Psychology: We Play Video Games to Chase Our ‘Ideal Selves’

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What exactly is it about video games that holds so much drawing power? Last year, a staggering 500 million video games were sold throughout the world, and, despite some recent slippage earlier in May, the industry as a whole remains one of the biggest, most lucrative markets out there.

Now, a new study set to be published in a coming issue of Psychological Science seeks to uncover exactly what it is about video games that attracts such a passionate and dedicated fan base. According to a report out today in Science Daily, the answer lies somewhere beyond mere role playing; it’s actually a desire to find our “ideal selves.”

(LIST: The 10 Video Games from Comic Con You Have to Check Out)

“A game can be more fun when you get the chance to act and be like your ideal self,” says Dr. Andy Przybylski, a research fellow at the University of Essex who led the study. “The attraction to playing video games and what makes them fun is that it gives people the chance to think about a role they would ideally like to take and then get a chance to play that role.”

Observing thousands of gamers playing everything from The Sims to World of Warcraft, the researchers were able to trace that attraction back to childhood, when we used our imaginations to project ourselves as all sorts of things: an athlete, a rock star, a superhero—the list goes on.

Video games provide us with the opportunity to adopt pieces of their protagonist’s identity, giving us a glimpse of a life we’d secretly like to lead.

But that’s not all: One of the more interesting subplots was that assuming these identities goes beyond contextualized escapism. “I was heartened by the findings which showed that people were not running away from themselves but running towards their ideals,” says Dr. Przybylski. “They are not escaping to nowhere they are escaping to somewhere.”

It’s a promising thought. If you take a look at a number of the best selling franchises—everything from Madden, to Guitar Hero, to Assassin’s Creed—they offer characters we can picture ourselves as. For video game companies, a key takeaway could be that more time should be spent on character development and narrative context, especially if this study’s findings hold up.

Plus, I’d like to think this helps explain why my favorite games growing up were what they were: Final Fantasy VII, WCW/nWo Revenge and Parappa the Rapper. Go figure.


[via Science Daily]

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Chris Gayomali is a writer-reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @chrigz, on Facebook, or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.