It’s not something that we often stop to think about. Winning is good, we reason, just because it’s winning. Winning feels intrinsically positive, but why? Especially in games, how does winning actually benefit us? The fact that on one level this seems like a silly question is precisely why it’s worth asking. The answer seems obvious; until, that is, we try to define what the answer actually is.
Win to survive
It’s been suggested that the need to win is a survival mechanism. Life, in many cases, is a competition for limited resources. We are often told that only the strong survive, and in nature we see that competition played out, for food, territory or for a mate. Animals, it seems, also like to win, or rather they know that they have to.
Yet this isn’t always the case. Contrary to how many people misinterpret the theory of evolution, cooperation rather than competition is often the key to surviving and prospering. Humanity thrives by coming together in communities for mutual support, rather than as lone individuals forever competing against nature and others. We evolved from competitive hunter-gatherers to become cooperative farmers for good reason.
The fear of losing
The emphasis on the need to win as a survival trait also ignores the evidence for ingrained hierarchies in packs. Often, an animal will defer to a more dominant animal of the same species and allow it to take the “lion’s share” of a kill, or to choose the most desirable mate. It’s clear that the need to win is not always the most powerful driving force.
We could argue, however, that backing out of a confrontation with a more dominant animal is driven by a fear of losing, or of not winning. In that sense it is part of the same instinct. We want to win, but if we know that we can’t then we won’t compete. Discretion is the better part of valor.
Why games matter
Games give us an opportunity to test our capacity for winning without serious life-changing consequences (unless you’re competing at Super Bowl level). When playing games online we still enjoy it when we win but can shrug it off when we lose. But why do we enjoy winning at a game when we know it doesn’t matter?
The scientific answer is that each win releases a hit of dopamine into our nervous system. This is a pleasure-giving chemical that imparts a sense of satisfaction to reward achievement. It’s easy to see how this has an evolutionary or survival-aiding function. The pleasurable sensation at achieving a goal motivates us to keep going and to achieve more.
Games also trigger adrenalin, the chemical that causes excitement. In some situations adrenalin can be unpleasant, causing stress and fear. In a game situation adrenalin is a “buzz” that makes the eventual dopamine pay-off all the more enjoyable. It’s a classic tension-release relationship.
Although we said earlier that games allow us to experience winning and risk losing in a consequence-free environment, it’s true that the experience is much more rewarding if there are consequences of some kind. That is why we love gambling so much, and why the prospect of winning cash prizes is so attractive. It’s the reason the Sugarhouse casino app is so popular. As well as real money rewards, the Sugarhill online casino also offers excellent cashback, giveaway and bonus promotions on a regular basis.
A sense of self
Winning gives us a strong sense of identity. We can walk tall, thinking of ourselves as winners, or being on the winning team. It makes us feel safe and justified in our own eyes. It’s why so many people support team sports like football. We aren’t the ones out there on the pitch, winning the game. But we are part of the large family of supporters and we feel each win or defeat as a personal triumph or blow.
A world where there are no winners or losers might appear more egalitarian, but the result would be a loss of personal identity. We need to know who we are and what we’re good at. We want to be recognized for our achievements. We can cope with losing in some fields if we know that we’ve won in others. Indeed, being a winner at everything could lead to the same despair as losing at everything. We like to have a sense of our strengths and weaknesses as well as having something to strive for.
It seems that however you spin it, there’s no getting away from the positive benefits of winning. Maybe it’s time to get in the game.