The Game is Never Over: How Gaming Hacks Our Minds

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Levelling Up in Life: What Gaming Teaches Us About Motivation and Reward

Levelling Up in Life: What Gaming Teaches Us About Motivation and Reward


Gaming is more popular than ever, with over 2.5 billion gamers worldwide in 2021. But why exactly do we find gaming so compelling and addictive? There are several psychological factors at play. From triggering our brain's reward system to providing a means of escapism, gaming strategically taps into basic human needs and desires. Understanding the psychology behind gaming can provide insight not just into why we can't put down the controller, but also into the potential benefits and risks of spending so much time immersed in virtual worlds.

The 'Flow State'

The concept of flow state, also known as being "in the zone", describes a mental state where one is completely absorbed and focused in an activity. In this optimal state of consciousness, a person experiences energized focus, complete involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Flow state is characterized by a loss of self-consciousness, a distortion of temporal experience, and a sense of intrinsic reward from the activity itself. This results in a satisfying, almost addictive sensation that makes a person want to repeat the activity over and over.

Video games are exceptionally good at inducing flow state in players. To achieve flow state, a balance needs to be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot be attained. Games provide constantly escalating challenges that match the player's increasing skill level. This ensures that the player remains in flow for long periods of time, absorbed in the game world.

Other game elements like narratives, graphics, sound and feedback loops also serve to fully immerse the player, blocking out all external distractions. This combination of focused concentration and total absorption creates an extremely enjoyable and rewarding experience that keeps players coming back.

A Sense of Progression and Achievement

Many games are specifically designed to provide players with a constant sense of progression and achievement. Leveling up, gaining new abilities, and completing in-game tasks triggers the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, reward, and motivation. The dopamine system drives us to seek out enjoyable experiences, and games are particularly good at activating it.

Alongside audio-visual cues and exciting soundtracks, incremental progress indicators like experience points and level counters give our brains little hits of dopamine. These small dopamine boosts get us hooked on the feeling of advancement and push us to keep playing. Game designers will often use variable ratio reward schedules, where rewards are unpredictable, to further increase dopamine release and maintain player engagement. The dopamine-driven feedback loop of constantly progressing and being rewarded helps explain why games can feel so compulsive.

Social Interaction

Online games provide a platform for people to come together and socialize in a shared virtual world. Multiplayer games allow players to join forces and collaborate to achieve goals, providing a sense of camaraderie. Many online games integrate chat functions that enable players to converse in real-time. This facilitates relationship building, as players get to know each other through frequent interactions in the game world.

Some studies suggest that the social bonds formed through online gaming can even be stronger than real-world friendships. When playing together, team members must cooperate and rely on each other to succeed. This shared struggle helps foster deep camaraderie and trust. Many players end up forming lasting friendships and relationships with people they initially met through online games.

Online games provide an inclusive environment for social interaction. People from all over the world can come together around shared interests and goals. For some, especially those with disabilities or social anxieties, online games may present their primary opportunity for social connection. The anonymity and distance also allows people to open up in ways they might not feel comfortable doing in real life. This makes online games a valuable social outlet.

Customization and Creativity

One of the major appeals of gaming is the ability to customize your character, build unique worlds, and express your creativity. Creating avatars allows players to build their ideal self-image, whether enhancing real life features or designing a whole new identity. The ability to constantly change, upgrade, and evolve an avatar feeds into our desire for self-expression and imagination. Building, customizing, and decorating worlds also provides the freedom to build dream environments or model real life spaces. Games like Minecraft and Roblox thrive on boundless creativity and building. These open platforms allow players to construct anything they can conceive of, whether recreating real buildings or designing elaborate fantasy worlds. The possibilities are endless, which taps into human creativity in a way most other entertainment mediums cannot. Avatars and custom worlds enable players to leave their mark, unleash their imaginations, and satisfy the fundamental human drive for creativity.


For many gamers, one of the main appeals of gaming is its ability to provide an escape from the stresses and problems of real life. Games allow people to enter immersive fantasy worlds where they can leave their troubles behind, even if just temporarily.

