Grand Theft Auto, that most lavish and notorious of all modern videogames, offers countless ways for players to behave. Much of this conduct, if acted out in our reality, would be considered somewhere between impolite and morally reprehensible. Want to pull a driver from her car, take the wheel, and motor along a sidewalk? Go for it. Eager to steal a bicycle from a 10-year-old boy? Get pedaling. Want to stave off boredom by standing on a clifftop to take pot shots at the screaming gulls? You’re doing the local tourism board a favor. For a tabloid journalist in search of a hysteric headline, the game offers a trove of misdemeanors certain to outrage any non-player.
Except, of course, aside from its pre-set storyline, Grand Theft Auto doesn’t prescribe any of these things. It merely offers us a playpen, one that, like our own cities, is filled with opportunities, and arbitrated by rules and consequences. And unless you’re deliberately playing against type, or are simply clumsy, you can’t help but bring yourself into interactive fiction. In Grand Theft Auto, your interests and predilections will eventually be reflected in your activity, be it hunting wild animals, racing jet-skis, hiring prostitutes, buying property, planning heists, or taking a bracing hike first thing in the morning. If you are feeling hateful in the real world, the game provides a space in which to act hatefully. As the philosophers say: wherever you go, there you will be.
For these researchers, incredibly, enjoyment is not the primary reason why we play video games.
For the British artificial intelligence researcher and computer game designer Richard Bartle, the kaleidoscopic variety of human personality and interest is reflected in the video game arena. In his 1996 article “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs,” he identified four primary types of video game player (the Killers, Achievers, Explorers, and Socializers). The results of his research were, for Bartle, one of the creators of MUD, the formative multiplayer role-playing game of the 1980s, obvious. “I published my findings not because I wanted to say, ‘These are the four player types,’” he recently told me, “but rather because I wanted to say to game designers: ‘People have different reasons for playing your games; they don’t all play for the same reason you do.’”
Bartle’s research showed that, in general, people were consistent in these preferred ways of being in online video game worlds. Regardless of the game, he found that “Socialisers,” for example, spend the majority of their time forming relationships with other players. “Achievers” meanwhile focus fully on the accumulation of status tokens (experience points, currency or, in Grand Theft Auto’s case, gleaming cars and gold-plated M16s).
Our disposition can often be reflected in our choice of character, too. In online role-playing games, for example, players who assume the role of medics, keeping the rest of the team alive in battle will, Bartle found, tend to play the same role across games. “These kinds of games are a search for identity,” he said. While players sometimes experiment by, for example, playing an evil character just to see what it’s like, Bartle found that such experiments usually lead to affirmation rather than transformation. “Basically,” he said, “if you’re a jerk in real life, you’re going to be a jerk in any kind of social setting, and if you’re not, you’re not.”
In a 2012 study, titled “The Ideal Self at Play: The Appeal of Video Games That Let You Be All You Can Be,” a team of five psychologists more closely examined the way in which players experiment with “type” in video games. They found that video games that allowed players to play out their “ideal selves” (embodying roles that allow them to be, for example, braver, fairer, more generous, or more glorious) were not only the most intrinsically rewarding, but also had the greatest influence on our emotions. “Humans are drawn to video and computer games because such games provide players with access to ideal aspects of themselves,” the authors concluded. Video games are at their most alluring, in other words, when they allow a person to close the distance between how they are, and how they wish to be.
“It’s the very reason that people play online RPGs,” Bartle said. “In this world we are subject to all kinds of pressures to behave in a certain way and think a certain way and interact a certain way. In video games, those pressures aren’t there.” In video games, we are free to be who we really are—or at least find out who we really are if we don’t already know. “Self-actualization is there at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and it’s what many games deliver,” Bartle added. “That’s all people ever truly want: to be.”
Not every game, however, allows us to act in the way that we might want to. The designer, that omniscient being who sets the rules and boundaries of a game reality, and the ways in which we players can interact with it, plays their own role in the dance. Through the designer’s choices, interactions that we might wish to make if we were to fully and bodily enter the fiction are entirely closed off. We may be forced to touch the world exclusively via a gun’s sights. There is no option in many video games to eat, to love, to touch, to comfort, or any of the other critical verbs with which we live life.
The crucial role of the designer in deciding the rules of how we can be in their game can be vividly seen in Undertale, a critically lauded roleplaying game from 2015 which subverted its genre by allowing players to befriend the game’s monsters, not just stab at them with swords. The game’s creator, Toby Fox, is reticent to overstate to what degree a player’s choices in his game reveal their personality. “I think a person saying, ‘I love Undertale,’ tells you more about the person than the routes they took in the game,” he told me. Nevertheless, he remains fascinated by the question of why people play the way they do. “I hear things like, ‘I got to the last boss and stopped playing because it was too much pressure,’ or ‘I kept breaking all the pots in that character’s house because I hated the fact that he told me not to.’ That’s valuable information about a person, I think.”
The opportunity for self-expression in role-playing games such as Mass Effect and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, where you must make moral choices in how to act, is clear, even if those choices are often embarrassingly simplistic and binary. (In Mass Effect, for example, the game places your character on a sliding scale between the virtuous “Paragon” and the villainous “Renegade” according to your choices thus far.) But for Fox, competitive games also allow for expressiveness. “In high-level Super Smash Bros.,”—a fighting game in which players assume the role of various Nintendo characters and attempt to knock the color from each others’ pixels —“you have some players that love to play proactively and aggressively, and there some players that play super methodically,” he said.
One’s choice of character in a fighting game may reflect one’s personality (a lithe, offensive avatar versus a slower, more defensive type, for example) but Fox often sees players use characters in ways that reflect their individual play style, rather than that which is encouraged by their chosen avatar’s strengths. “One of the best ways to beat Jigglypuff”—a pink, marshmallow-like character loaned from the Japanese monster-collecting game, Pokémon—“is to play very defensively,” he told me. “But Mango, one of the best professional Super Smash Bros. players often refuses to play that way against Jigglypuff, even if it means losing. Why? Because if he’s going to win, he wants to win being honest to himself. The way he plays is representative of who he is.”
This sort of anecdote suggests that self-determination, the theory that seeks to explain the motivation behind choices people make without external influence and interference, holds in video games as in life. The authors of a 2014 paper examining the role of self-determination in virtual worlds concluded that video games offer us a trio of motivational draws: the chance to “self-organize experiences and behavior and act in accordance with one’s own sense of self”; the ability to “challenge and to experience one’s own effectiveness”; and the opportunity to “experience community and be connected to other individuals and collectives.”
For these researchers, incredibly, enjoyment is not the primary reason why we play video games. Enjoyment is not the primary motivation—“it is rather,” they wrote, “the result of satisfaction of basic needs.” Video game worlds provide us with places where we can act with impunity within the game’s reality. And yet, freed of meaningful consequence, law abiders continue to abide the law. The competitive continue to compete. The lonely seek community. Wherever we go, there we will be.
Simon Parkin is the author of Death by Video Game: Danger, Pleasure, and Obsession on the Virtual Frontline, and has written essays and articles for various publications, including the new yorker.com, the Guardian, the Times, MIT Technology Review, and the New Statesman.
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This classic Facts So Romantic post was originally published in January 2017.