It’s currently summertime for folks in the northern hemisphere. This means school is out, so kids are home. There have likely been millions of the same arguments erupting in household after household, with parents railing on their kids for spending hours day by day in front of a screen. For one thing, that’s what’s been happening to my younger brother these past few weeks. But, this whole thing got me thinking about the situation in its entirety: What makes video games so appealing in the first place?

Truth be told, a person can become addicted to anything. Though, the word “addiction” tends to carry a stigma. When that word is said, it’s likely your mind immediately thinks of something like drugs and/or alcohol, since they’re the most common addictive substances. But, again, there are many addiction traps out there, both “good” and “bad.” For instance, someone can become addicted to exercise while another can become addicted to binge eating. Playing video games can easily become addicting to a lot of people.

During the late ‘80s/‘90s when home gaming systems really started to take off, great concern was raised about kids (and teens/young adults) that spent excessive hours playing them. Like TV shows before them, games became seen as being the new “brain-rotting activity.” True, excessive playtime isn’t at all the healthiest thing (nor is it very constructive). Sitting for long hours and staring at a screen can certainly take a toll on a person’s body. However, what truly matters in this situation is why people end up getting sucked in.

In my opinion, I think it’s because games are a completely interactive form of entertainment rather than a passive one, such as with listening to music, reading a book, or watching a film/TV show. With those other entertainment forms, the user is simply seeing/listening to something unfold. Everything is already set in stone, so there’s no changing it. That’s where video games tend to differ dramatically.

If you and some friends were to watch a movie together, overlooking your personal thoughts/preferences, you’ll all end up having virtually the same experience because the end product is the same for everyone. With games, on the other hand, there are really no two identical gameplay experiences. Even with the most linear of titles, nothing can truly happen in a game without the player’s input. It’s this that essentially makes every gameplay session unique. This is especially true with more open-world titles, as it’s even easier to end up experiencing a game in a way that’s completely unique to you.

Unlike passive entertainment like films, gaming gives players literal control over what happens. 

A character in a book or a movie/TV show is the creator’s creation, and it’s only the creator that gets to decide what happens to a character. You ever have those moments when a dramatic/suspenseful scene comes up, and you’re shouting at the screen/page hoping for things to turn out one way, only for it to end up being something different? That shows the limitations of a passive entertainment form rather than an interactive one. With games, for the most part, it’s the player that gets to decide what happens. Sure, some events are still scripted, and of course, there are cutscenes that are totally unchangeable. But each player has their own influence over the game, whereas in a movie/TV show, book, or even song, all one can do is listen to and watch what events will unfold. Now, what does this have to do with how games get people hooked?

I think it’s just that feeling of control. After all, most folks tend to be generally comfortable in life when they have control over a situation. As soon as that’s taken away, it can make a person feel tense and anxious, as they don’t know if things will turn out well or not. This is especially true for kids, who hardly have any real control over their lives. For the most part, every aspect of their lives is dictated by adults. But, when you think about it, this doesn’t really change. As a person ages into adulthood, they gain their “independence,” but now they end up being governed in a whole new way. To an extent, adults must conform to the wishes of society around them. Their time and wealth tend to be taken up by their newfound responsibilities, things that they were previously shielded from by their parents. That’s why the whole concept of “vacation” is seen as magical to most.

Whether it’s kids getting a break from school, or adults enjoying time off from work, the whole point of a vacation is to enjoy a period of freedom. It gives us a feeling of true “control”, not having to worry about responsibilities and living by a tight schedule. We can unwind and do as we please. Bringing the whole discussion back to games, this is essentially what every video game invites players to do. You play a game with some form of a “controller” indicating that you are the force behind the events unfolding in this virtual world. Instead of life dictating you, you get to dictate life. No wonder a franchise like The Sims got so popular; it’s literally built on the whole concept of putting players in total control of the lives of virtual humans.

A big reason why everyone loves vacations is because it’s a chance to unwind and do what you really want rather than having to comply with life’s unavoidable hardships. Likewise, video games give us a feeling of control and peace.

Not only do games offer freedom in the form of interaction, but they also give us freedom in the form of choice. When you get stuck on something and are tired of trying after a thousand times, you can just pause or even outright quit and try again some other time. There can be goals and objectives to complete, but sometimes you have the option to flat-out ignore them and go off and do your own thing.

Real life certainly doesn’t offer that form of flexibility. Just think if things worked like a video game: That big upcoming test you didn’t study for? Just “pause” life and worry about it later. Running into money problems? Oh, just spend time grinding out some monotonous task until you have enough; you don’t have to worry about anything else until then. Indeed, it would be nice if this sort of logic applied in the real world.

Perhaps I’ve thought about this way too deeply, but really, gaming still all boils down to the sheer happiness of making something cool happen, instead of simply watching it, reading about it, or listening to it. Games are fun because we’re the ones that make them fun. 

A.K Rahming
Having been introduced to video games at the age of 3 via a Nintendo 64, A.K has grown up in the culture. A fan of simulators and racers, with a soft spot for Nintendo! But, he has a great respect for the entire video game world and enjoys watching it all expand as a whole.

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