I have an agonizing decision to make. Should I save a governing body that has never done a thing for me? It doesn’t even contain a single person from my race. The aliens of the galactic Council decided long ago that my people should not be trusted, that we were aggressive, entitled, and short-sighted. I’m a soldier engaged in a fight to save the entire galaxy. And now the Council wants my help to destroy their assailants? My companion Ashley is against it. “You can’t sacrifice human lives to save the Council!” she yells. “What have they ever done for us?” Another companion, Garrus, rebuffs Ashley. “This is bigger than humanity!” Schadenfreude tempts me to let the patronizing Council be pulverized; a pro-human one could replace it if we survive. But I don’t want to give cynical aliens an opportunity to attribute the lowest-possible motive to humans. I want to refute the impression that we are an arrogant, upstart species out for itself. I command humanity’s space armada to target the forces gunning for the Council, no matter the cost. I feel a rush of bravery and idealism. I love playing Mass Effect.
I’m not alone. The popularity of video games is staggering. Last year, the top 25 public game companies—China’s Tencent, Sony, and Microsoft ranking highest—had annual earnings of more than $100 billion for the first time.1 The United States video game industry earned more than global box office movie ticket sales, U.S. video streaming subscriptions, and the U.S. music industry.2 By 2021, according to Statista, a market research firm, 2.7 billion people will be playing video games, up from 1.8 billion five years ago. A Pew survey reveals the age group that plays most often is 18 to 29.3 In the 30 to 49 age group, nearly 50 percent of men and 40 percent of women play. A study in Europe shows people 45 and up are more likely to play video games than children aged 6 to 14.
I wouldn’t blame you for thinking video games are like potent drugs, offering escapist fantasies that deprive teenagers of sleep and food until they are strung out and incapable of functioning in the real world. There have certainly been enough horror stories in the psychological literature over the years to raise concern that video games are eating the brains of the world’s youth. But this negative portrait is outdated.
Pete Etchells, a professor of psychology and communications in England, and author of a new book, Lost in a Good Game, thinks video games tap into the reaches of emotional and moral faculties that traditional arts and entertainment can’t reach. The player can drive action, exert agency, and explore imagined worlds freely. Video games, Etchells says, “embody the principles of existentialism.” A story can be cathartic but only a game can make you feel guilty for what you’ve done or were compelled to do. A 2010 paper in Review of General Psychology states, “Compared with other media such as books, films, and radio, electronic games appear to have an unusually expansive appeal and serve a surprising number of emotional, social, and intellectual needs.”4 For Etchells, an avid gamer, video games are a “creative medium” that can “offer us unparalleled opportunities for exploring what it means to be human.”
In the past decade, the study of video games and their effects has become a veritable wing of psychology departments. Leading the defense is “self-determination theory.” The theory was conceived in the 1980s by two psychologists at the University of Rochester, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. In their 2017 book, Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness, they explain self-determination is what “humans really need from their psychological and social environments to be fully functioning and thrive.”
Ryan and Deci say that this boils down to competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Mastering something, feeling free to follow your interests and values, and having ways to bond with others give you the sense you are living well—no matter your cultural heritage. People everywhere—Europe, Asia, South America—need these things like they need vitamin C, Ryan and Deci say. Since we evolved to be “inherently curious, physically active, and deeply social beings,” Ryan and Deci write, we are intrinsically motivated to “take an interest in, learn about, and gain mastery with respect to both [our] inner and outer worlds,” the social and physical. We thrive when we realize our human capacities and overcome the forces that might stultify us.
A story can be cathartic but only a game can make you feel guilty for what you’ve done.
In a series of studies investigating the motivational pull of video games, Ryan, with psychologists Scott Rigby and Andrew Przybylski, write that video games activate intrinsic motivation, the drive we feel to do something for its own sake.5 The more potential for competence and autonomy gameplay affords, the more we will feel motivated to pursue and engage in it.6 Presence, or a sense of immersion, is crucial, too, and hinges on how competent and autonomous the game makes you feel (having intuitive game controls helps). The psychologists expected playing video games would make a fine test of their theory because it addresses “fundamental psychological and motivational dynamics rather than deconstructing specific instances of games or genres.”
