Why We Play

It’s true—video games are good for you.

Illustration by Ruby A.

I was having a crap day. I burned my oatmeal, I was late to TWO meetings, I got stuck in traffic, I forgot to put on deodorant (a fact I realized about four hours into my day), and I dropped my phone a million times. Crap day. When I got home, I parked, sat in my car, and started playing Plants vs. Zombies on my phone. Plants vs. Zombies, for the uninitiated, is a basic tower defense game in which you plant rows of weirdo attack plants in hopes of fending off the zombie apocalypse. It relies on strategy, patterns, and figuring out the best plant for the enemy at hand. It is silly and formulaic and its graphics wouldn’t win any awards, but it was exactly what I needed. Perhaps a younger Emily would have had a few drinks or just watched some mindless TV, but today-Emily needs interactivity in her distractions.

I have loved video games my whole life, and I’ve had the joy of watching them go from being a thing that “kids” do to being a thing that EVERYONE does. They’re enormously lucrative, they’re fun, and—I’ll say it—they’re an art form. I spend a lot of time playing, writing about, and talking about them, and I like to encourage people to think about what they’re getting out of the particular games they choose to play—there’s a hell of a lot of difference between playing Tiny Wings on your phone and grinding through Borderlands 2. It’s not that one is more of a “real game” than the other, but as games have become more diverse, so have the motivations for and benefits from playing them. Gliding a baby bird up and down hills lights up different parts of your brain than teaming up with friends to take down skags does. So: let’s talk about why we play.

Turning Your Brain Off
We’re all busy. Being busy is the new being popular, it seems. Everyone has about a million projects going on at any point in time, and with all that action, sometimes our brains don’t know where to look anymore—which is exhausting. Some games can occupy our brains without requiring us to really use them. It’s zoning out, it’s distraction, it’s all the things that are not thinking, and not thinking is a precious resource that we seem to forget is important. I achieve this state by playing The Binding of Isaac, by completing a LEGO game 100% by doing all the extra puzzles scattered around, or by playing Bejeweled, and it feels almost as good as a massage.

Power and Control
Some days you feel like everything you do matters, but then there are other days. Days when you’re not sure how you’re making a difference or affecting the grand scheme of things, days when you feel like your wellbeing is way too wrapped up in other people and other things. Those days aren’t the best. It’s on those days that I turn to a game where I get to micromanage the hell out of things, like The Sims or Minecraft.

Back in the day, people were bakers or hunters or builders, and when they woke up in the morning, they knew “This is what I need to accomplish today.” Then they did it and looked at it and boom, it was accomplished. Some of us still have that (there are still bakers and hunters and builders and hairstylists and artisans, etc., after all), but most of us have ongoing projects happening all the time, without much in the way of tangible results. I’m a writer, primarily, so I work with my brain and not so much with my hands. Video games are great at setting up an obvious goal (go kill that thing) and giving you a clearly defined path to that goal (train and organize people to fight that thing). Plus, they make you feel boss when you reach those goals by doling out skill points, better equipment, and so on. (Jane McGonigal writes about this brilliantly in her book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.) Today I’ll go to a meeting and leave wondering if anything will come of it, but at home, if I mine for days and days, then heat up what I mined, I can create a castle made of glass all to see and enjoy.

Anger Management
And then there’s the darker side of power and control, which is that sometimes, you just want to make mayhem and tear shit up. A lot of us—particularly the girls among us—try and ignore our anger. We don’t acknowledge that it is, in fact, a valid emotion. Some of us are ashamed of our anger. Well, let me tell you this: your anger is a gorgeous, motivating, valid, informative thing, and the problem is that we don’t always know how to express it appropriately. Which can lead to our unleashing hell upon someone else. Video games are tremendous at giving you an outlet for that hell-unleashing rage and bringing you back down to your rational state so you can dissect your anger and figure out what it’s trying to tell you, then express it clearly and proudly. Plus, it’s amazingly fun to just break bad on Horde Mode in Gears of War 3 and annihilate wave after wave of disgusting monsters. It’s stress relief, and then maybe you don’t yell at your significant other. Note: it is not my belief that video games cause violence. Sure, there are violent people who use video games, but there are more nonviolent people who use video games.

Video games can plop you instantly into a fully fleshed out and completely new world. I love being hyper-engaged in this way. Immersion games are perfect when you feel like you need a holiday from your own life, but you haven’t got the time, money, or means to take one. Games like Journey, Portal, and the Mass Effect series allow me to become someone else entirely, and stop thinking about my own day-to-day life because I have to put my entire brain into solving a puzzle or absorbing the landscape. I may not have any paper towels at home, but I can help stop the Reaper invasion and save multiple planets. A good story-driven game can be just as good as any book, plus you get to interact with it.