The escapism aspect of gaming is especially prevalent in role-playing games (RPGs), where players assume the role of fictional characters in elaborate story-driven worlds. RPGs allow gamers to step outside their normal identity and take on fantastical personas, such as mighty warriors, powerful wizards, space explorers, or post-apocalyptic survivors. This can provide a liberating psychological release from real-world limitations.

Open world games also facilitate escapism by giving players tremendous freedom to explore richly detailed environments at their own pace. The sheer scope and scale of these virtual worlds creates the feeling that one has escaped into a boundless realm of adventure and possibility.

At its core, the appeal of escapism underscores a basic human desire to occasionally retreat from harsh realities and seek psychological sanctuary in an alternate realm. While excessive escapism can be unhealthy, most gamers strike a balance by using games as a temporary getaway to recharge and decompress before returning to address real-world demands.

Combat Simulations

One aspect of gaming that keeps players coming back is the simulated risks and thrills of combat scenarios. Games allow us to experience dangerous situations from the safety of our homes. This satisfies an innate human desire for risk-taking behaviors and exploration.

In a game, we can pilot fighter jets, storm enemy compounds, or battle epic creatures without real world consequences. This lets us tap into our natural instincts for adventure and adrenaline. Combat-focused games also allow us to test our skills and reflexes by overcoming virtual challenges.

Of course, there are debates around the impacts of virtual violence in games. However, evidence suggests most players can distinguish between fantasy and reality. These combat simulations likely serve as a safe outlet, rather than increasing real world aggression. In the end, simulated risks and thrills help make gaming an immersive form of entertainment.

Motivation and Competition

To understand what keeps gamers coming back for more, it's important to look at how games tap into natural human motivations and competitive drives. Many popular games feed into the motivation to acquire and master new skills. As you gain expertise in a complex game, each challenge overcome provides a sense of competence and achievement. Strategy games in particular put players into a mindset of seeking incremental improvements and optimizing their play. The drive to gain skills and 'git gud' keeps players dedicating hours to perfecting gameplay.

Games also trigger our innate desires for competition and status. Online leaderboards and tiered ranking systems satisfy the need to compare ourselves to others. Surpassing friends or rivals on the ladder of success provides an ongoing motivator. Unlocking new abilities, costumes, and rewards as you gain levels or points also feeds into status-seeking. The drive to gain prestige and recognition is a key part of what brings many gamers back day after day. These carrot-and-stick motivators leverage deep-seated human drives in nuanced ways that keep us immersed and engaged.

Positive Emotions

One of the key psychological draws of gaming is the boost it can give to positive emotions and mood. During gameplay, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is associated with pleasure and reward. This release of dopamine creates feelings of enjoyment, satisfaction, and excitement.

The anticipation of earning rewards, overcoming challenges, and making progress in a game triggers the dopamine rush. This gives players a similar sense of enjoyment and thrills to riding a rollercoaster. Additionally, the randomness and unpredictability of rewards and events in games keeps players coming back again and again in hopes of re-experiencing those feel-good dopamine hits.

Multiplayer games in particular create shared excitement among players as they collaborate or compete with others. Bonding through these exhilarating gaming experiences can further contribute to positive emotions. Overall, the mood-boosting nature of gameplay keeps players immersed and engaged in gaming worlds.

Risk of Addiction

While gaming can provide many psychological benefits, it also carries risks when taken to unhealthy extremes. Some individuals can become obsessed or addicted to gaming in ways that disrupt their work, relationships, health, finances, or psychological well-being. Compulsive gaming bears similarities to behavioral addictions like gambling addiction.

Gaming addiction is characterized by symptoms like:

  • Spending increasing amounts of time gaming
  • Neglecting other aspects of life to game
  • Using gaming as an escape or coping mechanism
  • Feeling restless or irritable when not gaming
  • Lying to conceal gaming behavior
  • Continuing to game despite negative consequences

Research suggests gaming addiction may be linked to dopamine reward pathways in the brain. Gaming provides a neurological "high" that addicts crave. Online games are often deliberately designed to maximize engagement and keep users playing longer.

Those at highest risk may have underlying mental health issues like depression, ADHD, or compulsive disorders. Teens and young adults are particularly vulnerable. Gaming addiction can be treated through counseling, support groups, and monitoring gaming time.

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