I periodically encounter discussions of why people play games (most recently in A Life Well Wasted), and I’ve been getting more and more allergic to such talk. The main reason is that it almost always comes in the form of claims that “we play games to have fun” (with a strong implication that anybody who thinks otherwise must be deluded), a polemic that I disagree with rather strongly.
As I’ve been thinking about it more, though, I’ve realized that there’s more to my unease than a philosophical distate: it turns out that I don’t have a very good answer myself to the question of why I play games! Do I play games for fun? For beauty? To learn something? For some other reason? It’s actually not at all clear to me.
And what makes this especially weird is that, even though I can’t explain why I play games, I am quite confident that I’m not playing games just out of inertia. Over the last few years, I’ve been getting more and more conscious in my choices of how I spend my time. And I’ve chosen over and over again to continue to make time to play games, even though I have enough time pressure that it would be very easy for me to stop doing so and fill up that time with other activities that I would also find very rewarding.
I’m not even doing this out of a sort of inertia once removed, e.g. because games are an entry (a few entries, actually) in my GTD projects list. GTD is a way of structuring my life to increase the chance that I’ll be able to do what I most want to do at any given moment, not something that I follow indefinitely on autopilot. Every week, I have to ask myself “is playing games really part of what I want to be doing?” And, so far, the answer has always come back “yes”. (With the occasional caveat.)
Part of the answer, I think, comes from my recent Christopher Alexander reading: he’s gotten me using the word “soul” in public, and asking myself how I feel at a fundamental level about various choices. With that in mind, it may be that the question of “why do I do X?” (for broad questions X) is becoming, to a larger and larger extent, irrelevant to me: on the one hand, perhaps I’m getting better at telling which broad choices feel right to me, and then using techniques like GTD to have me spend as much time as possible actually doing that.
But, though I’m sure there’s some truth to that, it’s not all of the answer. In particular, it’s also true that both of the influences I’ve mentioned here, GTD and Alexander, have analytical components that I’m not actively using. GTD has its horizons of focus (which I should consider taking more seriously at some point); Alexander has his characteristics of living structures. So it’s entirely possible that, if I were to apply similar techniques here, I’d be able to figure out better what makes those parts of my brain tick.
Indeed, it’s possible that I’m being somewhat disengenous by writing this post—I have, in fact, been known to spend time thinking in public about various choices that I’m making. But I’m not being completely disingenuous: I really don’t have a great explanation for why I play games (or program, or read), but at the same time that lack of an explanation isn’t giving me the slightest pause that I might be spending my time in ways that aren’t good for me.
Who knows. I suppose the most likely explanation for my lack of worries in those areas is that I’m turning into a fundamentalist, or indeed have long since done so…
This post has not been revised since publication.