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There has to be a reason why millions of people around the world spend hours of their day playing video games. Discussions around the subject often lead to the idea of ‘escapism’; that gamers play simply to get away from the mundaneness of reality, but is this really the only explanation? Or are there psychological mechanisms underlying the behaviour?
Gaming does have elements of escapism. The players enter an alternate world, often more fantastical or appealing than their own, and without the ‘glass ceiling’ that seems to constrain real-life action. But the reasons are more complex than this.
Scott Rigby’s research company Immersyve collected years of data and conducted in-house studies at game development studios with the aim of explaining basic human needs and seeing what makes gaming so appealing. They concluded that gaming perfectly targets three psychological needs.
The first is competency. We like to feel like we are good at something and we like to be recognised for it. We want to know that we have mastered a situation and we enjoy the feeling of progressing and accomplishing goals. This is true in life and manifests as our desire to follow a career path, gain promotion or change jobs, or take up a new hobby or learn something new.
Games have this built into their very fabric. They provide challenges with varying degrees of difficulty, with clear lines of progression. They also give us built-in reward systems. In iGaming releases such as PokerStars’ Power Up, the rewards are clear and financial, but games without financial rewards offer replications of this that still appeal to us, from simply collecting points for achievements to levelling up a character or unlocking an ability.
The second psychological need that gaming appeals to is autonomy, or our desire for independence. We want to feel like we are in control of our actions and situations. However, this isn’t always easy in real life. A lot can happen outside of our control and this can be frustrating. Gaming makes autonomy easy. Free-roam games like GTA are particularly good at offering autonomy as the player can pretty much make their own way through the game. And the good news about gaming is that failing doesn’t cost us the world! We can fail and try again, all without too much risks.
Relatedness is the third psychological need that gaming appeals to. We like to feel like we matter to other people and like we make a difference within our group or society. Multiplayer, and especially mass online games, provide this relatedness in a very direct way, but research from Immersyve has suggested that we even relate to the fictional characters within the game, and feel relatedness through dialogues and quests to help others.
The danger is that we might neglect our basic psychological needs in real life. Instead of trying to gain competency, autonomy and relatedness in our own life, we may gain what we need from the game. This is when gaming becomes ‘escapism’; when it is used to avoid life. But there’s also proven positive effects of gaming. As well as appealing to our basic psychological needs, gaming may also improve our cognitive abilities and enhance our intelligence.
Alicia Saville did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She has an ongoing interest in mental health and well-being.
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