Strange Pleasures

We had a very busy day yesterday, with hardly a chance to stop and think, or take a lunch break. These days are fun and exhausting at the same time. Part of why I enjoy my job so much is the opportunity to geek out with people, to talk about games with the pros, or recommend and demonstrate games to the wide-eyed amateurs. The day also extended a bit into the night as we celebrated our inaugural Jigsaw Puzzle Swap. Thanks to anyone who reads this who attended; we hope you enjoy your new used puzzles and will join us for a second round soon!

At one point yesterday I came back from a break and saw a father and daughter in the game room with freshly purchased copies of Machi Koro and Imperial Settlers. Oh what joy! They were about to experience two very distinct but extremely satisfying game experiences. I was excited for them and thrilled that they chose to hang out and open their copies in the shop so I could watch their reactions. Over the course of a few hours, I witnessed an awesome interaction between this father/daughter duo. The father was overjoyed with his game purchases, and with the fact that his daughter was fully interested in opening and discovering the games with him. While they explored Imperial Settlers together (of course I had to watch and advise), I could see their joy continually rise as the depth of the game revealed itself. The father repeatedly stated how much he enjoyed the game. They cared less about winning or mastering the game. Like me, these two were finding immense satisfaction in the discovery of a rich set of strategic choices masked by a simple set of rules. They were geeking out, and I was vicariously doing the same.

At some point I broke out of my Hallmark channel moment and felt a bit weird. What was actually happening here? The neuroscientist in me took over and wondered how in the world exploring a new game could generate such pleasure, and furthermore how was I able to experience that same pleasure second-hand? Doesn’t it seem odd that we game geeks derive satisfaction from pushing cubes and cards around as we twist our brains into logical knots?

From both an evolutionary and biological neuroscience perspective, fundamental pleasures such as food and sex are easier to understand. Food and sex are essential to survival, so the brain darn well better have a way of rewarding their acquisition. All mammals have basic circuitry to handle these fundamental pleasures.

But what is happening when we play games, and why would our brains even bother to maintain circuitry that rewards activities like playing games? The evolutionists hypothesize that brains which reward complex analytic behaviors have a better survival rate due to increased adaptability. Makes sense, and if you look around you, there have been a lot of happy humans through the centuries solving puzzles to create better ways to survive.

Neurobiologically, a major difference between humans and other mammals is the size of the frontal cortex, especially the small region just behind and above the eyeballs, the prefrontal cortex. Our brain is like one of those RV units that sits in the bed of a pickup, and the prefrontal lobe is the sleeping area that hangs over the cab. It turns out that the basic pleasure circuitry found in all mammals has branched out extensively into all cortical regions in humans, but especially into the frontal lobe. And since the frontal lobe receives highly processed information from all sensory systems, it is able to analyze abstract patterns within our entire perceptual experience, so linking these analyses to our pleasure system allows us to derive satisfaction from behaviors requiring complex thought. I guess that provides a somewhat soulless biological explanation for why we geek out.

But as we know from Star Trek, pure logical thinking provides only so much satisfaction. Aristotle proposed that a person’s overall happiness relied on two different types of feelings: hedonia, simple short term pleasure, and eudaimonia, or the meaning derived from a life well-lived. Turns out that a large part of that eudaimonia thing relies a lot on social interaction and a feeling of place within a community. This explains why building my Doomtown deck is far less satisfying than actually playing the game with others. It also helps me understand why hanging out at a bar or a party just chatting is a often less personally satisfying than playing games at a bar or a party. Gathering with other people to play games fires off both the hedonic and eudaimonic circuits in the brain. It is the same reason playing in a band is usually more satisfying than making music alone in your room. It’s also explains why I no longer spend much time playing video games.

So next time you geek out during a game, see if you can feel more sparks flying just behind your eyeballs. Or not, and just enjoy the game and the people you are playing with, and try not to think about how weird you are for enjoying it.

Time to go to work, game on everyone!


Posted: October 12, 2014 at 6:45 pm
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