Playing video games is a time-consuming business. Even the shortest games can take upwards of four hours to complete.

Time, by contrast, is limited; and spare time is an even dearer commodity.

Why then should I prefer to spend time playing games over other activities? I’m not suggesting that I shouldn’t, but there must be a very good reason to justify spending a precious resource.

One way to try and pinpoint that reason is to compare gaming to other activities that could be done in the same time. It would help if those activities are similar, because then it will be easier to establish a common motivation for doing them and the satisfaction levels they yield can be gauged and compared.

It is doubtful if I need to do this at all. Even without analysing my spare-time activities, I instinctively know what I prefer to do, depending on mood, time of day, company and other factors. But if there is a way for me to figure out why I choose gaming so often, then others can do it too. Ultimately this knowledge could be very useful to game developers and help them make games that better meet players’ needs and expectations.

As well as gaming, I like spending time on reading books, magazines and blogs, and on watching movies and TV. I also love travelling, but that is on a completely different scale in terms of cost — both in time and money — and I’m looking for comparable experiences here.

I find it relatively easy to say why I like reading and watching films and TV shows. I do it either for information or for pleasure. When it is for pleasure, I am chiefly looking for emotions and experiences that I cannot otherwise get in real life but can achieve through empathy. I also enjoy masterfully realised works of literature and cinematography: I have some understanding of how those arts work and can appreciate a skilled artist.

It would be easy to say games give me the same type of satisfaction as for-pleasure reading and watching, but it will be only half the truth. There are games that let me experience powerful emotions and pretend I am characters that I will not, want not or cannot be IRL. There’s beautiful use of language in the way some stories are told, there’s artistry in the way some environments and characters are drawn, there’s cinematographic prowess in some cutscenes.

Yet, in that respect, even the best of games I’ve played pale in comparison to so much as midtable books and movies. Most games are on the level of mediocre literature and cinema and far too many are worse still.

So there must be something else that makes gaming an offer hard to resist even in the competition of great reading or film. But what is it?

The Brainy Gamer Michael Abbott has been asking the same question. His Fun Factor Catalog lists 40 reasons why he and some of the readers of his blog like playing games. A large number of them are factors that can be applied to books and movies too, things that evoke feelings or facilitate roleplaying. Others, though, fall into a separate category, most broadly defined as “achievement”.

Over on The Psychology of Video Games blog Jamie Madigan writes about three different kinds of “recovery experiences” that can help offset the ill effects of stress and hard work. None of them are unique to video games, but one kind — the so-called “mastery” experiences of building and honing skills — point to one area where gaming differs from other types of leisure.

My joy from reading a book or watching a film has nothing to do with how skilled I am at reading or watching. However, enjoying a game is closely related to how good I am at it. Generally, I hate games at which I suck.

Nels Anderson on his blog Above 49 goes as far as saying that mastery experiences are the more important reason for gaming’s appeal:

Consuming other media rarely provides any kind of mastery experience. Maybe there’s some feeling of improvement in parsing Shakespeare or a David Lynch film, but even that is a stretch and certainly not the norm. Games are often stressful. Being in the midst of a neck-and-neck Starcraft II match isn’t relaxing at all. Nor is Mario bounding from tiny ledge to an even tinier ledge, suspended above a starry void. I imagine the mastery experience in games is similar to learning to play a musical instrument. It requires effort and focus. For a while, you have little to show for it. But it’s satisfying because you know you are improving.

Then, in a reaction post on The Artful Gamer blog, Chris Lepine brings things full circle by saying mastery is a “neurotic pleasure” and we should strive for a “poetic joy” instead:

Our desire for mastery in the private world of games seems to point, most obviously, to a desire for control that is unmet in our public lives. We turn to games to fulfill that desire, and they become what is termed (in Freudian language) “substitute-gratifications” or “neurotic pleasures”. Gaming, when negatively defined as a way of managing work or school stress, is a form of repression.

(…)

I see the “poetic imagination” as one source for the joys of play. When I imagine through the world that a story, a poem, or a game  has to offer, part of me is “in the game” and part of the game “is in me”. I cannot distinguish very easily between myself and this imaginary world. In those moments, where I allow myself to imagine freely while respecting the world the place has to offer, I am at my most playful. I see things that I did not see before. I feel things – fear, pleasure, anger, surprise, disgust – that I did not feel when I stood outside of the world and peered into it from a distance.

These then are the two reasons I play games. On one hand, there is the ability to merge into situations and characters that are not my own. This allows me to experience others’ emotions. In comedy, I laugh at the jokes. In horror, I get scared or tense.

On the other hand, there is the ability to gain new skills or polish ones that I’ve already acquired. Every game is a system of rules I can understand and master. Beating a boss, a level or the entire game produces a sense of accomplishment.

