Let’s start with something simple but weird: Game-related purchases account for 75 percent of App Store revenue. That means we spend three times more on play than we do on everything else combined. Three times more on games than on every dollar we dedicate to music and weather and productivity and photography and fashion and finance and cooking and maps and fitness put together. We’re 10 years in to paying for software experiences on our phones, and as sure as ever that games are where we get the best value. Why? What are we buying with that money?
There are a couple of conventional answers. Games for a long part of their history were derisively dismissed as power fantasies — escapist junk where you could pretend to be the spy or superhero or 40-foot tiger-wizard of your dreams. More recently, their hold on us has been described in terms of slot machine dynamics, driven by our human susceptibility to intermittent reward schedules designed into loot boxes and gacha prizes.
But games have always offered far more wide-ranging experiences than simple power fantasies, and the fascination they hold for us predates modern free-to-play monetization mechanics. So what gives? I’ve been designing games for 15 years and playing them for decades longer. What am I chasing, as a player, that’s worth so much time and money, and what am I offering, as a designer, to earn these vast investments?
The appeal of games
Games aren’t power fantasies. They are reality repairers. They may be set in deep space or fairy forests or far futures, but they almost universally model the way we think the real world ought to work.
Games are a place where hard works pays off. If you beat that boss or solve that puzzle you’ll get the credit the game promised you you would. In life, we’re used to dealing with circumstances where the rules change without warning, where the credit for a task can mysteriously pass to a lazy-but-manipulative coworker, where promised bonuses evaporate despite targets met. In games — or at least in any game that earns its players love – if we do the work we get the prize.
Games are a place where you’re never overlooked. Everything you do in a game has the game’s full attention. Every block you tap or bullet you fire is witnessed and considered by the dynamic system the game is formed from. In a world where your vote can feel wasted and even your therapist can glaze over and nod off from time to time, being in an environment where every action you take is noticed and evaluated is reassuring and rewarding.
Games are a place where you get honest, concrete feedback. Workplace research consistently reports that rather than dreading negative feedback, we commonly crave more of it. Rather than wishy-washy platitudes that mask real concerns, we wish we could hear informed, objective analysis of our performance that helps us see how we could do better. Games have this market cornered, harnessing multiple feedback systems of scores and grades, and visual replays with slo-mo and bullet-cam to make sure you can clearly see what went wrong and theorize how to improve.
The social contract
None of this happens by accident. Games have to make a deep set of commitments to their players — to honor their promises, to be attentive to player actions and choices, to be open and clear about what works and doesn’t. And why? Because games ask their players to be vulnerable. They ask players to risk failure — to opt in to feeling overwhelmed or stressed or frustrated or confused. No-one will agree to put themselves into those states unless they trust they system that supports them. And reliability, attentiveness and transparency are the ways games earn their players’ trust.
The side effect of that contract, however, is that games become places that heal the gap between the way we think the world should work and they way it really does. Games aren’t power fantasies, they are justice fantasies — or attention fantasies, or feedback fantasies. We’ve talked a lot over the years about how to gamify real-life activities, but rarely do these surface-level re-skins do justice to the deep commitments that games make to their players, which in turn fuels our commitments to them.
Margaret Robertson is the director of game development at Dots where she spends her days creating addictively attractive games like Dots, Dots & Co, and Two Dots. As a leader at one of the premier gaming studios in NYC, Margaret also acts as an industry liaison for NYU’s Game Center.