Spielwarenmesse: Why we play – part 2: our fascination with games

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Why we play – part 2: our fascination with games

from Eva Stemmer und Jörg Meister

What makes a player lose all track of time? How come players can immerse themselves in a world of illusions or a role – whether they're children or adults?

What captivates us about games

People who play do so because it satisfies some basic needs. That's what motivates them to play. The article " Why we play – Part 1: our motivation to play" describes intrinsic motivation as defined by Andrew K. Przybylski, C. Scott Rigby, and Richard M. Ryan. People who play make self-determined and game-influencing decisions (autonomy). They demonstrate their skills (competence). And they enjoy the sense of community with their fellow players (relatedness). What incites people to play games is, therefore, their innate motivation.

But why are we so fascinated by games? The three researchers discovered that the sense of immersion is strongly linked to intrinsic motivation: the more the game offers players autonomy, competence, and relatedness, the more immersed in the game they feel and the deeper they dive into a fictional or virtual world of illusion.

Immersion as a state of happiness

In order to create the feeling of immersion, the game has to relax and challenge players in equal proportion, but not overwhelm them. They then achieve a state whereby they feel "part of the game". Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi speaks of a state of consciousness called "flow", a state of happiness.

Only when a game challenges people's individual skills does it engender the feeling of flow. As part of his studies, Csíkszentmihályi interviewed chess players, who said they lose all sense of time playing and are glued to the chessboard, in an almost disembodied state. This also applies to avid players: the more immersive the game and the more it casts a spell on the players, the more detached from their surroundings they feel.

Stages of immersion when playing

The term 'immersion' is a 20th century neologism and describes the effect that virtual or fictional worlds have on the viewer. Immersive play, however, is not just a phenomenon of digital games. Every game can immerse players in fantasy worlds and bring about very different levels of intense gaming experiences, just like digital games.

Richard Bartle explored the phenomenon of immersion in the gaming world and divided it into four levels:

  • player: the character is a means of influencing the virtual world.
  • avatar: this is the player's representative in the virtual world. Players talk about the character in the third person.
  • character: players of computer games identify with the character and talk about them in the first person.
  • persona: the character is part of the identity of the computer games player. The player does not play a character in a virtual world; he is in a virtual world himself.

Immersion is a matter of age

As players get older, their ability to enter into fantasy worlds generally changes. Infants dive completely into the world of the game, even with the smallest of means. They turn simple objects into complex worlds and are themselves part of these worlds. A child feels like Mario when playing Mario Kart, that is to say he's taken on a 'persona'. On the other hand, an adult player sees himself merely as a "player", guiding Mario through the world as a 'character'.

When developing games, the age and the ability of players to immerse themselves in fantasy worlds are important factors to ensure a successful game. Whereas younger children are still able to easily lose themselves in the worlds of play they come up with themselves, older players often require greater effort to create immersive worlds.

Immersion in physical games

Everyone knows how books, games, movies or radio plays can fascinate people. But how intense the game experience becomes with the use of game tools depends on the extent to which the game can be immersive. In this context, digital aids aren't necessary but possible – as are the level of development of the player and players' willingness to get involved in the game. The further a player plunges into the virtual world of the game, the more the intrinsic motivation to continue playing it increases and the real world around the player fades into the background.

  • Board games, which, besides a clever game principle also involve a coherent and fascinating storyline, have greater potential to give the player a feeling of flow when playing, which, at the same time, increases the replay factor.
  • Role-playing and murder mystery games of an immersive nature are very popular. They specify a scene and the actors involved and whisk the players off to a virtual world for a foreseeable period of time, making it easier for players to immerse themselves in the world of the game.
  • Digital tools bridge the gap between physical and digital game worlds in the various toy genres. Either as an extension of board games with virtual content, such as the games of the Japanese label "Gift 10" or as an instrument for new game experiences or sports, such as the FPV Drone Races. With first-person view camera technology, the operator controls the remote-controlled model from the perspective of a pilot, driver or train driver.

Immersion stands and falls with the storyline

Contrary to what game developers long assumed, there is usually a big discrepancy between technical possibilities and game content. Technically enhanced games rapidly seem to be needlessly overloaded and digital additions are superfluous for the course of the game, as digital tools are only required if they're an integral part of the game scenario and shouldn't be merely superfluous bells and whistles. As long as the content of a game is of an immersive nature and satisfies players' intrinsic motivation, the technical perfection of the game world is of secondary importance.

So what does this mean for game developers?

  • The character of the game should be tailored to the intended level of immersion. Is the game intended to be something to pass time with, is it a projection screen or does it transport the player to an imaginary world?
  • The style of the game has to be age-appropriate in order for it to be able to cast its spell on players. For this to happen, developers have to consider the age of the players and their ability to let themselves be immersed in a game along with their respective intrinsic motivation. Does the game excite players because it allows them to deeply immerse themselves in other worlds? Or, as a "plug and play" game, does it captivate players with its competitive elements or levels that they need to acquire skills for?
  • Does the time needed to play the game correspond to the average attention span of the player group in question?
  • Is the game intended to be a single game or is it part of a series or gaming world? Accordingly, the history of the game and its environment should be tailored to the recipients: player communities act differently than single players and it's easier to get to grips with more complex worlds when playing en masse. On the other hand, they also long for more input and extensions of the world much faster.

Having said all this, the basic questions that arise with any game development apply: Is the game fun for the player? Does it encourage and challenge him to carry on playing and play the game again?

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