Why do we play games?

In decision theory, the term “game” has a specific definition that is different from everyday use. Because this blog is based on decision theory, it is worth nodding to that fact.

However, that is not the subject of this post. This post is about the term “game” in common usage. I would like to both define the term as well as answer the question of this post’s title.

We all know what the word “game” means to the layman, because we use it all of the time in a consistent way.

…But if you stop and take a moment to define it, you will find that the task is more difficult than it first appears. Whatever definition you can come up with on the fly, it is probably flawed in some way. This video gives a window into common flaws in layman definitions of “game”. Take some time to give it a watch.

Google defines “game” as: a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.

But a dictionary definition is in fact not a be-all end-all people think it is. They are sometimes in error; lexicographers aren’t infallible. Further, dictionary definitions are often ambiguously worded, intent on capturing all possibilities of a given usage. They aren’t meant to be too specific; they only need to be sufficiently specific to give you a general-enough sketch of a word’s meaning. The dictionary doesn’t take up a lot of space boring you with a word’s exact details. But I will.

“What is a game?” This is a question I have taken to thinking about throughout the years. It is a question some people think we shouldn’t even ask. I reject that thought process. No question should be off limits. Categorizing and defining is how we better understand our world (especially for people with difficulties relying purely on intuition). The refusal to honor a question, as if it is “forbidden knowledge” is sensitive and juvenile.

Chris Crawford has a good definition of a game. However, I find his definition lacking. For example, what about single-player games?

Crawford’s definition is good, but I would like to expand on it. This might be arrogant of me, but I think I have come up with a good nomenclature, borrowing from Crawford’s terminology, that best approximates the word “game” in the way it is consistently used in common speech. It is by no means perfect, but I believe it is a small step up.

I will have to define other terms as well (in bold).

A thing

  • Any nonhuman entity


  • A thing
  • Used for non utilitarian purposes

Play thing

  • Media
  • Interactive


  • A play thing
  • Has rules*


  • A play thing
  • Not a “challenge” (see above)


  • A challenge
  • Has a clear win state
  • Perfect information is available about interactive elements, even without interaction (not amenable to chance or actions of another player)
  • Not a sport


  • A challenge
  • Other players involved


  • A contest
  • Interactive elements are amenable to the influence of other players


  • A challenge
  • Not a puzzle


A challenge

  • Has the capacity to make muscles tired (hand and face muscles don’t count), or requires use of your legs

* To “have rules” means it presents status states, and instructions for the player to change status states that must be abided by

Please take a moment to note what sets a “game” apart from a “puzzle”.

In a game, information is impossible for any human to fully predict. Here are a few examples:

  • If a challenge has another player or other players making their own choices, and the other player can influence you, then the actions of the player are information that you can’t fully predict. Thus, it is a game.
    • But if the actions of the other player usually don’t influence your choices, like a race, then it’s just a competition.
  • If it makes use of inherent randomness in the mechanics, like from a random number generator, then that is information you cannot predict. Thus, it is a game.
  • If the mechanics of the game are so complicated (usually hidden in lines of code) that no human can realistically predict what will happen in the challenge, then that is information you cannot predict, so it is a game.

So I have defined what “game” means in common usage. But I have not answered the question of this post’s title: why do we play games?

Sometimes, games bring us status or monetary benefit. But usually not. At least not to a large enough degree that it justifies their playing.

It is possible that games trick us into thinking that we are gaining status or monetary benefit. Much like masterbation tricks our brain into giving us the pleasure as if we are mating (see my post were I get into that topic). Status is zero sum, which might explain why people find it easier to get pretend status rather than pursue real status.

(My language might make it seem like I am attacking gamers, or calling them irrational. I am not. I will justify their behavior in just a moment.)

Something is not adding up. There are deep, socio-psychological forces in society that are making people to play games in droves rather than use that time on tangible, real-life gain.

Perhaps the answer lies in this piece of text: Industrial Society and its Future by math prodigy Ted Kaczynski. The full text can be read here.

We divide human drives into three groups: (1) those drives that can be satisfied with minimal effort; (2) those that can be satisfied but only at the cost of serious effort; (3) those that cannot be adequately satisfied no matter how much effort one makes. The power process is the process of satisfying the drives of the second group.

What Kaczynski calls the “power process” is essentially human’s deep, evolved, psychological need to achieve.

In pre-industrial society, Kaczynski contends, it was easier to satisfy (2). There were many things very difficult to achieve that had not been achieved.

In post-industrial society, many things have already been more or less achieved. They have fallen into group (1). You can listen to almost any song in the world with the click of a button, where in the past you had to hire a musician. You can afford more in one visit to the grocery store than most people could afford all year just 2 centuries ago.

Most things that have not been achieved fall into group (3). Scientists spend their entire careers to make a single discovery of note. When you work for a corporation, you are probably bringing some value to someone in some small, intangible way. But really, you are probably spending most of your time smoothing out administrative processes and carrying out various intermediary functions, only making incremental and abstract changes, in the hopes of rising through the ranks of the organization, and one day making a real impact. It is satisfying… in its own way, but not satisfying in the same way that beating a final boss in a video game is satisfying.

The truth is, there exist few things of real (tangible) benefit that truly fall into group (2).

That is why we play games.

Games are what Kaczynski calls a “surrogate activity”. Surrogate activities are those which give you the satisfaction of achievement without actually achieving anything tangible. Games present us with obstacles to overcome- difficult enough to avoid group (1), but not that difficult that they become so frustrating as to fall into group (3). Games make you feel like you are “going through the power process”, just like masturbating makes you feel like you are mating, and you get the dopamine associated with it.

Now I come back to my earlier distinction between puzzles and games. I’ve explained surrogate activities, but what explains games specifically?

Well, puzzles are solved as quickly as they are made. Almost all puzzles that you solve, you know that they have already been solved before, removing the fulfillment of knowing that you rose to a unique challenge. Games, by contrast, are in the relevant respect, dynamic. For instance, almost no two games of chess are alike, so you can know that your next move in chess is like a puzzle being solved for the first time. The randomness/unpredictability of games essentially generates a new and different instantiation of a challenge (within a framework), every time you play it.

Oh, and by the way, Ted Kaczynski is the Unabomber, and the text I quoted is from the Unabomber Manifesto. It’s a crazy world, right?

2 thoughts on “Why do we play games?

  1. Great article, thank you. Have you read Kaczynski’s two books? They’re quite extraordinary. “Technological Slavery” (2010) and “Anti-Tech Revolution” (2016)

    Here are what just a couple of reviewers have said so far about his latest book:

    “Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How is Kaczynski’s well-reasoned, cohesive composition about how revolutionary groups should approach our mercurial future….. I recommend that you read this compelling perspective on how we can frame our struggles in a technological society.”
    — The Tech, MIT’s oldest and largest newspaper

    “There are more than a few people who feel that society’s rush toward a technological future will lead to disaster. This book presents some pointers for thinking in broad, strategic terms about getting society off that particular road. …The reader will get a lot out of it. This is very highly recommended.”
    —Midwest Book Review


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