Why Do We Play Games?

Hey, Vsauce. Michael here. Why do humans play games?
Whether it’s a video game or a board game or a physical game, like soccer – or football.
I don’t have to put the ball in the net to survive, and, even if I did, why
would I invite a goalie and another team? Games are weird. This lead Bernard Suits to
say in the 70’s that a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.
So, why do we play sports and games? How should we feel about intellectualism vs. athleticism?
But, most importantly, why do Americans call this game soccer while the English, and the
rest of the world, call it football? It turns out that the word “soccer” doesn’t
come from the United States of America. Instead, the blame for the word goes to the British
themselves, specifically Oxford, where, since 1875, it has been popular to add the suffix
“-er” to the end of words. For example, calling Radcliffe Camera the “Radder,”
or these “fivers” and “tenners.” We have been playing games with balls and
our feet ever since ancient times, all over the world. In fact, as recently as 200 years
ago, many of these games called themselves “football.” A lack of standardization meant
that it was difficult to all come together and agree on what you could and couldn’t do
with the ball or your feet. But, luckily, in 1863 the Football Association was founded
in London, England. Association football is what we most commonly mean nowadays when talking
about football, or soccer. But what’s the connection if the Oxford “-er” was added to Association
football, shouldn’t we be calling the game “Association-er?” Well, let’s take a closer
look at the word “association.” You see what’s hiding in there? There she is. “Soccer.” But we’re getting ahead of ourselves because
soccer, football, is just one type of game. Ultimately, what is a game? Well, one of my
favorite ways of defining “game” comes from computer game designer Chris Crawford.
Let’s begin with a book. This is a great book, it’s really fun, it’s entertaining, but it’s not a game.
TV shows and movies are also not games because, fundamentally, they aren’t interactive.
But as soon as something is both fun and interactive, well, now we’ve got ourselves
a play-thing. There are two types of play-things, according to Crawford. If you can play with
the object and it’s fun but there’s no goal or objective associated with it, it’s a toy.
If, however, there is an objective, something you’re supposed to accomplish, well, now you’re
talking about a challenge. But there are two different types of challenges. If the challenge
involves no other people or other agents, it’s just you, for instance, playing alone
with a Rubik’s Cube, you’ve got yourself a puzzle. If, however, there are other people
involved, well, now we’ve got ourselves a conflict. In a conflict, like a foot race, you aren’t
allowed to interfere with the other participants. This is what Crawford calls a “competition.”
If, however, you are allowed to interact with and interfere with the other players and
they can do the same to you, well, in that case, we are talking about a full-fledged game. So, a game is interactive, goal-oriented,
and involves other agents, for instance, other people who can interfere with and influence
each other. Which means, technically speaking, that life is a game. I mean, real life.
My life, your life, easily fit many definitions of “game.” And, in life, there are games that
we tend to call “sports.” Now, competency at sports can divide humanity into two groups.
Jocks, who are good at sports, and nerds who aren’t. Jocks are literally named after
the Jock Strap, which keeps your genitals supported while being athletic.
But jocks are cool, right? They’re fit, attractive, they get invited to all the cool parties where,
in high school, they can do dangerous, cool things like get drunk. And who are you if
you don’t get drunk? Well, what’s the word “drunk” backwards? You are a “Knurd.”
But that’s not the origin of the word “nerd.” There’s much debate about where the word comes
from, but what we do know is that it emerged as a slang term for “lame” or “square” in
Detroit in the early 1950’s. The first known use of the word in print came
from Dr. Seuss himself and, fundamentally, it may come from the word “nut,” which meant
a crazy person, and was later altered to “nert,” and, finally, “nerd.” It exists today as a word
for un-athletic people largely because it was popularized through its frequent use on
the US TV show “Happy Days.” Whether your spend your time on athletic pursuits
or intellectual pursuits, or both, games, in some form, are a part of your life.
