Gaming with a Purpose

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2536, 2007-09-07, as the cover article, in both their print edition (on pages 14 and 16) and their website.

Why do humans play recreational games? A cursory response might be, "Because they're fun." But that immediately begs the question, why are they fun? What is it that we get out of playing games? There must be some significant payoff, otherwise children — and their parents, and their parents — wouldn't spend so much time pushing buttons on a video game controller or pushing pieces across a checkers board.

In fact, the payoff must be substantial enough to explain why children can easily become absorbed in their play, for hours on end — oftentimes putting up with hunger, thirst, cold, or pouring rain — to continue exploring the imaginary world of the latest multiple user dungeon (MUD), or simply splashing in a mud puddle. The same must be true for adults, who may declare to colleagues at the water cooler that they are too mature for games, and only minutes later fire up a golf simulator on their office computer.

The passion that some adults have for gaming can be taken to extremes, as illustrated by an old cartoon showing a furious bride, in full wedding regalia, standing outside the door of the local chess club. One of the club members, answering the door with a look of exasperation, tells her, "This better be important. He's in the middle of a big game." One suspects that, after that blunder, the groom will have even more free time to contemplate how he managed to win with a checkmate, and yet simultaneously lose his mate.

However, the majority of adult gamers are able to keep their gaming passions in check (no pun intended). This is especially true for people who have spouses or partners ready to remind them of unfinished household chores. It's difficult to justify spending a weekend with your buddies playing paintball, when the back fence is in desperate need of painting.

The Psychology of Games

Some people may think that humans enjoy playing games simply because they are fun, or a mindless and distracting way to kill time. But this would not explain how legions of sane people can figuratively drive themselves crazy playing games that are more mentally challenging than any other activity in their lives. On a darker note, it has been argued that modern-day gamers will spend hours every day blasting monsters on their computers, because they enjoy the thrill of vicarious violence. But this does not account for the enduring popularity of completely nonviolent games.

Current research into game play and its attractions, suggests that the motivations and payoffs are far deeper and complex than what is believed by conventional wisdom. During 2006, a number of studies were conducted to determine exactly what keeps gamers coming back for more. Four studies were published in the December issue of the journal Motivation and Emotion, and the results should come as no surprise to anyone who senses that their game play affords them with mental stimulation far more positive than what is portrayed in the mainstream media, or in Congressional hearings.

One of the studies was conducted by psychologists at the University of Rochester and virtual worlds researchers at Immersyve Inc.. They teamed up to investigate the psychological draw of video games, by studying not the mechanics of the games — which has been the typical approach so far — but instead studying the gamers. They found that players prefer games that provide positive experiences that are similar to real world challenges.

Dr. Richard Ryan, one of the investigators, stated, "We find that people who are really drawn to video games stay there because it satisfies some very basic psychological needs. Certain games provide opportunities to feel a sense of achievement, freedom and even connection with other players." He also noted that, "…the psychological 'pull' of games is largely due to their capacity to engender feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness."

Built for Fun

Game playing may be such a central part of what it means to be human, that some believe it could define us as a species — even more than traditionally accepted features of humanity, such as rationality and opposable thumbs. In 1938, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga published a monograph titled "Homo Ludens" (Man the Player), in which he argues man is best classified not as the rational creature, but as the playful one.

Huizinga points out that "A happier age than ours once made bold to call our species by the name of Homo sapiens. In the course of time we have come to realize that we are not so reasonable after all as the Eighteenth Century, with its worship of reason and naive optimism, thought us." He argues that, for humans, play is "just as important as reason" — in fact, "civilization arises and unfolds in and as play."

For anyone who has watched dogs, chimpanzees, or seals engaged in unrestrained playfulness, Huizinga's thesis may seem an overstatement. Nonetheless, he does have a point that gameplay is an essential component of human nature, and thus what it means to be human.

Gaming the Gamers

At the same time that researchers and social analysts are better understanding the psychological facets of games, computer scientists and application developers are looking to harness the tremendous amounts of time and mental processing that people devote to computer-based game play. This previously untapped resource is not trivial: In July of 2006, at Google, Carnegie Mellon professor Luis von Ahn pointed out that, in 2003, humans spent an estimated 9 billion hours total playing solitaire. In contrast, 7 billion human-hours were required to build the Empire State Building, and only 20 million human-hours for the Panama Canal.

There are probably countless ways that useful work could be accomplished by reformulating it as multiplayer gaming. For instance, searching the Internet for images has always been hampered by the lack of labels assigned to each image, since Internet search engines can only match text, and do not have the visual recognition that humans have. von Ahn developed an innovative solution, in the form of the ESP Game, in which two randomly selected volunteers are asked to provide labels for images that are shown to both simultaneously.

At first glance, this might not sound like much fun, but the results suggest otherwise: Some people play for more than 15 hours, and many regularly play more than 20 hours per week. Consequently, 70,000 players have already generated over 15 million labels.

So, when your SO (significant other) chides you for spending time on the Internet playing some game that he or she deems purposeless, you can reply that you are not only fulfilling a deep psychological need in all humans, but also contributing to mankind's knowledge. But don't try this one on your wedding day.

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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