While most video games appear to be complicated reflex tests to outsiders, from the inside they often feel like exercises in problem-solving. As critics like Stephen Johnson have noted, the feature that differentiates modern video games from other games is the fact that the rules of a video game are learned as one plays, rather than stated at the outset. The player progresses in a game by learning the rules that govern the character's abilities in the gameworld: first “if you press A you will jump,” and then “if you jump you can reach the next platform” and then so on. As Johnson notes, learning to master an escalatingly complicated set of rules and apply them to new situations is often really difficult, but it is also intrinsically pleasurable. Not all games are about producing this kind of experience, but the uniqueness of this type of pleasure to video games raises the question: Why do we enjoy learning rules so much?
Johnson's thesis is that our capacity to comprehend constant (or rule-like) features of our outside world and social world conferred an evolutionary advantage on humanity in our ascent from the primates to humans. His view overlaps with that of another philosophical naturalist, Aristotle: “for the exercise of every sense is attended with pleasure, and so is the exercise of reason and the speculative faculty; and it is pleasantest when it is most complete, and it is most complete when the faculty is well-trained and the object is the best of those that fall under this faculty.” (Nicomachean Ethics X, 4, emphasis added)
The German Idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant offers another explanation of our enthusiasm for rules. Kant's Critique of Judgment holds that our aesthetic judgments come from our appreciation of the form of beautiful objects. Sweet sounds and colors may make an artwork superficially appealing, but our sense of beauty is keyed to the way that these elements are combined: “the charm of colors, or the agreeable tones of instruments, may be added: the the design in the former and the composition of the latter constitute of the proper object of the pure judgment of taste.” (§14) (We can think of this form as the embodiment of a rule, because what rules do is impose a determinate form on unorganized matter.) Kant further argues that it is not just any form whatsoever that inspires aesthetic pleasure; rather, it is our perception that the form of the object has has been shaped in accord with some end. Kant thought this idea explained the delight we take in natural beauty; when we regard a beautiful scene in nature our sense of its beauty is tied to our sense that this nature has been formed according to a intentional plan: “there is in our admiration of nature which in her beautiful products displays herself as art, not mere matter of chance, but, as it were, designedly according to a law-directed arrangement, and as finality.” (§42) Though we know that nature is not really designed to inspire this pleasure in us, and would not be so beautiful if it was, we take a distinct pleasure-- a “disinterested” pleasure-- in the mere apprehension of intelligibility in the world and in art.
I think Kant's explanation of the pleasure we take in the perception of rules can help explain what makes video games compelling. We do not only learn rules during a game but also find out what these rules are for: our uptake of these rules is also the act of learning the design to which these rules are being put. The pleasure of video games, it seems to me, comes from our sense that we are collaborating in the realization of the designer's intentions by learning those rules. When she makes a game-world governed by certain laws, the designer is inviting a player to share an intention with her and participate in the realization of some end. Our appreciation of these rules is like the appreciation of nature in this way. We enjoy perceiving a world shaped by an intelligence towards a final end.
Sometimes this end is just he sheer pleasure of doing the actions the game's rules allow: killing zombies, flipping out on ninjas, and so forth. Sometimes this end is a story told through the player's actions: saving the Princess or vanquishing the dragon Orochi. Games are at their best when they combine these ends together. As long as games continue to offer such experiences they will have a permanent place in our cultural life, because the pleasure they inspire is as old as our minds.