The psychology of games

16 12 2010
People will be out to prove their superiority at the games boards this Christmas

People will be out to prove their superiority at the games boards this Christmas

Christmas is perhaps the one guaranteed time of year that families up and down the country get together and play games. I don’t know about you, but it is one of our family traditions to play inter-generational games for hours on end on Boxing Day afternoon.

Most of us love to play games – especially if we win! I like nothing better than an afternoon at the Scrabble board – but even if I lose, I have usually had a good time along the way. So what is the fascination with games? Why do we play them? How are games categorized? And what makes some games so successful and others not?

Why do we play games? Game playing is a free and voluntary activity, a source of joy and amusement bounded by precise limits of time and space as well as what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “a world building activity”. Sigmund Freud was one of the first people to concentrate on the functions of playing games. He speculated that game playing provided a temporary leave of absence from reality that reduced individual conflict and brought about a change from the passive to the active. More modern thinking is that people play games to concentrate on a limited stimulus field, in which they can use skills to meet clear demands, thereby forgetting their own problems and separate identity.

Games provide the opportunity to prove one’s superiority, the desire to challenge and overcome an obstacle and a medium by which to test one’s skill, endurance and ingenuity. Games, unlike some activities (including life itself!) tell us whether we have won or lost. Sociologists have argued that in the context of a competitive and materialistic culture that has become increasingly regimented and standardized with little room for individual creativity and personal achievement, games offer the illusion of control over destiny and circumstance.

How are games categorized?  Perhaps the best categorisation of game types was formulated by the French anthropologist Roger Caillois who listed four classifications. These were: agon (games involving competition), alea (games involving chance), mimicry (games involving simulation) and ilinx (games involving vertigo – such as children spinning round and round). In the context of games like chess, poker, Scrabble and Monopoly, alea and agon are crucial in that they offer a combination of skill, chance and luck.

Most people desire opportunities to test their strength and skill against an adversary, and those games that offer a component of skill or talent combined with luck and chance provide the most favourable conditions. This is particularly prevalent in males who are deemed “masculine” if during the socialization process they show (socially) important traits such as courage, independence and bravery. Another interesting observation is that in games involving winners and losers the real prize is often status as opposed to positive material gain. Thus, by taking risks, reputations are built and winners gain social rewards.

What makes a successful game? Nearly all successful games (e.g. chess, Scrabble, backgammon, card games, various video games, etc) share fundamental similarities. These factors determine whether games become firmly established or simply fade away and include the capacity for skill development, a large bibliography, people to play against (including competitions and tournaments), and, in contemporary culture, corporate sponsorship and advertising. Let’s look at these briefly in turn.

All good games are relatively easy to play but can take a lifetime to become truly adept. I would therefore argue that the capacity for continued skill development is important for an activity’s continued popularity and future existence. Secondly, for games of any complexity there must be a bibliography that people can reference and consult. Without books and magazines to instruct and provide information there will be no development and the activity will die. The sheer number of monthly game magazines on the market again demonstrates how healthy the game industry is! Thirdly there needs to be people to play with or against. At the serious end this will include competitions and tournaments. Without somewhere to play and likeminded people to play with there will be little development within the field over long periods of time. This is very much linked to the capacity for skill development as the best players in any activity will want competitive arenas in which they can demonstrate their dexterity, prowess, physical and mental reaction time, problem solving ability and overall game play. Finally – and very much a sign of the times – no leisure activity can succeed today without corporate sponsorship and advertising of some kind.

So when you are playing Monopoly with Auntie Cheryl and cousin Frank on Boxing Day afternoon, just remember that there is more to games than the sheer enjoyment of playing.

Professor Mark Griffiths is the Director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University