So, why do we play games? Humans, and many other animals, play. And, perhaps, “play” originated
as a way of physically preparing our bodies for life’s real challenges later on. That
idea makes sense, but the evidence isn’t convincing because, in the wild, “play” can often lead
to a wasting of precious resources, injuries and hardly comes close to simulating real
attacks and life-threatening situations. The New York Times wrote a great article about
this conundrum, pointing out that physically preparing the body may be less of a priority
for “play.” Instead, the point of “play” might be preparing the brain. Play is good for the
brain, especially during formative, juvenile years, when most of us have an instinctive urge
to goof around, play and pretend anyway. Young rats confined to cages with adult rats,
who refused to play with them, grew up with smaller, less developed brains. This has led
to the hypothesis that games play a role in the development of certain brain structures,
especially the cerebellum when we are young. But, to be clear, the evidence does not show
that play is vital for the development of these regions. Other methods, like exercises
or teaching, may have a similar effect. They might not be as fun, but this is known
as equifinality. So there’s debate as to just how vital play and games really are.
Well, let’s take a look at the rewards that games give us. In the first half of the 20th century, Abraham
Maslow constructed a hierarchy of human needs. The concept is popular in developmental psychology
as a way of thinking about human growth and what motivates us to do things or to not
do things. In general, until the needs of a lower tier are fulfilled, an individual
can’t move on to fulfilling higher ones. For instance, achieving confidence, or satisfying
the desire to learn and explore, aren’t important to a person in fear for their life and safety.
Play might be motivated by higher needs. Animals play, but as we’ve seen in nature, not the
ones who are stressed or starving. The thing is, lower needs tend to be pretty
clear cut. If I’m hungry and I eat what I need, I’m done. It’s not that complicated.
But, as creatures and brains and cultures become more complicated, so do their needs
and the behaviors required to fulfill them. This brings us back to the fact that life
itself fits Chris Crawford’s definition of a game. Arguably, life is the largest and
most complicated game on Earth. But playing your life usually isn’t as easy as simply
remembering to eat and drink and breath. In life, knowing what the correct next move
is isn’t always easy. Feedback is rarely immediate. I don’t know if the choices I made were the
best, most perfect choices for me until way after I’ve made them, if even then.
Is this person, or city, or career right for me? In life, the rules are complicated, the goals
are indeterminate and the methods for achieving them are often unknown or different for every
single person. Plus, the rewards themselves are often slow to come or non-existent. So, in the face of all of that, it’s no surprise
that we invented games within the larger game of life itself that ensure fast, easy-to-achieve
and understandable rewards. Animals play too, but the complexity of rules
humans follow in their games, in many ways reflect the complexity of the needs we find
ourselves able to pursue. In life, I don’t always know the right choice.
I don’t know the right job to apply for. How to explain something to a child. How to best help my friends or when to call my mom. But in Bomberman, I know exactly what every power-up
does, every time, all the time. In poker, a royal flush beats two-of-a-kind,
no question about it. Couldn’t be more clear. But in my life, is an acquaintance or colleague
really on my side? Well, in team sports there’s no unknown, everyone is color-coded. Games and sports are a phenomenal way to feel
the rewards we need, without all of the unknowns of life. Even watching games and sports, merely
being a spectator, can fulfill some of Maslow’s needs. I can feel a sense of belonging by
supporting a team, and by supporting a team, their successes can kind of become my successes. What a great way to get respect without doing
a lot of work. It’s known as BIRG-ing: Basking In Reflected Glory. The opposite is CORF-ing:
Cutting Off Reflected Failure. If a team is disgraced, I can easily say I was not really
ever that big of a fan anyway. BIRG-ing and CORF-ing extend beyond sports.
We BIRG and CORF workplace projects, school projects, celebrities, election candidates.
The point is, life is a game, but winning and losing are nebulous. So, we invented simpler
games to provide psychological rewards faster and more efficiently than life itself does.
Which is why, at their darkest, games can lead to procrastination or addiction. But don’t fear. You have the potential to
become a jock at the game of life, it’s just not always that fun. And whenever you play
man-made games, rest assured that it’s simply because you, and all of us, are able to pursue
the fulfillment of needs higher than any other creature on Earth. And as always, thanks for watching. Oh, and if you want some soccer science, why
not check out my video with Copa90, where we investigate whether or not it’s possible to kick a football
with so much spin that it not only curves, but boomerangs back to the kicker. Okay, bye.