Sometimes, games are the stories showing us who we want to be, and how to get there. They’re like any good book, song, or movie character in that respect. At other times, we get lost in the points and places and ponies. I think that it’s best explained by Abraham Maslow’s handy graphical pyramid chart of human needs.
Sort of like the food pyramid, you’ve got foundational needs at the bottom, like breathing and eating. Maslow wrote that we wouldn’t strive for much, "if our stomachs were empty most of the time, or if we were continually dying of thirst, or if we were continually threatened by an always impending catastrophe…"After those are sorted, we’ll look for security in employment, resources, health, that sort of thing. In the rough middle of the pyramid comes friends and family. After that, Maslow suspected we’d look for achievement and self-respect. Finally, if all that’s taken care of, we’d seek to “self-actualize.” We’d look for those goals that made life really worth living. Art, understanding, learning to develop ourselves in ways that might be fairly unique to us. It might be finding our “flow experience.” It might just be figuring out why we’re around.
It’s not exactly canon for the psych research, but I’d venture that just looking for a self-actualizing behavior, having that luxury, probably puts us at or near the top of the pyramid. The Search is probably just as important as figuring out The Thing. But once we find it, well. That’s powerful. That can, legitimately, make a lack of food or safety less pressing.
Games can conveniently hand-deliver some of our uppermost needs. By giving us cognitively tangible realities, with their own culture, their own context, and other living people (embodied however they might be) they impose their own pyramids. When we move between any two worlds, one set of needs can overshadow another. Certain things in games – say, just learning to move around, learning how to keep your account from getting deactivated – these things satisfy that lowest foundation. Next, in good online games, basic competency leads pretty quickly to social engagement. We find a group, and a place to belong. Or at least, ways to bring our existing groups in. As we build up, progress, maybe even collect the occasional achievement, we build up the near-top level of the pyramid: esteem.
The capstone quests, rewards and recognitions are probably the most enjoyable, and therefore the most likely to drive grinds. They’re what I’d call game-actualizing rewards. Traditionally it’s beating the game. Often that’s augmented with achievements, for instance a Steam recognition – visible to all your friends – for beating it on the highest difficulty level. Harder in some games than others. In Sid Meyer’s Civilization V, even the games set to the easiest, fastest modes can take six to twenty hours. “Marathon” games might last seventy. About 1.2% of all players have beaten the game on the highest difficulty: “Deity.” In the World of Warcraft, players will raid endlessly for the small chances on very powerful items, or very adorable pets.
A deep self-actualization isn’t the same thing as tricking out your facebook profile, or an in-game character. It could certainly do things for friendships and your esteem in the community, and that’s not nothing. It’s just that game-actualizing rewards have the same problem as automatic flow. Everything’s been laid out for you. Legitimate self-actualization – in games or anywhere else – involves a decision. You decide for yourself what’s at the top of the pyramid.
Games helped me to find meaning in very personal ways, but usually not when I was too busy thinking about a purple glowing sword.