From the title of this article, you might assume I’ll somehow try and defend video games as a legitimate way to spend my time. Actually, since that’s an inarguable fact, I’ll instead focus on why so many people enjoy video games in the first place, and at least briefly mention why gamers skew towards men 60/40. I will back this up with little to no science. So it goes.
My first foray into the digital realm came as I sat on my Dad’s lap playing Maelstrom as a wee three-year old. Maelstrom was basically a re-skinned Asteroids game for the Mac. I was too young, and too stupid, to both shoot asteroids and fly the ship simultaneously, so my dad handled navigation while I manned the weapons. He’d aim the ship at something worth destroying, and I’d jam on the spacebar with my chubby palms until it exploded. This is still how my dad and I hang out.
So obviously, right off the bat, I blame my dad. He’s like the guy slipping cocaine in the baby bottle. Also, there is a certain level of nostalgia that comes with playing video games. Whether it was with my dad, with my friends, or with dirty Harry down behind the K-Mart, video gaming for me has often been a thing I’ve done with other people. Even now, it’s the primary way I keep up with out-of-town college friends. Nostalgia doesn’t drive everybody, certainly, and it also wouldn’t be a reason that gamers would skew male (though this gap is closing every day).
My theory is that video games are a perfect form of work. That is, games simulate what work should be. Before you start hilariously asking me if I mean if we should pay our workers in bejeweled candy based on how many zombies they kill, allow me to explain.
There have been studies – that I can’t find in a quick google search, but that I totally read about in AP Psych – suggesting that, even at an early age, males like to destroy things. Obviously, this isn’t true in every case all the time so don’t take this as law, but in general, males seem motivated to impact the world in very visible ways (creation or destruction) whereas females tend to be more motivated by relationships and bringing people together. This is why boy babies love knocking over block towers. We thrive on seeing actual, physical rewards for our interactions with objects. When we knock over the tower, we’ve changed the world in some way. That gives us pride and purpose.
Video games, similarly, are all about interaction. The more you’re able to affect a game, the better. Being able to shoot 10,000 terrorists in a minute is less about the thrill of murder and more about the ability to cause that much “difference.” The progress is immediate. Every action in video games is rewarded with points, or stronger abilities, or the undying love and respect of the opposite sex. This is why “open-world” games like Fallout, Grand Theft Auto, and everything by Ubisoft are so popular. Players are thrown into what feels like a living, breathing world and told to do whatever they want. Bend the game to your every whim.
This is how we all wish real work was. There’s a reason why – despite what many people may think – construction workers are some of the happiest employees. Every day, they get to see the physical results of their work. They literally build things into existence, repair broken things, or blow crap up if it isn’t working. Workers whose jobs result in more nebulous results like data entry or sales may have a more difficult time connecting their efforts to real-world results. We – and men especially – want to be sure that we’re impacting the world in a tangible way. It gives purpose to our work.
Video games make all of this possible but in super speed. Immediate rewards and straight-forward progression simplify the whole process. If I push this button, this guy explodes, I succeed, I get rewarded. There’s no inter-office politics to think about, there’s no struggling to understand the fruit of your labor. It’s all there right in front of you.
This is what makes them so addictive. Games don’t merely prey upon your desire for escape like a movie does, they can actually fulfill the good desires of somebody who wants to work hard and make a difference. It just distorts it into an ultimately useless medium.
So next time your mom yells at you for shooting terrorists for seven straight hours, tell her you’re working.