• Jeremy

How the psychology of play has changed society


In the current landscape of what we consider play, billions of people take part in a vast myriad of ways, whether it’s in a digital, physical or imaginary form. Society has gotten to the point where gaming is arguably one of the most profitable and recognisable forms of expression and escapism. This tradition of playing games and playing, in general, can be traced back a few millennia, when ancient societies created the foundation for gaming, introducing dice, playing cards and sports, evolving into a multi-billion-dollar industry and inspiring many research articles on its effects. This report aims to discuss the psychology behind play and how it has influenced the world, both inside and outside the gaming community.

Methods of analysis

The research conducted for this analysis involved poring over multiple articles that researched the history of play as an evolutionary and instinctive aspect of life, as well as the qualitative and quantitative data that can be collected pertaining to it. This research has been conducted to determine the influential effect that games and other forms of play have had on the world throughout time. There was also research conducted into many different psychological phenomena and how man has utilised these psychologies to create games for a multitude of different reasons. There will also be references to some news articles and opinion pieces which help clarify some of the points contained within this analysis.


Before we begin to go through the findings, it’s important to define what play is in this context. In his book Homo Ludens, Huiziga defines play as “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner” (Huiziga, 1949) Using this definition, this report can safely reach its conclusion. The only exception to this definition is sport, which can arguably be taken seriously and possess the ability to be profited from.

This idea of play has existed as far back as humans can research. Across humankind and the animal kingdom, play is prevalent. A wealth of studies has been conducted in hopes of discovering why animals have an instinctive and evolutionary need to play and, surprisingly, there is very little conclusive evidence to accompany these studies. In 2011, Lynda Sharpe conducted a study on 45 Meerkats to see if there was a clear purpose for them to play (Sharpe, 2011). After observing multiple potential reasons, including social bonding, reduced aggression and improved fighting skills, Sharpe could not determine why Meerkats engaged in play.

Due to the advanced evolution of humans and the ease of which we can obtain qualitative and quantitative data on them, it is much easier to determine why humans play. While researching human motivations in online video games, Nick Yee concluded that there are three fundamental reasons why humans play: achievement, immersion and social. Yee also concluded that the achievement component was more prevalent in male play, whereas social and immersion components affected females more (Yee, 2007). These motivations serve as a strong basis for all type of play within humans. The concept of flow also provides a way for effective play experiences to be crafted. Flow is a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who describes the phenomenon as the “optimal experience” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). It’s a representation of an adequate challenge combined with a corresponding amount of skill from the player. If these two attributes are synchronised, players show behaviours like the perceived transformation of time and the loss of self-consciousness. For players, they are in tune with the game, with their movements and decisions occurring seemingly without thought. This has revolutionised game design since it helps designers to understand the effect they want players to experience during play.

Humanity’s instinctive need to play has spawned many different iterations and innovations to keep the experience interesting. Archaeological excavations have discovered four-sided die in Mesopotamia, fashioned from knucklebones which date back to 6000 BC. It is thought that these were used to tell fortunes. The first example of a six-sided die can also be traced back to Mesopotamia, however, this die existed at a time closer to 3000 BC (Bowen et al, 2017). In ancient Egyptian times, what is thought to be the earliest board game was played (Dam et al, 2018). Senet involved moving draughtsman along a board consisting of three rows of ten tiles (Piccione, 1980). The ancient Egyptians utilised knucklebones as dice as well as using sticks for the same purpose. Senet is believed to date back to roughly 3500 BC. The earliest example of a playing card known to man is from ancient China, during the Tang dynasty. The four-suited deck of cards most commonly used today was invented in France in approximately 1840. All these different iterations are almost certainly influenced by the innate psychology of humans needing to play.

One of the many forms of play that is often forgotten when discussing play and games is sports. As far as mankind knows, sports are the oldest form of structured play, with cave paintings depicting wrestling being found and thought to be “between 15,000 and 20,000 years old” (Dellinger, 2011). This physical manifestation of play has expanded exponentially since, with the first Olympic games taking place in 776 BC and containing only one event – a foot race (Gill, 2018). Sports as a type of play also coincides with Yee’s components of play. Following a study conducted in 1989 by Ryan Hedstrom and Daniel Gould at Michigan State University, a fifteen-year-old Peter Barston conducted a smaller, similar study, surveying 470 children at his school in Darien, Connecticut to determine why they play sports (Hedstrom & Gould, 2004. Hyman, 2010). Barston found that the primary reason was simply for fun. This seemed to suggest that Yee’s component of achievement is more common in adults instead of children, with the latter focusing more on the immersive and social aspects of the activities being performed.