Should games aspire to provide both types of experiences in order to boost their appeal? My personal and very subjective short answer to this is “not necessarily”, but to see why let’s examine the four different kinds of games that emerge from having none, just one or both types of experiences.

There is no need to dwell on the type of games that offer neither immersion nor mastery. These are the titles you’re better off not knowing about in the first place. I’ll just cite Bullet Witch and move on.

The purest examples of games that focus on mastery experiences are puzzle titles such as Tetris or Bejeweled, or music games such as Rock Band or Guitar Hero. Most shmups and platformers fall into this category and I would also add those games whose superior gameplay absolves them from the sins of terrible story and characterisation. (This time I’m looking at you, God of War series, but you know you’re not alone.)

Mastery games (let’s call them that for brevity) can be very satisfying experiences and tend to be “addictive”, meaning players itch to have one more go at trying to master them. They are often replayed over and over again in pursuit of higher scores and are worth revisiting further down the line as the skills they require deteriorate, rendering the game fresh after a prolonged period of not playing it.

“Poetic” games, to borrow Lepine’s terminology, can be as stunningly impactful as books or movies. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are often cited examples, although Flower is probably a better one, because the first two more readily fall into the next category. Not that Flower is entirely without merit in terms of mastery experience, but the poetic bit is so much more fundamental to its success as a game.

Games do the mastery experience alright but suck at being poetic, to the point where examples of purely poetic games — if one can think of any — feel “experimental”. I’m tempted to say Sleep Is Death here, but is that denying the pleasure in figuring out how the game works so that you can tell great stories with it?

Overall, in my opinion, the poetic satisfaction from video games is much stronger than the mastery satisfaction. To quote the excellent Lepine again:

(…) when I fulfill a game with my own imaginings and make myself a part of the world it offers – whatever that might be – and allow myself to be transformed (emotionally, bodily, spiritually) in the process, I enjoy the game in a completely different way that does not pay dues to repression or neurosis. This poetic way of imagining changes the game: I can no longer just shut down the game after a few hours and call it a night. The game dwells in me. I lay awake at night imagining how to express to my fiancee, family, or friends, what I experienced earlier that night. Poetic imagining places within me the demand to become an artist of a kind: to express for others something that demands re-expression.

However, poetic games are not as replayable. Like with books and movies, the impact wanes as one gets familiar with the (previously strange) emotions and experiences.

Finally, there are the games that fuse mastery with poetic experiences. Logically, those should be the best ones, but perversely, the two types of experiences can often conflict each other. I’ve just finished The House of the Dead: Overkill and it offers a harmonious combination of the two. However, both are not strong enough to carry the weight of the game on their own and only work in tandem. The upshot is a great game, but not a sublime one.

In other examples poetic values clash with the pursuit of mastery, to the detriment of the end result. Think of any RPG you’ve ever played. There’s two ways you can play it. One is to assume and play a role: do whatever the character would do and accept the consequences of their behaviour. Or, you could game the system and perform all quests in a way that maximises the XP or money you gain. The two ways of playing the game rarely go along: one almost always damages the other.

I role-played Mass Effect and it was fantastic. I felt it was way more meaningful than the times I did all quests in Neverwinter Nights or sought to build the perfect barbarian in Diablo II (both pleasurable experiences, mind).

So what type of games should developers make in order to deliver the ultimate gaming experience to rival the masterpieces of literature and cinema?

Ideally, those will be games that fuse mastery with poetic experiences in such a way that the two do not clash. The challenge here is that, if one component is done extremely well, gamers will have an incentive to play the game in a manner that maximises their enjoyment of that component. If both are very strong, players may again overemphasise one over the other, depending on personal preferences.

Maybe less harder to do, but still beyond the current state of game development, will be poetic games that deliver experiences on a par with the best from other media. This is tough because games are still searching for their own means of expression and far too often resort to using other media’s. There are hardly any games that do not tell their story via cutscenes and many of those that don’t tell it via text.

It’s been argued that games should use their unique strength — ie interactivity — to tell stories in a way no book or movie can. In an article for Gamasutra Chuck Jordan says game developers should relinquish control over the story and hand it over to the players. But we’re far from that yet.

Lastly, the industry could focus on what it is already doing superbly: offering the kind of mastery experiences that it has been providing since Pong. It could give up the ambition to become as culturally relevant as the established arts and specialise in less thought-provoking but still entertaining pastimes.

Somehow, I don’t think that is going to happen.

Fun Factor Catalog by Michael Abbott on The Brainy Gamer
Gaming for Mondays by Jamie Madigan on The Psychology of Video Games
Mad Skills by Nels Anderson on Above 49
The Neurotic Joy of Gaming by Chris Lepine on The Artful Gamer
The Brain That Couldn’t Die: Active Storytelling in Video Games by Chuck Jordan on Gamasutra