So, what makes video games unique? What makes them special, as a form of entertainment? What does the player get out of playing a game that other pastimes can't give them?

There are obvious formal differences between video games and other types of analog games, and between video games and other forms of non-game entertainment. But, what does that amount to, from a player-psychological point of view? In understanding what a video game is, the question becomes: why is the experience compelling? What are the universal benefits across genres?

As I see it, all video games provide the player with two primary motivational elements: an artificial sense of entropy, and an artificial set of goals. In addressing these elements, the player receives a tangible sensation of control, and of accomplishment.

Any given video game drops the player into a situation with a high degree of entropy, in one form or another. Through play, the user brings order to the entropic situation. I believe that it's an inherent human psychological need to bring order to disorderly situations-- it's satisfying on some base level that we all share, whether it's straightening up an untidy room or weeding a garden. Every video game is in essence a disarranged sliding tile puzzle, or a Rubik's Cube, waiting to be set straight. Video games give this ageless conflict between order and disorder a wide variety of highly complex forms, and provide the player with tools to exert control over the chaos.
One clear, recent example of this aspect of games is Katamari Damacy. As the Prince of the Cosmos, the player is dropped onto the Earth, and told to gather up objects by using his katamari, to build huge clumps of mass that are then shot up into space and turned into stars. In practice, each level of the game is a large space populated with scattered detritus, clutter, and wandering critters, and the player is given a tool to gather up all this junk into one huge pile. At the start of the level, the space is highly entropic; through the player's input, order is brought to the space, consolidating the scattered bits into one central, manageable form. It's a satisfying sensation-- I've never met anyone who wasn't sucked in by the katamari.

But I think every single video game you've ever played shares this dynamic of allowing the player to bring order to entropy. In a corridor shooter game, the player proceeds down a path strewn with spaces filled by hostile NPCs. Each room filled with enemies is its own entropic arena-- upon entering it, the space is overrun by independent actors who act in a destructive manner, lending chaos and uncertainty to the room. By defeating these enemies and clearing the room of entropic actors, the player brings order to the space-- even if it is through the barrel of a gun.

The Civilization games place the player as a tiny force within an uncertain world filled by hostile factions, and challenges the player to bring order to the world by unifying it under one banner, by removing the fog of war from the map and ordering the globe with an interconnected matrix of cities and roads. Adventure games present the player with a series of unsolved puzzles and random objects sown throughout the gameworld, and challenge the player to gather the items together into his inventory, combine them in meaningful ways, and bring about order by resolving each waiting conundrum in turn. The Sims releases a handful of characters into an empty lot, and gives the player tools to order their lives into a working home, productive daily routine, and an interconnected social network. Tetris throws a randomized series of shapes at the player and challenges him to create orderly lines out of them, containing the entropy onscreen to keep his head above water.

The other, more straightforward aspect of video games that appeals to player psychology is the variety of goals they provide. These can be overt or implied goals, from an NPC telling you to bring him a certain object, to an enemy that must be defeated, to the knowledge that 100 pickup items are scattered around the world that the player will be rewarded for gathering, to there simply being a very high peak in the gameworld that the player decides he wants to scale. In completing these goals, the player receives an immediate and very tangible sense of accomplishment.

These sensations, accomplishment and control, are feelings that everyone requires, but that can be elusive in everyday life. There are limited elements of the day-to-day that we as individuals have direct control over, and real accomplishments can be long in coming, or muddled with compromise. All video games, in their myriad forms, provide a surrogate for these essential sensations, miniature worlds wherein the player can receive positive reinforcement through their own actions, cleanly and instantaneously.

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