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4 Reasons Why We Like to Play Space Strategy Games

By on January 21st, 2010 10:38 pm

This may seem like an odd question to make but sometimes I question myself why do I and so many other people like to play space strategy games so much, to the point of preferring them to any other game genres. Liking to play games is a universal truth and a Human natural activity. But with respect to video games and specially to strategy games why the space sci-fi theme?

Lately I’ve been quite interested in understanding how games work and so I’m reading the book: “The Art of Game Design: A book of Lenses” (excellent book by the way for anyone interested in designing games of any kind). And it seems that we like to play games, in general, because they provide a problem solving activity that is ultimately fun to play. Sure, now this seems obvious right? (after being read and said) but what is “Fun” anyway? Now this is something really not so easy to grasp. I mean we know when we are having fun but we cannot really explain why. But I will not disclose in this post what is “Fun” and why it is such an important factor for making good games, for that you will need to read the book, otherwise I will uncover a key aspect of the Author’s work :)

But getting back to the point, why do we like to play space strategy games in specific (being those 4x, RTS or TBS, or a mix of these)?  Well after thinking about it for a while I came to the conclusion that we like to play them due to 4 main reasons. It’s not that there are not more, sure there are and possibly even equally important and more important reasons, but in my conclusion we like to play these type of games because:

  1. We like to be in control, to feel a sense of being powerful
  2. We have a natural disposition to be curious
  3. Because we like surprises
  4. Because we love sci-fi

We like to be in control, to be powerful

This  is probably the main reason why we like to play this kind of games. Strategy games normally gives us the building blocks, the power and the motivation to work in behalf of an Empire, a Tribe, a Race, or whatever society form the game provides. It is then up to us to manage all the empire resources to protect, nurture and evolve our Tribe. In space strategy games normally we manage a Race or a Species and are given the full responsibility to be in charge of developing a space faring civilization. Now what more stimulating job could there be than that right?

Now this seems to be kind of non-sensical because normally people are not really keen on taking great amounts of responsibility in real life, and would probably find overwhelming and way too complex of task to be in command of millions of people in hundreds of solar systems with thousands of spaceships right? Well the trick is that in games you can have these experiences in a decent controlled environment. The game only gives you the good and entertaining side of the coin. As it is only a simulation so the boring and painful parts this type of  “job” would require are not present.  So you have it. Being in control, to feel powerful without having the burden to worry too much about it and only take pleasure for that. Now this is a dream come true to all strategists right?

When the game is really good at providing enough complexity and elegant design the player can have wonderful experiences will being in control of huge fleets, of technology research, full scale invasions and epic space battles. It feels really good to have the feeling of power and to feel that all the empire hopes and dreams depend on your well judged decisions.

Being in control and being powerful (in a controlled way) managing a space faring civilization is our first reason why we like to play space strategy games. Now, one next reason.

We have a natural predisposition to be curious

Now, this one does not seem so obvious. What does curiosity has to do with playing space strategy games? In a sense this reason is more broad than the first one since it applies to many game styles but particularly it is very powerful in space strategy. Curiosity is what leads us forward, is what makes us look behind a wall, makes us want to peak at something … And this is in my opinion closely related to the sense of Exploration.

Explorers may be driven by many things but one thing probably they all share is an acute sense of curiosity. And in general all of us Humans feel this curiosity intensely, to the point of finding completely unbearable not to know, or understand the unknown and the mystery out there. And so we are almost obsessed with the need to reach the stars and to touch and see them with our own hands and eyes, like in the past our ancestors did when making the navigation discoveries five centuries ago.

So exploration, discovery and curiosity are very much related in a sense. It’s not surprising that the most significant sub category of space strategy games are 4x games (for which you can find a definition here), eXploration is right the first “X”. And curiosity is a major factor that drives you to explore.

That said, when playing space strategy games we have the opportunity to experience curiosity and more important to satisfy this curiosity in wondering what’s out there in the stars. What wonderful planetary systems may be there, what riches and knowledge may be there waiting, what new beings can I find, will they be friendly? or will they be hostile? What is that species planning? What spaceship armadas may be out there waiting in that particular sector?

Another key aspect of space strategy games is that almost all of them provide the player with the ability to conduct research and uncover new technologies. And with respect to technology curiosity also plays a major role in intriguing the player with questions like “what new powers will I have at my disposal after this research?”, “what benefits can I gain to help my race grow”, “what new toys (spaceships, weapons, shields, etc) will I get if I run in this research path?”. Normally technology research trees (the path of technologies) are know from the start but it’s always fun and curious when playing the games the first times. And that is why I defend “Innovative Tech Trees in Space Strategy Games”, a post I wrote some time ago that addresses this issue.

Curiosity is our second reason why we play these games. Now the third reason.

Because we like to be surprised

Now this one is probably more general that the previous two in the sense that it probably more a human quality than a space strategy specific experience but anyway this is another strong reason why we like to play space strategy games.

It is common sense to accept that we like to be surprised positively, but what about negatively? Many people often even say, “I don’t like surprises of any kind”. But guess what, surprises is what breaks the monotony, is what makes you interested and focused in doing something. And when playing a space strategy game we would not want to keep pressing that “end-turn” button or wandering around from place to place, or building stuff continuously without being surprised once in a while right?

Is it not wonderful when we are surprised with a new discovery? What about an unexpected event? Maybe a system has found an ancient artifact buried somewhere that will unlock some ultimate power, Wow! What about if a planet reports that a plague has stroked the population, would not this be a “bad surprise”?, wouldn’t this be bad and make you feel down? Not really, what happens is that the level of stress of the player may rise a bit “NOOoo my best colony has a huge plague, I’ll loose thousands of people and incredible amounts of tax income” and the player may became a bit nervous but guess what this “bad surprise” at least didn’t got him bored.

What I’m trying to say here is that surprises in games, and space strategy games is no exception, makes us feel more engaged, more focused and less bored, which ultimately is what we are looking forward in games right? Now, the final reason.

Because we love Science Fiction

Ok, now this one is easy and pretty obvious you may say. Well I didn’t said all of them would be hidden secrets did I? :) Yes, SCI-Fi love is perhaps the most objective reason why we like to play space strategy games. I don’t say this is a requirement, I’ll just state that it is one reason.

Now the odds are that if you’re a sci-fi fan and you like to play strategy games you probably can’t help it but enjoy space strategy games. Now, Sci-Fi again is a thing you know you like but it is not so obvious why you like it. I will not debate in this post though why some people like Sci-Fi, that would be another subject to address :)

I hope you enjoyed my little essay about why we like to play space strategy games. Now I’d love to ear your comments and your experiences about this topic.

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1 Comment


  1. pharmacy technician says:

    Keep posting stuff like this i really like it


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Post category: Game Design