Cognitive Gamification, Part 2: Why Games?

Why do people like playing games in the first place? Evolution provides an answer.

63% of American Household have at least one person that plays video games regularly (3 or more hours per week), according to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2016 Essential Facts Report.

It’s clear that a large number of people enjoy playing video games, and games in general, but it’s not clear why. Playing games is a counter-productive activity. It takes time away from useful activities like actual work, or studying, or housework.

So again, why do people enjoy doing a counter-productive activity?

Evolution provides an answer.

We like playing games today because, fundamentally, they allow us to practice those skills — eye-hand, exploring, gathering, strategic, and social — that gave primitive man a survival advantage.

For example, throwing a rock at a tree stump honed eye-hand coordination skills needed for hunting. Searching for and collecting things like shiny rocks honed the exploration and pattern-recognition skills needed for gathering. Finally, trading shiny rocks with others honed negotiation and other social skills.

There are many more examples we can imagine, but the point is this: those primitive people that enjoyed playing games were the ones who survived to pass on their genes.

In short, we are Wired by Evolution to enjoy games.

Today, most of us no longer need to hunt or to gather our food, so playing games seems like a counter-productive activity.

Nevertheless, the widespread playing of video games in modern society can be understood as a pre-adaptation for survival, co-opted for business.

Further Reading

Bird feathers are an example of a pre-adaptation for warmth, co-opted for flight. For a fascinating read on adaptions, pre-adaptations and exaptations, see:
Gould, S. J., & Vrba, E. S. (1982). Exaptation—a missing term in the science of form. Paleobiology, 8, 4-15.