One of the central questions about playing video games, I think, is what motivates us to play. Figuring out why people play the games they do is at the core of both development-- if you know why people enjoy the games they do, you have a good idea of how to draw them into your project-- and to the player experience: Why do I like the games I do? Beyond simple introspection, if I know that, then I'll have a better idea of what other games I might enjoy.

I think the concept at the core of a game's enjoyability is player identification with the experience. I don't believe this is necessarily limited to the player's identification with the game's protagonist or side characters; that assumes too much. Many players identify most strongly with games that have no discrete "main character" or personified characters at all.

So I'm going to talk about identification, but not in generalizations. I'll talk about an aspect of games that I, and probably gamers like myself, identify with.

I think that part of my engagement with playing video games is an extension of 'playing' as a child-- imaginary scenarios made up with friends, running around backyards, pretending to fight 'bad guys;' generally imagining the mundane world as something entirely else. These childhood games placed myself as the main actor in whatever fictional setting, story, or conflict we thought up, but usually "as" some other character outside of myself, be it an established persona from a children's TV show, or an avatar of our own creation. They took place in our own homes and yards, but morphed these settings into some other place.

I believe that the connection between these imaginary experiences and what I expect out of a video game is subconsciously very strong. I am drawn to games that provide a human-scale conflict, one where the individual clashes with a similarly-sized group of antagonists. The focus on the individual-- "me" in the game-- is central. Broad conflicts-- battles, wars, the rise and fall of civilizations (RTS games, 4X titles, or Civilization) are of little interest to me. Similarly, being depersonalized as one small implement of a faction in games like Battlefield 2, Team Fortress, or Dystopia is of no particular draw. A personalized experience, one that revolves around the player and provides a gameworld that hinges on his actions, as did my imaginary worlds as a child, is always the dynamic that draws me in. I identify personally with the individual, the person, and the individual's conflicts with other individuals; I identify with being the focal point of a miniature world.

This link to childhood fantasy also spawns what I've begun thinking of as "the appeal of the everyday." Make-believe as a child turns your family's house into a different place, or sets new and strange experiences in that familiar setting. Your attic becomes a secret lab; monsters, ghosts, aliens, or simply other imaginary people might suddenly be found in your basement, or need to be driven from your backyard. I think some semblance of this experience persists at the fringe of adult life. Maybe your mind wanders as you walk through the city, or drive down the highway, and you briefly picture something fantastical occuring in this ordinary setting; a car chase, zoo animals running free. Free reign to wreak havoc in the supermarket with your friends. I think games that set extraordinary events in ordinary settings benefit by way of the appeal of the everyday, and the ability to subvert it-- the desire to transform familiar settings into something new and exciting, to let you do something you can't normally do, somewhere that you normally go. Games like Dead Rising, which lets the player run amok in a shopping mall, smashing windows and grabbing any product that's not nailed down, or Grand Theft Auto 3, where you can jump into any car you see and ramp it off the side of a building in an otherwise calm city street, appeal to this desire. The Hitman games cast the player as a powerful wildcard in otherwise civilian locations, and the most successful levels in Blood Money-- a suburban neighborhood, a crowded city street-- take place in the most familiar settings. From fighting colorfully-named gangs in the towns, schools and city parks of River City Ransom to doing the same in the grimy streets and apartment courtyards of The Warriors, it's always been the games that twist excitement into the otherwise mundane, "normal" world that grab me.

Am I rationalizing the way that video games appeal to my "inner child?" Maybe. Probably so. That games can help return some players to the childlike mindset of make-believe is, I think, incredibly compelling, and valuable to adults who might otherwise be consumed entirely by the banality of work, home life and running errands. I hate to think of games as simple escapism, but the psychological implications of this phenomenon are far from simple, and the results most likely beneficial to the player. It's a unique bond to childhood, through a medium that is complex and intriguing in so many other ways as well.

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