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Why We Like Video Games (Maybe We're Control Freaks)

From phone puzzles to fantasy adventures, here's why digital gaming is devouring the world

spinner image Happy couple playing video games together at home
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What draws nearly half of all older Americans — and an even larger percentage of those younger than us — to play so many games on a phone, computer or console hooked up to a TV? What makes digital gaming so appealing that it becomes both a daily and a lifelong pursuit, including for a 50-something like me who's been playing since his arcade days in the 1980s?

Right now, over 5 million people are playing Fortnite. Last month, nearly 240 million people played Candy Crush. Last year, 31 million of us paid $50+ for a new version of Animal Crossing.

spinner image history of three ways to play mobile video games from left to right a handheld football game from the seventies a nintendo game boy from the eighties and a current mobile phone
Video games have evolved over time, and have become more interactive with improved visual displays. (Left Mattel Electronics Football; Middle: Nintendo's Gameboy; Right: Words With Friends on a smartphone).
Alamy / Getty / Zynga

The easy answer is that it's a temporary escape from the pressures of the real world — an essential distraction, particularly over this past year. And yes, lots of online games qualify as wonderful diversions: Countless Americans pass some time each day playing sudoku, Candy Crush, Angry Birds and other puzzle games on their phones or tablets.

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spinner image A woman playing video games in her living room with headset on
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But that's just one segment of the gaming market. Step beyond the fast-gratification phone games, and you emerge into a world where the player is more than ever an active participant in a game's narrative. Your decisions and actions impact where the story goes, as opposed to watching a film or TV, during which you're a passive couch potato.

spinner image Giant Pong

A good game lets you not only depart your reality but also create a new one. You're not restricted by your age, height, gender or physical disabilities. Maybe you can't sink a free throw in real life, but in a game of NBA 2K21, you can go one-on-one with Michael Jordan — and beat him. Players gain competency as they dive in, taking pride in cracking a hard puzzle or ascending to a new challenge level. I will forever treasure the look of immense pride on the face of my 13-year-old daughter, Alyssa, as she whooped it up after getting her first victory in the action game Fortnite.

spinner image illustration of brain on video game background

To understand gaming, forget the technology and focus on the humanity. It's in our nature to join the fray, to learn the rules and master the system, to build things (and for some of us, to blow them up), to gain and lose, to chill out and chalk up -— and even brag about our scores — to spin entire worlds from only our imaginations. And like me and my daughter, we also like to win.

No surprise that the tensions of the pandemic brought more people into the gaming fold. A survey by Deloitte, a professional services company, found that 34 percent of those surveyed had tried a new video gaming activity in 2020. Those activities range from playing a new game to subscribing to a game service to watching someone else play in the growing phenomenon called e-sports. And industry analysts say a lot of those people are likely to remain engaged.

“I personally like competing and playing well,” says P.J. McNealy, CEO of Digital World Research. “Playing one, two or three quick death-match rounds online can be a nice little pocket of entertainment for me — and escapism from Twitter, COVID or, heck, pick a national crisis!”

'We knew interactivity was cool.’

Want to pilot a commercial aircraft, step into the boots of an action hero or just create an alternative you in an alternative world? If you still think of video games as kid stuff, the equivalent of an electronic toy, you are missing out on the most sophisticated form of entertainment available.

Yes, it used to be that video games were about clearing the screen of objects — take your pick: asteroids, dots, centipedes, alien invaders — while evading death en route to the high score. But today, many modern games create immersive experiences, with varying goals. Some play out like a movie, with you as the star. The choices you make determine how the story plays out. Still other games approach the existential, providing environments where players don't compete so much as build, explore and share.

"The creative side of you, rather than the competitive, can come out,” McNealy says. Take the Civilization series of computer games. They were launched in 1991 by Sid Meier, 67, an industry rock star whose name still graces the box. To read this Wikipedia description of Civilization is to realize how far video games have advanced from the days of a yellow puck chomping dots: “The player is tasked with leading an entire human civilization over the course of several millennia by controlling various areas such as urban development, exploration, government, trade, research, and military.”