The psychology of sports isn’t just confined to competitors. Viewers and consumers of sport-related activities also have some psychological reasoning behind their decision to partake without physical exertion. Simons writes that ‘A sports team is an expression of a fan’s sense of self’ (Simons, 2015). He goes on to state that there are multiple different emotions and benefits to this extension of self, including self-esteem, pride, identity and belonging. While this may come with its own biases and downfalls, the sense of family that a person can get from a sports team can have a huge effect on them. Sports teams also advertise themselves to appeal and pander to this idea. In 2018, Liverpool Football Club released a short video which uses multiple first-person, plural pronouns to emphasise the idea of belonging to the football club, without taking part in the sport being played (Liverpool FC, 2018).

The same camaraderie sports fans have can also be seen in the world of E-Sports, where audiences observe some of the best video game players compete in a similar way to other sports. E-sports have existed in their crudest form since the 1970s, where a tournament for the video game Spacewar! took place at Stanford University (, 2019). Following this, a 10,000 competitor Space Invaders tournament was held by Atari in 1980. This has evolved to the point where, in 2019, Epic Games announced that their upcoming Fortnite tournaments would have a total prize pool of $100 million (Crook, 2019). E-sports teams also follow the same type of psychology found within other sports. Wagner observed that players in an E-sports team are most effective when each member has their own strict role within the team and teams that effectively use this technique are called ‘high performance teams’ (Wagner, 2006). This encourages a strong bond within the group and ties in with Yee’s achievement component of play. E-sports also tie into a trend which was spawned and popularised during the late 2000s and early 2010s – ‘let’s plays’.

Let’s plays are where content creators on platforms like YouTube and Twitch would play video games and broadcast their play sessions over the internet for others to watch. What’s important to learn from this emergence in watching others play video games is the reason behind it. Video games are usually played by one person at any time and E-sports teams don’t demand the sense of camaraderie from their fans in the same way that physical sports teams do, so why do people enjoy this type of passive play? Sjoblom and Hamari suggest that it could be due to a paradigm shift in the way people consume media (Sjoblom & Hamari, 2017). The interactivity of video games makes for a unique experience with each play session of most video games. Combine this with the user choice that the internet offers when compared to traditional TV and it’s easy to see why this has caused a mass migration of users to these platforms. Sjoblom and Harami’s study also suggested that releasing tension was the most common positive reason that people watch others playing video games, although the evidence they presented wasn’t entirely conclusive, as other factors (like social and cognitive needs) were among their findings. This can be attributed to the fact that the sample size of this study was only 1097 people.

In 1962, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled Spacewar! the first widely available video game (Barton & Loguidice, 2009). Following this release, the video game industry boomed, spawning multiple consoles and being worth $134.9 billion in 2018 (Batchelor, 2018). All of this stemmed from the psychological need to play. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Atari sought to capitalise on this psychological need, but decided to sacrifice the quality of their craft, giving their development teams shorter windows to finish games. This was done in the hopes that this need would outweigh any shortcomings their video game releases would have. Infamously, in 1983, E.T. was released for the Atari 2600 and what was later known as the video game crash was born (Lambie, 2013). Consumers had grown tired of the hurried attempts by video game companies to separate them from their hard-earned money, so, from 1982 to 1985, the sales of video games for home consoles had dropped from $3.2 billion to $100 million (, 2019. Dvorchak, 1989). This monumental loss in sales changed the landscape of video games and taught companies that more time and care had to be placed into their products for consumers to buy them and experience enjoyable play.

This event didn’t destroy the video games industry, but over time, audiences would require more from video games to fulfil their different psychological needs. Yee’s social component had been tackled on many occasions using the online capabilities at the time, but the technologies at those times were insufficient to fulfil these needs. One of the first popular examples of online play is Halo 2. This title released on the Xbox in 2004 and featured online capabilities using the Xbox Live multiplayer service. By 2007, it was reported that Halo 2 players had “spent over 710 million hours playing online with over a half a billion games played” and by this time, the game had also played a massive role in increasing the number of unique Xbox Live players to over five million (Zaharov-Reutt, 2007). More than eight million copies of the game were sold overall (, 2019).

