One good definition of a game is “anactivity among two or more independent decision-makersseeking to achieve their objectivesin some limiting context.” (Serious Games, Clark C. Abt, 1970) As you may have noted to yourself already, this can describe all of manner of human endeavor from finance (sometimes not in a good way) to education to medicine. Airline pilots are required to practice in simulators that look a lot like big console games, and many of our sports such as biathlon, javelin, archery, are based directly or indirectly on survival skills our ancestors developed from necessity. Today, we use those skills for the fun of it. Why is that?
Games and play are a basic survival adaptation. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (basic human needs are represented in the shape of a pyramid, with the largest and lowest levels of needs at the bottom, and the need for self-actualization at the top): at all levels of the pyramid we work within a framework of rules, collaborating with others to reach our goals. Our brain has evolved to encourage our success by rewarding us when we’re successful, beyond the inherent rewards of survival.
Here’s an observation that I hope you will find interesting: When you call something “a game”, there is generally an implication that you’re talking about something that isn’t (for lack of a better word) important. And in many cases that’s true: the game is not important. But the interesting thing is that our brain doesn’t necessarily know that. Our brain will give the same sort of dopamine reward for a solving a meaningless puzzle game as it does for learning how to properly tie a life saving knot (shout out to all the cub scouts out there).
This is valuable from an evolutionary perspective because most of our games, like hockey for example, are analogs to things in the real world. That’s why they work as games and that’s why we play them. Hockey teaches us about timing and teamwork, and helps us develop useful fine motor skills. These are the same skills and abilities, generally speaking, that we use to navigate our world, so we can survive. Even though we don’t truly require all these skills for survival purposes any longer, these same instincts remain, crying out to be satisfied in other ways. This is why we get a dopamine rush when we do well at a complex pattern-matching game, despite the fact that we’ll likely never use those skills to learn which mushrooms make good soup, and which ones are poisonous.
Implications for design
When you’re designing a game (or even a customer response form for the corporate website), understanding this mechanism of reward lets you recognize the patterns and use them to your advantage. As Eisenhower said: motivation is getting somebody do something because they want to do it. In coming posts, we’ll talk about how that’s done, by looking at examples from a variety of different games.