"We always knew we had something special, that we were doing something unique that allowed the players to create their own stories, to be their own star,” Meier told me. “Our graphics weren't as good as movies. Our sound wasn't as good as records. But we had a special thing. We knew that interactivity was cool.”

Games to play on your smartphone or tablet

Mobile games are an ideal way to get into gaming. You likely have a smartphone or tablet. The games are inexpensive or free (but watch out for in-game charges). Three games to try:

1. Words with Friends. It's like a long-distance game of Scrabble. It's a great way to connect with people. Just take your turn whenever you have a spare moment.

2. Candy Crush Saga. Move pieces of candy to create color groupings. This is a quick, easy and addictive game — and the franchise has nearly a quarter of a billion players.

3. 2048. Sliding puzzles and math might sound like odd ingredients for a game, but 2048 will hook you fast. It takes strong logic and puzzle skills, but it's welcoming to all players.

spinner image Candy Crush Saga App Game played on Apple iPhone
Mano Kors / Alamy Stock Photo

The Civilization franchise, which now has 13 games, is more popular than ever. The latest installment, Sid Meier's Civilization VI, came out in late 2016 and is still cited each quarter by publisher Take-Two Interactive Software as one of its top money-makers. It's one of several games, including Final Fantasy, The Elder Scrolls and Doom, that have been around long enough to engage and entertain generations of players.

Another is the SimCity series and its offshoot, The Sims. A game about city planning and the lives of artificial people might not sound like a rollicking good time, but both have captivated gamers for decades. In SimCity, released in 1989, players managed zoning, infrastructure and municipal budgets. It was strangely compelling and launched a wave of simulation games. I talked to designer Will Wright, 61, now a giant in the industry, about his inspiration. Turns out his revolution was based on chance.

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“SimCity was an offshoot of an earlier game I did — Raid on Bungeling Bay — which was ‘fire on and blow everything up,’ “ he says, describing a typical game of the era. “I had to create a world to blow up, so I built myself a tool to build the world, and I found it was much more fulfilling to create the world.”

Beethoven, video game composer?

Think of it this way: In 1995, people wondered if video games would ever match the visual fidelity of Pixar's Toy Story. Today, the Unreal Engine software from Epic Games, which powers titles like Fortnite and Gears of War 5, is also used by film and television companies for shows like HBO's Westworld and Disney+'s The Mandalorian, to create visual effects. The video game-Hollywood influence goes the other way, too; many games, especially the more cinematic ones, cast actors to provide voice work or even “act” in the games via motion-capture technology.

And the music has come a long way. The days of 8-bit ditties, like the familiar Mario Bros. theme, have given way to complex orchestral pieces. And that led to symphonies that featured music from video games touring the country. Those have been part of the live performance landscape for 20 years now and have been broadcast on PBS.

"I've always said if Beethoven were alive today, he'd be a video game composer,” says Tommy Tallarico, 53, a video game music composer who has worked on over 300 titles and now also heads up a revival of the Intellivision video game brand. “His whole goal was to control people's emotions. What better outlet would that have been than video games today? Do you think Beethoven would have been a film composer? Do you think he would have wanted people talking over his music for two hours? Hell no!”

Scalia v. Schwarzenegger: Game on

Like comic books, rock music and films, video games have been blamed for societal problems. In particular, many have questioned the level of violence in some games and the impact that has on players. The concern is understandable, especially given how popular games are with young players, but no substantive studies to date have shown that games are any more harmful than other forms of media. That's what led the Supreme Court in 2011 to stand up for video games. The case — Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association — revolved around a 2005 California law that made it illegal for retailers to sell violent video games to anyone under age 18. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had argued that violent games are the same as sexual materials, when it comes to government regulation. The court soundly rejected that argument.

“California relies primarily on the research of Dr. Craig Anderson and a few other research psychologists whose studies purport to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in the majority opinion. “These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively.”