The researchers assessed the players’ moods, self-esteem, vitality (a sense of energy or aliveness), game enjoyment, and preference for future play. You might recognize many of the games the researchers had subjects play: Nintendo’s Super Mario 64 was one of them. Of course, not everyone is a fan of Mario, even in three dimensions, and some subjects weren’t intrinsically motivated to play (they were there for extra course credit), so most of the 90 subjects (a majority of them women), after playing Mario, chose to switch games rather than continue and, on average, felt less energized. The people who kept playing were the ones who felt a sense of competence and increased well-being from pre- to post-play. With The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and A Bug’s Life, players got to experience the difference between a good and bad game—the former (an action-adventure game allowing players lots of leeway in exploring the in-game world) being widely considered one of the greatest games of all time, and the latter (based on a movie) not so much. Zelda was more enjoyable, immersive, and motivating than A Bug’s Life due to the greater sense of mastery and autonomy it offered players. A Bug’s Life had easier-to-learn controls, but for mastery of the controls to be “associated with positive effects,” the researchers found, it seems like players must have opportunities to satisfy their needs.
To tease out the motivations a person might have for playing different sorts of games, Ryan and his colleagues had people play generally well-received games like Super Mario 64, Super Smash Bros., Star Fox 64, and San Francisco Rush. Rush is an arcade-style racing game; in Star Fox, you play as an anthropomorphized fox who pilots a starfighter; and in Smash Bros., you fight against computer-controlled opponents and win by knocking them off the fighting stage, usually by inflicting lots of damage, which increases how far your attack sends an enemy flying. People varied widely on whether they considered the games enjoyable or motivating to play, and there was no consensus on the sort of game they preferred. But players’ in-game need satisfactions accounted for all these differences. Finding their preferences for competence and autonomy led subjects to “greater enjoyment and sense of presence and increased preference for future play,” the researchers wrote. “When individuals played games where they experienced competence satisfactions they also experienced increased vitality, self-esteem, and positive affect, whereas individuals who were generally more autonomous in their playing experienced overall higher self-esteem and positive mood, and more value for the game.”
Ryan and his colleagues probed the influence of social connection by advertising a modified version of the survey they used in the previous studies—slightly shortened but with new questions about socializing—in an online community forum, whose members discuss video games, among other things. If members would answer questions about their experience playing MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) games, they’d be entered into a raffle to win a six-month subscription for a game of their choosing, around a $75 value. Over 700 people, overwhelmingly male and ranging in age from 16 to 44, took the survey. Satisfying needs for competence and autonomy accounted for the players’ enjoyment and motivation to play—but relatedness was a big factor, too. Feeling socially connected to other players contributed to the subjects’ enjoyment but also to their sense of presence and intention to continue playing in the future.
I find myself thinking I want to be more like my character—someone brave, curious, and unrelenting.
Etchells writes that this series of studies “provided an incredibly useful experimentally-based starting point for thinking about the specific factors underlying why people find different sorts of games enjoyable, as well as what motivates them to start, or continue playing them.” The idea that competence, autonomy, and relatedness contribute to a fun experience “makes intuitive sense.” If a game’s controller and mechanics are cumbersome it will be difficult to manifest a feeling of mastery, which also takes you out of the experience of the game—you’re too ensconced on what your fingers are doing rather than feeling like your avatar is a seamless extension of yourself.
A 2016 study from researchers at the University of Saskatchewan led by Max Birk, now an assistant professor in the Department of Industrial Design at Eindhoven University of Technology, applied Ryan and his colleagues’ “player experience of needs satisfaction” measure to the task of creating an avatar for a video game, and using that avatar in gameplay.7 Greater identification with the avatar “predicted increases in autonomy, immersion, invested effort, enjoyment, and positive affect,” they wrote. Identification with the avatar, in their study, depended on the player feeling similar to, and embodied within, the avatar, as well as wishing he or she could be more like it.
Cognitive science has detailed the rich experience of playing video games. A 2017 paper analyzed 116 scientific studies of video game effects, and the conclusions were impressive.8 Yes, video games can become a fixation, but gamers tap into brain areas associated with improved attention spans, visuospatial skills, and motor systems more effectively than non-gamers. Further studies have argued that playing video games can help overcome depression and improve memory.