This advent of online gaming provided a valuable service to bring video game players to share the things that they enjoy, but with this, came the potential for devastating effects on society. Following the 2004 release of World of Warcraft, a massively-multiplayer, online role-playing game (MMORPG), the idea of video game addiction started to rear its ugly head. Wesley Yin-Poole documents his addiction during 2005, where he writes “I started calling in sick to the newspaper - lying through my teeth to get out of the one day a week I had in the office (…) I fell into my overdraft, then began using my credit card to pay for bills. Money didn't seem to matter, as long as I could afford the subscription fee” (Yin-Poole, 2018). These cases of video game addiction became more and more worrying over time, with a case in 2010 revealing that a couple in Korea had become so addicted to a video game that involved raising a virtual baby that they had neglected their own three-month-old child to starvation (Tran, 2010). In 2018, the World Health Organisation added ‘gaming disorder’ to the International Classification of Diseases (Purchese, 2018). A major scientific body like this acknowledging the effects of video game addiction and documenting it shows a huge shift in the way we look at how video games can negatively affect people.

Dr Brent Conrad offers some insight into why humans can become addicted to video games. One of the fifteen potential explanations he provides include the lack of pre-defined ends in MMORPGs, meaning that players will strive to reach a natural end that never comes (Conrad, 2012). Others include levelling up a character, the social connection within MMORPGs, the fear of missing out (FOMO) and the use of in-game currency. All these explanations for video game addiction surround one hormone – dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is associated with rewards (Bell, 2013). The emission of dopamine into the brain can become addictive and this is the psychological reasoning behind video game addiction.

Another predatory tactic employed by some video game manufacturers involved the use of microtransactions and lootboxes. Microtransactions are small, add-on purchases that players can make, giving them additional content like cosmetic improvements for characters and items, items and powers that can give them an advantage in-game and in-game currency for other purchases. Lootboxes are collections of random items and powers which have an indeterminate value that can cost in-game currency or real-life currency to purchase. The psychology behind these also come from the game’s design. Certain games will intentionally slow down progress to coax a player to purchase microtransactions or lootboxes, offering them a quick rush of dopamine in the process. Combine this with Conrad’s reasoning and it’s easy to see why businesses are prone to adopting these methods and it has proved to be very successful. In 2017, Tomic reported the average daily revenue of the ten most popular ‘free-to-play’ mobile and social games (Tomic, 2017). Top of the list was Clash of Clans, which was accruing $1,639,220 as a daily average.

This amount of revenue being earned pushed the video games industry to continue these practices to the breaking point. In 2017, EA released an online shooter called Star Wars: Battlefront II. Before its release, many fans had expressed concerns about how slow the game’s progress had been and how the game relied too heavily on microtransactions and lootboxes (Jackson, 2017). A Reddit post highlighting the issue was responded to by the EA community team and quickly became the most downvoted comment in the site’s history (, 2017). Following the backlash that the game received, the Belgian Gaming Commission investigated into Star Wars Battlefront II and its practices, ultimately determining that all lootboxes were a form of gambling and were in violation of their gambling legislation, subsequently banning them from appearing in video games throughout Belgium (MacDonald, 2018). EA initially refused to adhere to the Belgian Gaming Commission’s legislation but following the possibility of being criminally investigated by the country, they removed lootboxes from all their releases in Belgium in January 2019 (Thubron, 2018. Makuch, 2019) These kinds of practices have caused a shift in the attitudes of legislators surrounding gaming, with many other countries following in Belgium’s footsteps, investigating lootboxes as a harmful form of gambling that may be marketed towards children (Hoggins, 2018).

The psychology of gaming has been well-documented, and evidence shows that there are clear, psychological effects that humans can experience through play, but what does this mean for the future of play? Schaffer et al discussed the possibility of epistemic games being used for learning in a classroom environment, using existing games as an example (Schaffer et al, 2005). He writes “Rise of Nations and Civilization III provide rich, interactive environments to explore counterfactual historical claims and help players understand the operation of complex historical modeling. Railroad Tycoon lets players engage in design activities that draw on the same economic and geographic issues faced by the railroad engineers in the 1800s”. This shows that play can provide a contextual way for people to learn about a range of different subjects.

Recommendations & Conclusions

Based on the evidence contained in this analysis, it can be concluded that the psychology of play has had both positive and negative effects on society. Humanity’s need to play has birthed the dawn of playing structured games, evolving and growing into a digital industry worth billions of dollars, but businesses have also exploited these needs for their own monetary gain, relying on these psychologies to manipulate players out of their money. Play can provide a fun environment for people to learn in, and play has brought millions of people together to celebrate and share their love of playing, but the emotions and hormones associated with play have the potential to affect humans with devastating results for their mental health, physical health and personal relationships. Whether play is good or bad for society is entirely circumstantial, depending on the types of play being crafted and the intentions of those at the helm of designing these experiences.


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