Your brain on games

You’re standing in a dank dungeon, looking for a door that doesn’t exist. The lights flicker, and you hear the raging scream of a distant enemy. Flump, flump – the steps are getting closer. Arming yourself with your favourite weapon, you peer around a corner in the low light and you see him: the Big Daddy. By this time in the game, you have crossed over a mysterious threshold – your brain has mapped itself into the undersea world of Rapture and all you care about is saving your own skin. An intensely choreographed game, BioShock has a deep emotional resonance.

For the past few decades, computer games have tapped into a core instinct for survival, power, control, lust and emotional connection. There is a science to game development, and the best designers know how to create believable game worlds, auditory experiences and ever-evolving challenges that lure us into investing time and emotional energy in completing a game.

These scientific principles – visual immersion, emotional response, sexual attraction – not only explain why you prefer certain styles of game (such as multiplayer as opposed to single-player), but who you are as a person. In short, games reveal our desire to perform and complete tasks. Several different areas of science are required to explain our motivations and desires, and what makes a game worth playing.