I grew up in a tiny town in North Carolina where I could count my friends on one hand and I was frequently called “freak” or “communist.” It wasn’t super fun. The technology to play video games with strangers online wasn’t really a thing back then, but I can imagine that if it had existed, I would have absolutely thrown myself into it and wallowed around in online gaming communities like a happy pig in the mud. Playing games with other people bonds you to them in a very specific way. Whether it’s playing Words With Friends with your mom, or teaming up with friends in Halo, or playing the massive universe of World of Warcraft, knowing that someone is online waiting for you to log in and do your part to help the cause is wonderfully sweet.

When we’re little, play is what helps us explore, figure out who we are, be imaginative, and express emotions we haven’t figured out yet. Nothing’s so different when we’re grownups, we just think that we shouldn’t need that kid stuff anymore. But we do. This is why I play; why do you play? ♦


  • Naomi Morris October 15th, 2012 7:13 PM

    i really appreciate what you say about video games being an art form and as absorbing as a book, especially at the moment when i am completely addicted to the new zelda.
    i always used to mostly watch my brother play video games and enjoy the story and now i am actually playing it and getting through it on my own and not only is it complete escapism but also i get a HUGE sense of achievement.
    i find the idea of being able to come home when it’s cold outside and completely lose myself in a zelda really really comforting at the moment

    • Naomi Morris October 15th, 2012 7:14 PM

      also the bonding thing: i played mario kart for the first time today with new friends

      • bewarethejabberwock October 16th, 2012 6:23 PM

        Naomi, I totally get the bonding and MarioKart thing! Wow, that takes me back (like, about six months) to playing Mario Kart with my littlest cousin.

        I don’t see him very often because he lives a long way away, and there’s something really fun and also kind of sad about watching him get better at it.
        Like when we started he sat on my knee and we played together, I had to keep my hands over his pressing down on the ignition button so he didn’t forget to drive.
        Last time we played he could do it himself and competed against his older sister a couple of times.

        The first time we played as a team and he didn’t finish last was a genuinely proud moment, but it makes me sad because I think about him growing up and how soon he won’t need my help in anything, ever. I dunno, I just always have a sort of polite distance with my older cousins and I don’t want him to be like that with me, even though I know he will (my mum and his dad – the related ones – don’t get on particularly well, and I have a maybe irrational fear that one day I’ll just never see them again).

        Phew, I’m sorry, I don’t know where all that came from, I’ve never really thought about how I relate to games before. They’ve always just been something my friends ‘get’ and I ‘don’t get’. I never knew I had such emotional associations with MarioKart, it’s just you saying ‘bonding’ and ‘mario kart’ in the same sentence somehow brings a load of memories back.

        Emily, I really like the article, by the way :)

  • AnaRuiz October 15th, 2012 7:33 PM

    I have amazing monologues whilst playing Doodle Jump. The problem is that they can turn into 30 minutes of talking to myself when I should be studying. (But then, Doodle Jump is not to be faulted for my procrastination. I should be studying right now.)

  • moonchild October 15th, 2012 7:37 PM

    This is a great article! I agree with the majority of what you are saying, except for the violence bit. I mean, I think if less kids were exposed for so many hours to mindless shooting and bombing, they’d be less desensitized to what shooting and bombing means in the real world. I do agree that games probably don’t cause violence, but I’m guessing that if the kids in my homeroom last year made artwork or music to get their anger out instead of playing COD every day, they wouldn’t find grenade attacks so funny. Seriously, they laughed every day about how their opponents limbs flew around. However, I do agree with the rest of the article! I don’t personally play video games, but I can see how they build community and are relaxing and fun.


    • Cutesycreator aka Monica November 8th, 2012 11:48 AM

      I wholeheartedly agree with you, moonchild/Gwen. :)

  • litchick October 15th, 2012 8:54 PM

    This article totally made me want to start playing some kind of game again! My friend and I were really into the Harvest Moon games; those have the same complete-a-task-and–move-forward set-up as the Sims/Minecraft.

  • molassesrotblackstrap October 15th, 2012 9:02 PM

    i really love this. it almost makes me not feel guilty about playing video games into the wee hours of the morning on school nights.

  • umi October 15th, 2012 9:11 PM

    GAH i love this article!! I play video games A LOT tbh. I love playing mario kart and plants vs zombies and literally all of the Lego games (( they are super cool and all the puzzles are awesome AND going back to play with characters you’ve unlocked is fun bc you can get extra stuff)) I love being brought into a whole new world and having control over a character.And the feeling of accomplishment when you finish a game,it’s great!! ((my brother,who is five,fought Abomination and won and legit cried))

    I’ve become addicted to Spore omg that game is AWESOME i think i spent more hours designing my character rather than playing with him…

    i play video games to get away from everything….i can read a book or watch a movie but having control gives it a different feel

    • umi October 15th, 2012 9:15 PM

      oh oh i watched a really cool video game documentary today called Indie Game: The Movie ((it’s on netflix)) i decided to watch it bc i’ve been dabbling in video game design and coding recently!! it’s really awesome documentary~~

      • Lascelles October 16th, 2012 2:15 AM

        Forgot this was coming out. Anyway, just watched it. It is pretty good. They are very good film makers. Good luck with coding :D

  • Jessica W October 15th, 2012 11:51 PM

    I feel like games are my own version of meditating. To be completely free of negative thoughts… Just shooting/stacking/stabbing things… Bliss.
    Thank you x 10000 for the game recommendations

    The Lovelorn

  • Adrienne October 16th, 2012 12:17 AM

    Video games are catharses for me. I can just let go of all of my stress into Sims or Super Smash Brothers.

