Factually Obscure: Why Our Brains Love Gaming
By Ansley Newland
It’s officially the start of the Holiday season. In Canada, that means throwing out the pumpkins and diving straight into stringing up the lights, busting out the garish socks, and beginning the traditional holiday movie binge-watching. For the United States, November means turkey, pie, and, socially distanced, family gatherings for Thanksgiving.
And what could be more fun than bringing the family together by playing games? No, I’m not talking about the mind games between you and that one weird uncle you only see during the holidays. I’m talking about games in the traditional sense. Games where we all agree on a set of rules and try not to get weirdly competitive over little plastic pieces or slightly blob-ish crew members murdering each other and running away through vents. Yes, I’m talking about Among Us, the recent video game phenomenon where you and other players must work together to prep your spaceship and figure out who is an imposter sabotaging your efforts.
Anyway, as my Among Us avatar was one day sadly floating through space (I was not the imposter), I found myself wondering why humans play games? What’s going on in our brains when we do? Why am I spending my evenings pretending to build a capitalistic empire as a tiny top hat or logging online with a group of friends to engage in fictional workplace banishing? (Seriously, I am not the imposter. I was just trying to do my tasks!).
It’s no mystery that humans have a long history of loving games. Organized sports were played by ancient cultures all over the world. Senet, considered to be the oldest board game in existence, is over 5000 years old. Go clocks in at around 4000 years old. Chess-for those of you who’ve been watching The Queen’s Gambit-is thought to have originated somewhere in India or China in the year 600. The 9th century saw the creation of the first playing cards. Tiny top hat enthusiasts everywhere welcomed Monopoly in 1904 and in 1958 William Higinbotham and the Brookhaven Lab made history with Tennis For Two, the world’s first video game.
Suffice to say, our love affair with games is vast, stretching back millenniums. And the reason for this enduring passion has something to do with our brain chemistry. Turns out, playing games fulfill some basic needs that are hardwired into us. Let’s look at a few of the big ones!
Autonomy is our ability to make important choices for ourselves. With that said, the real world is complicated so even when we make what we think is the best possible choice, things often don’t make sense and don’t seem fair. When we play games, however, we disengage from a chaotic reality into one that is governed by a universally accepted set of rules. Game creators call this entering “the magic circle.” These rules are understood by everyone playing. Your choices have a direct effect on the outcome of the game. This is probably why we get so angry at people who cheat or otherwise break the rules--they are breaking the magic circle.
Playing a game allows you to escape from the uncertainties of the real world into one where you can directly control and manipulate. I can’t personally decide how to fight the threat of global warming on a global scale. I can personally decide whether I fight Zelda's Ganon and save the world of Hyrule or… if I ride my horse around aimlessly. Again.
The decisions we make in games often have an immediate payoff. Who doesn’t love winning? Our brains sure do. Scientists studying the brains of gamers observed increased activity in areas of the brain related to reward anticipation and pleasure. This is where our old friends, dopamine and serotonin come into play. Both are brain chemicals and neural transmitters that carry messages to different parts of the brain and your body. Dopamine is the motivating one; it gives you the urge to do things and to anticipate potential rewards. Studies have shown that playing games release dopamine in the brain, motivating you to keep trying to find the castle Princess Peach is actually in.
When you do finally find that castle the brain releases serotonin, the chemical that makes you feel all warm and happy inside. This is shown to happen any time we not only win a game but also when we successfully accomplish any smaller tasks, objectives, or missions within the game itself. Serotonin works closely with our memory so we keep playing games because we remember that warm and fuzzy feeling and want to feel it again. So yeah, that’s why I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve replayed Mario.
Those warm feelings can increase when we share them with others. A study done by XEODesign recorded people playing games both alone and in groups. They found that when humans played together, emotional responses were significantly larger across the board. Gamers were quicker to laugh, cheer, and gloat when playing with other people that when playing solo.
A 2017 ESA study reported that 75% of online gamers engage in cooperative or multi-player play. Gamers themselves have described the draw of playing Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), where players from all over the world work together to complete quests. Those shared victories, or defeats, can strengthen bonds between gamers and create virtual communities.
Sharing in victories provides an opportunity to experience a very unique social feeling called “naches.” Naches is the feeling of pride and accomplishment you get watching someone you’ve helped succeed. The sensation can happen with anyone including your child, a friend, or that total newb you took under your wing when you found them wandering aimlessly in World of Warcraft.
Whether it’s board games, card games, RPGs, or videogames, gaming can be an important part of good mental health (in moderation of course). So when you are, safely and responsibly, gathering with the family take some time to bring out that old copy of Clue, build something together in Minecraft, or yes, hop on the Among Us bandwagon and vote to eject a fellow crew member into space. Trust me, your brain will thank you for it.