There has been endless discussion about the underlying psychology behind video games. We’ve tried to discover why we play, and what we seek when we pour endless hours into our favorite titles. It’s some mixture of skinner box style rewards, a feeling of dominating opponents, and being powerful outside of your pitiful reality.
Despite my three psych courses in college, I’m no psychologist. I can only tell you what I think to be the most satisfying types of moments in games, and how they make me feel. Not all of these will be universal, but I think many are, and I welcome a discussion in the comments, along with any more you think I might have missed.
Entire games are forged around the concept of the “The Drop,” and titles focused on the principle are some of the most popular and addicting out there.
The most obvious example relating to recently released games would be Diablo 3. It is nearly the ONLY reward system driving the game, as the thrill of killing monsters or beating bosses pales in comparison to what sort of loot they puke out with their dying breaths.
More so than ever, now that Diablo has reduced drop rates of good items to be comically low to keep demand up for the auction house, it’s a heart stopping feeling to get see that correctly colored text show up in your window. The burnt orange of a legendary item or the green glow of a set item is now literally sometimes a once in a hundred hour experience for some players. The lucky ones might get it every 20 hours or so, but the unlucky? I’ve seen 150 hours with no such drops.
Diablo actually compounds this by making you identify each thing you’ve found. You’ve been lucky enough to drop one of the rarest items in the game, but now they force you to wait a few more second to see if it’s actually good or not. It can be a double win if you find something spectacular, or a let down if you don’t.
Many MMOs, RPGs and combinations of the two are based on this type of mechanic. It’s reason people still quest in WoW, it’s why I raided the same chest over and over in Borderlands to possibly find a gun I’d never seen before. It’s perhaps the most dangerous type of gratification on this list, and one that should be approached with caution. If you get hooked on games based on this mechanic, there’s this place called a “casino” where you should probably never, ever go.
The Headshot is a stand-in term for every possible type of cool kill you could ever manage to execute in a game. A simple headshot is enough to give a slight ping of satisfaction in your cortex during any shooter, and no matter which title you’re playing, that little tone or icon indicator is always welcome when you land a well-placed shot.
But shooters go levels beyond the simple headshot. Games like Halo and Call of Duty are all in service to who can dominate the hardest, but also score the type of cool kill that’s worth watching on replay or posting to YouTube.
It’s funny, I actually judge the quality of a game sometimes based on the possibility of just how ridiculous kills can be. It’s why Halo has always been a favorite in the genre, as the physics engine and gameplay allows for truly wacky kills, like Plasma Grenades being stuck to flaming vehicles as they pirouette out of a gravity cannon. It’s why Battlefield 3 was so much fun, as you could snipe a pilot out of a jet fighter if you were lucky enough, and watch the unmanned plane crash into a tank for another few kills.
In fact, it’s why Call of Duty games seem so stale to me now, and I’d rate the series below the games I’ve already mentioned. It seems there are a lot less of these moments taking place inside COD in game after game. With no vehicles, and every gun roughly shooting the same bullets, despite the inclusion of the killcam, there just isn’t that much to see. Each replay usually shows a laggy battle between two combatants, the one dying usually doing so because of lag as he watches his gun magically not fire in the last few seconds leading up to his death. Rather, the ONLY cool killcams end up being those at the hands of a throwing knife or a similarly styled weapon, and it almost makes it worth taking it in your loadout just so you can try and put a little spice into matches.
This principle extends into single player as well. Half the fun of Grand Theft Auto or Just Cause 2 comes from pure dicking around. In GTA, getting into a high speed chase where police cars fly off bridges into the ocean is just about as much fun as you can have. In Just Cause, attaching a guard to a propane tank, and shooting it to launch him into the sky is a satisfying feeling I’ve never seen replicated in another game. By contrast, games with more straightforward killing mechanics, Gears of Wars, Mass Effect, etc, just aren’t quite is fun by my estimation when it comes to putting boots to asses..
The High Score
This is perhaps the oldest principle on this list, and it’s one that’s almost disappearing from the video game scene altogether.
High scores used to be everything in games. When arcades were all the rage, it was all about who could get the absolute top score in a title, and get their three initials above everyone else’s. Nowadays, that same sort of achievement isn’t quite there. If you’re at a top level of play, getting to number one in Grandmasters in Starcraft is a legendary achievement, or having the best K/D ratio in all of Call of Duty is truly astonishing. But that said, now with the move online of almost all titles, such feats are impossible for 99.999% of the video gaming public.
It’s hard to remember the last time I truly cared about high score in a game, but I can trace it back to the pair of music titles that had me hooked for quite a while. In high school, it was a contest to see who could get the best DDR score on various songs (HEY-O CAPTAIN JACK!) as we worked up a sweat in my basement on slippery arrowed floormats. In college, Guitar Hero was all the rage, and we had a yearlong contest between everyone in my apartment building in attempt to get the highest possible score on Freebird. I swear I never want to hear that song again.
High score isn’t quite the motivating factor it once was now that you’re competing against not just your friends most times, but everyone else on earth. Most times instead you have to just be satisfied with…