The thing is, the human race hasn't fundamentally changed over the course of the last 20 years or so. After all, if we still have DNA in common with the Neanderthals, it stands to reason that we shouldn't be that different from our parents - despite all the evidence to the contrary.
And this leads to a theory, a hypothesis if you prefer. It is this, that the enjoyment, excitement and gratification that we get out of our gaming experiences is - when it boils down to it - pretty much the same buzz that our grandparents enjoy when they have a bet on the Grand National or any other horse race or sporting event. On the surface very different things may appear to be going on, but beneath that superficial distinction there is a case to be made for these very different branches of 21st Century leisure having far more in common than they have to separate them - a bit like our own ancient ancestors and their Neanderthal neighbours.
Comparing and not contrasting
In the best tradition of an old school essay, we'll do a compare and contrast. Here are a few of the things that we regularly describe as marking out the successful delivery of a game. We'll dwell on each of them in more detail as we go on, but as a starter our list includes: Characters, plot, jeopardy/risk, progression, reward, decision-making and complicating or distracting features. These all stand to be negotiated by player skill - another aspect we could add to that list - or perhaps even an element of chance. Teamwork is another social dimension we could wrap into the mix as well.
Of course, there are some gaming fundamentals that we are taking for granted here including the visual appeal and overall feel of a game, but nobody ever stuck with a game for long just because it looked pretty.
If we compare each of those criteria against what the old folks do when they're weighing up the chances of a particular horse and then watching it do its thing as it gallops around the track, some stark parallels start to emerge.
Putting cash in its place
In order to fully grasp the nature of the comparison we're making here we have to recognise that the cash element in betting is only partly instrumental. In other words, it is a key part of the deal, but it is not the be all and end all of it. If we view the cash stake as a way of 'buying in' to a sporting event, almost like an admission charge, then we will be able to make sense of our comparison. It is only professional bookmakers and professional gamblers for whom the business at hand is solely about the money. Everyone else involved is in it for the fun - albeit with the prospect of a pay-out - however slight.
|by Tax Credits|
Seen in this light the cash stakes that the gambler puts down equates immediately with the time and emotional input that a gamer invests in progressing through the levels of a game. Both sides of our comparison have skin in the game.
For gaming characters, with their different abilities, physical attributes, strengths and weaknesses, read the personnel involved in the sporting spectacle. Horses, just as much as jockeys, have their plus points, their foibles and their distinctive characters. We all become fans of the characters we invest in after a while; whether that's Red Rum, Tony McCoy, John 'Soap' MacTavish or Lara Croft, we all invest.
And we all experience that little rush of anxiety when they are put in jeopardy. Whatever the pitfalls of a particular game, jeopardy is a key part of the package. And if you've ever seen horses running over fences, you'll appreciate that there is an immediate corollary with the sporting world. Every jump has the potential not only to end the race but a horse's life. Life and death drama is common across the divide.
In a game it is us the players who are in control of our characters, that is one key distinction. Spectating and participating are not the same thing. But whilst the cross-over here is harder to spot it is still in play, not least because we are investing in someone or something else. If we lose a life or our horse loses, we are physically unaffected. The action is distant and displaced - as spectators and players, we remain safe.
The decision-making that informs game play on a second by second basis is no more than the same slower deliberation that goes into choosing which runner to back. It is a question of one decision as opposed a series of minor choices, but the elective rationale is nonetheless inescapable in both settings. Young and old alike, people like to test their judgement in a way that is consequential (either in terms of a gaming disappointment or your cash going south) but not too lastingly painful.
All those complicating plot twists and developments are no more than the drama of an unfolding race. At every turn the psychology of gaming and the emotional experience of gambling are deeply entwined. The pace may differ, but the psychology is very much on a par.
The place of sentiment
There are times when the divide separates, it's true. We aren't saying that these two activities are necessarily identical in every way, simply, that they share more in common than we may often imagine. For example, the social aspect of gambling is more overt and more entwined with other aspects of our day-to-day lives. The touching example of Richard Farquhar, whose fund raising walking the courses initiative will see him walk to - and around - every race course in Britain in remembrance of his late father is just one example of the deeper sentiment that a shared sporting sensitivity may generate. The criticism levelled against point and shoot games in terms of the way they sometimes fail to engender empathy are clearly at odds with this sort of commitment.
But in terms of the way we look to get a buzz out of our leisure time, or how we seek to both prove ourselves and entertain ourselves via means of third party characters - whether real or merely 2D representations - gaming and gambling are more connected than it may appear.
It is maybe worth bearing in mind that anyone with a European genetic heritage has an element of Neanderthal DNA in their make-up. Under the surface the world is a more hybrid, and a more complicated place than first impressions might have you believe.