What are games?

Literally what is a game? Why do we play? What urge does play satisfy within us? Why would it be beneficial for animals to play? The current popular theory for why animals play is to simulate actions they will need to be good at to survive. So to condition themselves to perform well as adults they simulate facsimiles of the acts that their parents do. Humans are intelligent enough to create more organized and goal oriented versions of play that we refer to as games.

So what are games? Games are organized systems of play. They are challenges we create for ourselves (similar to puzzles or contests) out of our innate fascination with systems that produce varied outcomes that we think we have a control over.

We have invented many devices to amuse our aesthetic, auditory, visual, olfactory, and gustatory senses. We’ve invented forms of entertainment that stimulate our senses of humor, empathy, curiosity, sexual desire, and other emotions. These senses all developed in a natural way to acclimate us to an environment that required these things out of us, but evolution is a blind watchmaker. These things each exist to seek stimulation, but they are not terribly specific about the means or end results.

To that end we’ve created what are referred to as supernormal stimulus, a stimulant that triggers a response greater than what the sense originally evolved to respond to and motivate us towards. We have a response towards sex, for example, to motivate us to reproduce, but evolution doesn’t know that the act of sex causes reproduction. This means we have little problem using condoms or other contraceptives because we don’t have an instinct towards the end result, just the acts that get us there. In nature sugar and fat are rare resources, so there was a premium placed on the response to those, leading to us making exorbitant dessert foods that are tastier than anything nature could provide, without a real care for the end result of these because stimulus triggers evolve without information on what end they exist to further.

Naturally in the course of our desire to stimulate our various mental faculties we’ve invented games to fulfill our love of challenges, systems that produce positive outcomes inconsistently which we believe we have a control over. This is because to survive we had to respond to inconsistent outcomes deemed positive and attempt to make them consistent. In response to these events there is a release of the chemical dopamine. The dopamine hit gets lower as the action becomes more consistent, either negatively or positively.

For example: once one figures out how player 1 always wins or ties in tic tac toe, most people lose interest in it. A rat given a lever that produces a food pellet will pull it when they are hungry, given a lever that has a chance of dropping a food pellet, they will hammer the lever over and over again. The behavior is typically not much different in humans, which is why slot machines are currently the highest earning form of gambling and why many mobile and social games employ random chance the way they do. Related, if you always beat your friend at ping pong, you’re likely to seek harder opponents and your friend is likely to give up, because neither of you will be generating dopamine hits from the game. People with perfect consistency typically move to a new environment or challenge where their consistency is imperfect or quit altogether. People who obtain no positive results either move to an environment where they can obtain positive results at all (move to easier opponents for example) or quit.

What’s challenge? We determine what is challenging through consistency and the quality of results. Tasks which have a low rate of consistency and which return low quality results are challenging relative to us. Better consistency means we are improving at the challenge. This perception and response to challenge may exist to make us better hunters or better at war with other tribes and ultimately better at surviving through specific tasks that were common in the ancestral environment, but the stimulus response is not specific to any particular activity, it is equally responsive to something like computer programming or drawing as it is to sports even though the former two have no analogue to any natural activity.

Interestingly, challenge has a similar variability distribution to randomness and our minds aren’t conditioned to recognize the difference innately (though we can train ourselves to separate the two). Things that are random produce similar reward responses to things that are challenging, even though we may have no influence over them.

Notes for future expansion:

So how did we come to make games? Where did games come from?

Different genres like different flavors

We made games by recognizing systems that we have difficulty with, read: perform inconsistently at.

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