I’m not a gamer. I’m not even a casual game player. But the other day I decided to try a game called Angry Birds just to see why it’s so popular. I wasn’t expecting to like it. I was wrong. The game is instantly addictive. But why? Or more generally, what makes one game a hit and another a dud?
My hypothesis is that we humans have a dozen or so natural impulses that evolution has provided. When we exercise any of those impulses, we feel most alive. For example, a first person shooter game primarily appeals to males, probably because it taps into a man’s most primitive urge to eliminate other males as reproductive competition. And more generally, we males have a natural impulse to fight. A well-designed shooter game allows males to spend hours per day unleashing the urges that are socially inappropriate.
You can see in almost any successful game the elements needed for hunting, gathering, self-defense or reproduction. Puzzles probably use the part of our brain designed to figure out where the food is. Lots of games require us to gather up resources. And any game that requires you to quickly spot abnormality is the same skill you need to identify healthy mates. I would argue that Tetris and Mahjong are good examples of games where you have to quickly spot abnormality. And it is no surprise that both games have attracted female gamers.
Angry birds is brilliant because it touches several of our most basic impulses. The player flings birds from a slingshot and tries to destroy various structures and kill the pigs within. It’s a basic hunting metaphor, and pigs are a symbol for food in Western cultures. That part is obvious. The less obvious part of the addiction is the joy of destroying structures that are man-made. I believe this taps into our basic need to tear down the accomplishments of others in order to feel better about ourselves. It’s Shadenfreude – the satisfaction or pleasure we get from the misfortune of others. Someone unknown built those structures, and presumably they would be unhappy to know you knocked them down. The game would be far less satisfying if you were destroying trees or other natural creations.
I first noticed this natural impulse for destruction when I was working my corporate job. In those days, Dilbert was nothing but a nameless doodle on the whiteboard in my cubicle. I noticed that male visitors would “accidentally” destroy my drawings at a rate far higher than chance would suggest. Usually this took the form of needing to use a different part of the whiteboard and accidentally encroaching into the drawing, or absent-mindedly erasing too vigorously and whacking part of it. The first dozen times it happened I thought it was coincidence. Eventually I came to see it as an urge that couldn’t be contained. There seemed to be a need to destroy what I had created.
All of this makes me wonder if I could come up with a hit video game idea by starting with basic human urges and designing up from there. The idea that immediately jumps to mind is a game that allows you to kill the rich and destroy all of their belongings. Let’s say that in this game’s imaginary world, human-like aliens have occupied Earth and become our overlords, residing in huge mansions, mating with Earth’s most attractive women, and generally living like Donald Trump. You’re part of the resistance, armed only with the blaster guns you captured from the aliens. Your mission is to destroy the handsome and powerful aliens that have acquired vast fortunes here on Earth. The main story line would sound noble – saving humanity from aliens – while the addictive element is the feeling of satisfaction you get by destroying the yachts, sports cars, and mansions of the rich alien overlords. Obviously this game would appeal to males more than to women.
For female gamers, I suggest some sort of game that appeals directly to a woman’s innate ability to notice imperfection. I assume women have evolved the flaw-finding skill to quickly identify healthy potential mates. Imagine a game that displays a crowd of men on screen, animated, and all milling about. The player has to quickly identify the only handsome man in a crowd of homely men. In each round, the handsome man and the rest of the crowd are dressed differently and found in different exotic locations. When the player finds the handsomest guy, he offers a small gift and a compliment as reward. To make things as stalker-creepy as possible, the player can customize the handsome man with her own choice of hair, complexion, size, and other features. And if you want to add a layer of primal urge, the handsomest man could have some delicious food with him in his computer bag and present it to the game player as a prize for completing each level.
What other natural urges do we have that have not been exploited by game companies?