M-rated titles (the “mature” rating that violent games often receive) might seem to get the biggest share of the spotlight, but they actually do not make up the majority of games on the market. In 2019, they represented just 13 percent of console game titles.

More recently, some concern has shifted to in-game purchases, as mobile gaming has grown and the nature of the gaming industry has changed from selling as many game units as possible to keeping customers engaged for longer periods. So with digital downloads of games, the initial cost might be quite low or even free. But then players regularly get offers to purchase gaming upgrades. For example, a free phone game in which you play billiards against random opponents will repeatedly try to get you to spend a few dollars to upgrade to a pool cue with better spin and ball control (and a killer design). Or sometimes a game will be free for a limited amount of play each day. If you're engrossed in the game and really can't put it down until tomorrow, well, get your credit card out.

3,000 friends

What about the stereotype that has emerged of the ill-kempt, lonely, isolated player sitting in his basement? Video games bring people together, even when they are apart. Many games now can be played over the internet, connecting friends and family. Wearing a headset, you're able to talk with the person on the other side of the screen — and the conversations often branch far beyond the game as friendships develop or strengthen. Sometimes you play with a stranger. Other times you can choose to play with a friend or family member across town or in another city. Check the security settings if your grandkids are playing, though, and monitor their activity. Interacting with strangers online poses risks for kids.

Could gaming be one of the few good things that have come out of the pandemic? People who can't connect in real life meet in the game world and play or build together. People in the same house share a fun diversion that lets them forget for an hour or two the dangers that loom beyond their door. And grandparents and grandchildren have new worlds to explore together, where the youngsters often get to do the teaching. Together, they engage in healthy competition or work together on common goals.

"I have friends that I've known literally for five to six years that I play RuneScape with,” says Tony Winchester, 67, a Missouri retiree. “I was talking to someone from Malaysia this morning, from Australia this morning, from Los Angeles this morning, from Canada this morning, somebody from South Africa this morning. It's really crazy.”

Gamers also connect on streaming platforms, like YouTube and Twitch, fostering a community in which they can show off their skills and others can comment and converse. On Twitch, Winchester is better known as gray-bearded Sir Tony Ray, with a red crown atop his head, and as a master of fantasy game RuneScape, in which he engages in adventures among knights and dragons. “I usually get 2,000 to 3,000 people that log in to that channel every day,” he says. “Some people say, ‘Hey, man, I haven't seen you in a while and just wanted to make sure you're OK,’ and then they go. Others come in and stay for four to five hours. I try to talk to everybody I can. I have a pretty good memory, and I really think of them as friends, not viewers.”

Other older gamers find each other through player groups — online environments in which members post messages about their gaming activities. The Old Timers Guild is one such group. Deb Hickerson, 67, a longtime gamer who lives in Provo, Utah, reviews prospective members, adhering to the group's credo, “No drama … all about the fun.” Translation: Don't start posting about politics and religion on these message boards; post only about a shared interest in gaming.

Although the group is open to anyone 25 and older — a nod to gaming's age stereotypes of what constitutes an “old-timer” — Hickerson especially appreciates its appeal to older people who find solace in gaming. One member is in a wheelchair, the result of a convenience store shooting, but in the gaming world “he could run all around.” Another member has lupus, others endure chronic pain, and Dickerson herself has a rare windpipe condition that restricts her breathing. But when she plays an online fantasy game, she is free from all that. “I can fly in EverQuest 2. I totally love flying!”

'King of Kong': The last word

And so we come to this: Video games today are everywhere, and multiple generations are playing them. For perspective, I talked to Walter Day, a 71-year-old whose interest in gaming legitimacy led to his founding Twin Galaxies, an organization that certifies and maintains a log of record scores. (Watch the acclaimed 2007 documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters to see Day on film.)

"We are the pioneers. And we, as a generation, are still alive, still tooling with this and pushing this forward,” he told me. “The phenomenon of senior gamers is about to sprout and blossom and become a very, very big deal, because these tens and tens of millions of people aren't going to retire from video games.”

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