I play a lot of games. Video games mainly but overall, if it’s a game I’ll try it. This goes back many, many, years to when I was a kid and fascinated by the old brick of a GameBoy I got at a flea market for $5. Despite my long running fascination, I’ve never given much thought as to why I love them so much. There are lots of fairly surface-level reasons, like the characters, the art, the gameplay itself, or the community and bringing friends together. While those are all well and good, I feel like there might be more, especially when it comes to the games that myself and others get really obsessed about.
Specifically, my inspiration came from our class reading of Chapter 2 in The Body Reader. There was a section about a terminally ill man who, after feeling like he had lost control of his body, began abusively controlling his wife. While I am not at all trying to equate playing games to abuse, I do think there is something to be said for the search for control in our lives. We all experience desire, it’s even a foundational concept in human psychology (Source). As people, we tend to seek out and believe that our personal actions are having an effect on the outcome. We can see this everyday with our small, sometimes superstitious habits like crossing our fingers for luck or perhaps some other personal ritual like wearing a lucky bracelet. These things ostensibly have no actual influence on our lives, but if they give us a sense of control then it does feel good to believe in them.
So how does this tie into games? Games are arguably all about control. You make choices about where to go, what characters to interact with and to build a relationship, whether to be violent or non-violent, how to grow the player character, and sometimes even whether or not to invest real-world money into the game. When playing in these virtual spaces, even as an individual character, players gain more control over the world than they could ever feasibly have in reality.
In fact, giving players control or at least a sense of control is an important design tenant for many studios (Source). “Player agency” as it’s called is the idea that it’s important in many games for players to have a sense that they are affecting the world that they are playing in. Without this, players are less engaged and more separated from the experience, which can be an artistic choice but often it’s undesirable. This is an important point if we’re looking at the players’ mentality. I think it’s a telling indicator about why we play games if a sense of control is one of the biggest things people look for in a game. Metal Gear Solid 4 was largely criticized for lacking player agency throughout the game, instead choosing to present exposition to the player through passive cinematics.
Additionally, we can see what happens when players lose that control in other ways. Frustration, and sometimes actual rage and toxic behavior can result when some players feel like their individual control of the game is taken away. This can most easily be seen in multiplayer games, where one person simply cannot have control over the game entirely since they share the world with other players (Source).
In my own life, I know that when life gets hectic I tend to gravitate towards games more and more in my free time. While this isn’t empirical research or anything, I think it’s definitely plausible for people to come to games looking for the ability to control if they feel like they don’t have it in life. There are so many reasons people play, but this is one that I think gets often overlooked but shouldn’t as it reveals a lot to creators and us as players why we do what we do.