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Why Do We Play Games?


Disciplines > Game Design > Why Do We Play Games?

Arousal | Familiarity | Learning | Safe danger | Winning | Social bonding |  | See also


Why do we play games? What need do they fulfil when they are so obviously divorced from everyday life? If we understand this, we can design effective, enjoyable games.


We have a deep need for arousal, to be activated, alert and engaged. This can be any combination of physical, mental and emotional arousal. When we are aroused we feel energized and alive. Even fear can be better than that dull, flat feeling.

Games of various sorts can give us much of all this. In fact arousal can be the primary purpose of playing games and the descriptions below only variants on this.


Games have rules, rituals and patterns of play that lead to repetition in thinking and acting. Much of life and success in evolutionary contexts has been dependent on our recognizing familiar things, thinking previous thoughts and then performing effective actions. Our brains reward us for doing the right thing, which is experienced as pleasant feelings arousal.

The intensive and predictable repetition in games hence makes us feel good. When we execute a move well, when the other side leaves an opening for us to slip through, we get the buzz of pleasure. Even the disappointment of losing can be better than the flatness of not playing, which perhaps explains something of why some people keep playing despite losing often.


As well as recognizing and doing familiar things, evolution needs us to learn and adapt to new situations, which is why children and the young of many species play games which simulate later life situations.

Learning can be more difficult and dangerous than working with familiarity so the neural reward is commensurately greater. Learning hence has a bigger buzz when we spot new patterns, understand why, and find new ways to succeed.

Games always offer learning opportunities, and good games have a long, steady slope with identifiable levels of learning along the way.

Safe danger

A simple way of gaining arousal is to take risks, putting ourselves into dangerous situations. The problem in real life is that this can lead to possibly significant harm.

Games often simulate risk, creating danger only within a safe arena. This can be done with simulation such as in chess or computer games. In physical sports, danger is mitigated by rules and referees.

We can also avoid danger while enjoying the arousal of the game by being a spectator. Watching games, we identify with teams and players and feel the thrill without having to take the knocks (nor suffer the pains of training).


We all have a need to win, to achieve, to feel superior and gain status. Games offer the chance to win without the dangers of loss that the real world might give.

We also enjoy anticipated winning in the form of optimism and hope. The possibility of success hence spurs us on and offers arousal throughout the game.

Social bonding

Gameplay is often a very social activity, which plays to our needs for identity, belonging, esteem and so on.

In team games, we bond tightly with our team members as we share a common identity. Even in solo games, from chess to running, there is a camaraderie between players.

There is also bonding between fans and supporters who feel the closeness of common goals, the shared joys of winning and commiseration in grief at failure.

See also

Needs, Goals


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