On June 10th, 2018 we learned about

Asking my kids reflect on what they get out of video games

My son, from what I’ve seen, is a decent driver. He’s only five, but he seems to be able to maneuver vehicles as large as a fire truck with minimal damage to the surrounding area. He’s only been tested on the virtual streets of Lego City Undercover, but there’s something comforting in seeing his interest in keeping fire trucks and police cruisers on the road, rather than futilely attempting to maim the endless supply of lucky bystanders. If video games offer a way to satisfy psychological needs, it’s nice to know he doesn’t need to endlessly blow things up when playing… like many of us often do.

First, I can assure you that I have yet to hit a pedestrian with my car, and never intend to. As anyone who has held a controller can attest, smashing a car into a building, or jumping on the back of a semi-malicious turtle doesn’t necessarily correspond with needing to do those things in real life. While video games do allow us to try out difficult or otherwise disruptive behavior in a safe environment, it’s been suggested that the goals and satisfaction players seek isn’t necessarily what’s being depicted on the screen.

Figuring out exactly why we play these games may not even be immediately apparent to the player themselves. If you asked someone what was so compelling about lining up colored shapes in order to make them disappear from the screen, they might not have an immediate answer. As much as some video games tap into the emotional framework of narrative fiction by letting the player feel powerful and heroic, other games certainly don’t offer that opportunity (unless I’m really underestimating the narrative and emotional impact of Candy Crush here…) To capture some of the motivations behind people’s play, researchers have developed a variety of tests and surveys, such as the Game User Experience Satisfaction Scale, or GUESS. These aim to help developers unpack why a particular game resonates with players, although it’s not a bad idea for a player to ask themselves some of these questions also.

What’s fun about driving an imaginary fire truck?

Starting a little more simply, I shared the Bartle taxonomy of player types with my kids. This framework divides players into four main groups, based on the motivation that drives them to play a game. An easy breakdown can be found in a game like Mario Kart Achievers likely want to win the race, Explorers will be happiest discovering a hidden shortcut, socializers will simply be happy to be sharing the game on the couch with friends while so-called “Killers” will just want to assert their dominance by hitting the other racers with as many shells as possible.

When thinking about games in this context, my kids found that different games appealed for different reasons. My five-year-old is likely driving his fire trucks carefully to satisfy a sense of achievement, mastering a hard task. When he gets frustrated, he might switch over to what’s called being a killer, exerting dominance over his environment by crashing that same truck into another vehicle. My nine-year-old felt that she was interested in the achievement of completing the story of Lego City Undercover, but in Minecraft she was more interested in exploring the world for secrets, then building structures that she could share with her friends and me, even though a lot of that sharing was done via elaborate, endless monologues, rather than in the game itself.

Granted, my kids’ experience has still been tightly curated, so there’s a chance they’ll gravitate towards different experiences as they grow older and can pick their own favorites. Whatever they do end up playing, I just hope that they occasionally reflect on why they’re making these choices, and maybe look to fulfill some of their less-destructive needs in real life too.

Source: How Video Games Satisfy Basic Human Needs by Simon Parkin, Nautilus