Video games are fun. You know it. I know it.
The question is, why?
First, fun is relative, and often viewed in comparison to your available options. For instance, remove your kids from their rooms at home and plop them down in front of a good natured game of Uno, and I bet you hear “this is boring.”
But, take those same kids out to a cabin in the wilderness - no wifi, no video games, no computers, no tech - and all of a sudden Uno is the bee’s knees.
So then what makes something truly fun? What makes an activity so entertaining that it stands out as the absolute best option above all others?
Where, when pitted against all the other available options, has it standing out as the most entertaining option?
The question got me thinking of video games.
Growing up, the original Nintendo was the mecca of fun. Why? Because it was unlike anything else. Not only did it provide the ability to control on-screen characters and compete against “the computer” or friends and family, but the titles were incredible. Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda are two of the best games ever created, even years later.
But aside from being new and different, why are video games so fun? What is it about them that gets people from all walks of life wanting to pick up their controllers and jump in?
Why are video games fun?
They transport us to new realities
This might be the most obvious reason why people love to play video games: video games allow players to take on the role of someone new and different, in worlds they’d never have the chance to explore, in situations beyond what the mind could ever fathom.
Complete with superheroes, mythical creatures, aliens, monsters, and a variety of awe-inspiring settings, video games truly take what dreams are made of and put them on-screen. What’s more, they put the power to actually live in these worlds in the palms of players’ hands.
Some call it an “escape from reality,” but I think it simply comes down to being able to explore the new and different.
We crave achievement
What’s the number one piece of advice you receive when it comes to improving yourself or business? Set goals. Goals, goals, goals. Establish something to aim for or else, what’s the point?
So think about how that applies to video games—a video game is essentially one goal-chasing quest. From the actual storyline in a single-player mode of your favorite action game, to the run for the championship in any sports title, video games are consistently giving players something to achieve.
I mean, have you ever heard of “gamification?” It’s all about taking elements traditionally found in games (like points, competitions, rules, etc.) and applying them to other areas in order to enhance engagement and goal completion. It's one big reason why video games are good for you, in addition to being a source of entertainment.
Puzzles keep us interested
The brain doesn’t require much of a challenge to get “hooked” into chasing achievement. Just look at crossword puzzles, sudoku, and other simple games. Add in the interactive and graphic elements of video games, and you have some of the more engaging puzzles available.
So, it makes sense that puzzles contribute to making video games are fun. Where else does consistent failure increase your motivation to beat that thing you’re chasing? We know what it feels like to come out victorious; to have the right answer; to get something done.
Puzzles offer the opportunity to feel all of those good feelings. Constant reassurance that you’re smart enough and clever enough to beat the puzzle presented is something most of us crave.
The attention to detail is remarkable
Games of the open map variety go into such insane detail that the player can literally find fun and enjoyment in running around aimlessly without a mission or stated challenge.
While games of today are expected to have such immense detail, even older titles like Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption, and later installments in a series like Zelda or Super Mario also allow for such exploration. I remember the wow factor of simply approaching a pond of water as Link and seeing my reflection—”Whoa! I wasn’t expecting that.”
The funny thing is, some games are so realistic, many of the details go over the heads of those who don’t know what they’re looking for.
Simulating new and different experiences is exciting
Growing up, I wanted nothing more than to be a professional baseball player. Once I realized that wasn’t going to happen, even just working in sports as something like a general manager was the next best option.
When baseball video games were introduced, I was hooked. It was the best of both worlds...I could play baseball as my favorite team or players, but I could also construct my own roster. There were even games that, if you wanted to focus more on the general management side of things, provided a full-blown journey into player contacts, roster construction, salary caps, trades, ballpark concessions, and a number of other operation-based activities.
Anyway, I bring it up because video games offer the chance to simulate a life you would otherwise never get to experience. Sports is just one example, but there are even video games where you simply live day-to-day through an avatar in a “real world.” While this world doesn’t offer much beyond what we experience here on earth, the fact that you get to live a different life is of extreme appeal for some.
Secrets, expansions, and alternative paths
You know a game is fun when you don’t hesitate to pick up the controller to play on a regular basis. The most fun titles, though, take it a step further and offer entertainment value above and beyond what comes “out of the box.”
Meaning, it could be a game that, even when you beat the campaign, offers the chance to go back and play it again under new circumstances like through the eyes of an alternative player. Some games allow for players to “build on” base gameplay through the use of expansion packs that install additional levels, maps, etc.
Other examples include games that allow you to pass a level and move on, but offer multiple achievement levels within. Meaning, sure, you did the bare minimum to move on, but you can go back and strive for something more than clearing the lowest bar.
Think back to Super Mario 64, where there were multiple stars to collect in a particular level. You could pass a level by collecting one of the stars, but could only obtain the last star by beating the level boss, etc. (Did you know Mario's iconic mustache was put in place so players could see the character's nose? Check out our other video game facts & trivia.)
The ability to level up and keep on going
When you’re playing a campaign against “the computer” the typical goal is to make it to the end of the game, where your efforts culminate in a final showdown with an epic boss who is extremely difficult to take down.
In other multiplayer FPS titles, though, the primary concept is a little different. There is no “end” with the popular mode of play being to battle against other players. Thus, you aren’t progressing through levels, but rather, aiming to “level up” your player, by achieving ranks that allow you to unlock content like better weapons or protection, different types of equipment, increased resilience, and more.
What more could you want from a video game?
Competition, puzzles, and the ability to transport yourself to an entirely new world and place in time? Video games are fun for these reasons and a whole lot more.
And with anything fun, it’s only natural to try and find ways to keep it going! Many of us might at some point outgrow (gasp!) playing video games, but find entertainment in designing or developing them.
If you’re a parent of a kid or teen looking to experience the other side of video games, check out our many video game courses, including Minecraft camp, Fortnite camp, Roblox camp, and more—all held at 150+ locations worldwide including Stanford, NYU, Caltech, and more.