    Speaking of video games, I am SO stoked for “Ni no Kuni”, an RPG game from Studio Ghibli! The graphics are so beautiful. :’)

  • AliceS October 16th, 2012 3:53 AM

    Nice article!! I’m addicted to Triple Town. Love the “logical” game. And this article make me feel less guilty…

  • Emily October 16th, 2012 5:10 AM

    I would like to say that while I quit World Of Warcraft for my own good, if I ever picked it up for a second ever again my desire to play it would probably destroy me. That is for three reasons-

    1. Ponies.
    2. Dress Up.
    3. It’s pretty.

    If you, like me, will completely faint because of those three things and freak obsess, just don’t.

    Like, I had this Barbie Horse Riding Playstation game when I was really little and the parts I liked most were “Put 2 different bows on horse” and “ride horse in ring through forest or in straight line on beach.”
    But there were paths you couldnt ride on, and you could SEE down the beach, and the horse would just go “NEIGH NEIGHHHHH” PLFFTT.” and crash into an invisible wall.
    So World of Warcraft helped me express my desire to have some chick I dressed up like a PRINCESS ride along A BEACH on a HORSE.

  • Kathryn October 16th, 2012 6:02 AM

    As someone who spent hours playing Zelda: Link’s Awakening on my brother’s old gameboy color, I agree with this article! Even if I had to look up a walkthrough online… I love story-based video games so much. I wish I played more, because I don’t really very often.

    ALSO: donkey kong country is my favorite, because it was a thing my cousins played on my grandma’s super nintendo all the time in my childhood. Also it’s super fun!!

  • victoria October 16th, 2012 8:24 AM


    • paashaas21 October 16th, 2012 1:37 PM


  • wallflower152 October 16th, 2012 10:37 AM

    I didn’t really play games much when I was a kid cuz I grew up on a pretty kool ranch where bike riding/outdoorsy/woods exploring play was enough to keep me and my siblings entertained all day. Video games were and are an expensive hobby so we had a N64 from a pawn shop and a few games, the best being 007 Golden Eye. Everything I know about games comes from my very good friend who introduced me to Zelda seven years ago. I beat Ocarina of Time and I loved it, it did take me a long time though. For phone games I love PvZ, Osmos and Bejeweled. Portal 1 and 2 are amazing! Puzzle games with a story and humor. All the Mass Effects and Uncharteds are on my list but I am a very busy woman. I feel bad sitting in front of the tv for hours with no tangible results. Thanks for reminding me of the benefits. : )

  • Me October 16th, 2012 10:51 AM

    Whenever I’m stressed I just play Civilization. The feeling of being the dictator of my own empire and going around destroying other civilizations is just so glorious.

  • NotReallyChristian October 16th, 2012 1:05 PM

    My boyfriend and I are Old School (if not actually old): we play Trinity together! For those of you who don’t know – and I certainly didn’t until recently – Trinity is from 1986 and it has no graphics, it’s just words on the screen. It’s kind of like one of those game-books (‘if you chose A, go to page 32!’) only incredibly detailed, witty and DAMN HARD. It’s a great game for people like me, who are blessed with imagination but not with co-ordination – and it’s also kind of philosophical, which is cool. We play together so one of us can be at the keyboard and the other can be mapping out the detailed game-universe; also together we have a much better chance of cracking the codes and solving the puzzles!

  • missmadness October 17th, 2012 3:14 PM

    Not to come off as weird, but what regoin of nc are you from? I’m from fayetteville originally and I love to see North Carolinians doing well!

  • neumos October 30th, 2012 7:48 AM

    I love this post, it is just amazing. I heard about Tavi yesterday and I am in love with her, she is amazing. How she write and tell things, she is amazing. I thought I had to say this, hihi.

    • Cutesycreator aka Monica November 8th, 2012 11:49 AM

      Tavi is totally fantastic! :D

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica November 8th, 2012 11:47 AM

    Video games are awesome. That is all.

    • Cutesycreator aka Monica November 8th, 2012 11:57 AM

      PS I just played the entire free trial of Plants VS Zombies and IT. WAS. AWESOME. (But I’m not gonna pay for the rest ;P)