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Why Do We Play Games?

An Essay By Trevor Stone

February 1997, Junior Year, New Vista High School
Written shortly after Genghis Con '97

Why do we play games? Do we play them to relax or to get excited? Is it to learn or to forget? Do we play to make friends or is it to annoy them? Or are games just a waste of time? Whatever the reason, games are a big piece of life.

First and foremost, games are designed for their players to have fun. "It's not whether you win or lose as long as you have fun." So then why is the object of most games to win? There are two possibilities. The first and most probable answer is that winning IS fun. When someone is in fierce competition to win, she has adrenaline, one of the two chief sources of bodily pleasure, flowing through her body. This thrill stems partly from society and partly from nature. We want to show that we are the best because it is the best competitor that wins the prize whether it be food, shelter, or a member of the opposite sex. Also, western society has pushed the ideal of personal gain. If someone is the best at something he can gain power, fame, and good looking admirers. Our society even fulfilling by paying top players of sports games millions of dollars and glamorizing their lifestyles.

But if this is the case, what about non-physical games? Being a top chess player will not land someone lots of beautiful blondes. Spending 50 hours a week playing PacMan will not gain the player power in anything. Or does it? At all times there are two groups that a person's mind is concerned with: himself and other people. And even if by winning lots of Magic: the Gathering games doesn't convince the average waydude of someone's coolness, it does convince herself that she is worth something, that she can accomplish certain difficult tasks and puzzles.

Games can also be a hobby, like any other hobby. People can have fun by preparing themselves for games. Like any other hobby, people can enjoy collecting odd versions of games, spending time making supplies for some games, thinking up new variants to old games, and talking to people who share a similar interest. And like any hobby, games can give players insights into how to live life, whether through simulation of life situations or through other aspects of play that are analogous to life.

There is a second possible reason why many people consider that it IS whether or not you win, and NOT how you play the game: the expression may be a load of dingoes' kidneys. If somebody can get an advantage towards winning by cheating or a cheap trick, so much the better. This emphasis on winning is prevalent amongst many in our western culture, both in games and in politics and society. Not only do some people take actions such as using steroids to increase their competitiveness, they also will do whatever it takes to get into a position of power. Rich people and corporations will do anything they can to get more money, even if it means going around the rules.

This emphasis on winning is, of course, not always the case. Many people play games even if they know they have no shot at winning. One of the primary focuses of games is to get away from the troubles of "real" life and have a good time. Games also often provide a way for people to enjoy the company of others. On the surface it may be a poker game, but it is also a method for friends to chat and bond with each other. The escapist viewpoint is also supported by many games which set themselves in something that could be reality but is better in some way. Role-playing games are a fine example. There is no real way to win, the players just play to have fun pretending they're someone else, somewhere else.

So people play games to give themselves a break from life, whether by winning a lot, by taking a break and socializing, or by just having fun. They usually replace what serious matters could be going on with something that causes enjoyable hormones, whether adrenaline or self-esteem bubbles, to circulate. And playing Monopoly sure beats sitting around staring at the walls for a couple hours. They provide a tool for social interaction and personal growth. And they also provide opportunities to spend a weekend playing them, causing a week of sickness to follow a weekend of great times.

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