In Lost in a Good Game, Etchells admits delving into the science of video gaming has caused him to think deeply about his own love of gaming. The same goes for me. As a 5-year-old, I’d equip my Playstation and Mortal Kombat Trilogy—a gleefully gory fighting game, rated “M” for mature—during stays at my grandparents’ house, which appalled them, but amused me. I haven’t put the controller down since.
Like Etchells, video games take me to places that music and movies, as much as I love them, don’t. More to the point, they allow me to explore on my own. Video games “tap into that deeply-seated human desire to travel, seek out new experiences, and absorb new knowledge about the world—and about ourselves,” Etchells writes. They free us to explore unfamiliar emotional and geographical territory and learn new things without too much fear or anxiety. Video games “provide a safe place where we can relax as digital tourists within the comfort of our own home, visiting places that might only otherwise be accessible in the wildest reaches of our imagination.” I might go further and say traveling in imaginary spaces rivals the experiences of traveling in real ones, like Venice and Rome, Lima and Machu Picchu, as I have in my life. Both the imaginary and real are emotionally moving and immersive.
“Like the ancient human city of Troy,” the in-game Mass Effect encyclopedia informs me, “Ilos is a world known only through second-hand sources.” Not anymore. I walk among the vegetation-covered ruins of one of Ilos’ many metropolises, built by an ancient and advanced people known as the Protheans. I’m told by a left-behind Alexa-like intelligence named Vigil that it’s here the Protheans made their last stand against a superior, genocidal enemy which Vigil knew would threaten the galaxy again. “You are safe here, for the moment,” Vigil tells me. “But that is likely to change. Soon, nowhere will be safe.” The moment is scored perfectly: I feel the awe of speaking to a bygone empire’s last remnant, learning from it how to avoid their mistakes and save the galaxy.
Casey Hudson, the project director of Mass Effect, has said something that stuck with me and made me think about the lasting effects of video gaming. Video games provide an opportunity to ruminate on, even brood over, how to act in morally ambiguous or treacherous situations. That was “always a focus for us on Mass Effect,” Hudson said.9 “We would try to write those things in … Players would later talk about how they would be in a certain situation in the game and really agonize about what they should do. They would put the controller down and really think about what they would want to do.”
Has playing video games helped guide my own life? Can it? When I put the controller down and reflect on playing Mass Effect, I think about my motivation to learn about my human and alien companions, who each have rich backstories and complex feelings and desires. I realize I’m drawn to unexplored and dangerous planets, seeking new resources and knowledge. I find myself thinking I want to be more like my character—someone brave, curious, and unrelenting. I can make a difference. If not on a galactic scale, perhaps on my block. It’s a place to start.
Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @BSGallagher.
1. Wijman, T. Top 25 Public Game Companies Earned More Than $100 Billion in 2018. Newzoo.com (2019).
2. Shieber, J. Video game revenue rops $43 billion in 2018, an 18% jump from 2017. Techcrunch.com (2019).
3. Brown, A. Younger men play video games, but so do a diverse group of other Americans. Pewresearch.org (2017).
4. Olson, C.K. Children’s motivations for video game play in the context of normal development. Review of General Psychology 14, 180-187 (2010).
5. Ryan, R.M., Rigby, C.S., & Przybylski, A. The motivational pull of video games: A self-determination theory approach. Motivation and Emotion 30, 344-360 (2006).
6. Ju, U. & Wallraven, C. Manipulating and decoding subjective gaming experience during active gameplay: A multivariate, whole-brain analysis. NeuroImage 188, 1-13 (2019).
7. Birk, M.B., Atkins, C., Bowey, J.T., & Mandryk, R.L. Fostering intrinsic motivation through avatar identification in digital games. CHI Conference (2016).
8. Palaus, M., Marron, E.M., Viejo-Sobera, R., & Redolar-Ripoll, D. Neural basis of video gaming: A systematic review. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (2017). Retrieved from DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2017.00248
9. Heineman, D.S. Thinking About Video Games Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN (2015).
Lead image: libbabink / Flickr