mass Effect series, The Witcher series, and Telltales’ rendition of The Walking Dead all allow you to make decisions that significantly alter the game. These choices give the player the illusion that the whole world is in their hands.
There are always things in our lives that we want to control, but can’t: our future, health, relationships, money and jobs, just to list a few. Video Games are clear: Do this task this way and this will happen. Real life is messy. Sometimes you do everything right and still it all goes wrong. Especially in those situations, it can be easier to escape to a world where life can be controlled.
2. Video Games Let Us Live Vicariously Through Someone Else
As the band Twenty One Pilots explains it, “Between student loans and tree house homes, who wouldn’t choose the latter?”
When we have the option to be an adventurer who explores ancient ruins discovering long lost treasures or your average joe, who wouldn’t choose the first option? Video game characters do missions, jobs, tasks and quests that often are not even possible in the real world.
Even when playing games that are supposed to simulate real life activities such as sports games, you can avoid all the activities that are required in order to actually master a sport. Instead of spending years mastering a three-point shot, you can play as people who have already put in the work.
Games also allow us to see places that would not be possible in real life in a really hands-on way. At the end of the day, video games let us be someone cooler, bolder, and sometimes more or less moral than we are in real life. We can be and do whatever we want without the real-world consequences.
3. Video Games Makes Us Feel Part Of Something Bigger Than Ourselves
In our own lives, we can often wonder if our actions have any worth in the world. We can be plagued by the age-old question, “If I disappeared today, would it make a difference?”
Almost all games play on this desire to be a part of something bigger. In most video games, players work toward a goal way bigger than us, and most of the time, we are the integral part of the whole game. If you are not there, who will save the day? Without you, what will happen to the world?
Some games double up by allowing you to work with real strangers or friends through the Internet to accomplish a goal. With sports games, you can take control of your favorite team and lead them to the tournament victory they deserve.
4. Video Games Give a Sense of Personal Achievement
Whether it is playing excruciatingly difficult games like Dark Souls or getting a perfect score in Wii Bowling, video games have often induce a hefty feeling of accomplishment. It seems the brain doesn’t mind if the physical world is involved in our actions or not—as long as we put in effort, the brain will chemically respond to reward our endeavors.
Video games give you just enough gratification as to keep you playing but not enough that you feel ready to quit. Contrary to the thought that video games are a system of instant gratification, most actually get increasingly difficult and require tenacity and skill to win.
Finding the Balance
Video game players all come looking for something. Whether consciously or not, we seek these games out to fill specific desires and voids that only God can fill. Just like any form of entertainment, video games can be Band-Aids used to cover our real desires, issues and needs.
However, I don’t think that occasionally using video games to escape our day-to-day lives is necessarily always bad. Just like every other aspect of life, video games require balance. Obviously, we shouldn’t spend all our free time on them, but video games—like books, movies and all other types of stories—are a portal into a bigger world we could not access otherwise.
They can help us understand our inner character. How do we act in a world without consequences? How do we act in a world where our decisions drastically affect others?
Video games can be a great tool for a multitude of reasons, but when we start using them to find our purpose and meaning, we have a problem. If we would rather escape through a game to avoid real life responsibilities, it is time to put down the controller and spend some time working on our own lives. It can be hard to work on your own life when you could just be someone else, but at the end of the day, it is your actions in the real world that you will be remembered by. So, in the words of Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”