The Million Dollar Dream that feeds a Billion Dollar Industry

As kids, we’ve all had that one wild and ambitious dream of what we wanted to become we grew up. And I’m sure it wasn’t a job in corporate office, or even becoming an entrepreneur. For me, THE DREAM was to become a professional footballer, playing for Manchester United, scoring goals, and of course, winning trophies with one of the biggest football clubs in the world. Needless to say, I’m not a professional footballer today. But that doesn’t really stop me from playing from Manchester United.

Despite spending most of my hours working on advertising, I do get the occasional opportunity to see myself wearing the number 15 shirt that says ‘Shetty’, playing for Manchester United, courtesy an XBox One gaming console, and EA Sports’ FIFA series of games. I must admit here that I wouldn’t exactly call this ‘Living the dream’, but this is a game that has given me, and millions around the world like me, a chance to be a part of their favourite football club. In a way, a chance to live our childhood dream on our fingertips.

Perhaps, that is what makes today’s video games so appealing to gamers around the world. It’s what these games offer in addition to a break from the routine. Whether it’s playing for your favourite football club or taking control your favourite football club as a manager. Whether it’s putting yourself into Batman’s shoes, or becoming a millionaire, games like FIFA, Arkham Knight and Grand Theft Auto, among countless others offer an avenue that lets you live your childhood dreams and fantasies, even if it is on a virtual level.

It’s interesting to know why these games are so popular. And with the average age of gamers gradually increasing to reach 35 as of 2017, it’s clear that the popularity of these games aren’t limited to just kids any more. So why do individuals to spend so much time, and of course money on these games? It’s a question that every game developer probably asks himself every day. Is there more to developing a game than just offering a distraction from the stress of everyday lives? And as unlikely as it may sound, it is our psychology that plays a large part in the design and popularity of video games today.

Ask any gamer the simple question, “Why do you spend so much time playing a video game?” Among other responses, one reason I’m sure you’ll hear is that these games are often a way for them to escape or take a break from the real world. But does that answer really cover it? In fact, it’s a rather common answer that masks the reality that drives us towards these games. It’s an answer that we prefer to believe, instead of explaining, or even understanding our hidden needs and desires that these games fulfil. Needs and desires that are always on our minds, whether we are at work, a social gathering or just relaxing at home on a weekend with a gaming console. It doesn’t take a lot of creativity to imagine what could have been, if we could get the opportunity to live out these childhood dreams. And that is exactly where video games come into the picture, giving us an easily accessible platform to live out our desires. A platform where we can see our dreams unfold in front of eyes. A platform that brings our imagination to life.

And how these games feed our needs and desires can better be understood with an understanding of a theory of motivation developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan, ‘The Self Determination Theory’, that discusses the role of intrinsic motivation in influencing an individual’s behaviour. It suggests how human behaviour is driven by three key needs, competence, autonomy and relatedness, which if met by an activity, allow an individual to enjoy it even more. And video games today are designed to meet each of these needs that we carry in their minds.

  1. Competence
    Competence is our need to master a skill. Mastering a skill gives us the ability to better control the outcome of a situation. And this control of an outcome gives us a sense of accomplishment, success and growth. It’s why we see accomplished individuals, whether in business, sports or education strive for more growth at every stage of their lives. It’s why people decide to switch careers or go back to school when they feel their current roles aren’t fulfilling or challenging enough.
    This need for competence is what drives gamers to put in so much efforts into games like God of War or Final Fantasy. It’s a feeling of accomplishment that the gamer receives on completion of each stage that feeds his need for competence.
  2. Autonomy
    Autonomy relates to a need for a certain level of freedom or control over our actions. It’s why people like to take their own decisions, and dislike being manipulated. It’s why imprisonment is a punishment. And it’s why we have a natural rebellious attitude against restraint.
    The simplest example that comes to mind when speaking of Autonomy is Grand Theft Auto. A game that offers the user complete carte blanche on the city streets. He can beat up and mug pedestrians, steal a vehicle and drive it however he wishes, and of course get chased by the cops, and escape them. All of which feed the gamer’s need for autonomy.
    Moreover, playing these games is the choice of the gamer. As opposed to some of the things in real life where an individual may have to do something, without really having an option to refuse to do it.
  3. Relatedness
    The need to be connected to or have a sense of belonging to a group, place or an activity. Best explained by the theme song from Cheers, ‘Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came.’ It’s why playing a sport with a group of friends can be mentally relaxing, even if takes a toll on you, physically. But relatedness isn’t just limited to a sense of belonging, but can also be achieved through a feeling of contribution made to the society.
    And it can also be achieved through online gaming, where users can play and interact with other like-minded gamers playing games like Halo. There’s an unsaid understanding and appreciation between these gamers about their universe that tends to feed a gamer’s need for relatedness.

