Why do you like games?
I was asked this very question over the holidays. It was a question to which I would have thought the reply readily available, and a question that had me stumbling over my words. I couldn't answer it.
Since then I have been rolling the ideas around in my head. What is it about games that turns on that switch in my brain? Why are games different from any other activity in life?
I guess the first trigger is simply nostalgia. I've played games for as long as I can remember. I had a closet stacked full of games from the classics of Monopoly, Risk, and Dark Tower, to the lesser known Pathfinder, Code Name: Sector, and 4000 A.D., and even Star Wars: Escape from the Death Star.
Some say games are social. I suppose that is true to some extent. Games are a great excuse to get together with friends, but I find them less social than other activities. Other than party games, when I am playing a game I tend to be fairly quiet and thoughtful.
Another thought is simply that games are intellectual. I was the kid sitting inside reading books about rockets when the other kids were playing baseball. Being a computer programmer, games and game rules are a natural for me. I love the fact that games employ strategy and tactics, and that they represent a fixed domain of possibilities. A game is a puzzle--an experiment--that is waiting to be tested and solved. It is a challenge to be able to wrap your head around it, and to outthink your opponents.
But all intellectual challenges are not created equal. I don't get the same pleasure working as I do playing games, even though a lot of the same type of thinking occurs.
So maybe that's the answer. Playing a game is the ultimate intellectual challenge without any real-life risk. You can win or lose, you can bring every neuron in your brain to its knees or you can play casually, you can love the game or hate it, and it doesn't matter. You get out of it exactly what you want.
Games don't demand anything of you. They don't complain when they are left unplayed for months. You can criticize their components, dissect their design, make house rules, and play them until their bits are sawdust. They will always love you.
Next time someone asks me this question, I'll be ready.