What’s your favorite game or sport? Not one that you enjoy watching or following. I mean one that you enjoy playing? Why exactly do you love the game?
It sounds like a silly question.
“Well, I love [game or sport] because it’s fun,” you respond. “Why else would I love it?”
That’s what you probably think, but you’re mistaken. You love some game — assuming you love any game — because of the way playing it makes you feel. It’s all about your inner emotions, not about the physical or mental activity of the game itself.
I used to assume that I liked certain games because there was something inherently fun about them. But I eventually realized that my enjoyment was about having played the game — and winning — not about the playing of the game itself. It satisfied an emotional need.
This puzzled me, so I’ve spent years thinking about it and talking to others about their love of games. I’ve concluded that we love certain games because we’re good at them — and being good at them makes us feel great about ourselves.
For those who play sports that have spectators, there’s a bonus. If you’re good at your game — and especially if you win for your group or school or city — other people praise you, giving your ego another boost.
But I can be good at a lot of games — some of them ridiculously easy — so why do I choose the ones that I choose to love?
I’ve finally realized that there’s a sweet spot between difficulty and capability. I want a game to be difficult enough that it would be tough for others to do it. For the sort of games that appeal to me, I like the games that let me feel smart.
I had this realization from playing an iPhone game called Flow. (I assume there’s an Android version, too.) It’s the first phone game I’ve really enjoyed since the heyday of Angry Birds. You can start playing Flow for free. The opening levels are deceptively simple, but as the board gets bigger, the solutions become more and more complicated.
In the picture I’ve included, the left side shows what an 11×11 board looks like when you start. You have to connect the two dots of the same color, but you can’t allow any two paths to cross and no square can be left unfilled. When you’re doing the simple 5×5 boards, you feel as though you quickly get the hang of it, but it soon gets difficult.
If the game were any more difficult than it is, I would become annoyed and quit. If the game were any easier than it is, I would think that anybody could do it and I wouldn’t see it as worth the effort.
The magic comes in that sweet spot in which it feels difficult — but not too difficult for me to master — because it lets me feel great about myself. It lets me feel smart.
A spectator sport can deliver the same ego satisfaction, but with the added benefit of giving you praise from other people.
If you’re good enough at tennis or baseball or basketball, you can become a star — and a star is treated as someone special by the people who care about this game. Being treated as a star makes you feel good about yourself. It’s the closest thing you can get to substitute love from crowds.
If you play a game for long enough — and if you feel those positive feelings for long enough, for being a star or for being smart or however your game feeds you — you won’t realize that you’re getting a hit of positive brain chemicals from that. After awhile, you’ll just assume there’s something special about the game.
The reality is that there’s something special about you — in your eyes and in the eyes of others. You’re a winner — and that gives you a high that’s hard to get elsewhere. It leaves you craving that high. And if you can no longer play the game or sport, it leaves you looking for another way to get that feeling again, because you unconsciously crave the high.
When it comes to spectator sports, let me give you another piece of evidence. Have you ever noticed that the best athletes in any given region tend to play whatever the popular sport is? In the South, that sport is football. All the best athletes tend to funnel themselves into football as a primary focus. They don’t think about it, but they unconsciously know that the popular sport is the one that will get them the most praise for doing well.
In other areas of the country, basketball is a bigger deal than football, so more star athletes concentrate there. They don’t think about it, but the reward structure is such that they get the most rewards from that sport. In other parts of the world, it’s soccer (the original football) or even baseball.
We fool ourselves about the things we love. If we think about it at all, we praise the game. We think we love every specific thing about that game or sport. But it’s all an illusion.
It’s not about the game. It’s about how winning that game makes us feel about ourselves. We love being smart. We love being winners. We love feeling special.