As entertaining as they are, all video games are designed to feed these needs that we inherently carry. And if you think about it, a lot of video games often feed more than just one of our needs.

Take FIFA for example. You have the freedom to create your own player, based on your attributes, play for your favourite club, where you can literally score goals and win trophies on your fingertips. All feeding a need for competence. On the other hand, you can also play this game online by connecting with other like-minded players around the world and feed your need for relatedness.

Another good example is Grand Theft Auto, the fifth edition of which has already broken records to earn Rockstar Games over $6 billion in revenues, more than any movie has ever made. With a series of missions that increase in complexity as you progress forward, GTA fills gamers with a great sense of success with every mission that they accomplish, feeding their need for competence. At the same time, the gamer’s freedom to run the streets of the city as he wishes, steal cars, hit strip clubs, join street races, are all a part of the freedom the gamer has. And all feeding his need for autonomy.

As humans, we’ve always been inclined towards experiences that give us a feeling of competency, a feeling of autonomy and a feeling of relatedness or belonging. Whether it’s in our social circles, our work, or our hobbies, we tend to subconsciously base our choices on whether or not they fulfil these three needs. And video games today offer quite an attractive range of choices for us to fulfil these psychological needs, without us needing to put in the kind of physical effort that would otherwise be required in let’s say, playing 90 minutes of football, or the mental effort required to work through the weekend to ensure a project is delivered on time.

Another aspect of these games that make them more enjoyable is the rewards that are associated with them at each level. Complete a mission on GTA, and you may be rewarded with hundreds of thousands of dollars. Score a special goal on FIFA, and you unlock a special feature. All making these games a psychologically rewarding experience. So, when a gamer’s competency needs are met, a reward simply makes his gaming experience that much more amusing. We of course have rewards in our real lives as well, at work, sports, and even in social circles. But when it comes to real life, not all of us find these rewards to be a fair reflection of the efforts we put in. And quite often this is what we prefer believing, even if it isn’t entirely true. Games however, offer a more direct and guaranteed connection between the efforts and the rewards. The more effort a gamer expends, the farther he reaches in the game and the more rewards he earns. Even if the reward is nothing more than a psychological boost, it’s enough incentive for the gamer to continue playing.

Let’s be clear about one thing though. Not for a minute am I suggesting that video games are the only way, or the best way, or even the right way to fulfil your psychological needs. There are certainly other avenues to meet these needs in ways that are much better than any video game. Your work for one, can meet your competence needs, by offering projects that are both, challenging and rewarding, while surrounding you with a team of individuals who share a similar set of values, ethics and beliefs, fulfilling your relatedness needs.

So why are games so much more efficient in providing a sense of psychological fulfilment to gamers? Simply because they offer a way to fulfil these needs on multiple levels, across different worlds; where a gamer can simultaneously be a football star, fight crime as Batman and become a millionaire on GTA. All at the click of a button. This is what makes video games so popular, not just for kids but also among grown-ups. And it’s what is driving the global gaming industry forward, from an expected revenue of $165 billion to $170 billion in 2018 to $230 billion by 2022, with even global brands now looking at gaming platforms as an attractive media for advertising and promoting their brands and products.

With the gaming industry moving forward so fast, it was only a matter of time that the platform meant to entertain users, would also find ways to educate users. And the rewards associated with games have the endless potential of offering an acceptable feedback mechanism that can leverage their role in the field of learning and education, and more. This is evident in the impact that games have already made in the fields of science and business, in addition to education, where the lack of popularity of educational games comes down to the lack of resources deployed in their development and marketing.

Can these games in fact be extended to other, more serious aspects of our environment? It’s entirely possible. We already have businesses like Foursquare or Swarm who have applied the concept of gamification to further expand their brands, linking virtual rewards to simple tasks that are key to their business.

It’s difficult to predict exactly how far these games can go, in terms of both, the level of entertainment they offer, and the kind of applications they can have in different fields. We already know why these games are so popular across the world. But when it comes to the application of these gaming platforms, we’ve just started to scratch the surface, with a whole world of possibilities just waiting to be explored.

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